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sex in african fiction

It’s feels right to talk about sex scenes in novels seeing that we are in the month of love. So I took to Facebook the other day and asked:  Why do African writers suck at writing sex scenes? The intent was not to make offensive generalizations but simply to draw attention to the culture of silence in African literature around sex as a tool for constructing fictional lives.

No one was surprised when Ben Okri won the Bad Sex in Fiction Award two years ago, [see here]. He confirmed an aspect of African fiction that everyone had always thought but never expressed—the fact that African novelists are not at their best when they attempt to represent moments of sexual intimacy.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel, Seasons of Migration to the North, has some of the most powerfully evocative erotic moments you’ll ever find in print [read here]. There is the not-so-sensual but memorable scene in Buchi Emecheta’s Joy of Motherhood [read here]. Mongo Beti has an endlessly hilarious scene of an apprentice priest doing it for the first time with his friend’s girlfriend  [read here]. It is also worth mentioning that there are contemporary projects like the Jalada sex issue [see here] that have taken to challenging the aesthetics of silence around sex in African fiction.

In spite of all this scattered examples, any good reader of African literature knows that African writers are reluctant to give readers access to a character’s sex life. And even when they try to, they don’t always do the best job of it.

Keeping the sex life of a character closed off or depicting it in a stilted and perfunctory manner is an aesthetic practice that is worth interrogating. Are there cultural reasons for this? If it is an aesthetic choice, what is the rationale behind it?

My Facebook question received some interesting responses. But Emma Shercliff, the editing genius behind the Ankara romance series, thought it would be a good idea to seek out the opinions of experts. We rounded up Ankara Press’s romance squad and asked them why they thought African writers were not keen on writing about sex. These women inspire and entertain us with the some of the most beautiful stories about love and romance. They, more than any one else, have had to think about what makes a sex scene a hit or a miss or what writing sex means within the context of African storytelling.

I’m delighted to share with you Amina Thula, Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam, Sifa Asani Gowon, Aziza Eden Walker, Ola Awonubi, and Amara Okolo responses to the question: Why do African writers suck at writing sex scenes?

 

Love Next Door-2

Amina Thula, author of Girl Next Door

ENCOUNTER: Most probably for the same reasons readers feel uncomfortable reading them. Romance and sex are personal. Everyone has their own idea of what’s sexy and what’s not sexy. Whether a sex scene is good or not is subjective. It is not an indication of the writer’s writing. We must also remember scenes are driven by the characters. Their chemistry and personalities will dictate the encounter. So another possibility is that the sex is bad because the characters suck at it or it feels awkward because their chemistry is not powerful enough to pull off the scene properly. My advice to writers who are conservative or whose readers are: rather steer clear of sex scenes or just hint at them. Intimate scenes are nice but are unnecessary, even in romantic fiction. For my own reasons, if I had believed my manuscript stood a chance to be accepted I would have removed or watered down the sex scenes in The Elevator Kiss before I submitted it.

LANGUAGE:  Sex scenes are tricky. Sexy sex scenes are downright difficult to write. You risk either sounding ridiculous or outright crass. My personal challenge is that English is not as romantic as I would like it to be. I think I might possibly do a better job writing sex scenes in isiXhosa. The language is raw, playful and metaphoric, some major (animalistic) heat could be conjured. The bonus is there are many nice ways to describe how ‘his shaft’ lit up ‘her place of gold’ that wouldn’t leave me feeling silly. Naming and describing body parts in English is the worst. I mean what is romantic about a ‘rod’? Ugh… just saying it is a turn-off. Yeah I know I just said that and yes, you can anticipate a rod sliding in and out of a honeypot as well as a shaft lighting a place of gold in my next book.

Finding love again

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam, author of Finding Love Again

Every scene in a piece of writing must reflect the characters’ personalities, and their motives and their beliefs. In crafting the love scenes in Finding Love Again, I considered Kambi’s raw emotional state and acknowledged that being a logical woman, she would prefer intimacy to sex. Most readers regarded that as a source of conflict and intrigue. They wanted to know if, when and how she would give in to Beba’s advances. And so the internal conflict worked in that sense. It seemed to spice up the romance and foster trust between the hero and heroine. It is the reality of many Nigerian women, this adoption of self-preservation and conservatism while recovering from a terrible break up.

