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To mark BRITTLE PAPER‘s 7th anniversary in 2017, we organised two conversations on our Facebook page. The second, themed “Un-Silencing Queer Nigeria: The Language of Emotional Truth,” took place on 5 August 2017 and was an insightful, urgent conversation about queerness and its exploration in Nigerian literature. Our guests were: Romeo Oriogun, winner of the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize; Arinze Ifeakandu, finalist for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing; Kelechi Njoku, finalist for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa Region; and Laura Ahmed, an editor at 14. Their interaction was moderated by our deputy editor Otosirieze.

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For decades, queer Nigerians—lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, transsexual—have been nearly absent in Nigerian literature. Their absence suggested something untruthful: that they did not exist. In the handful of fiction in which their existence was acknowledged, it was merely as a plot device, a strategy to make political points about rebellion and difference. A harsh focus that perhaps derived from, and allowed itself become another basis for, the fallacy that queerness is un-African.

Until the late 1990s when Unoma Azuah began writing. Until 2005 when Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows was published. Centering on the queer experience, Dibia’s fiction was an unanticipated announcement: queer people exist and would no longer be silent. His work provided an important foundation for the writing that emerged in the 2010s, writing that challenged stereotypes about queerness. In 2011, Unoma Azuah’s novel, Edible Bones, was published and won the Aidoo-Snyder Book Award. In 2013, Chinelo Okparanta’s short story collection, Happiness, Like Water, was published and won the LAMBDA Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction; one of its stories, “America,” was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, becoming the first Nigerian short story about queerness to attain wide readership.

In 2014, then president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a bill that recommended 14 years’ imprisonment for homosexuals. In 2015, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees arrived, a novel that, for the first time, told the story of the Biafran War and its aftermath from a queer person’s point of view, a lesbian’s; it won the LAMBDA Award for Lesbian Fiction and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. In 2016, Unoma Azuah edited Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of LGBT Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, a collection of the real-life experiences of queer people. In June 2016, Joe Okonkwo’s Jazz Moon was published; it was a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for Gay Fiction. In July 2016, Pwaangulongii Dauod’s Granta essay, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men,” went viral. In December 2016, the Gerald Kraak Prize, a prize recognizing writing and visual art that center on the queer experience, social justice and gender, shortlisted works by four Nigerians—Amatesiro Dore’s “For Men Who Care,” Ayo Sogunro’s “One More Nation Bound in Freedom,” Olakunle Ologunro’s “The Conversation,” and Otosirieze’s “You Sing of a Longing.”

In January 2017, Nigeria’s first LGBTI literary collective, 14—which took its name from the jail term prescribed by the anti-gay law—released an anthology of writing and visual art, We Are Flowers, which drew international attention. In May 2017, the Brunel International African Poetry Prize went to Romeo Oriogun for his “beautiful and passionate writing on masculinity and desire in the face of LGBT criminalisation and persecution.” The same month, Chibuihe Obi’s Brittle Paper essay, “We’re Queer, We’re Here,” was widely read. In June 2017, the Caine Prize for African Writing shortlisted Arinze Ifeakandu’s “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things.”

That the years 2015-17 witnessed this unprecedented diversification of the Nigerian literary space, that things reached this point when people can write at all about queerness, is a small but seminal victory not taken for granted. However, the ones who have written about the queer experience have not gone unpunished by Nigerian homophobia. In 2016, one had to flee his city for his life. In May 2017, another was intensely assaulted. In June 2017, a third was kidnapped and physically abused.

In the wake of those horrific two months in which Nigerian homophobia has expended law-backed violence on writers, Brittle Paper brought together a few of the country’s notable new voices to discuss the future of queer writing in Nigerian literature. We took special delight in hosting this all-important conversation. All of these new voices were published by us before they began their ascent: they represent Brittle Paper‘s vision to be a space for the growth of young and emerging voices on the continent.

