Against exceptionalism

Although visibility is important, contemporary queer African literature reveals how easily representation privileges narratives of the resourceful and upwardly mobile.

Photo credit William Shoki CC BY 4.0.

Existing as a queer person in Africa is difficult. Many governments are ambivalent at best, and at worst actively hostile toward any queer, but especially visibly queer individuals. This has not suppressed queer people from existing, documenting, and making meaning of their lives through various media.

As someone who loves to read, I decided to read numerous books, memoirs, and fiction, by African writers who reflect on being queer in Africa. I am curious to see how writers, readers, and publishers are crafting narratives about queer people. I find that there are many books written by queer authors. However, representation is not without its own limitations.

I am struck by how socioeconomic status shapes how queer writers and their readers understand their experiences. Most of the narratives I read speak about success, and importantly gay male success. Oftentimes this professional success comes about as a consequence of not being able to participate in gender-normative activities at school. Eventually, most of the authors are able to join the burgeoning middle class across various cities on the continent.

Welcome Mandla Lishivha’s, Boy on the Run, is a poignant memoir of growing up as a low-income, Black, and gay person in Soshanguve, while being raised by a young loving single mother. It tells the story of how the author loses his mother to domestic violence at a young age, and how he navigates the world as an only child being cared for by his loving grandmother, uncles, and aunts.

Lishivha attempts to engage with how his current position as a middle-class, Black, queer individual impacts how he is able to navigate his queer identity. For example, there is a scene where the author notes how, in Cape Town, Black people would often ask him, “Why did you leave Joburg?” He goes on, “they asked how Joburg was. What they meant was, ‘Don’t you miss being around Black people all the time?’” He observes, “In Joburg, the people driving expensive cars and eating in these restaurants are Black people.” While the author does not reflect further on his observation, it makes me think about the milieu he was existing in. For me, the question being asked was “Don’t you miss being around middle-class Black people?” Middle-class Black people in Cape Town have to reckon with whiteness and racism in ways that their class standing allows them to ignore when in Johannesburg. In Johannesburg, the middle-class Black person can afford to leave their house and enjoy an expensive meal at a restaurant without having to be reminded of the class inequality they are living and participating in.

Historically, Cape Town is one of the few cities in South Africa that is run by the Democratic Alliance (a majority-white opposition party) and is currently also the province with the highest percentage of white people in suburbs across the city. Johannesburg on the other hand has always been a stronghold for the ruling party. In Cape Town, racial discrimination is metered out to all Black people regardless of economic standing. Conversely, in Johannesburg, it is much easier for middle-class Black people to find recreational spaces that do not always challenge their economic standing in a country where the top 10% of the country’s earners take home more than half of all wage income.

The Black people in Johannesburg that Lishivha speaks about do not have to reckon with the fact that many Black people around them (servers, retail workers) may be living in substandard housing with limited access to amenities such as electricity or water. But at a restaurant in Cape Town, the middle-class Black patron is immediately and viscerally reminded of their blackness, which cannot be redeemed by “their hard-earned disposable income.”

What does aspiring to and living among Black, middle-class South Africans mean for a gay boy who grew up poor? Exceptionalism, often coded as “success” or “achieving against all odds” is dangerous to historically marginalized groups (queer, black, Coloured, women, poor) because it provides an easy, but false reason for said groups to be mistreated or subject to various forms of violence. In a country where for decades non-white people were denied access to education and accumulated wealth, we must be careful of glorifying those who achieve economic progress; upward mobility is not evidence of freedom. In fact, the bottleneck system that was created through Apartheid still exists; the only difference now is the number of people being allowed to pass through. Exceptionalism can lead to fragmentation within groups who would otherwise practice solidarity with one another. And as I read I noticed how queer characters are praised for being intelligent and accessing higher education in their home countries or abroad. These achievements are noteworthy and can be celebrated. Yet, I wonder if this rhetoric of success is not actually engendering an exceptionalist and nationalist narrative among queer individuals.

In her short essay, “A Burst of Light—Living With Cancer,” Audre Lorde insists that writing a memoir is an act of defiance for individuals who have often been forced or systematically not allowed to tell the truth about their lives and the world as they experience it. I think about her words as I read Lives of Great Men by Chike Frankie Edozien, a memoir that raises an important question: what does it mean to be a “great” man when you are Black, African, and queer? Edozien narrates his life from being a young teenage “aje butter” boy (middle class and living in Ikoyi, Lagos) attending boarding school in Port Harcourt. The narrative follows the lives of Edozien and Lamido from the time they are young men to adulthood. As adults, the two lead their lives differently based on their identity as gay, successful, Nigerian men. Edozien makes the difficult choice to leave Nigeria and make a life for himself in New York. Lamido, after years of living abroad, decides to come back to Nigeria, gets married to a woman, and has children.

