Imagined worlds

A few years back, Chimamanda Adichie warned of the dangers of a single story. In her widely viewed TED Talk, Adichie laments writers’ tendency to fall back on cliché and generalisations, to reduce the richness of real lives to familiar and, in the case of Africa, often racist tropes. The single story, she argues, flattens out cultures and experiences, replacing them with set narratives that belie the complexity of people’s worlds. The practice is nowhere more visible than in discussions of African sexualities, where a narrative of ruthless leaders and helpless victims has come to define – particularly in Western media portrayals – the struggle for sexuality rights.

This is not surprising: earlier this year, Uganda and Nigeria passed draconian legislation that not only criminalises homosexual acts but also prohibits organisations from mobilising in support of queer activists. Similar laws have been called for in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of the continent. In Gambia and Zimbabwe, the presidents have described homosexual people as, respectively, ‘vermin’ and ‘worse than dogs and pigs’; in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma has condemned same-sex marriage as ‘a disgrace to the nation and to God’. Zuma’s statement reflects the deep tensions that exist in his country: despite being the first nation to enshrine sexuality rights within its constitution (the result of a successful litigation campaign during the transition to democracy), South Africa continues to be plagued by staggering levels of rape, murder and other violent crimes motivated by homophobia. Media coverage of this backlash, which often glosses over any resistance, has helped to reinforce an image of Africa as sexually conservative and violent.

The current push against sexuality diversity draws on several well-established narratives, most notably the claim that homosexuality is ungodly, unnatural and immoral. African political and religious leaders continue to position homosexuality as a Western poison, a colonial import threatening society. Their claims imply that there is an authentic African way of being that must be preserved and passed on to future generations. Whether from Mugabe, Museveni or Zuma, the argument is the same – the ‘true’ African man knows that homosexuals have never been part of his culture, nor will they ever be.

At the same time, there has been debate among activists and researchers about whether pre-colonial same-sex encounters can or should be compared with modern identifications, and whether specific practices – such as those performed by sangomas (diviners who can be encouraged by ancestors to engage in same-sex activities) – bear any relationship to terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’. Many of those refuting the claim that homosexuality is un-African invoke long-standing cultural practices as evidence of a rich heritage of sexuality diversity and non-binary gender identities. There is ample historical evidence, they say, to prove that same-sex practices are authentically African.

Well-researched and considered articles to this effect are increasingly featured in newspapers and on blogs, both in Africa and abroad. While these counterarguments are tactically useful, they are not beyond critique, as many local activists have pointed out. By laying claim to ‘authentic’ African forms of sexuality, the response endorses the internal logic of the argument it seeks to disprove. The fixation on legitimacy and authenticity diminishes the possibility of new modes of sexuality, while at the same time downplaying the complexity and multiplicity that already exists.

Historical evidence has and will continue to be a crucial component of activist responses, but such a focus can narrow the conversation to a single story. What, then, are the alternative narratives? What of the potential for creative writing to challenge and disrupt the homophobic discourses gaining traction across the continent? Do the imagined worlds of fiction allow for these narratives to be rewritten?

Since 2012 I have worked for Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, a Johannesburg-based centre for LGBTI culture and education. As part of my job, I manage a publishing imprint, MaThoko’s Books, that specialises in sexuality-focused writing, and also facilitate writing workshops with youth leaders, activists and journalists. My organisation has a regional focus and so I have been able to work closely with writers from across Southern Africa and to learn more about the challenges they face.

When living and loving within a hostile or violent context, it is easy to overlook the transformative potential of literature or other artistic expressions. In such circumstances, creative activities can seem trivial, inconsequential, little more than a distraction from the serious business of political organising. There is a certain truth in this response: when people are being killed or imprisoned, direct action, rather than literature, takes priority.

Yet activism is itself a creative pursuit – we imagine a better world, draft a blueprint for new ways of being and strive to bring it into being. As processes, literary and activist imaginings are not miles apart.

