An image comes to mind: an empty field of green grass. In the horizon to the east are mountains covered by a light mist. The center of the frame holds two women walking towards the camera, unaware of its presence. In this photo, what cultural critic Roland Barthes calls the punctum – the thing that grabs my attention and holds me – is in the way they are walking. These two middle-aged women hold hands, much like the way five-year olds might, as if they are not quite sure how their hands fit into each other.
These women: one my mother, the other her cousin share a moment of intimacy.
An intimacy that is apparently non-threatening. And it is in this non-threatening moment that the witch takes flight. Periodically, I ponder over this photo. To borrow novelist Toni Morrison’s words, the photo provokes a something else to be-ness that neither the photographer nor the subjects may imagine: the possibility for sexualized intimacy between women. Beyond the frame, this possibility haunts the image.
There is a word I had almost forgotten. Supi.
Supi haunts my thinking about Ghanaian women’s friendships. It is a word used primarily in Southern Ghana and implies, a close friendship between two adolescent girls that may or may not have a sexual dimension. Two elements of this definition jump out to me: the period of adolescence and the erotic possibilities that characterize friendship. On the one hand, confining supi to adolescence suggests that with age, these friendships are expected to dissolve. On the other hand, the ambiguity around the possibility of sex as part of these friendships polices and confines this erotic possibility. Regardless of these erotic possibilities, such close friendships between girls must, by definition, end at the onset of adulthood.
In the popular imagination, “doing supi,” is associated with girls in boarding schools who form close intimate friendships with each other. In a Christian educational booklet, young girls going to boarding school are warned about the dangers of such relationships:
It is common in schools for a female or girl to call another girl her “girl friend”, “dear”, “girl lover” or “supi”. This type of girl friend is different from the normal friendship between girls. They behave like a man and a woman. They fondle each other till they experience a special sensation. Those two friends have strong emotional attachment. They write love letters to each other and exchange gifts. They can cry when one is parting as if they are husband and wife (Adjabeng 1996: 7, as quoted in Dankwa 2009: 195).
What a “normal friendship between girls” ought to look like remains a mystery. Instead the authors conflate expected features of close friendships – “strong emotional attachment,” gift exchanges, and sadness when parting, with sexual intimacy between girl friends. By impregnating different kinds of intimate exchanges with erotic possibilities, such a warning produces an anxiety around how women’s friendships can unfold.
“Doing supi.” This is how the concept is deployed. One is not supi but rather one does supi, an acknowledgment of women’s active sexuality and desire. The term cannot be equated with the identity of lesbian but instead effects a different kind of politics. Sociologist Rod Ferguson argues that the refusal to name an identity has the potential to show the instability of certain social relations accepted as normal. Taking doing supi as a refusal to name a sexual desire and practice as an identity challenges popular conceptions of women’s erotic desires as passive and only responsive to men. Furthermore, because doing supi haunts close friendships between women, it simultaneously highlights the erotic possibilities of such friendships and disrupts claims that same-sex desires are an importation of western debauchery and hedonism.
Sociologist Avery Gordon argues that the punctum is what haunts, and in this photo of my mother holding hands with another woman I am haunted by its erotic possibilities.Like Toni Morrison’s Sula and Nel, I find something else to be through the specter of doing supi. For me, the erotic possibilities that haunt this photo, and more broadly women’s friendships, gestures to a radical elsewhere, a place that cultural studies professor Kara Keeling argues, “enables the survival of life that was never meant to survive.”
Doing supi identifies the kinds of intimacies between women that are not meant to survive and yet do. Although the term haunts friendships between women, polices performances of intimacy, and perforates the erotic possibilities of what such friendships may hold it also promises the fulfillment of these possibilities.
Soon I will be married to my best friend. Our friendship is not so much haunted by the specter of doing supi so much as it is pregnant with the unfulfilled possibilities that this ghost brings. By doing supi we set about creating for ourselves something else to be.
Also check out this piece on finding queer belonging in the Ghanaian immigrant community.