Monday, 30 September 2019

No issue should be beyond the participation of queer persons, it is our world too

I feel greatly blessed to be in South Africa today, to share in the experience of one of the most beautiful things that South Africa is known for: the idea that we can be who we want to be; how we want to be and wherever we want to be, in spite of our actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonetheless, in the past few months I have been deeply plagued by the thought that queer persons can die, have died, at the hands of the marginal stories we as queer persons write, tell, immerse ourselves in and constrain ourselves to, to the exclusion of other stories. And this is how we do it:

When we write, we must always begin with our desire. It always has to be only about our desire and how dangerous it must be to be resident in our homes. Perhaps we can write about our childhood if we dare. We must write about bad our childhood was. About how every social, religious, cultural, media and literary canon that we had access to were fired against us -  because nothing exists, can exist, outside of what we can find, have found. For our dear lives, we must not mention anything good about our childhood. We must insist that nothing in it made us laugh or love or swirl around mad with laughter and love.

We must always talk about how backward and evil everyone else is because they neither understand the word ‘gay’ nor relate when we speak our sophisticated gibberish at them.
Then there must be sex, lots and lots of sex. This is because sex is the only way we can live out our diversity. This is the only expression of liberty that we could authentically and believably be interested in.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels
When we write about ourselves we must neither mention that we are deeply flawed like everyone else nor how deeply flawed we are. Of course, our queerness cancels out all our flaws. We are simply, delectably only ever endangered targets of homophobia. We can do no wrong!

And love? Our love must never be written out in its various ethnic, gender and generational complexities. Insist that love is only ever sexual, verbally expressive and does not exist until it is smeared generously across Instagram.

When we discuss our non-heterosexuality or our human rights, we should forget other layers of who we are and other things that we are connected to like natioanality, age, race, socio-economic standing, faith, the environment, the world economy, the politics of corruption, the baggage that comes with migration and so forth.

It should not matter that Nigerians and other foreign nationals who come here to South Africa for reasons including fleeing persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientations get attacked and killed on the grounds of their foreign nationality. It should not matter that women get attacked the most, go missing, brutally violated sporadically because they are women regardless of anything or anyone else that they are connected to.

It should not matter that South African LGBTI rights organisations seem functionally passive and silent in the face of issues like xenophobia, migration, climate change, femicide and corruption because it really is none of their business. Of course it cannot be queer business to bother about such things especially when these organisations fly in foreign nationals from all over the continent, interact with the economy, depend on the environment for its existence and functionality.

We do ourselves, our work and journeys in the world as queer persons a great disservice when we decide to cherry pick what issues concern us and what issues do not; what we write about and what we do not; when we move, take action, collaborate and when we do not.

I was visiting Nigeria when the media churned over with material on xenophobic violence  here in South Africa. I was scared stiff, everyone was scared for me. On my way back through the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja, a Nigerian immigration officer asked me, ‘How can you be going back there when everyone is coming back home?’ He cared enough to ask me, although I had grown my hair into locks and wore my rainbow emblem proudly. Although he, part of the ordinary mass of Nigerians socialised to frown at non-normative expressions of gender, would think me too queer to matter, he engaged with the part of my humanity that he shared, my Nigerianness. He cared for this Nigerianness enough for it to broke his hate.

Inspired by this, I suggest that it is important to show and write queer people as people first. Centre us in the mainstream the way we really are. Insist that we are a functional , relevant, regular part of the society. Untell our ‘queerness’ by constantly interacting and expanding what is believable, what is really here.
Photo by Cameron Casey from Pexels
Show queer persons doing the mundane things that we do ordinarily like everyone else: eating, raising kids, battling illness, standing in queues, being anxious about interviews, working hard, making mistakes, making money, losing money and so forth.

When we as queer persons write our stories, engage with our work and live, we should insist that we belong. We should insist that the world is our home and the universe’s gift to us. There is a place for fighting back. But there is also a place for defending what we have fought for, by dropping the arms and building along with those who build. There is a place for being part of the solution for the larger world beyond our little rainbow corners and meetings. As such in our stories, in our lives, no space, no issue should be beyond our imagination, occupation, presence, engagement and participation.

Flora Nwapa: Finding the erased naughty girl within the African human rights system

‘They say Lagos men do not just chase women, they snatch them…This is Lagos. Lagos is different from home. Lagos is big. You must be careful here. You are a mere child. Lagos men are too deep for you. Don’t think you are cleve. You are not. You can never be cleverer than a Lagos man. I am older than you are, so take my advise’

-An excerpt from ‘This is Lagos’ by Flora Nwapa 
in Daughters of Africa(1992)

My name is Nnanna Ikpo. I am a Nigerian lawyer and storyteller. My research interrogates the place of narrative fiction and story telling as tools for human right advocacy, the teaching and learning of law. Particularly, the human rights of sexual and gender minorities in Africa.