It should be noted that, in the one year since this conversation, more important developments have taken place: Chike Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men, the first memoir by a gay Nigerian, was published and won the LAMBDA Award for Gay Memoir; 14 released its second anthology, The Inward Gaze; Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Speak No Evil was published; and She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak, the first Nigerian anthology of queer female experiences, co-edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu, was published by Cassava Republic. With each year, a new stride is made.

Here is the conversation.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Laura, Arinze, Kelechi, Romeo: Welcome to the conversation and thank you for agreeing to be part of it.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

Thanks for inviting me and also for creating this space.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

Thank you, Otosirieze. Great to be here.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Even though my first experience of literature about queerness in Nigeria was in 2012, I never had any doubts as to whether or not it could be recorded. Actually, I never gave any thoughts to that question of validity. That first experience was a short story by Arinze Ifeakandu pasted on the notice board of The Writers’ Community (TWC) in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. It never struck me as odd. The first fiction about queerness I wrote was about a lesbian who leaves her husband. The first fiction about queerness by a non-Nigerian I read? Probably Mario Alberto Zambrano’s “Pelion” in Guernica, in 2013.

In a revealing Twitter chat with our editor at Brittle Paper, Ainehi Edoro, the editor of 14, Rapum Kambili, asked whether there were truly no queer artists in Achebe’s generation. An interesting question for a generation renowned for its boldness—because, really, were there actually none?

Which texts were your first encounter of literature about queerness, from Nigeria and from outside the country? Did you, before it, have any doubts that the queer experience could be recorded? What was your first attempt at writing about queerness?

KELECHI NJOKU

I wish I had doubts, or not, as to whether the queer experience could be recorded; I was just oblivious! And even when I encountered queerness in books, I must have repressed my recognition of it. As a 14-year-old boy, I didn’t like what was done to Tunji in Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard, for example. He was cast as bumbling, mysterious, and horribly othered. So, I’m not sure I went about looking for queerness in the books I read.

My first real engagement with queerness was Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows. It’s a novel that—and I think this positively—tries to do everything in documenting all the troubles of queerness. So, I was anxious to see how everything would turn out in the book. I’m a ponderous reader, but I read Walking with Shadows in two days.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

I first encountered queer characters in literature on websites that were created for gay love stories. I was sixteen, I think, had just gotten a phone with Internet connection. Between looking for erotica and surfing the internet for porn, I found a site, iomfats (I think that’s it), and a few other sites. I was not surprised; I had been writing stories about boys in love before that time. But I felt, for the first time, in good company. They were not very “literary” stories, and were meant for young adults, but the characters inhabited their spaces without a need for self-explanation, and that, I think, makes up for whatever artistic lack.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

Because of the silence surrounding queerness in Nigeria I didn’t read any queer literature while growing up; there was no book with a queer person as a character in the old library in Benin where I spent most of my holidays, and so I thought queerness was a thing to be hidden.

The first queer literature I read was a poem by Essex Hemphill. I think what that poem did for me was to open my eyes to the possibility of documenting the queer experience; that poem also led me to discover other poets that explore queerness in their works. I have always been indifferent about it, I never knew it could be written about, there was no precedent to look back on until I found Essex Hemphill. It was after Olubunmi was lynched to death in Ondo town that I started writing about queerness—there was an anger and a deep sadness that took hold of me, and the only way I could be free, the only way I could fight, was to write.

KELECHI NJOKU

First attempt at “writing queer”: that was in 2012, with a short story I wrote on Facebook about a teenager who fell in love with his abusive uncle. Thankfully, I’ve erased that story from my profile! Still, over the years, I’ve found myself understanding what it is to “write queer” only in theory. When it came to the actual writing, I became confused, wondering, But how do I do it? How do I come in? And how do I NOT want to come in? I only came out of that confusion recently, in 2014.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

I read Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows in university; I remember how, before getting into university, I tried to find that book. I looked everywhere but did not find it. And before I started searching for it, I had searched for gay stories by Nigerian writers. Thinking of it now, it’s pretty sad that I had to look that hard to find a single book. Reading Jude Dibia gave me the feeling of swimming in very charged waters, because the politics was there fully. There was so much self-explanation in it, too, which left me longing for more, for something dispassionate and middle-fingerly—or not middle-fingerly, but, you know, unbothered. I found that in Nuruddin Farrah’s short story, “The Start of the Affair” in The New Yorker, about an elderly man who seeks the affection of a poor younger man.

