If I were to write a novel to respond to the anti-gay politics seeping through the Ugandan border into Kenya, it would probably be like the Nigerian author Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows. But I’d write mine in my mother tongue.
Dibia’s novel is a fearless book that is reputed to be the first work by a Nigerian literary artiste to explore in detail the theme of male homosexuality.
Dibia is a bold writer. One of the many admirers of Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina, the Nigerian writer does not shy away from taboo topics, including writing graphically about incest. His other favourite authors include Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf.
Besides Binyavanga, among Dibia’s contemporaries the Nigerian novelist is most closely drawn to the Zimbabwean Petina Gappah (author of An Elegy for Easterly) and NoViolet Bulawayo (pen name of Elizabeth Tshele, author of We Need New Names).
Born in 1975, Dibia belongs to the “third generation” of Nigerian writers, a loose group of artistes that comprises such household names as Chris Abani, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is the best known in Kenya among these writers.
Dibia’s Walking with Shadows was first published in Nigeria by Blacksands Books in 2005.
Noting the pervasive presence of subversive queer desire, one of the leading queer theorists in the world today, Tavia Nyong’o (cousin to our golden Lupita), urges us to take seriously that “figure of absolute abjection that is, paradoxically, part of our everyday experience.”
Dibia uses language exquisitely to examine an issue that many writers would give a wide berth: homosexuality among married men in Africa.
Sympathy for gay people in Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965) is very oblique. It took Gaurav Desai’s essay, ‘Out in Africa’ (1997), to clarify to most critics that Soyinka’s novel is not homophobic in its portrayal of one of its characters, Joe Golder, as both African American and gay.
Like the South African K. Sello Duiker — author of The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001) and Thirteen Cents (2000) — Dibia is more open in his sympathies towards gay men than Soyinka in The Interpreters. However, Dibia avoids the confrontational tone we encounter in Duiker, some of whose passages read like angry pornography for the queer oppressed.
Dibia’s novel is a deftly told story about Adrian, a Nigerian head of a risk business unit. His job description connotes the “risks” he has to negotiate around, as he is also a gay man in the closet, married to a beautiful woman, the father of gorgeous daughter, and a respected mentor to many young men.
It becomes public that Adrian is gay, thanks to Tayo Onasanya, a former employee whom Adrian had sacked for corruption. Tayo learnt about Adrian’s sexual orientation from a lesbian mutual friend.
The narrator depicts in detail and with great sympathy the crisis that hits Adrian when his wife, Ada, is told about his sexual past.
His relatives’ responses are varied. Younger people sympathetically reach out to Adrian, but his elder brother, Chiedu, engages a priest to exorcise the ghost of gayness from Adrian.
The novel broaches several issues about sexuality. It demonstrates that even the most liberal people might become suddenly conservative when it comes to homosexuality.
Adrian’s wife, an innovative interior designer, is not one to believe in such a thing as an immutable African culture. But it is impossible for Ada to even begin to wrap her mind around her husband’s non-normative sexual desire.
Although he insists he had not slept with a man since he met his wife, Ada cannot believe what she has heard about her husband’s sexuality even without waiting for him to put everything in context.
She asks: “You knew this and still deceived me and still married me and still had the guts to make love to me and put your thing in me!”
The infelicitous repetition of “still” signals her shock, anger and bewilderment. The narrator rubs in her disbelief to also underscore her coldness towards a man she had claimed to love.
“She could not bring herself to look at him,” the narrator says. “She kept trying to wipe out the mental image in her head about him and another man.”
Queer theorists mostly see sexual identity as socially constructed. But Dibia’s novel seems to present Adrian’s gayness as congenital. He has always liked boys and enjoys playing girls’ games as a kid.
In presenting Adrian’s homosexuality as somewhat in-born, the author is trying to enhance our sympathy towards the character. There is nothing Adrian can do about his gayness. He would even want to leave it behind him, to no avail.
The novel has many virtues in its characterisation. While men are usually presented negatively in novels critical of patriarchy, African feminist novels usually depict at least one good man who is sympathetic to women’s issues in order to avoid demonising all men as gender-insensitive.
Following this trajectory, Dibia added an episode in a revised edition of the novel published in South Africa in 2007, in which a straight young man, Rotimi, stands by Adrian in his troubles at work.
We learn from Rotimi, one of the novel’s voices of reason, that right-thinking straight people should always stand with the oppressed minorities.
From its inception in the 1950s, African writing has always painted the folly of a society that mistreats its minorities. For example, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the society disintegrates partly because it pushes its minorities to defect to new religions.
Male gay novels tend to represent women negatively, including lesbians. Although we don’t see many positive traits among female characters in Dibia’s Walking with Shadows, Dibia is deferential to the few women who feature in the novel.
His next novel, Unbridled (2007) is, to the best of my knowledge, the only African novel by a male writer that convincingly uses an autobiographical female voice. It is hard to tell from the story itself that the author is male.
Reminiscent of Nuruddin Farah’s Ebla in From a Crooked Rib (1970), Ngozi in Dibia’s Unbridled narrates with great candour her experiences in abusive relationships. But unlike Farah’s novel, Dibia’s work uses the first person narrative voice.
Besides Walking with Shadows and Unbridled, Dibia is the author of Blackbird (2011), an equally provocative novel about the moral and political corruption in Africa.
Dibia’s Walking with Shadows demonstrates that queer is the new colonised. But it does not explore in detail the factors behind homophobia among African elites, except suggesting that homophobes are either stuck in the past or are negatively influenced by American Pentecostalism.
According to Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, homophobes are usually closeted gay people.
The all-male anti-gay caucus in Kenya’s Parliament and the equally comical all-male Maendeleo ya Wanaume should be read in a similar light when they make statements dismissing “gayism” (sic) and “resbianism” (sic): they are acting out their repressed homosexuality.