A Taste of Love

 Sifa Asani Gowon, author of A Taste of Love

I don’t think it’s so much that African writers ‘suck’ at writing sex scenes as that many simply do not want or feel obligated to write them. Period. Not all stories need sex scenes to ‘spice’ them up and it has been my observation that sometimes sex scenes are used to cover up a weak plot or characters. Writers have varying reasons for not writing sex scenes ranging from their personal beliefs and preferences to the fact that after creating characters, one almost feels they are real and writing a sex scene may seem almost intrusive! In the end though, I suppose it is all about preference and necessity and there is nothing clumsier than a ‘forced’ sex scene in a book, in my opinion.

The Seeing Place

Aziza Eden Walker, author of The Seeing Place

I’m sorry, are you kidding?? Please read A Tailor-Made Romance or Black Sparkle Romance! HOT HOT HOT. These ladies will show you how to do it (excuse the pun). In my book The Seeing Place, the heroine is sexually assertive and initiates all the time. But he’s a gentleman, he’s like, “Tell me now if you want me to stop.” She says, “I’ll kill you if you stop.” African writers are having great fun putting it all together – the passion, the conflict, the need. The over-powering love. It makes for a great read. There are as many ways of writing about sex as there are of having it! I think every story in this genre is driven by the question ‘When are they going to get it together?’ (and how) and you have to satisfy the reader! More than! You have to delight and surprise. That’s why we read romance.

Love's persuasion

Ola Awonubi, author of Love’s Persuasion

Maybe they suck at writing sex scenes and are more interested in righting the world by talking about corrupt regimes and poverty stricken children. Maybe they feel it is better kept to the imagination behind closed doors than have it picked apart and disseminated by embarrassed reviewers, their boss, best friends and their elderly mum. Maybe they feel their the story is stronger without sex scenes?  We have all read a beautiful scene in a book where the sex scene read more like a manual than a journey of discovery. My character Ada in ‘Loves Persuasion’ told her boyfriend Tony that she didn’t want them to end up as her other relationships had done because she felt sex just confused things and made her stay in a relationship headed nowhere. As an enpowered African woman she dictated the pace of things and wanted to see more commitment on his part before things progressed. That was her choice. Just like the writer – to include or not to include. Its like sugar and tea. Some like their tea with sugar. Others like it without. As long as it’s good tea. Who cares? Ankara’s wide readership is testament to the fact that all the stories have appeal to someone out there. With or without the sex scenes.

Black Sparkle

Amara Okolo, author of  Black Sparkle Romance

“Fear. That’s just it.

African writers who suck at writing sex scenes do so because they are afraid–maybe because of morals or because at the moment they may feel uncomfortable– and they let that fear rule their imagination and it hinders that imagination from running wild and having a mind of its own.

I’ll use myself for an example–I, too was afraid at first. The sex scene in Black Sparkle Romance was the last scene I wrote into the book and that was because it wasn’t initially there. At first I didn’t plan writing in a sex scene because when I tried to, it just looked badly written, forced, ridiculous and very hilarious to be honest. Then the editor told me that the book “begs” for a sex scene due to the intimacy already shared among the characters, and there was no way I could avoid it. So I had no choice but to write it in.

And it wasn’t easy! But then I just let my imagination run wild. I gave it a mind of its own…I let myself out of my comfort zone, and just let the scene take control of the story. And yes…I had to do all this by going to an environment that had love around it—a restaurant with a mini-bar, and about a dozen couples seated around me. So basically, love was in the air!

As a writer, your faith, morals and all could want to restrain you while writing certain scenes. This is understandable. But sometimes for the sake of creating a believable, amazing story, you have to put all this aside for a while and let the story, the characters and the scene come alive and take control. Literally speaking, “letting your guard down” is all you need.