About my first attempt at writing about queerness: I had read a novel by James Hadley Chase, can’t remember which, with queer characters on the fringes. I wrote an imitation of the novel, but placed the queer characters in the centre. I was not thinking of it in terms of subverting a narrative or any of such adult stuff, no. I was merely writing to fill a void I felt but could not explain. That novel, my version of Chase, was popular in my class, I must add.

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OTOSIRIEZE

The first queer character in Nigerian fiction is said to have appeared in Wole Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters, and he is white. It was not until the late 1990s, when Unoma Azuah began writing, up to 2005, when Jude Dibia published Walking with Shadows, the first Nigerian novel to centralize queerness, that queerness began to be humanized in this country. Chinelo Okparanta’s “America” is the most widely read short fiction about Nigerian queerness, so are her books: the short story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. So, let’s talk about the influence exerted by this pioneering Trinity whose works pushed the queer Nigerian to the global stage. What has been their impact?

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

With Chinelo Okparanta, we are seeing the beginning of the breaking of the silence. I think it was in the essay “We are Here, We Queer,” published in Brittle Paper, that I read that the absence of the queer body in Nigerian literature is an act of violence. I have never agreed so much with any statement. I am currently reading Happiness Like Water, reading a story titled “Grace,” and it feels good just to see the longing one woman has for another. What I find is that once a voice breaks forth, it opens doors for many others.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

I first encountered Chinelo Okparanta’s “America” before I read any other queer book from Nigeria. I remembered staring at her name over and over, wondering how someone can be so courageous to bring light to darkness in a way that’s so beautiful. Afterwards, I read Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows. I think what those books did for me was to tell me that my voice is valid and every experience can be written about. They opened the door and gave me no room to make excuses. But there was no collection of poems that talked about the queer experience in Nigeria; the ones I read on social media were homophobic poems wrapped in religion, so there was this fear, but when silence has been broken it can’t be repaired. What Chinelo did for me was to break silence and open a door. It didn’t matter how long I stood waiting to walk through, my fears didn’t matter, all I knew was someone has walked this path and even if it will be difficult it is not impossible.

KELECHI NJOKU

Unoma Azuah and Jude Dibia, first of all, came at a frantic time when attempts to suppress queerness in Nigeria began its desperate journey. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, same year Walking with Shadows was published; Bisi Alimi had just come out on TV the year before; and there had been awful rhetoric that denied the existence of any non-heterosexual person in Nigeria. I think the earliest version of what would become the antigay law had already been debated in the legislature at the time. These writers, with Okparanta, are throwing open the conversation doors around queerness. They are opening wounds, too—but that is necessary.

Their impact cooled a bit, I think. Nigeria of 2005-2010 was a very uncertain space for queer people. But by 2012, writers like Elnathan John had begun raising the queer dust some more in their writing. Two years later, the antigay law was signed and everyone, including writers who needed to write queer, woke up. The queer writing journey from Dibia to Azuah to Okparanta has been a slow, awkward one, but moving all the same.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Sometimes, I am wary of the term “queer literature,” of the way it can lend a whole range of writing to simplistic labeling, an expectation of singularity. As mainstream as “queer literature/writing” is, I am drawn to this other term, “literature about the queer experience,” which gives room for plurality. There are four major patterns that this writing takes:

A) A work with a central character who is queer and whose story is about his queerness and his struggles with it or adjustment to heteronormativity.

B) A work with a central character who happens to be queer but whose story in the said work is not about his queerness but about his everyday living or other things.

C) A work with a central character who is queer and whose queerness is taken for granted, as default, she being comfortable in her skin.

D) A work with a central character who isn’t queer but whose story is entirely or mostly an observation of another character who is queer and who, through this observation, becomes the de facto central character. Read: the Harmless Heterosexual Gaze.