This is not to say that literature, in and of itself, can always change the world. Some books have had direct political effects, occasionally even inspiring physical or conceptual revolutions – one can list Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – but this is rare. There is also a range of differences (such as form, content and intent) between a political pamphlet and a poem or novel. But while literature cannot substitute for direct action, it can do things that other sorts of intervention cannot. Literature can, for instance, sometimes reach people or places that are otherwise off limits. It can breathe life into complex and inaccessible political theories, or give shape to ideas or lifestyles with which readers are unfamiliar. The potential for creative expression to serve as a catalyst for social change is nicely expressed in Theodor Adorno’s oft-quoted claim that ‘every piece of art is an uncommitted crime’. Creative works, he argues, elude the confines of social norms – the transgressive artist follows the laws of the imagination rather than the strictures of morality or religion.

In the ongoing sexuality crisis in Africa, creative writing can help to promote respect for diversity by showing things as they could be rather than as they ‘should’ be. These imagined worlds provide space for new possibilities, for life to be seen differently, for desires to be explored beyond the reach of the law. Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri touches on this potential in his speech announcing the first Caine Prize for African Writing:

[Literature] gives the opportunity of encountering other possibilities and people in the mind, in the heart, first. … For true literature tears up the script of what we think humanity to be. It tears up our agendas and the limitations we impose on the possibilities of being human. It destroys preconceptions. And makes us deal with something partly new and partly known.

Where, then, does queer African writing fit in? In recent years, the concept and meaning of ‘queer’ has been contested by African activists, with some doubting the term’s usefulness outside of the geopolitical context in which it emerged or its applicability beyond the academy. Others continue to argue for readings of queerness that take place beyond the frames of the theory’s Western origins, for new ways of thinking about lives and bodies on the African continent. And while it’s true that few Africans identify openly as ‘queer’ in the Western sense, there is a growing critical queer movement developing on its own terms. ‘Queering queer Africa,’ Stella Nyanzi notes, requires ‘innovation, creativity, multi-disciplinarity and … the diverse lived realities of local queer Africans’.

Fiction, in particular, opens up space to have these conversations, to explore ideas in ways discouraged or even prohibited by society, while also helping to create new meanings and understandings. It is no accident that the great Chinua Achebe describes storytellers as a threat: ‘They threaten all champions of control; they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.’

But queer writing serves another key role: it can show that claims of legitimacy and authenticity – although sometimes strategic and useful – are ultimately misdirected. By foregrounding the variety of ways in which people live and love, fictional works destabilise authenticity. Fiction can show that there is no one way to be gay, or lesbian, or African, or gendered … or any other social category.

Queer storytelling, whether in Africa or Australia, has the potential to shift the debate away from an us-versus-them or natural-versus-unnatural framing to a conversation about the world we want to create, the world we want to inhabit. In other words, claims about being ‘born this way’ or ‘always existing’ or ‘not in my culture’ can be replaced by conversations about new kinds of being, of organising, of connecting and of loving.

Such imaginings can produce a disruption of power. As Adichie argues in her TED Talk, the danger of the single story lies not just in its lack of creativity but also in its potential to reinforce real-world systems of inequality. There is little doubt that oppressive structures determine which stories are told, how they are told and when they are told. Power determines who is telling the stories and why they are doing so – both on and off the page.

‘The single story creates stereotypes,’ Adichie notes, ‘and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Her observations, though not explicitly about sexuality diversity, capture the pressing need for queer stories that challenge popular misconceptions:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.

While some may disagree on her emphasis on similarity, the central thrust of this argument rings true: highlighting multiplicities – the astonishing variety of desires, expressions and relationships that exist across all societies – offers a much-needed counterpoint to the single story of African sexualities.

This is particularly evident when one considers the way that African sexualities are typically described, particularly in the mainstream media, a point wryly made by Zethu Matebeni in ‘How NOT to Write about Queer South Africa’:

If a lesbian appears, make sure that she is just a criminal or a victim. She is, after all, a crazy lesbian. There is only one kind of lesbian: the butch type. … Do not be bothered to write about lesbians who love each other, or the sex they have, no-one is interested in that.

With its capacity to explore life through myriad lenses, through radical new perspectives, literature can help rewrite these familiar narratives. It can uncover and circulate those stories that are hidden or dismissed – and, significantly, revisit or update those already told.

