Unoma Azuah, novelist, poet, academic, curator, and one of Nigeria’s leading LGBTQ rights activists, has her third book coming out today, 1 March. Titled Embracing My Shadow: Growing Up Lesbian in Nigeria and published by Beaten Track, it will be the first memoir by a Nigerian about being lesbian. It comes three years after Chike Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man, the first memoir by a Nigerian about being gay.
Unoma Azuah, who teaches writing at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, Valdosta, GA, is the author of the novels Sky-High Flames and Edible Bones, which have been honoured with the Aidoo-Synder Book Award, the Spectrum Book Award, and the Hellman/Hammet Award, and editor of the anthologies Blessed Body: Secret Lives of the Nigerian LGBT and Mounting the Moon: Queer Nigerian Poetry.
Embracing My Shadow: Growing Up Lesbian in Nigeria can be bought here:
BEATEN TRACK SHOP:
Read an excerpt below.
APPARITIONS AND WATER-LOGGED TERRAINS: TEEN YEARS
To distract myself from pining away for Nelo, I buried myself in books and wrote a lot of poems. I didn’t do as much chores. Surprisingly, my mother didn’t yell at me to wash the dishes or warm up the soup. Instead, she served me meals, and praised me for being an A student.
One day, with a steaming plate of jollof rice in her hands, she looked at me and shook her head. “I am so proud of you and the scholar you have become. You don’t go around looking for some wild boys like our neighbor’s daughter who just got pregnant. You have always been a brilliant, beautiful child. I am blessed indeed. Here is some of the jollof rice I specially made for you,” she said as she dragged a small stool next to the edge of my bed to place the plate of rice.
Inasmuch as I was excited about the new-found show of affection from my mother, I was also worried about how she would feel when she discovered that it is only girls I find attractive. But I didn’t want to think too far ahead. I returned her smile with an intermittent “Mama, daalu. Thank you.” She asked me to let her know if the rice was not enough, that there was plenty more in the pot. As she closed my door behind her, a heavy weight settled on my shoulders. I was suspicious of my mother’s sudden pampering. She indulged me but never in this way. Then I invited my brother to my room and asked him if he knew what was going on with our mother. He was the one who gave me the clarification I needed. My mother was really shaken by the news that our neighbor’s daughter, who was about my age, had gotten pregnant.
I must have been about eighteen.
I thought about what might happen. I wondered if there was anybody in her family or my father’s family that found their same sex attractive. I didn’t want to spoil this new affection from my mother. I pushed the worry to the back of my mind. Thoughts of Nelo flooded my mind again. I was yearning for her to a near-feverish level. I wanted to see her. I had an idea of how to get to her village from the description she gave me. It seemed not too far away from Onitsha. I wanted to see her. I really wanted to see her. The problem was that my mother would never let me travel far by myself, let alone going to see a friend who lived in another town. But I started to think about how to make the trip. My mother had mentioned that she was going to pay her own mother, my grandmother, a visit at their family home at Nnebisi Road. She was going to return the next day. A day, however, wasn’t going to be enough time to see Nelo. One day might just be for the trip, and I needed to spend time with her, even if it was for just a day.
I set out for Onitsha holding tightly to the directions Nelo wrote out for me on a piece of paper. At Onitsha, I was to take a bus to Awkuzu junction and then a taxi to Adani. The taxi should stop at Adani Market near a huge cathedral. I should go to the gates of the church and ask the woman selling oranges there where I could find the family home of the Ikwes. When I got there, the woman asked me who I was. “Nelo’s friend,” I said. She covered her tray of oranges with one of her loose wrappers and grabbed me by the hand. “You must be Nelo’s good friend to have come all the way from Asaba to visit her. That is good. Such friendships are rare. Stay close to each other, ok?”
There were mostly thatched-roof houses as we walked and a few cement homes, one of which was a two-storey building. We had walked for about half a mile when I heard a piercing scream from the balcony of the two-storey building. Before I could look up the owner of the scream had disappeared. Then there was Nelo tumbling towards me as if a horse in a race. She almost flung me down in greeting. She didn’t stop. She jumped up several times as her massive bosom heaved up and down her chest. I had to hold her to make her stop. I became self-conscious. She thanked the lady profusely. Her whole family came to meet me and thanked the lady. Her father gave the lady some money and waved her a goodbye. We went upstairs where her three younger siblings peered at me from behind the door of their living room. Her older sister teased her about letting them get some rest now that Unoma had arrived. When I asked her why she said that, she screeched about how obsessed Nelo was about me, how she hummed my name in the background. I felt scrutinized, especially when everybody, including their father, stared at me.