*********

Post image by tanakawho via Flickr

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

11 Responses to “Africa’s Leading Romance Writers Dissect the State of Sex Scenes in African fiction” Subscribe

  1. Felicia Reevers 2016/02/14 at 00:56 #

    Great article with valid points that can be applied to the romance genre in general, not just African writers. And, Sifa Asani Gowon nailed it with, “sometimes sex scenes are used to cover up a weak plot or characters.” Far too often, I have found that to be true.

  2. Obinna Udenwe 2016/02/14 at 14:30 #

    Well said, but permit me to disagree with what most of the writers profiled, said about sex scenes in African literature and what they think are the reasons why African authors are scared of doing erotica – this could be because the authors here are mostly romance fiction writers and not core erotic writers – of course there is a great gap between the two. I have read most of the Ankara Press books and they are all Romance Fiction, no sex scenes at all (which is why it is Romance literature). I do not think that African writers suck in writing sex scenes because they don’t want to let their guards down or because they are not good or because they have high level of morals and so on; I think that 90% of the African writers around are just SCARED to delve into erotic literature. They strongly feel that erotica is a powerful aspect of writing that would make them look sinful and bad before their readers, their families and the general public.
    This doesn’t happen with just erotica, it is true for most other very troublesome genres like fantasy and conspiracy – most African writers don’t want to be that ‘author’ that writes about witches and magic and penis and vagina – it is such a shame.
    I am delighted that some are waking up to the challenge of tackling all forms of writing – we should be grateful to writers like Nnedi Okoroafor etc. We should encourage more writers to write erotica. Just as easily as we can mention Nnedi for fantasy why is it that we cannot mention a single contemporary African writer known for strong, poignant erotica- there are lots of readers yearning and asking for it; just as pornography has a viable and strong market, erotica also has srong readership and market – who says we can’t have the next El James from Africa. We would be delighted to have some African writers selling millions of copies of erotic literature and making money for themselves.

  3. Amina Thula 2016/02/14 at 17:01 #

    I think the question was posed about sex scenes in literature in general not just pop-fiction romance. Other genres (including literally fiction) can contain sex scenes.

    Erotica is not a genre I know very well but I think if we were to use sport as a comparison, erotica would be the open cage fighting or fight club of literature and some people just don’t have the taste for that much violence. Morals and taste do feed off each other but I don’t think any of the writers who commented were being morally righteous. I think they were simply expressing their tastes and preferences. I, for example, do not have a taste for erotica: I neither hate it or like it – I just don’t care for it but I do have a deep distaste for 50 Shades simply because I do not understand why someone would find sexual pleasure in hurting another human being. As far as I’m concerned the sex was just horrible and distasteful and I am of an opinion that Mr Grey raped Anna in one scene but as popularity has proved, a lot of people think otherwise.

    I disagree with your assertion that African writers are scared. Some may be, but I don’t think all of them are. Sex scenes don’t always have to be overt. One of the most erotic scenes I remember is from one of Ben Okri’s early works. It was only a line or two, but the protagonist was a tween (I think his name was Azu or something), while he was sleeping he overheard his parents making love. While he didn’t watch, there was still something voyeuristic about it and Ben didn’t need to go into detail about it and any way the book didn’t need it. Sometimes imagination goes further than a heavily painted picture.
    Some of the Ankara Press titles do have sex scenes. The reason I would have removed my sex scenes had I known my manuscript was going to be selected has nothing to do with fear but rather love and respect for my culture, family and friends. There’s a certain way we treat sex: it’s private, personal and sacred. Why did I write it then? Because initially only my friends and I were going to read it. Would I write sex scenes again? Yes, if I felt like it and I thought it fit the book. Another possible reason for bad sex scenes is that maybe because the world has become so sexualized some writers feel pressure to write sex scenes when they don’t really want to.

    Does Africa need more erotic books? Maybe – if the market is there why not?

