Queer Nigerians Rewrite the Body
By Erik GleibermannJanuary 6, 2020
In this short story, “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things,” shortlisted for the African Caine Prize in 2018, emerging Nigerian writer Arinze Ifeakandu captures the particular anguish of the body tensed, even trapped, at a wounded crossroads between desire and violence. He is one of several young queer Nigerian writers intimately narrating the body — how it yearns, receives, clenches, and bruises.
His fellow writer Romeo Oriogun invokes the body in nearly every one of his poems. The body speaks its own visceral language of conflicted sensuality where joy and threat can reverse in the turning of a line. In “Coming Out,” he writes:
Come into the dark before a man
greets your body with violence.
Come into dark, let me sing
the night through your body
like a man learning how to worship God
in a strange land.
In “Elegy for a Burnt Friend,” from the forthcoming volume Sacrament of Bodies, Oriogun writes, “I remember the night you licked the salt / in my palm and said do not be afraid to live in your skin.” Here he names the underside of a hand and the skin, but in his poetry, any part of the body — a tongue, throat, spine, womb — can transmit emotional conflict. The book could just as well be titled “Sacrifice of Bodies.”
Ifeakandu and Oriogun explore a territory of vulnerability that most previous Nigerian literature, particularly by male writers, has barely probed. “There is a kind of tenderness,” said Ainehi Edoro, a Nigerian professor of English and African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin. “And there is an emphasis on the body. It’s particularly important when you have gay men writing because tenderness is not the way we look at the African male literary tradition. And they are saying that this is a valid masculine experience.”
Oriogun, 28, and Ifeakandu, 24, who both currently attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, belong to a rising crop of young male, female, and non-binary queer Nigerian writers openly challenging the country’s virulent homophobia, codified in the so-called 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which mandates up to 14 years in prison for public affection and even private gay gatherings. The legislation has licensed anti-queer violence in an environment pervaded by Christian intolerance. After winning Africa’s Brunel poetry prize in 2017, Oriogun was physically assaulted and the subject of an online hate campaign. According to a 2016 survey by the Geneva-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Nigeria had the highest percentage among the 54 countries surveyed of people who said being LGBT “should be a crime” (59 percent).
Publishing openly queer work is an intrinsic act of resistance, especially for queer writers who remain in Nigeria (many leave for the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada). In the introduction to the pioneering 2017 multigenre anthology 14: We Are Flowers (that converts a vicious number into fertility), Unoma Azuah calls the entries “textual tools for dismantling homophobia.” In conversation with me at the September Lambda Literary Festival in Los Angeles, she added, “It’s like a movement. I see these writers as soldiers ready to fight even if the tools are not as strong as is needed.”
Azuah has lived in the United States for 20 years but returned home to collect and edit personal stories for the 2016 nonfiction anthology Blessed Body: Secret Lives of the Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Such projects as 14 and Blessed Body put Nigeria in the forefront of activist and collaborative queer African literary efforts, along with South Africa, where the anthology series Queer Africa, which features short stories from across the continent, is produced.
How one traces the trajectory of Nigerian “queer literature” depends on how that term is defined, whatever the geographic location. The central subjects and narrators in the works by Ifeakandu, Oriogun, and other queer Nigerians writers are generally LGBT, but what distinguishes their depictions beyond the specific character identities is that they shed the heterosexual gaze, as indicated by the title of the second 14 anthology, The Inward Gaze. Ifeakandu, who oversaw editing of both 14 volumes under the pseudonym Rapum Kambili, explained the anthology’s vision to me at the Lambda festival:
What binds everything together is that we are writing for ourselves. We are writing together. We are reading together. We are sharing each other’s experiences. It’s brother talking to sister. We wanted to even invite people who were not seasoned writers to submit something. Then something happens. You forget the heterosexual gaze. There is no explanation. There is no apology. You are talking to people who speak and understand your language.
These writers refuse to please some imagined, predominantly heterosexual popular audience. They protest Nigerian homophobia, but don’t reactively allow an outward threat to disrupt an inward inquiry.
Twenty-five-year-old Otosirieze Obi-Young, deputy editor of the pan-African literary blog Brittle Paper that published 14, prefers the phrase “literature about the queer experience” over queer literature to suggest a more organic and fluid narrative canvas that can include any works with a queer consciousness, whether queerness is an explicit subject or not. Conceivably, even a dimensioned rendering of a queer character in a heterosexually framed work might be considered queer, such as certain short stories in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. Edoro put it succinctly. Queer literature is “anything that gestures toward queerness.”
Nobel Prize–winning writer Wole Soyinka was clearly not gesturing toward queerness when in 1965’s The Interpreters, he introduced what is often considered the first gay character in Nigerian fiction. According to Lindsey Green-Simms of American University in the 2016 article “The Emergent Queer,” though Soyinka portrays Joe Golder with some depth, he casts Golder as an alienating double outsider, both an American and a predator who confirms corrosive homosexual stereotypes.
