Originally published on brittlepaper.com
The first time I felt compelled to document the queer body in my writing was during my second year at the university. I had this toe-curling experience in the hostel one certain night that left me tugging at my pen and bleeding profusely into the banality of an empty paper from the midnight when the fracas broke out till around five a.m. I wanted to register my protest, to enter, as a witness, what I saw that night. But, when the first light flashed through the window that morning, I discovered the sheet of paper had largely remained blank save for the weight of water which has seeped through and left smudges across its face. Unbeknownst to me, I had not been writing. What bled throughout that night was not ink, was not letters. It was tears—my body unhinged by the wounds inflicted on it, the narrative of silence foisted upon its porous terrain. It was tears. Every alphabet, every language resident in my consciousness, had taken flight and the rest melted into hot clammy tears.
This was what happened. The guy living across my room had been identified as gay and marked by this gang of boisterous boys. They had been searching for the best time to pick him without stirring so much dust. So that night—because it was the first week of a new semester and students were yet to resume fully—they came for him, kicked open the wooden door shielding him and dragged him into the open. They hit him repeatedly with whatever objects they felt could unhinge his body and call forth confessions. Boots, balled fists, sticks, slaps. They asked him who and who were gay. They asked him to name names. There was no way it could be only him. They wanted to purge the hostels of fucking faggots and liberate the entire school from the infestation of the horrible ass-swinging taboos.
But this guy was not cooperative. He didn’t budge.
I’m sure he didn’t know why it had to be him. He had tried most of his days here, like other queer people, to remain silent and invisible. For the one year I had known him, his was a life wrapped carefully in layers of fear. Each step a study in apology, every gesture a prayer cautiously woven.
But that night, all those careful folds he had laboured to construct gave way as knife cuts slashed into his body. Every cut was followed by an ear-piercing scream which in turn kept me clutching the pen with a certain urgency I had never known before. No one came to his rescue that night, or afterwards. Not the school security who hounded around, not the few students who poured out of their rooms, excitement kicking like wild horses in their stomachs, not me holed up in my room gripped with fear, unable to write and very, very uncertain of my own fate.
Now, I think of that incident and that night and I am confronted with the truth. The reason I could not write into that piece of paper that night was this: there was no audience for the type of narrative I was about to spin—a narrative where the queer body is documented as wronged, as deserving of justice. There was no such audience. Our school was a secure community where, like every part of this country, the dominant narrative about gays was and still is negative. Gays are monsters, beasts to be exterminated by whatever crude means. The dominant narrative was and still is that the queer body deserved any form of violence meted out to it.
On 17 February, 2016, Akin happened. Social media went agog. Narratives flew around. And once again, the queer body came under intense scrutiny, became the centre of attention. Akin’s body, mapped with machete cuts, bleeding from his skull and critical on the hospital bed, was portrayed as deserving of violence, any type of violence. The comments on his Facebook timeline conveyed it. Lines like ‘this will teach others a great lesson’ featured prominently in comment sections. In other words, oh ye queer bodies, behold him and see what bitter fate awaits you all.
Bloggers and journalists placed this in perspective. How else could the blatant, massive sharing of the bashed body of Akin in the most horrendous, humiliating way across the Internet be explained? Where his assailants stopped in their mission to humiliate the queer body, Facebook users and bloggers continued by hitting the Share button blatantly. No, it was not out of pity. Not because they wished to get justice for Akin, or immunity for the many Akins waiting to happen. Their intentions were neither humanistic nor altruistic. They were rather advancing the negative narrative about the queer body.
I’ve longed to find the queer body in Nigerian literature documented with dignity, with respect. To find the queer body portrayed as being wronged, as deserving justice. For to search for one’s self in literature and not find it or to find it perpetually twisted and shunned and vilified is also violence, a different kind of violence. Nigeria’s literary scene has not been fair to the queer body. It has not been fair to the queer narrative. There are holes and gaps, gullies even, that no one is willing to close. Queer themes and issues are rarely incorporated into literary discourses. With the exception of Jude Dibia and Chinelo Okparanta, writers exploring queer themes mostly approach the narrative from the fringes. Queer poetry was almost non-existent until recently. Until Amatesiro Dore, until Romeo Oriogun, until myself—and this is because Ainehi Edoro opened Brittle Paper for us. Before that, publishers rejected our poems not because they were poorly written but because they showed the queer body in a different light. Some butchered our work in a callous and savage manner in their bid to silence the queer voice. But we have refused to be silenced.