Recent publications are challenging the one-dimensional telling of sexuality on the African continent. Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction, published late last year by MaThoko’s Books (the imprint for which I work), brings together eighteen stories from six countries. Queer African Reader and African Sexualities, two groundbreaking collections from Pambazuka Press, combine academic and creative writing with artistic works to provide an overview of queer struggles, expressions and resistance. Q-zine, a quarterly journal from Burkina Faso, offers bold representations of queer life and culture, with perhaps the best coverage of queer writing from Francophone Africa. Diriye Osman, a British-based Somali writer and visual artist, recently released his debut short-story collection, Fairytales for Lost Children, to much acclaim and interest. And now there is a collection of queer African poetry on the way (tentatively titled Walking the Tightrope) that will add another layer to the growing corpus of local queer imaginings.

A quick survey of any of these works reveals their potential to broaden the story of queer lives on the continent. Take a few stories from Queer Africa as an example: Beatrice Lamwaka’s ‘Chief of the Home’ examines conflict in semi-rural Uganda from the perspective of a transgender protagonist; Wame Molefhe’s ‘Sethunya Likes Girls Better’ tells of a Batswana woman forced to suppress her sexuality in order to conform to societal norms; Rahiem Whisgary’s ‘The Filth of Freedom’ explores the intersections of sexuality, race and class in South Africa, and the pain of entitlement – or lack thereof.

One-line plot summaries fail to do justice to the queering that takes place within these stories. The complexity and emotional roundness of Molefhe’s protagonist is, considering the context in which the story was written, nothing short of radical. The single story of a Batswana woman’s sexuality is one of heterosexual marriage, of acquiescence and deference, but this is disrupted here by hidden desires and tensions. ‘Sethunya Likes Girls Better’ is by no means a joyous story, but it is one that adds new layers to the narrative of female sexuality.

While none of the collections mentioned here claim to be definitive, the breadth and diversity of the imaginings marks them out as exciting developments.

Queer African Reader offers other ways of seeing, other ways of being, and is a powerful response and resistance to homogeneity,’ explains co-editor Sokari Ekine. ‘It is a celebration of multiplicity, of a shared humanity and identity as queer Africans. Queer Africans are the new thinkers, the new critics, and in many ways they are at the cutting edge of political and social transformation on the continent and its diasporas.’

Karen Martin and Makhosazana Xaba, the editors of Queer Africa, take a similar stance, noting that their primary motivation in putting together the collection was to seek out different African perspectives, to showcase stories that approach the world through a queer lens:

One of the earliest conversations we had was about how we could capture the widest range of stories – female and male, cis and transgender, urban and rural, contemporary and historical, joyful and troubled – without compromising literary values. In a later discussion, we committed to our interest in how a range of writers might respond to and represent queer Africa by deciding that writers need not identify as queer to qualify for the anthology. We did stipulate that writers must identify as African, and we allowed them to decide for themselves what this means.

For Martin, the queer of the title is not only about sexuality: ‘I see queer as anything that isn’t straight, and that extends beyond sexuality. As editors, we chose the word for its broadness and fluidity, as this is precisely what we feel defines good art.’

Xaba agrees that queer is less a fixed category of identification and more an evolving response to oppression. The concept, she argues, takes on new meanings within specific political, social and historical contexts. For her, queer can be compared to ‘black’, a word that carries very specific connotations in South Africa because of the country’s apartheid past, but that also means many different things to different people. ‘Black is a political identity of all those who were historically discriminated, oppressed and denied access to power under apartheid.’ Likewise, Xaba argues, queer should be understood in terms of power relations:

It’s about the other side of heteronormativity. Sexual orientation and gender identity are essential for understanding this lack of power both from a historical and contemporary perspective. In my opinion, sexual orientation is historically at the heart of queer and it is at the heart of the politics that Queer Africa represents.

This conviction that queer writing is an innately political endeavour was shared by the other editors with whom I spoke. For them, creative writing allows for connections to be drawn and for a sense of solidarity and community to be developed.