The importance of this plurality cannot be overemphasized.

So, what makes literature “queer literature”?

KELECHI NJOKU

First, I do not think that “queer literature” is at all simplistic. In a bid to wriggle through the wafts and wefts of labels, we could end up being apologetic and sounding uncomfortable with what we write. Literary “genres,” like slums and ghettos, look simplistic to the person gazing from the outside. Until you come in. The entire canon of queer literature, from Thomas Mann to Edmund White and Jeanette Winterson, and Joe Okonkwo, is a robust, complicated institution. Everyone should attend it, really!

Queer literature for me would be literature that contributes to the queer conversation in some way, in any way. Illustration:

(A) If I read a story about a lesbian learning to bake, it is queer to me. Because such a story solves one of the biggest problems queer people face: The need to be SEEN. I see her; she is baking—thank you so much!

(B) But if I read a poem about a murderous gay man, I would give the story a nod for at least acknowledging that gay men exist. However, against a backdrop of the villainization of queer people, I’m not sure how we can have a queer-driven conversation with that poem.

But that’s just me.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

I know there’s always a fear about identity politics when it comes to queer literature but I owe no one any apology. I sincerely believe that if a work goes against the heteronomative view, that if it puts a queer person in the light, if it celebrates queerness or tries to explore the queer experience, then that work is queer. There’s also the fact that there’s a body of work that talks about queerness and if we can have Latino literature and others, then we can have queer literature.

I also understand that there’s this fear of boxing in a writer, of expecting a writer who is queer to always produce work with queer themes; I think that’s a burden that most writers don’t want, so the trick is to write what you want to write, is to stay true to your art.

KELECHI NJOKU

And just to add that it is only literature that comes from fringe spaces/writers (Africans, queers, women, Asians, etc) that is thought to have a simplistic creative vision.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

I am wary of that term, too, and as with everything deceptively simple, I am ambivalent about it. However, when I think of “queer literature,” I am not looking at a particular story or poem or novel, but at a body of work that, together, we can look at and say, “These stuffs tell us something about the queer experience. These stuffs capture the struggle and/or celebrate the living.” I am thinking, for example, of Audre Lorde and Alice Walker and James Baldwin and the poets of the Beat Movement put together. I find that when I think of Queer Literature in that light, it makes more sense and serves a purpose.

That said, if I were to say that a story or poem is part of queer literature, it has to do either or both of those things I mentioned: it has to celebrate life with the queer body or “sense” in its centre, and/or capture the struggle of living as a queer person in the world. When we watch TV shows, we stumble upon the token LGBT character: that is not queer literature, if it were a book. The character has to inhabit the centre.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Romeo Oriogun’s poetry is a moment, as was Pwaangulongii Dauod’s nonfiction, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men.” Both are widely read and I do not think it is simply because of how good they are; I think it is also because of how forceful and passionate they are. Arinze Ifeakandu’s fiction approaches from an opposite angle: tenderness that rends. Where Romeo and Pwaangulongii Dauod break you, Arinze prises you open. The denominator here is not merely beautiful language but language that is emotionally true and lacks apology. That touches its reader from the inside and makes them feel, makes them truly see. That queer writing from Nigeria bears so much emotional truth and power is the first reason we’re having this conversation. Kelechi Njoku, Laura Ahmed, Romeo, Arinze: With the way Romeo’s poetry broke outside literary circles, how can this language of emotional truth be fashioned? Is there a key?

KELECHI NJOKU

I don’t know that the language of emotional truth can be “fashioned.” That sounds too deliberate—anaemic even. I think that a good place to start is to write like no one is looking. And to pay close attention to emotional hesitation. I keep an irregular diary myself, and I have found that letting myself “write in the darkness” that diary-keeping provides improves the truth-telling in my other work that are written for publication.

Arinze’s fiction and Romeo’s poetry and Pwaangulongii Dauod’s violently messy-and-beautiful essay seem, to me, to come from an unapologetically selfish place that I admire. I think that it is better to write, first, for oneself. Before others.

