Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Gema Pérez-Sánchez and Brenna Munro

Literary Activism from Nigeria: Interview with Unoma Azuah, May 2017

Lindsey Green-Simms: Can you tell us a little bit about your oeuvre. What do you like to write about and why? What are you working on now?

Unoma Azuah: I work on every genre of literature from fiction to poetry, non-fiction and drama. I do work more on some than the others. My dominant focus, for instance, is mostly fiction and poetry. Recently though, I compiled a non-fiction anthology called Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of LGBT Nigerians. Of all the genres, I enjoy poetry the most. It gives me a space to condense my words and say a lot in a very limited space. It challenges me to utilize figures of speech, imagery and mood to capture my thought and ideas. I also like non-fiction because there is urgency about it. It almost feels as if I am documenting narratives live, as they happen. At the moment, I am working on a critical paper about how films/documentaries can be used as an effective tool of activism for the African LGBTQ activist. Additionally, I am editing and polishing my second collection of poetry collection entitled Brutal Bliss.

LGS: Your writing has always been quite political. How do you conceive of the relationship between writing and activism?

UA: For me, the political is personal. Where my writing gives me room to theorize, my activism attempts to give those theories life. I do not just restrict my ideas to panels and round tables, I take them to practical places. For me, ideas and actions go hand-in-hand. I can’t just theorize and then only watch difficult situations escalate. Solutions must be tendered for lasting resolutions to occur. In that way, concepts leap out of papers to come alive.

LGS: So can you give us an example of how your writing informs the activist work that you do? How do your theories come to life?

UA: I write about countering the stereotypical, clichéd narratives in the Nigerian media and I’ve been pushing for more work to be done. So I am collaborating with a well-known screen writer and producer to co-write and produce positive LGBT narratives for the screen in Nigeria. I have gone ahead to document gay lives as lived. I have dug into the Nigerian history to write about gender non-conforming icons and practices as a way to give affirmation to LGBT Nigerians who have been constantly told that their sexual orientation or their gender preference is un-African. I think that LGBT visibility can humanize us. To share, spread and emphasize the legal rights of the Nigerian LGBT members, I work with Queer Alliance to develop and conduct workshops for advocacy as well as engage even the Nigerian police in keeping to their words of protecting and serving Nigerian citizens regardless of their sexual orientation. A recent case was with Anthony, a gay man, who was lured to Asaba from Lagos, beaten and stripped of all his valuables. Because he is a gay man, he was made a target. With Queer Alliance, we have been able to engage the police in that area to investigate such incidents. We also reached out to local leadership in that area to be aware of this incident and to work towards preventing such occurrences. I write about how being out to people we trust, starting with our family members may help ease the pain of alienation and rejection in a hostile society. Some people have taken up the courage to come out to some of their family members like their sisters or brothers who in their own rights become allies and advocate for the rights of their siblings or relatives to exist. In situations where some family members come out to their families and are consequently kicked out of their family homes, I work with Queer Alliance to maintain safe spaces for such people and work with some of them to find employment or means of sustaining themselves while they transition from that challenge. For every visit I make to Nigeria, I meet with as many members of the gay community as possible to counsel, encourage and strategize about ways for them to stay safe or leave Nigeria, if they have to. And I mentor tons of young Nigerian LGBT writers and encourage them to use their pen as a force to break through homophobic walls and confines.

LGS: Speaking of young writers, how do you think the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014 changed things for queer writers in Nigeria and in the Diaspora?

UA: Since the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was enacted a lot has changed both on the positive and the negative sides. The SSMPA has created an atmosphere where homophobia and jungle justice have basically been sanctioned as the law of the land. In other words, anybody can take advantage of that law to intimidate, exhort, blackmail and even kill members of the LGBT community in Nigeria. We are further driven underground and are denied legal recourse. For instance, there were quite a number of cases where violent attacks of LGBTQ persons started after the signing of this Bill. Some men and women rumored to be gay disappeared without a trace. Because family members of such a gay man would be stigmatized if they attempt to investigate such cases, such deaths were and are still not being reported or investigated. As if that was not terrible enough, when human rights bodies around the world condemned the act, it seemed to have made the situation worse. It escalated the attacks and worsened LGBTQ persecutions. However, despite all these confining and punitive measures because of the anti-gay law, the Nigerian LGBT community continues to fight and defy the tyrannical grip of hate. One outlet of the Nigerian LGBT defiance to counter oppressive laws is through writing. The online magazine, Nigerians Talk dedicated its first issue on a gay theme in response to the anti-same sex marriage prohibition act. This edition of the e-zine was launched a few weeks after the bill was signed into law. That to me is a highly positive development. There seems to be an explosion of online queer writing particularly with the recent release of the Nigerian queer e-zine called 14: We are flowers. Their use of the number 14 speaks to the appalling 14 years jail term for homosexuals in Nigeria. There is no going back. I expect a flood of gay-themed literature, thanks to the ignorant law.