We have refused invisibility.
Romeo Oriogun came. Praxis magazine came and Burnt Men, the first chapbook themed around the queer body, was ushered into the Nigerian literary scene. When I was contacted to shoot a photograph for the cover last year, I knew that the journey to heal the queer body and reimagine the narrative had begun. Between the publication of that chapbook and now, a lot of fabulous things have happened. The queer body is healing and rising and coming out of the dark places where it has for a long time been confined. The queer body is crawling out of obscurity. The queer anthology, 14: We Are Flowers, says it. Romeo Oriogun’s recent Brunel Prize win sounds it loud and clear.
We are here.
Before now, it had been struggle, swaddles, suffocation. It had been silence, invisibility. There were days I felt so lost, so out of place, so displaced that I felt lesser than a panting, a gasping organism, damaged and deliberately being pushed into extinction. There were days I walked into this room called Nigerian Literature and looked at the stories, the narratives, the themes and interests without finding the queer body. Once or twice I chanced upon it, but on the back stage, beaten and violated, screaming for attention and inclusion. Asking to be let in.
But, finally, we are here.
In the midst of this recent visibility has risen a certain kind of opposition. A resistance that is more violent than the exclusion or distortion of the queer narrative. And I write this with the literary community in mind.
Sometime last year, I was invited to do a reading at Imo State University (IMSU) by a literary society there. During the reading, a particular section of the audience became incensed by the homoerotic inclination of my poems. They yelled and screamed, egged on by a certain Johnbosco Chukwuebuka, a writer with a handful of books to his credit. They threatened to call the police if I didn’t stop. The reading was halted amidst threats of arrest and hostility.
Two weeks after the Owerri Book Festival, an unknown young man stalked me up to the rear gates of IMSU and, when he finally caught up with me, threatened to cut off my penis if I went on to write and promote homosexuality. The organisers of the book fest had asked me to talk about the queer body as in my poetry but it had ended in chaos.
It is over a year now since we started publishing LGBTIQ-themed poems. Threats have been coming. Thick-brained humans come to your Facebook inbox and write long sermons peppered with hate and warnings. They’d tell you to get ready for them. One asked Romeo to send him some money or he’d send policemen after him. Another actually reported him to his superiors. One Sunday evening in April, Romeo contacted me to say that someone has reported him to the police near his new post. The officers called to inform him that they’d be at his post to arrest him. Although we were able to avert the purported arrest, because it was baseless and out of question, the threat, the harassment was psychologically draining to Romeo.
Last August, a random number left a message in my WhatsApp inbox. There was something curious about the name which made me ignore the content of the message. But I have stopped making public my locations on social media. I register my presence long after I have left the place, and if there is need for that. I try to keep my movement discrete. This way I have been able to forestall any premeditated attack.
Romeo ignored this, made light the threats and, last week, he was attacked.
The threats are becoming overwhelming. I do not speak only for myself. I speak for every queer voice speaking into the Nigerian literary space. I speak for Romeo Oriogun. I speak for Pwaangulongii Dauod whose house was invaded. It is no longer confined to Facebook. Romeo will have to stay away from work and hide because of narcissistic assholes and their sense of entitlement. Asking us to make public the names and identity of the assailants reeks of zeal without knowledge. There are no guarantees whatsoever of any sort of safety afterwards. The system is screwed, tilted against the queer body. What happens after the hashtags and social media solidarity?
Writers of queer literature must brace themselves and raise their voices above any form of oppression. We have stayed in this silence for long. It has been long. It is enough.
Queer literature is a legitimate component of Nigerian, nay African, literature. Queer literature is a subtext of the whole. Queer literature is part of the story, part of the struggle, part of the style and syntax. Queer literature matters, and queer writers and artists matter equally within the Nigerian literary community.
It has come to stay.