Stories matter. Stories are how we engage with the world and with each other. Stories are how we question the world, disrupt and reconstruct it. The stories of Flora Nwapa and the stories that she told are some of those that have reconstructed the world. Flora Nwapa’s stories can still do more ‘damage’ if brought into the right spaces and unpacked in the context of expedient things.
Flora Nwapa, Nigerian author and publisher
Flora Nwapa is quite synonymous with, to put it safely, cultural feminism. At a time when only a few where she was could put a word to it. After Deh Onyeka told me about his aunt, I asked my mum about her.

‘Hmmm’, ‘Flora’, my mum said, ‘Flora kpakwara ike o. Mgbe umu nwanyi bu umu nwanyi. Mgbe unu nmunyi ne me ihe. Owuro kita. Onye puta okpo owe ya feminist’. My mum went on to name Flora Nwapa among the cadre of other Nigerian women such as Magaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti. The naughty girls that shook Nigeria post-independence.

Flora’s writing is steeped in her culture and the events of her time. Although she is generally considered as one of those who wrote back to negative perceptions of Africans by colonialist, she was also considered one of those who reconstructed Nigerian femaleness quite differently from what many at the time considered safe, proper, believable. She and her writings were erased from among the lot of what the world expected or thought, expects and thinks of Nigerian women.
Flora Nwapa's female characters make choices, change theirs minds, run away, steer families and make money, are influential, look men in the eye and just are. Her characters hold men by their hands, initiate running away and elope leading the way. Her female characters insist on trading and leaving it to their men. The women firmly believe that they are more effective in sustaining their families by buying and selling than cultivating the soil. Ma Flora, although the naughtiest of them all, was real, very real. Her realness has paved a way for a lot in terms of how Nigeria and the world engages with feminism. Our perceptions and expectations, the things that we allow ourselves to be shocked by.

Last year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the emergence of the protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol). Feminism is a hot topic again. Yet within it, there is great difficulty in coming to terms with ‘Who is a woman?’, ‘Who is a feminist?’. I won’t join the hassle because ‘it is all politics’ like Ma Flora would say.

The women’s’ right framework has refused to come together on the continent effectively, because we insist on erasing certain types of issues and certain types of women from the core workings of things. We still erase the naughty girls: women who have sex with women, women with unconventional gender expressions, women with ambiguous chromosomal and/or physiological makeups, women who transitions into womanhood as opposed to being born, older women, women who are not the stereotype.

It was all politics. But now these politics have become unfortunate. These politics have become dangerous.
Flora Nwapa’s message was clear. Among other things, I believe that she also demanded and still demands that we make room for everyone. Representation matters, visibility of every kind of women matters and is powerful. Make room for the naughty girl, in how she lives, how she loves, works, eats, travels, dreams and what she chooses to dream about, what she chooses to stand for, provided she does not endanger anyone. Provided endangering is contextual and critically engaged with.
The stories of the naughty girls matter in conversation around the human rights of Women. Especially stories ebe ona kpa-ike. Especially stories where naughty girls are strong, where they cross the line.

One innocent igbo man wrote an appreciation of you...He said you are not a Feminist, not even a feminist with a small ‘f’. How those of us who knew you well had laughed. How was he to know that most of your last visits to London were funded by the Feminist movement, and that your last talk at the Feminist Bookshop in Upper Street, London, had a strong Cultural Feminist message? How was he to know that what us Africa women writers resented In the Feminist movement was the fact that the name was from the west, and that we still cherish our families, that we value most our relevant cultures?
This is why some of us claim to call it by other names: cultural feminism or feminism with a small ‘f’, some say womanism, but at the end of the road, we are all working towards the same end- the dignity of the woman.
I think you are having the last laugh over all of this. That bell-like laughter with one foot in the air and your elegantly arranged head-tie thrown backwards, saying, “Let our men believe what they like Buchi, what does it really matter? It’s all politics”’
-       An excerpt from ‘Nwanyi oma, biko nodunma’
a tribute by Dr Buchi Emecheta to Flora Nwapa in Emerging Perspectives on Flora Nwapa: Critical and Theoretical Essays.

'If Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa and Emeka Ike had not written the books they did, when they did, and how they did, I would perhaps not have had the emotional courage to write my own books. Today I honour them and all the writers who came before me. I stand respectfully in their shadow'
-  An excerpt from 'Adichie, Anambra and the Core of Igbo Society' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For further engagement with Floro Nwapa and her works: 
'House of Nwapa' a documentary by Onyeka Nwelue

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