We would like to dedicate this post to the lives lost in the Orlando shooting. Our hearts go out to their friends and families. As Obama said: “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another.”
Nigerian novelist Chinelo Okparanta has won the Lambda Literary Awards for best lesbian fiction for the second time. The Lambda Literary Awards (the lammys) is based in the US. Every year, it is awarded to literary works that address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and trans (LGBT) themes.
Okparanta first won it in 2014 for her short story collection Happiness, Like Water. This second win is for her novel Under the Udala Trees, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Set against the Biafra War, the story explores a young Igbo woman’s attempt to make sense of her same-sex desires in a society that saw it as wrong. The novel was published last year to critical acclaim. Helon Habila praised Okpharanta’s “folkloric prose.” Taiye Selasi said the novel is “raw, emotionally intelligent and unflinchingly honest,” Maaza Mengiste thought it was “unforgettable” and “stunning.”
Congrats to Okparanta for this win. Kudos to her for contributing to the global conversation about the prevailing attitude towards same-sex relationships in African communities.
In recent years, Africa has been in the middle of global conversations around LGBT experiences. In 2014, the Nigerian government passed a law that made homosexuality criminal, sparking outrage in various African intellectual communities. That same year, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina became the first high profile figure in the African literary community to make his homosexuality public. It was a powerful act of public goodwill that brought a significant measure of attention to the anti-gay culture of many African communities. He also cleared out a space for positive and uplifting conversations around the place of LGBT life within African cities and communities.
Pushing back against this discrimination prevalent in African societies is a question of laws and policies—putting pressure on various African governments to provide legal protection for LGBT communities. But it is also a cultural matter, which is why fiction has a powerful role to play. We need more representations of LGBT lives in fiction to help change the perception that homosexual is un-African and bad.
Winning the Lambda literary award also brings global attention to the efforts of African writers to change the homophobic sentiments in African literature. Between Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, homosexuality was generally viewed with suspicion in African fiction. But beginning in the 2000s, things began to change in a big way, as this beautiful list of African LGBT fiction curated by Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed and Dele Meiji Fatunla shows. Okparanta’s books join a growing body of narratives challenging the traditional representations of same-sex love in African fiction.
Okparanta is a remarkable writer, and Under the Udala Trees is truly a gift. We celebrate her for using her writing to spark productive conversations around the idea of same-sex love and relationships.
Image from Lambda Literary Awards Twitter Page @lamdaliterary