As the story progresses, one understands that Lamido is one of many successful gay men who return home. Many gay, middle- to upper-middle-class Nigerian men living abroad are still coming back and getting married to women. What is even more puzzling for Edozien is that the men do not stop having relationships with men; they simply become discrete about it. He asks, why? Particularly, considering that Nigeria—like many African countries—is hostile to gay and queer people.

This book meditates on the privilege of choice and (in)visibility among queer people belonging to and living on the African continent. First, being of the economically privileged class in Nigeria affords you security from your queerness. Second, if you are able to be perceived as heterosexual in public, then you are safe or safer than those who cannot “pass.” Third, the homecoming of gay men may be enmeshed with their desire to be in close proximity to power denied to them as gay men. According to Edozien, when you are a wealthy man living in Lagos you are among those with access and mobility. So, if you are gay, getting married and playing house should be a small price to pay for the power you will wield. Is there a connection, for example, between the wealthy, gay, straight-presenting men of Lagos and the black middle-class gay men of Johannesburg?

Another memoir is Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma by Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde, first published in 2008. Nkabinde traces a youthful sexual awakening in a supportive, single-parent household. After her mother passes away, Nkabinde receives a calling to become a sangoma and through this process begins to understand sexuality as inextricably linked to that calling.

The book offers an insight into how class can position a lesbian closer to or further away from sites of violence. In Lishivha’s Johannesburg, gay men are freely dancing at clubs in Melville and Braamfontein, and gay and lesbian people are drinking mimosas, raising champagne glasses, and toasting to life, success, and overcoming “struggle.” In Nkabinde’s Johannesburg, lesbians are being attacked and murdered outside shebeens in Soweto because they cannot afford a taxi to Rosebank from Soweto and back. For the reader, what truth is being revealed when we see one person discussing the “struggle” of queer lives over mimosas in the wealthy suburbs of Johannesburg while another attends funerals of lesbian women murdered just 45 minutes away? Have queer, Black people living in the city truly “overcome” when these realities exist? Class exceptionalism allows the middle-class and wealthy gay individuals in Lagos and in Johannesburg to believe that they have overcome; that they need not worry or feel guilty because it is their hard work that affords them the comfort, safety, and peace of mind that other queer people may lack.

An author who boldly confronts this class dissonance among non-white as well as queer people is Jamil F. Khan in their memoir, Khamr: The makings of a Waterslams. In the foreword, Mona Eltahawy describes this book as a memoir rooted in “radical truth and honesty.” Khan, Eltahawy writes, displays a courage in their writing that “spares no one, including [themselves].” The text meditates on social mobility and the ways in which marginalized people, in this case, people of Cape Malay descent, internalize and reinforce class structures in their own communities. This internalization is one that also plagues queer people.

In Khan’s writing, no one is a saint, and no one is a villain. A good example of this is their father. He is a man suffering from alcoholism and yet he is also a man who loves his family sometimes to their own detriment. Khan writes about how their family “were, after all, the better Coloured[s] who lived in a nice house, so we could not drop the ball.” Because of this image, the family had to posture in their community as the middle-class, put-together colored family, even though it was not completely true. The father carried a “class paranoia” that resulted in him justifying why other people deserved to be treated unfairly because they were not working hard enough. Kahn’s analysis of their family and their father’s contradictions reminds me of Lamido in Edozien’s memoir. In one scene, Lamido asks Edozien to have a threesome with a “handsome, strapping gardener” at a hotel. The unnamed gardener is there to have sex with the two men and has a longstanding transactional relationship with Lamido—sex for financial support. The gardener is also married but because of his financial standing, he relies on this relationship for economic sustenance. In a city so economically fraught and unequal, is Lamido upholding economic hierarchies, or is he reinforcing exceptionalism fueled by this class“betterness” described by Khan? Lamido describes the gardener as an “ashawo,” a prostitute, someone economically and morally inferior to himself, not as a fellow queer man.  And it is this way of seeing one another—as more or less deserving of self-regard as queer people across different economic strata—that I think is dangerous and increasingly pervasive in different urban cities across the continent.

