Los Angeles Review of Books has published a feature exploring how queer Nigerian writers are portraying the male body. Entitled “Queer Nigerians Rewrite the Body,” and written by the American journalist and World Literature Today contributing editor Erik Gleibermann, the essay highlights the push-back from a new generation of self-conscious artists against stereotypical narratives that had long defined what it meant to be queer and African. It focuses on the fiction of Arinze Ifeakandu and Otosirieze Obi-Young, the poetry of Romeo Oriogun, and the nonfiction of Pwaangulongii Dauod. Also covered are Unoma Azuah, Chinelo Okparanta, Chike Frankie Edozien, Akwaeke Emezi, Jude Dibia, and Nigeria’s first LGBTQ art collective 14. Brittle Paper founder Ainehi Edoro adds an academic perspective in contextualizing their work.
Ifeakandu was shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize and is Editor-in-Chief of 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective. His short story, “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things (2016),” explores the isolation inherent in lived queer experiences:
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.”
Oriogun won the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and is Editor-in-Chief of Kabaka, which is centering queer voices in literature. Much of his poetry details the vulnerability of masculinity.
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 “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.
Obi-Young, who is Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper and winner of the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2019, sits on the judging panel of the Gerald Kraak Prize, Africa’s only prize for art exploring queerness. His short story, “A Tenderer Blessing” (2015), is a heartbreaking portrait of unrequited affection.
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. 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.
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.’
Dauod won the 2018 Gerald Kraak Prize for his nonfiction piece, “Africa’s Future Has No Space for Stupid Black Men” (2016), which went viral after publication in Granta.
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.
Gleibermann’s essay also provides a background of literature about queer experiences coming into the mainstream, including Jude Dibia’s Walking With Shadows (2005) and Unoma Azuah’s nonfiction anthology Blessed Body: Secret Lives of the Nigerian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (2016). On the portrayal of queerness by male writers, Ainehi notes:
“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.”
Obi-Young, who last year was profiled in Literary Hub in recognition of his media advocacy for queer writing, is noted as one who “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.”
Brittle Paper’s role in ensuring visibility for literature about queer experiences is also noted.
“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.”
Read the full essay in Los Angeles Review of Books.