‘Stories are a key way of shaping public attitudes towards sexual minorities,’ explains John McAllister, guest editor for Q-zine’s special edition on creative writing. ‘As a movement we can’t get very far until there is some kind of critical mass in favour of sexuality rights. And for queer Africans themselves, sharing stories is the best way – outside of direct contact – of creating and building a sense of solidarity.’

‘Creative writing on queer topics is always political,’ he adds. ‘For the authors, writing the pieces must have been a political act – and publishing them certainly was. Nor do I think anyone can read them – or any queer writing – without reading politically. You can’t avoid a political subtext when writing about a subject that by its nature challenges established ideas and norms.’

Ekine shares this belief that creative expression is a vital tool in countering widespread and often state-sanctioned homophobia. ‘Creative works have the potential to bring about transformational change by creating new dialogues and proclaiming the transgressive,’ she explains. ‘More than anything, creative work provides us with a much needed African reading of representations of black queer subjectivities.’

But while the need for queer writing is obvious – and the enthusiasm and conviction of these editors is palpable – it is foolish to consider queer writing as the solution, or even an easy endeavour. For one thing, there are intense logistical challenges associated with finding and nurturing queer creative writers on the continent. Few funding opportunities, limited access to technology and geographical isolation are just some of the challenges facing those creating or publishing queer writing.

There are also many obvious safety and security issues related with publishing queer voices, both for writers themselves and for those distributing the final product. Queer writers and activists experience very real violence and, in some circumstances, face prosecution or imprisonment. In 2003, Sylvia Tamale, editor of African Sexualities, was labelled ‘Worst Woman of the Year’ in her home county of Uganda because of pro-LGBTI comments, with some calling for her to be lynched; other LGBTI activists in Uganda have been publicly named in tabloids alongside calls for their execution.

Finally, there is the fact that those creating or consuming literary texts in Africa are likely to be economically, culturally and educationally privileged. With the exception of Q-zine, which is produced in both English and French, all of the publications discussed here are in English. While the reasons for this language choice may seem apparent (greater reach and impact, an existing vocabulary, funding requirements and so on), its colonial and cultural implications are undeniable.

McAllister also touched on some of these limitations and the need to consider different publishing forms:

Books are lovely, but online texts have more potential to reach people throughout the continent as well as being so much cheaper to produce and distribute, which is why Q-zine decided to publish online. Stories told via audio or video would probably be even more effective.

While the challenges highlighted here demand critical attention, they do not diminish the urgency of the current moment nor the need for more queer writing and voices. This point was made by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, whose story ‘Jambula Tree’ is included in Queer Africa: ‘We cannot draw fault lines that are too strong. We cannot stand on opposite sides of the fence and call that a conversation. We need to talk, see and hear each other – and a queer perspective helps to achieve that.’

Acclaimed Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recently came out in a ‘lost chapter’ of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place. Since then, he has been interviewed often about his public revelation and the current backlash against sexuality diversity. At times, Wainaina seems less interested in talking about his sexuality than in the ways that African creativity and thinking are curtailed, discouraged or dismissed, and the detrimental effects of blind adherence to Western ideas of progress and development. In an articulate and engaging series of videos posted on This Is Africa, Wainaina speaks of the continent’s ‘intellectual bankruptcy’. His solution: the production of African culture in all its many forms – ‘Let us imagine the continent. Let us imagine our lives. On our own terms. Let us break free of the colonial syllabus.’

This call to action brilliantly captures the need for queer imaginings, for new and diverse narratives, particularly in light of growing hostility. Through these stories, it may be possible for queer Africans to ‘break free’ and to write their lives as people who love and connect, who create and imagine.


John Marnell

John Marnell is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Overland’s copyeditor. His writing has appeared in Overland, Sexualities, History Workshop Journal and the Mail & Guardian. His recent publications include Creative Resistance: Participatory Methods for Engaging Queer Youth and Home Affairs: Rethinking LGBT Families in Contemporary South Africa. In July 2018, his latest book, Seeking Sanctuary: Sexuality, Faith and Migration will be published by MaThoko’s Books.

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