Jude Dibia’s 2005 Walking with Shadows is the first Nigerian novel with a gay protagonist. The affirming coming-out narrative depicts several queer characters negotiating lives in a homophobic climate where their closest straight intimates struggle to achieve even limited empathy. More recent novels have been published by US-based Nigerians. Azuah’s novel Edible Bones appeared in 2011, and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees arrived in 2015. Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, published last year, takes place primarily in the United States and is the first high-profile Nigerian portrayal of non-binary gender identity. The largely autobiographical main character is an ogbanje, an Igbo spirit figure whose relationship to gender is unclassifiable in Western terms. Emezi, a National Book Award finalist, identifies as a “non-binary trans and plural person.” Chike Frankie Edozien, a professor of journalism at New York University, published the first queer Nigerian memoir, Lives of Great Men, in 2017. Azuah’s memoir Embracing My Shadow, to appear in March 2020, will be the first Nigerian lesbian memoir.
That almost all of these writers live in the United States suggests that in addition to having greater access to publishing resources, they also have a safer psychological space for writing. Obi-Young, who has stayed in Nigeria, said that
Being a queer writer in Nigeria comes with immediate danger. Once you begin to be clear and bold in your writing or on social media, your name and photos become marked. For queer writers, having to be conscious of physical safety in addition to every other national dysfunction is just too much. Almost every queer writer I know who writes about queerness without deference and who is not privileged would prefer to leave.
A stark indication of the threat Nigeria-based writers live under is that many of the contributors to 14 used pseudonyms. By publishing 14, Brittle Paper offered both refuge and visibility, distributing the anthology as a free ebook. Editor Edoro founded the literary blog in 2010 as a graduate student at Duke, and since then it has become widely read across the continent and a premier incubator for African queer, feminist, and socially marginalized writers. Brittle Paper “is where queer writing is just assumed to be a legitimate part of African literary expression,” Edoro said. “It’s part of the fabric. In some ways it’s at the center. At the beginning in 2010, many other digital platforms were uncomfortable doing that. But that has since changed.”
14 further advances nearly two decades of Nigerian literary coming out by introducing a collective approach. In an emotionally expansive collage of poems, stories, essays, memoirs, and illustrations, individual voices witness and dialogue with each other. A hair salon provides a comfortable, tactile space for two women to signal their mutual attraction in the short story “Tangled Ends.” In the poem “Nella,” two women teachers supervising teenagers outdoors connect tacitly, like tentative teenagers themselves. In the memoir snapshot “Ajar,” a young man becomes suicidal after his conservative Christian mother discovers romantic phone texts, forces him to call the supposed girlfriend and then a deep voice answers. These stories are interspersed with dramatic illustrations, such as “The Struggle of a Rainbow,” a grayscale face weeping because it cannot perceive its own beauty. Artistic creation in these pages feels at times like a survival act and a medicine against depression.
“I could not survive without writing these stories,” Ifeakandu said. “It’s a very self-preserving act for me. In this space, I am human and I am going to treat myself as human. Grief is valid. Love is valid. Heartbreak is valid.”
His “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things” portrays a common theme among these writings: loneliness and vulnerability in the quest for connection. The title’s tone of grief prompts our feeling throughout that something or someone might fracture at any time. The narrator Lotanna first describes his love interest Kamsi as so slight, he’d surely never kicked a football. A tentative romantic intimacy then unfolds against a background of domestic violence and the slow death of Lotanna’s frail mother. The surrounding homophobia ultimately severs their relationship, and “broken” is the story’s final word. Part of the vulnerability is isolation. In a world where the word gay is publicly just an epithet and Lotanna has no one to talk to about his identity, he can only search the word on Google for answers. He maintains a straight persona, with a girlfriend unaware of his full sexuality. When she discovers his text messages to Kamsi, she cries and demands to know who the other girl is. Lotanna ironically uses her as cover to code an initial coming-out message to Kamsi. “You told him Rachael was the best thing that ever happened to you. Told him she saved you.”
This is a queer pain, but the title claims a universal fragility and the tale of a young Nigerian entering an uncertain and vulnerable sexual awakening in a sexually antagonistic climate is not necessarily queer. One example is Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus, where we enter the inner life of a young girl discovering her sexuality amid a father’s sometimes violent Christian severity. “When I read a book like Purple Hibiscus,” Ifeakandu reflected,
I see a girl grappling with her first crush and this is supposed to be something she shouldn’t feel. As a gay man, it’s the same thing. You’re not supposed to feel these things. Human experience is the same, of teenagers coming into their sexuality, the feeling of grief, desire, and betrayal, even though we have certain experiences that manifest uniquely within demographics.
Some of the emerging young queer writers like Ifeakandu are exploring innovative narrative approaches that allow them to accentuate the sense of vulnerability. Lotanna narrates in second person, telling Kamsi’s story and his own from afar. Edoro explained that this may be a way for a narrator, and perhaps the writers themselves, to self-protect. “Second-person perspective could be one strategy in which you create a distance and hide,” Edoro suggested. “How can you live in spite of being invisible?”