Khan asserts that:

The economics of anti-Blackness best shows itself within Coloured communities and the competition for resources and status. The very class anxieties my father pandered to were in large part driven by anti-Blackness because he accepted his position within the race class hierarchy as a Coloured person with proximity to whiteness. He accepted his role as the one who had to guard the gates of upward mobility, failing which he would lose his access to resources and his racial proxy. This is how our communities were set up as self-sustaining spaza shops of white supremacy.

In thinking about Khan’s analysis, I begin to question how the queer, African, memoir may be inadvertently contributing to the “self-sustaining spaza shops of white supremacy?”

I turn for answers to a short essay, “Gods of Fiction” by Ainehi Edoro, a well-thought-out response to “The Novelist as Teacher,” by Chinua Achebe. In the essay, Edoro asks who the African writer imagine themselves, and in turn, their audience, to be. Do they, like Achebe, imagine themselves as a teacher who must educate their “broken” reader? Or do they imagine their reader  “as an equal, as a figure of inspiration, as flesh and blood with cravings and idiosyncrasies?” Edoro continues, “How does the  imagination of a reader define the writer’s aesthetic decisions?” I wonder about who the memoir writer imagines their reader to be. Recalling Lorde who says that writing memoir is an act of defiance, I wonder what truths are being told by the African queer memoir writer? And consequently what truths are being obscured? I also question if the idea of the imagined audience is not only a matter for the writer, but also for everyone involved in the ecosystem: publishers, agents, editors, and most importantly readers. How are the editors and agents influencing who the writer imagines their audience to be? And, is it that the state of the memoir on the African continent is under threat of being captured by class prejudice?

Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from fiction and the queer African writers who are telling the truths of existing as queer Africans from and in this continent. The last book I read is an anthology of short stories, non-fiction, and poetry from the Gerald Krak Prize, The Beautyful Ones Have Just Been Born, edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young. This collection is written “with love for the reader,” to quote Edoro. It proves that queer characters are worthy of being written as complicated protagonists. In its pages, I encounter characters from Johannesburg and Lagos, who are rich, poor, immigrating for love, fleeing war, or praying to God in a church pew, and all of them are deserving of grace and love. My favorite story, “Until It Doesn’t” by Roy Udeh-Ubaka imagines what it means to love someone over time and space and many stages of life. The story is written using the first-person plural and it follows the lives of K and J from the time they are 15 in Nigeria to the time they are 60 and in America. The two are deeply in love, but for various reasons they lead different lives, but always thinking about each other. “Until It Doesn’t” forces us to consider what it means to be a reader. What is the reader entitled to see or observe about the character and what are they not? What interpersonal actions do we as readers deem private but expect to be public on the page? In many ways, this story also challenges the reader to think critically about the role they play in the ecosystem that governs the world of writing and by extension our collective imagination.

The other stories in the anthology move across countries (Nigeria, Libya, Italy, South Africa), time, economic class, and religion with an urgency that makes me read it in record time. Even before I read it, questions nag: What becomes of the queer people who do not manage to become “great?” Is memoir as a genre hungry for “exceptional” lives? Should we be rethinking what we mean by “exceptional,” so that the term is wrested from underpinning class and racial anxieties; so that it becomes roomy enough to encompass other kinds of “exceptional” lives—Lives that fall short of greatness in the conventional capitalist, heteronormative, and patriarchal ways but exhibit greatness in other ways? Or is it time to do away completely with the vocabulary of exceptionalism and greatness and find better ways to describe our aliveness as queer people?

Without pitting fiction against memoir, I think that fiction allows for the complexity that I find missing in the memoirs I read. Another way of thinking about it is that perhaps the memoirs I read are simply telling the truth: that existing as a black, poor, queer individual on this continent, in any city is difficult and dangerous; that few individuals who are queer and poor will ever get to tell the story of their lives because being able to write about your life in any capacity, for an audience, is an immense privilege.

Further Reading

Navigating queer utopia

A new book presents an empirical challenge to the myth of South Africa as the “pink capital” of Africa and contributes to building an archive of queer, African, and religious narratives.

The politics of elegance

German historian Daniel Tödt wrote a history of the Congolese évolués. In this interview, he talks about the historiographical interventions of his book and the role of Patrice Lumumba in the history of évolués.