PS: And I’m not even sure if I answered your question, Otosirieze!

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

I am not going to speak on this as someone presenting a key to another; if I had the keys, I would have written twenty novels by now. Writing is a continuous process. You learn, with every new story, with every new failure or delight. I think that the vital thing is to realize that one is not writing to explain or to contest something. Commitment is good, but that level of commitment implodes, makes empathy difficult. And I do not mention “empathy” to say that in writing queer characters one is seeking to “lure” heterosexual people into sadness and, hence, sympathy.

I have been writing (gay) love stories since my teenage years, and I think the tenderness that people see comes from the fact that I have never imagined that I am writing for anyone. One has to be deeply invested, there are no two ways about it. If you have no queer friends whom you love or are not queer yourself, if you think, “Oh, I’ll write this ‘gay story’ and mark it off my list,” it would be a colossal failure at the level of emotional truth. It could also help to imagine that there are only queer people and their allies in the world with aliens who want to kill them all.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

I don’t know if there’s a key, I have always written what I felt without thinking about others. I strongly believe that’s the same thing for Arinze. I also think there should be honesty especially in poetry and when writing I approach my work from there.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Across the continent, there have been some anthologies focusing on literature about the queer experience. Queer Africa, edited by Karen Martin and Makhosazana Xaba, won a LAMBDA Literary Award in 2014. This year, the South Africa-based publishers and initiatives, The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation, launched an anthology, Pride and Prejudice: African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality, which collects writing and photography shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Prize, including works by four Nigerians.

In 2016, Unoma Azuah edited an anthology of real life experiences of queer Nigerians, Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Last year also, Laura, you and a group of young creatives founded 14, a space devoted to queer art, and this year published Nigeria’s first queer anthology to combine literature and visual art, We Are Flowers. As its publishers at Brittle Paper, we were amazed by its reception, how far it traveled, how much attention it got. Arinze Ifeakandu, Romeo Oriogun, Kelechi Njoku: What has been the impact of 14?

LAURA AHMED

Laura is currently unavailable due to some technical reason. I am commenting on this question as Rapum Kambili (editor-in-chief of 14). In creating 14, we wanted to reclaim the date of the “anti-gay” law, we wanted it to be our literary Pride Day, a day of celebration and resistance. I think, in editing 14, the greatest impact I felt was in the way it showed a community eager to tell its story. Many of the writers who contributed to the anthology didn’t do so as “professionals.” They were LGBTQ people who wanted to share an experience; we knew this, and in reading the works and selecting, we looked out not primarily for linguistic finesse but for something essential and true. We got feedback from many corners, but the feedback that moved us the most came from community members.

Someone wrote us a long, long email on the night of its release, saying that he would not have to drench his sadness in alcohol tonight because he felt happy and full. That broke my heart in a good way. Many people who contributed to that anthology did so anonymously, some didn’t, but it didn’t matter. What mattered, as many times I would meet with community members and listen to how much joy the anthology gave them, was that our community was coming together and having a front and feeling, to a great extent, the same powerful emotion.

KELECHI NJOKU

14 is providing a space for more writers and artists, who have had to unfairly edit their voices to look “good” (read: non-gay/lesbian/bi) for the world, to create work uninhibited. As you can see, most of the artists in the first edition of the anthology preferred to work under pseudonyms—to write and make art as though no one is looking.

Beyond 14, there is a steady spotlighting of queer writing now all over the continent’s literosphere. This year, The Kalahari Review—under its Igby Prize for Nonfiction—dedicated June (Pride month) to publishing nonfiction about and from LGBT persons. There, you can read Ibukun Ayobami’s subtly painful story about his relationship with his mother after she found out he is gay, and many more narratives out there, all on the continent.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

The beautiful thing about 14 is that it is a space created by young people. Last year my work was rejected by a known literary magazine in the continent; the editor in his rejection letter said they don’t publish poetry that promotes homosexuality and if I have any other work I should send it. That experience broke me. I think what 14 has done is to create a space where queer voices can be heard without editing their works. They can be able to create art without being judged. I am so happy to be part of the first issue.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

The works in 14 were created for the Queer Gaze and, largely because of anonymity, without shame or fear. That gave the anthology a feeling of intimacy that is very rare. I look forward to more.