In his story “A Tenderer Blessing,” Obi-Young presents a somewhat similar college-age narrator whose restrained, first-person account expresses what seems his own hesitancy to embrace an attraction. Chukwudi’s language circles around his feelings as he observes Nnaemeka on campus. He says Nnaemeka looks like a girl, without suggesting what effect that might have on him. When Nnaemeka challenges an instructor in class, Chukwudi says a bit passively, “I found myself admiring [his] defiance.” As yet, Chukwudi appears not to have entered his own body. But then, in a dramatic moment that he abstractly calls a “defining intersection,” Chukwudi steps forward to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in class when Nnaemeka falls unconscious. This first decisive act is literally existential and also an ironic counter to the bystanding woman who won’t aid Nnaemeka because she fears everyone will realize she’s attracted to him.
After this point, the story turns and the two enter an intimate friendship. Yet much still remains unspoken. Obi-Young relies on body language cues and the spaces between words to shape the intimacy. Finally, Chukwudi internally names his own feelings, though even then with a heterosexual framing. “For an unguarded moment, a slender second of resurgent craving, I wondered if he’d ever imagine that were he a girl, I would chase him endlessly.” As readers, we feel almost as though we’ve been holding our breath the whole story, waiting for him to finally say it. We feel almost as though we have ourselves come out. This makes Chukwudi’s subsequent unrequited confession all the more devastating.
Commenting on how the narrative arcs, Edoro said, “The story captures the tension and the nuances at the level of gesture and bodies and looks. It has to be furtive and guarded and careful. It builds this intimate and explosive encounter, but traces it through very minute gestural detail.”
Alongside the many confessional short stories and poems of the last few years is a complementary body of intimate nonfiction narratives. By titling her anthology of personal stories Blessed Body, Azuah spiritually counters the deeply rooted religious beliefs that label queer existence as sin. Azuah gathered these stories in the country’s interior as well as in Lagos and other urban centers in order to capture a more representative picture of queer Nigerian life. The accounts are necessarily sobering, repeatedly documenting sometimes frenzied physical and emotional abuse in public and private. But many writers also celebrate and laugh. They define themselves by passion over oppression, and the final section is titled “Unapologetic.” “It has been a life of pain and agony,” Azuah said, “so I wanted to acknowledge that, but gradually show a moving away to brighter and more enriched lives and love stories that are successful. So, in the structure you see toward the end, the more positive stories. There are stories of triumph.”
One nonfiction piece that brings together several threads explored by recent Nigerian queer writing is “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men.” Pwaangulongii Dauod’s 2016 Granta essay embeds us in a late-night underground dance party where uninhibited celebration confronts wrenching grief, where the promise and the threat of Nigeria’s future incarnate. The essay is a defiant manifesto, an Afro-pop, highlife-driven call for a queer-led, pan-African liberation. It is also a cautionary elegy. The story centers on the writer’s friend C. Boy, who leaves university in the city of Kaduna to found a community that hosts parties, poetry slams, concerts, art exhibitions, and retreats that are like small liberated zones in the battle against the anti-gay regime. C. Boy uses event fundraising to provide housing and university tuition for young queers, often homeless and abandoned by their families.
“We are making society feel our energy by curating these events,” C. Boy tells Dauod one night as they watch the dance floor where dyed locks, Mohawks, mini-skirts, and heels shake in the dark. “We are smart laughing fires. Our feet are fires; so are our waists, our tongues, our eyes and our passions. You would see us blazing, emitting prophecies. We are fires: smoky hot fires, ready to choke to death the places and imaginations that threaten our survival.”
Sometime after 3:00 a.m., they switch into an intellectual discourse on Afro-modernism. The term’s definition seems rather diffuse — things about inclusivity, collective self-reinvention, and discarding the remains of internalized neo-colonialism. But one thing seems certain: queer life across the continent will be a key force building this new self-loving Africa.
But in Nigeria, a safe or temporarily liberated space can suddenly become an entrapment. As the discussion continues, they hear sirens approach. Seven masked police break into the club, push C. Boy to the floor, then interrogate the stricken crowd. When they finally leave, Dauod writes, “[E]veryone began crying as if we had just turned orphans.” One man falls into a violent seizure. As he convulses on the floor, we feel this one writhing body channel the collective trauma of that night and all the previous nights whose memories have been triggered.
The trauma overwhelms C. Boy, who’d revealed to Dauod he was suffering depression. Two weeks later, he ends his life. His family does not show up for the funeral. Daoud then closes the essay equivocally, describing the suicide both as impelling martyrdom and self-destruction. “Suicide,” he writes, “is a means of taking flight to hibernate too, a means of kinetic energy too.” Outer violence upon the body and its inner life force battle each other.
Nigerian writers cannot protect Nigerian queer bodies, but they can honor them. And they etch away the national delusion that an act of contrition or of legislation could somehow erase a caress.
Erik Gleibermann is a writer in San Francisco and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. He has written for The Atlantic, The Black Scholar, Colorlines, the Guardian, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. He recently completed Jewfro American: An Interracial Memoir.
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