  4. Aziza Eden Walker 2016/02/15 at 01:49 #

    There are explicit sex scenes in The Seeing Place, which Ankara brought out on Valentine’s Day. They are part of the high heat level between the characters, which drives the story – against their better judgment at times! But that’s also the place where they can feel the depth of their connection. They fall in love.

  5. Tiah 2016/02/16 at 04:07 #

    It is troubling to see African fiction stereotyped on this blog. It is true that I, due to living in an African country, am fortunate to have access to a greater breadth of African fiction than people living outside the continent. However, given the global success of Helena S. Paige’s ‘A Girl Walks In’ series – which is erotica, location can not be blamed for the oversight, completely. Queer Africa’s first collection of short stories also won an award in the United States, and contains a variety of stories, including ones with sex. André Brink may have passed away last year, but his books – often filled with sensual and sexual passages, are known throughout the word.

    It is true it may be harder to find African lit published in Africa if one does not live there, but it still exists, nonetheless. Some of it can easily be accessed online, for example at the end of 2015 Expound Magazine came out with an erotica issue, which is available to read online. Short.Sharp.Stories 2014 anthology ‘Adults Only’ (featuring sex in its variety of tales) is, was, launched at a major African lit Festival, however. Jassy Mackenzie and Lauri Kubitsill are two other names that have been around for some time and their writing often contains sex. Wame Molefhe’s stories in ‘Go Tell the Sun’ are, perhaps, more artful and less explicit, but the sensuality is there. The same can be said for Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. The 2014 winning story for the Short Story Day Africa Prize contained explicit sex and many stories in that anthology, as well as their current anthology Water, contain sex scenes or those of a sensual nature. I could go on and on, but am afraid if I do I’ll sound like a goodreads reading list.

    Yes, like any continent, Africa has trends and cultural issues that are reflected in their stories. But Africa is a massive continent, filled with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, skin tones and languages. Consequently, the variety of literature is both wide and deep. This is such a wonderful site and reaches out to many potential readers, especially ones from the West who may only be dipping their toes into African lit. Thus, it would nice to see the site presenting the full breadth of African writing represented, rather than trying to push African writing back into a box.

  6. Tiah 2016/02/16 at 04:08 #

    Apologies for typos.

  7. aisha 2016/02/17 at 04:24 #

    I think the difficulty of talking about it in Literature is a reflection of the difficulty african face in talking about it real life. African authors are a reflection of the continent and its somewhat conservative views about sex and sexuality. i think we are gradually getting to a point where it becomes easier to talk about sex and pleasure and the multitude of relationships that lie within it with literature playing a big role in its discursive elements.
    it will be nice to see authors push the boundaries and talk about sex in its organic form, in whatever language it (i find that when authors write in my local language and translate it in english….i feel better connected to the original form and the story in general. i would assume its the same for other readers as well) and style. we need to celebrate our diffrence and create new and authentic spaces for dialogue.

  8. Anelisa 2016/02/21 at 06:17 #

    Thank you for this amazing article ladies. I started spontaneously writing an erotic novel two years back based on my own experiences as a 21st century young African woman. Of course, i was inspired by the writings of women like Anais Nin and Emmanuelle Arsan and also by the fact that, I’d never come across an erotic African novel before. So, in doing my research about the subject, I came across Brittle paper and I have to say, I’m really grateful for the part you are playing in opening up discourse around the subject of sex in African literature. The question you posed here is one that I have been asking myself as well. So thanks for encouraging me to continue with my novel. I definitely feel more purposeful about it moving forward.

  9. Aziza Eden Walker 2016/02/24 at 08:23 #

    Thanks Anelisa, I look forward to reading that. “Be the change you want to see” – write the stuff you’d like to read!

  10. Anelisa 2016/02/24 at 11:39 #

    Precisely Aziza! Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂 I love the Ankara Press website, and all that I’m discovering there by the way.

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  1. Egyptian Novelist Ahmed Naji to be honoured - 2016/04/01

    […] warmed the loins of one random person. If we don’t have people like Ahmed Naji we shall continue being accused of being unable to write sexy work. And conversely because we need loin warming our nationals will be forced to keep buying that awful […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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