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OTOSIRIEZE

Last year, after his “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men” came out in Granta, they went to Pwaangulongii Dauod’s house in Zaria and he had to flee. In May, after your Brunel Prize win, Romeo, they began a hate campaign that culminated in you being assaulted by four strangers. In June, Chibuihe Obi was kidnapped; his captors sent hate messages to his Facebook friends following his essay on Brittle Paper, “We’re Queer, We’re Here.”

Romeo, Arinze Ifeakandu, Kelechi Njoku, Laura: what does it mean to tell writers what to write and to harass them if they don’t back down? Considering the kidnappers’ reiteration of his “support for homosexuality,” what does it mean to suggest, as some people in the literary community did, that Chibuihe’s kidnap was “opportunistic” and not linked to his essay? What does it mean to suggest, as one or two did, that platforms publishing literature about queerness should guarantee the security of its writers before publishing them? At what point do suggestions like these cross from well meaning ignorance to sheer insensitivity, and perhaps homophobia, censorship, and a calculated attempt to silence writing about queerness in Nigeria?

KELECHI NJOKU

“What does it mean . . . ?” Well, it means that talk isn’t so cheap after all. Oppression HATES voices—on any volume. It’s even worse with homophobia because the MO is to discourage all attempts to talk about it. Pretend LGBT people don’t exist. Cover the ears and eyes of the children. And, when in doubt, attack writers who are creating the conversation. Ask us if we have “nothing else” to write about. I sympathise with everyone who thinks that writing about the queer experience is wrong or sprouts from dubious motivations—I really do. But I cannot help them. Nor will those warnings be heeded. The warners can quit already.

Chibuihe’s kidnap was about his queer-affirming essay, period. His kidnappers were clear. The attacks on Romeo and Pwanguloongii, too.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

This question raises so many issues. When people say that Chibuihe’s kidnap was not homophobic but opportunistic, it makes me wonder if they are blind or intentionally malicious. Because to deny the real motivation of that crime is an indirect way of abetting. Chibuihe is not the son of a wealthy businessman or politician, so there was no way that his kidnap would have yielded any fruit to the criminals were he not vocal about gay rights. Gay people are lynched and stolen from on a daily basis, straight people also. But nobody hears of violence against a straight person carried out with so much public display and impunity. This is because the law does not protect queer people. In many if not most of the attacks, money and gadgets are stolen from the victims. Do we now decide to neglect the homophobic tilt of these attacks because of that? On asking literary outlets to protect their writers: What utter crap. Who thinks up these things? We should pressure our government to do its duty. This is not to say that literary outlets would remain indifferent when their writer gets into trouble, but these outlets face so many odds already, the odd of sparse funding, and someone is saying, “Protect your writer.” How? With which guns and which police force? A country is made up of institutions. The magazines do their bit by refusing to stifle or shrink the voices of LGBT writing, by insisting on multiplicity of stories. The government must then do its job of protecting the freedom of expression of its artists.

KELECHI NJOKU

To suggest that a publishing platform ensures the safety of its writer is maybe a little off-key. Because unless the given platform is as irresponsible as some rag blogs, naturally that platform would care about a contributor’s security—without being told. As far as LGBT people are concerned, Nigeria is a zoo. From the weed-smoking homophobe on the street to the intellectual ones—a zoo. The advice also places an unfair responsibility on the wrong entity. Nigeria’s homophobia didn’t start with literary magazines.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

To add: There are people who say to us, “Why are you writing this?” They present it as concern and care, but it is actually a threat. They are saying, “How dare you?” I still cannot imagine the level of audacity it takes for one person to ask another to shut up, and then when the other refuses, the heart it takes to use violent means to shut the other up.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

There is a subtle attempt to censor writers writing about queerness from most people in the Nigerian literary community—it is there in the way they ask if that’s all you write about, in the way they say, “I don’t know why you have to write about homosexuality,” in the way they accuse you of writing to win prizes. After the attack on me, some writers said I shouldn’t say I didn’t expect to be attacked. I saw the same thing during Chibuihe’s kidnapping and it is a homophobic statement. Instead of fighting for the government to make laws to protect queer people living in the country, we are being asked to expect violence anytime we speak out, we are been asked to remain in the dark.