As if snapped out of a trance, their mother, a tiny dark-skinned woman, spoke up. She had been in the kitchen all the while. She asked if I was hungry, said they had some food cooked for me. I told her that I was. She hugged me and hurried out through a back door of their large living room. I noticed that Nelo looked more like her father. He was of average height and was light-skinned. There was something strange about his facial expression. He seemed to smile and scowl intermittently. I stood by Nelo, who then squeezed my hand and asked me to follow her to the room where we would be staying.
It was a long room with a queen size bed near one of the two windows in the room. Through the window, I could see a large expanse of a rice farm. A cluster of herons were at the edge of the rice farm. Farther were a couple of women who seem to be beating bags of rice. Nelo pulled me away and asked me to help her fold her clothes. There were too many clothes scattered at the corner of the room. We had folded almost half of them when Nelo rolled up one of her shirts and flung it at me. “Are you okay? You seem so quiet.”
“I am fine. I am trying to contain the joy of seeing you again. I didn’t think I would have survived another week without setting my eyes on you.”
“Me too. I had pleaded with my Dad to take me as far as Onitsha that I could find my way to you at Asaba,” she said. “He asked me to be patient till we are able to see each other again in school. It is good you came.” She pulled me to the floor.
We were in the middle of a wrestle when her mother came in to announce that food was ready. She smiled at us. “Are you two already catching up?” We didn’t say a word. Nelo giggled at me and grabbed me by the waist. The meal was a big bowl of okra soup with pounded yam. I thought it was for the two of us, but she said she was going back to the kitchen to get Nelo’s plate. After the meal, we helped ourselves to bottles of Malt and caught up on how I made my way from Asaba. Nelo’s father seemed impressed that I was able to come all the way by myself. He asked me why I arrived late, that I should have set out earlier in the morning. I tried to convince him that it was not too far and that it was quite easy to find them. I also told him that they were a couple of fellow travelers who were headed to nearby villages. He asked more questions. I told him about one of the travelers who was an agricultural extension officer on his way to inspect rice farms, and about another lady on her way to sell her fish in Onitsha. Then he patted my back and told me that I was a determined girl. He smiled, but then that scowl settled again on his face before he left the room. I just stared at my toes till Nelo suggested that we go back to the room because we had a lot to catch up on.
As we sat on the bed, she asked me what I did at home. While we were on holiday, she was bored most of the time. I told her that I was also bored, but that I tried to read and sleep when I was not daydreaming about her. She laughed and pulled my face to hers and made faces at me. We both laughed hysterically and lay on the floor staring at the ceiling. A wave of cold from the concrete slab made me wince as I pulled the blanket closer around me. I heard Nelo’s voice. It was faint. I opened my eyes and she was standing over me. She was just in her underwear and a loose white shirt. “You dozed off,” I heard her say. I was still a bit groggy. Then she knelt beside me and circled me with her arms as if to lift me up.
“You can’t! You can’t lift me up. I don’t know what you think you are, Super Woman?” I laughed.
“Let’s see,” she said. In an effort to lift me, she grunted and gave up. I just leapt up. She chased me around the room until I was out of breath. She held me from behind as we both stared out through the window. Except for shafts of faint light through the window, everywhere was dark already.
The air was warm and trills of crickets overwhelmed the night. In bed we could barely see our faces. Nelo asked if I was cold or warm; I told her I was comfortable; she snuggled up to me. Th air around us was tense. She was so beautiful. The soft feel of her body made my breathing shallow. Her dreamy eyes were like pools I yearned to submerge myself in. When she looked at me, my heart skipped boisterously. We stared at each other and then gently kissed. A strong surge of sweet sensation rushed down my spine. I cradled her face in my hands. At first, our kissing was gentle. It gradually built up until we pulled off our clothes. I buried my face in her belly, rolled my tongue on the grove of her belly button and then walked my way up to her large, limber breasts. Her nipples were turgid. I pulled them together and sucked them. She moaned and found my face with her tongue. We kissed, we groped for our groins. I pushed her down and thrust my thigh between her legs and teased her lips with the tip of my tongue. The rings of crickets were like music that rose with the rhythm of our bodies until it reached a crescendo that found us moaning, in each other’s arms. An unfathomable surge of pleasure. We reached for each other’s mouths, our bodies rising and receding like waves on a sea of storms. More moans. Suddenly the door swung open.
It was her father.
We were panting.
“Are you both okay,” he asked. The flame of his hand-held lamp flickered and flapped from the window breeze, and his face was distorted in the shadow of the broken light.
Happy publication day to Unoma Azuah!