LGS: To what extent does the larger Nigerian literary community support queer writers? Do queer writers ever face harassment or threats from within the literary community?

UA: In the 90s during my active days as a member of the Association of Nigerian writers in Lagos, the hostility was quite tense. On the other hand today, younger writers are more open to acknowledging and are more accepting of issues around sexual orientation. In fact, quite recently, I was elated to see a large number of Nigerian writers demonstrate their support for Romeo Oriogun after a young man took the extra time and deliberately engineered a gay-bash-sponsored mail on social media. A few weeks after he practically called out Romeo to be lynched for promoting homosexuality, Romeo was attacked. Yes, writers do face harassment and threats from within the literary community, but more allies and more gay men and women are becoming quite visible and supportive of gay writers.

LGS: Was it the other contestants that engineered the social media gay-bashing?

UA: From what I understand, one Sheriff, who is Romeo’s peer and who is also aspiring to win a poetry award engineered the social media gay bash. When Romeo was announced the winner of the Brunel Poetry Prize, some of his envious, homophobic, friends and associates were enraged because he writes about gay issues. They accused him of trying to spread the homosexual disease and infect other writers. They also accused him of conniving with the organizers of the prize and the West to sell the gay agenda to young Nigerians. Romeo’s attackers latched onto the same tired missive that homosexuality is evil and un-African and that they should all fight to maintain the African culture which is being threatened by homosexuality and the West’s support of homosexuals.

LGS: It’s interesting. On the one hand, you mention the Internet as a tool for getting voices heard, as is the case with the Nigerians Talk edition. But while the Internet can create a forum for gay writers, it has also made things more dangerous for people like Romeo.

UA: Yes, Romeo’s Internet bullying and harassment re-states the power the Internet has to disseminate information and stories. Just like most things, the Internet has its negative and positive impacts. And as I said earlier, I was moved and impressed by the sheer number of writers who are mostly Romeo’s contemporaries who rallied around him to protect and defend and took the extra step to make sure that he is safely far from homophobic hypocrites. The Internet medium was mostly used by other contestants in the Brunel poetry competition to express their envy and abhorrence of the fact that they lost the contest but Romeo won. To scout for sympathy and expand their hate reach, they branded him a “bloody homosexual,” who wants to use his poetry to recruit more unsuspecting people into the homosexual lifestyle, which is quite laughable. It was disturbing when I first saw the Facebook sponsored hate mail. It reminds me of the extent people can go to prove a point, albeit uninformed. It also speaks to the fact that hate is consuming.

LGS: Though same-sex desire has always been one of the themes you write about, I know that you have not always been publicly out as a lesbian. When did you first start identifying publicly as a gay writer? Has it changed anything for you?

UA: I don’t recall being in situations where I needed to speak out publicly as a lesbian and didn’t. I guess I took it for granted that most people who know me know that I am gay. That notwithstanding, the Nigeria Same Sex Prohibition Act constrained me to “scream” about my being. It made me remind the Nigerian nation that I am here, a Nigerian, a writer, a scholar, an aunt, a mother, a sister, a college professor and a lesbian among other roles I fulfill. And none of these parts of me can be diminished because it is seen as unacceptable by some. I cannot and will not fragment or compartmentalize myself to highlight only those parts of me that my homophobic society approves of. No. It’s all of me, or nothing. Since I have become more vocal and visible about LGBT topics, I have drawn more attention to myself. Most of these attentions are negative, especially from Nigeria. However, I am grateful for the sympathy and understanding I get from talking about LGBT oppression in Nigeria and around African countries. With or without me, the fight must continue.

LGS: How old were you when you came to the United States from Nigeria? How have your experiences living in the U.S. changed your perspective?