I still don’t get why a literary journal is asked to provide security for writers that contribute to them. They are not the government, they are under no obligation to protect a citizen of this country; to ask a lit journal to do that is to censor the works coming out of there. It is so sad that someone will think like that.

There’s also the silence from the literary community when writers of queer literature are been attacked. Apart from a few that speak out there’s absolutely no form of solidarity from most writers—it is as if there’s a form of consent to the violence, it is as if by their silence they are saying you do not belong here, your voice is not needed.

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OTOSIRIEZE

There is a tacit, formidable effort to, at first, ignore, then censor, and now disown this part of the writing community. And it has failed. Sorry.

In an interview with Gaamangwe Joy Mogami, editor of Africa in Dialogue, we discussed the intersection of the gender and queer struggles. I am convinced that oppressions based on gender, sex, and sexuality can be eradicated if the problem of gender is fixed, because all of them exist in that most basic of binaries—femininity versus masculinity—a competition that patriarchy developed and, in order to not lose it, developed misogyny. Homophobia overlaps with misogyny. Heterosexual homophobes hate homosexuals because they disrupt their system of power, they assume positions not meant for them. The purportedly “dominant” lesbian often assumes masculinity, the purportedly “subordinate” gay often assumes femininity. The success of misogyny lies in ensuring that the dominating people are male and the subordinated people female. Which is why male weakness is immediately connected to femininity; all unconventional, softer masculinities are portrayed as feminine. And this equation of femaleness with weakness, this deliberate resort to misogyny in an issue that should exclusively be “male,” is a defence mechanism that aims to reassert the primacy of a structure that had, to the male chauvinist homophobe, been temporarily challenged.

Some days ago, Arinze, you posted on Facebook that Bobrisky is the best thing to happen to queer Nigeria. This is a new, major truth that deserves expatiation. In Nigerian queer-phobia, there is an established hierarchy in which heterosexual queerphobes regard the bisexual female, the lesbian, the bisexual male, and the gay—in that order of negative acceptance. With the rising visibility of male cross-dressers, I have often wondered where they place trans people, whether trans people would be placed above or below the lesbian. This “hierarchy” has everything to do with Nigerian men being more homophobic than women. When Ms Sahhara transitioned into a female, she was not met with much cheers. Still, Bobrisky, a male who takes his feminine gender for granted, is trending, aided by privilege, of course. Romeo, Arinze Ifeakandu, Kelechi Njoku, Laura Ahmed: To what extent can gender fix homophobia? To what extent has Bobrisky pushed the conversation?

KELECHI NJOKU

Homophobia—especially the kind hurled at gay men—are about ideas of how a man should be, or what masculinity is. I was on a thread where guys were asked if they would fuck another man for 100 million pounds, and what seemed like 50 guys said no. A few sounded like they were considering it. Interesting answers but most likely—and I say this respectfully—lies. Male heterosexuality is “cool” and rewarded: The Correct Man is the one who can talk about “boobs and pussy,” which leaves The Other Man who wants to talk about “dick and six-pack” lost—and shamed and punished. All of which suggests that male heterosexuality is often a performance. It isn’t just important to be straight; you must be SEEN as straight, at all times. Male straightness isn’t allowed to fail the way women’s straightness is. As far as male-dominated ideas are concerned, female sexuality is fickle, can swing all over the place—as long as men are entertained.

