Arts, Culture and Sport
What it means to be LGBT in Nigeria – an interview with author and academic Unoma Azuah
Unoma Azuah is a Nigerian academic and the author of Length of Light and Sky-high Flames, both works of fiction. In this interview, she spoke to TIA contributor Cosmic Yoruba about her latest project, Blessed Body, an anthology of real-life stories from Nigeria’s LGBT community.
Unoma Azuah is known as a writer of fiction with themes that explore sexuality in Nigeria. In her latest work, Blessed Body, she takes a leap by making it real. In what may be the first of its kind, the anthology gives readers a raw and real look at what it means to be LGBT in a country that has become notorious for its tough stance against homosexuality. Unoma, who is based in the United States of America, was in Nigeria to promote Blessed Body, which is where Cosmic Yoruba caught up with her to learn about how the anthology came about and how it was being received in Nigeria.
Cosmic Yoruba: Why does Nigeria, or Africa, need a book that captures the life stories of LGBT people?
Unoma Azuah: There is an alarming lack of knowledge about issues relating to sexuality in Nigeria and Africa. Fundamentalist religions further compound the problem. For instance, the research I did while compiling the true life stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Nigerians revealed that the age-old tale of Sodom and Gomorrah is literally applied to [contemporary] homosexuality. It’s ironic and distressing that we still retain and recognise the sodomy law we inherited from the British colonial system when Britain itself has moved on by discarding it. Even Israel, the land of Jesus’s birth, has gone on to acknowledge and recognise same-sex marriage and unions.
“There is an alarming lack of knowledge about issues relating to sexuality in Nigeria and Africa.”
So, there is a vital need for a book like Blessed Body. The writers’ lives reflect those of the many LGBT people who live silenced and invisible lives. The book gives them a voice and goes on to make their lives legitimate. They should know that they are not sick, perverted, cursed and, above all, not alone. I believe that the book comes as a slap in the face of hate and ignorance, to use the words of the brilliant South African scholar Zethu Matebeni.
CY: You are publicising the book in Nigeria and Ghana at the moment. What has the reception been?
UA: The reception has been pleasantly overwhelming. There is a high demand for the book, especially from the African LGBT communities and its allies. There is also a high demand from a lot of curious homophobes. I am quite happy with this development! In as much as the LGBT community needs the book for empowerment and affirmation, my target is to reach those who are anti same-sex-loving. So, I can indeed say, so far, so good.
CY: How did you experience the process of editing the book? What difficulties did you encounter?
UA: The gathering and editing processes were daunting, but I believed in the project right from the get-go. Hence, I was determined to face the challenges with patience and courage. For example, some contributors were not too willing to reach deep into the belly of their pain, to take a grip on their despair and trauma and relive those emotions. I kept prodding them to dare to relive it and to face it because the writing of it can be part therapy and, ultimately, a process of healing and victory.
On the other hand, some contributors simply could not verbalise their experiences. They had erased it from their memory bank as a survival technique. But I encouraged them to walk through those dark tunnels and shine some light on the ‘grit’. There were also those who felt ill equipped to write. In other words, they felt that they needed to be professional writers before they could tell their stories. I had to convince them that they did not have to be expert writers to have a voice.
There were also those who didn’t want to write. I resorted to interviews and recreating their stories with both a broad and a detailed brush. Inserting the intricacies took me a while because I had to run the stories by them as many times as it took to ensure that I represented their lives and stories genuinely. There were those who got emotional and withdrew. I waited and returned to them time and time again. All of this was time-consuming and labour intensive. I had to work with a lot of patience.
In addition, for the anthology to have an extensive and diverse representation, I took risks by travelling to remote areas of Nigeria where I knew no one. I was working on recommendations and a second or third person’s point of contact. I needed to have a [diverse] portrayal of LGBT lives in Nigeria. Some people were suspicious of the project and refused to talk to me. I had to reach out to those who put us in touch in the first place to assure them that I was not working to out them or blackmail them.
“I shed tears while I was editing but I also laughed at the amusing parts.”
This is the most intense project I have ever done. A good portion of the stories I gathered were similar, so I had to make selections. I opted for those stories that had a variety of themes and subjects. I tried not to feature stories that were repetitive. I shed tears while I was editing but I also laughed at the amusing parts. I often got angry and wanted to lash out at the world for the hate, the hypocrisy and for wanting to play God. However, in the end, it was a fulfilling process to have been through.
CY: Which stories in the collection stand out for you? Which do you relate to the most?
UA: All the stories stand out for me, but those in the ‘Coming of Age’, ‘Blurring the Lines’ and ‘The Church’ sections particularly so. Without diminishing in any way the force of the other sections, these sections made me relive my age of disorientation and panic most intensely. Those were the most impactful times in my life; the periods when I needed to be loved without being condemned for loving differently. I walked those paths in my life when I was abused and exploited because I looked for love in the wrong places just to be accepted.
CY: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like us to know of?
UA: I am hoping to get a grant or some kind of support that would enable me take some time off work to write my memoir, provisionally titled Embracing My Shadow. I hope to share how I navigated the murky waters of homophobia, hate and sexual abuse in the Nigeria of the late 1970s to date.
CY: Thank you, Unoma!