UA: I came to the US when I was 29. Since then I have grown and expanded my “arsenal” in battling hate and discrimination. I must confess that I left a highly hate filled space only to be shocked that America has quite a bit of hate spaces as well. Living in the so-called “Bible Belt” in the South of the US didn’t help matters. It took me a while to process the jolt. And of course teaching in a small private Christian run historically black college came with its share of challenges. Nevertheless, I survived it all. All these experiences made me stronger and they have fortified my resolve to keep pushing forward.

LGS: Can you tell us a bit about Blessed Body, which you mentioned earlier? What was it like to have the book launch in Nigeria?

UA: Blessed Body is a collection of the true-life stories of some Nigerian LGBT persons. I was moved to embark on the project because I got tired of the clichéd, stereotypical stories being created and perpetuated by the homophobic Nigerian media and movie industry. We have to tell our own stories. Nobody will tell it as well as we can. Gathering the stories and editing them was quite a daunting task, but quite fulfilling nonetheless. I faced a number of obstacles which included that some people changed their minds half way through my editing the stories; some didn’t trust me. Some thought that my agenda was to “out” them. All the same, some were quite happy and willing to share their stories. But, between these extremes, I had to invest a lot of time and money convincing, calling on some friends to vouch for my intentions, etc. At the end of the day, I had more than enough narratives to work with. There is also the emotional aspect of re-living some of my contributors’ nightmares. It was intense. There were moments of humor in some of the stories though. Therefore, the equilibrium I found between the feelings of anger and laughter created a balance that gave me a strong sense of purpose and gratification. To have the book launched in Nigeria was quite brave of the team that worked with me: Queer Alliance. The Queer Alliance non-governmental organization based in Nigeria, made sure to provide safety and resources for a smooth presentation of the book to the Nigerian public. While some of us were full of trepidation before the launch, Queer Alliance assured us of a stress-free and secure environment, and they delivered. The launch was quite successful, I’d say.

LGS: And you’ve also mentioned film. You wrote a piece in the Vanguard about Nollywood and then we co-wrote an essay for Transition on the homophobia in Nollywood films.[1] But you’ve also written about the gay documentary Born This Way.[2] Can you talk a bit about film and what it does differently than literature, especially for the queer community?

UA: Because the African LGBT community is being attacked from multiple fronts, I believe that multiplicities of mediums including textual and visual strategies are needed. Of recent though, I have started emphasizing the place of documentaries in educating and changing life. Visual stories are easily absorbed compared to textual representation because films and documentaries, of course, have a reach that is more than the printed word for it is seen by a larger audience. In other words, the immense power of film in conferring identities comes from the fact that it is close to real life. As a signified practice of documentary film becomes a visual method to raise people’s awareness of discrimination faced by the LGBT community. Documentaries/films stimulate curiosity and make the experience of accepting a narrative more active and real. People forget many things easily, but a visual experience can make sure that ideas are permanently etched in people’s minds. Besides, when African LGBT persons see people like them in movies and stories that recognize their lives, it motivates them to self-love and self-affirmation. These, in my opinion, are the two crucial steps to paths that lead to fighting for self. I must also commend the Nigerian based non-governmental organization called The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS) for using films and documentaries to tackle homophobia in Nigeria and Africa.

LGS: And one more final question. I know you’re at work on a memoir. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from that?

UA: I am not even sure of what I should expect from my memoir Embracing My Shadow, but I want to map my development and growth from the time I became aware that I am a lesbian at the age of nine and go through my struggles dealing with shame, alienation, confusion, deliverances, abuses in the hands of some pastors, to learning ways to deal with the conflicts and pain. My hope is that when this book is finished and shared, that people who do not understand the complicated nature of sexual orientation may have a better view and may begin to get a glimpse at least of what this lifestyle entails. Perhaps, they can then begin to sympathize or even emphasize and become knowledgeable about the issues in situations where they are not willing to become allies. I may also be writing this for the little gay girl who may be confronting the same battles I faced. Who knows, the story may be for the mother or father of a gay little boy or a gay little girl who wants to begin to understand why her daughter or her son is different. Perhaps, the chart of my life in this book will motivate parents to embrace love and kindness, instead of taking the perilous path of hate and witlessness.

LGS: Well we are certainly looking forward to reading it. Thanks for your time!

Footnotes
  1. Green-Simms and Azuah, “The Video Closet,” Transition 107, 2012: 32-40. [Return to text]
  2. Born This Way, directed by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullman, Cameroon 2013. [Return to text]