That said, men like Bobrisky are not new. We’ve had Charly Boy, Area Scatter, Denrele. I remember a Quality magazine edition from the 1980s that profiled a cross-dressing young man. Headline: “Is This a Boy or a Girl?” He wore boubous, and lipstick. The interview was warm, respectful, and fun. I forget the guy’s name now and have no way of knowing what happened to him. Men like Bobrisky are easily visible. A non-confirming gender expression is far more difficult to hide than sexual orientation. Hence, it’s a little easier to tolerate; your family is used to you being that way. Almost everyone knows a boy-girl or tomboy, but a homosexual? That’s another story.

Bobrisky may be non-threatening to ideas about masculinity (which often sends straight men into a panic around gay men), but by straddling expressions of the genders, he and others like him are raising questions. Questions that, hopefully, would make it easier to see that gender as we have it is sometimes an exaggerated experience.

ROMEO ORIOGUN

At the heart of homophobia lies patriarchy. People fail to understand that gender roles are a social construct and as such are biased—based on cultures that have shaped what it means to be a man or a woman. And to be effeminate, to be queer, to be different, is to cross the divide in the eyes of other men, is to show them that another way of life exists, and then they react with hatred because they don’t know any other way to live except the way that was taught to them by society. Because they are afraid that to tackle homophobia is to really ask what it means to be a man or a woman, is to find out ways to demystify certain gender roles.

The way society talks about gender has made it hard to be a man and so it’s not only queer men that suffer but all men, because you have men who find it hard to love other men platonically, to express their feelings. It is hard to be a man in Africa. To be free is to talk about these things and the truth still remains that while patriarchy stands the queer man will never be free.

Also, in recent times, conversations about queerness have sprung up from different places and while it might not be productive or progressive, they are helping people to be aware and to talk about queerness. I strongly believe that Bobrisky is an important part of the conversation because to own your body without hate is a good thing and he is helping a lot in asking what it means to be a man.

ARINZE IFEAKANDU

The conversation about transgender people is one that Nigerians have, but vaguely, when we look at Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. It is also not one that I feel equipped to have with absolute confidence, mostly because whatever I would say would be made up of imaginative equivalences, which can fail.

I have always believed that all the struggles in this world overlap, one way or the other, and a struggle can benefit people for whom it is not a matter of life or death. Feminism, for example, takes away the burden of unfair economic responsibilities from men as it tries to “level the ground.” Struggles also have points of confluence; when we say that people like what they like, and should not be assigned roles based on gender, it is as much a feminist point as it is a “queer-active one.” We are saying that if a boy enjoys the things that have been traditionally assigned to girls, then we must not interfere with his existence. Men have a very tiny sense of affection, or rather have been brought up to have a very limited sense of affection; and I notice that most of the changes we cry for happen at the level of affection more than they do at that of confrontation. Men find it difficult to hug men, or hold hands with men; this sense of always watching out for one’s masculine image, it creates insecurities that can be tragic and violent. Affection is seen as weak because it is feminine.

Which brings me to Bobrisky. I did not mean that Facebook post quite literally, and it would be important to note that Bobrisky does not self-identify as LGBTQ nor has he said anything to show solidarity with the community. He has, in fact, bashed the LGBTQ community once as he tried to deflect a very stupid and malicious question about his sexual orientation. He is vain, many people say (I don’t have that word in my dictionary), and he is not committed, politically. But in being himself, fully, he has done something for the community that many years of complaining cannot do. I wonder how much of the resistance he has received, especially in the community, comes from that very visceral sense, in the community, that the masculine gay man, the straight-acting gay man, is aspirational and should be presented, always, as Poster Boy of the Community.

_______________________________________________________________

OTOSIRIEZE

Romeo, Arinze Ifeakandu, Kelechi Njoku, Laura Ahmed. Thank you so, so much for your time, and for the deep archive of insight you’ve created here for us. Thank you!

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NOTE

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Otosirieze is deputy editor of Brittle Paper. He is a judge for the 2018/19 Gerald Kraak Prize. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective, which has published volumes including We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018). He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness, including Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016), which explores cities, and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017), which explores professions. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, is working on a novel, and is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He combined English and History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is completing a postgraduate degree in African Studies, and taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him at otosirieze.com, where he accepts writing and editing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze. When bored, he Googles Rihanna.

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