Book review: Queer Africa
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Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction, provides a snapshot view of fictional gay lives from across the African continent. In this volume, editors Makhosazana Xaba and Karen Martin have collected a range of fiction, published and unpublished, and a selection from acclaimed novels such as Richard du Nooy’s The Big Stick and Sello Duiker’s Chapter Thirteen.
The stories vary in tone and complexity, with a selection that ranges in style.
Reading an anthology of writers is always a case of pot-luck, and the enjoyment can be uneven. Not so with this one. I found myself appreciating the vast majority of the stories and hope there may be a follow-up volume in a year or so.
The highlight was Pinch by Martin Hatchuel, a story I read before in African Pens 2011: New Writing from Southern Africa. Once more, the under-stated subtlety of the story still impressed me.
Pinch takes place in the years of the Anglo-Boer War. Ludolf and Meiring have been separated from their commando and are sleeping rough in the Karoo, making their way across the veld. The title of the story is taken from “pinch”, a game they used to play as boys and still occasionally do.
Ludolf feels the first, almost unnamed stirring of desire for Meiring as they share their days and nights huddled together, alone and in constant danger, a feeling he must hide from his friend.
The veld serves as evocative background to the story of these two as they negotiate their first faltering steps towards adulthood.
The conclusion, shattering the narrative of the piece, hits you in the gut and stays with you long after reading. The story stuns with its power and simplicity.
Another story that explores desire among teenagers is Rahiem Whisgary’s The Filth of Freedom. The somewhat disturbing tale reads a bit unevenly, yet it stays with you.
It opens with a vaguely unlikeable protagonist, teenager James Drummond, dreaming of death, waking in the early hours of the morning and smoking a forbidden cigarette.
The story pivots on his relationship and feelings for Thabo, son of the Drummonds’ domestic worker who has grown up as a brother to James. But blood is thicker than water, and a single moment will be enough to tip the balance. It is an astonishingly disturbing yet well-executed piece.
A highly evocative story that edges into eroticism is Dolar Vasani’s All Covered Up, in which a UN worker, Carmen Fernandez, returns to Tanzania, her birthplace, for a week of work and meetings. While there, she meets another woman who is sent to help with translations, Fatma.
The electricity that flies between them helps spark the story into something memorable and playful.
Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree, which won the 2007 Caine Prize and was published in Jambula Tree and other Stories, is also a quietly powerful story. It centres on the memory of its narrator, Anyango, who tells the story in the second person, recalling her “intimate friend- ship” with another girl in her youth, Sanyu.
The language is pure poetry and shot through with longing. Sanyu has been gone for years, but is about to return to the hot Kampala “heat which bites at the skin like it has a quarrel with everyone”.
The memories move on and the story unfurls its tragedy quietly and without fanfare, refusing to leave you.
• Arja Salafranca has published two collections of poetry, A Life Stripped of Illusions and The Fire in which we Burn; a third, Indigo Streets, is coming this year. She is the lifestyle and arts editor at The Sunday Independent.
• How did you select the fiction for the anthology?
Makhosazana Xaba: We sent out a call for submissions and chose stories that met literary criteria. Some of the stories we received were of different genres: autobiographical fragments, memoirs, academic essays and feature articles. There were stories that we thought were “approaching” the literary factor that we were interested in, but could benefit from further work and support. We wanted stories that were of value and would require minimal editorial input. As a result, we each worked with a group of writers, supporting them through drafts to arrive at the stories that are now in the book. Needless to say, the amount of support we gave to each writer varied. We also decided to include previously published stories that gave our anthology a broader range of content and country coverage. But is also gave individual stories a different home in which to live.
Karin Martin: Of the 18 stories, five had been previously published. Many
of the first submissions we got were by South Africans, and women writers and women’s stories were under-represented. So we extended that deadline. We debated the decision of including published work, as we had wanted to provide a space for writers who may not have been able to publish elsewhere. But in the end, as Khosi describes, there were advantages and we went with that. What we did not compromise on was the literary quality. We had to accept that a lot of countries aren’t represented in the anthology. This is a pity, but it was never our intention, only our hope, to cover as many different national contexts as we could. Interestingly, several writers didn’t seem to find it important to identify themselves or their work with their nationality. Many have meaningful connections to several countries, and not only Africa. Our criteria were that
the stories had to be about the African experience and that the writer had to self-identify as African. We wanted to encourage all writers to explore the creative possibilities of queer life.
• The writing is contemporary from the last decade or so. Was this a deliberate choice, rather than also publishing and selecting older stories or extracts from novels?
Martin: I am guessing that all the stories were written in the last 10 years, but a few are set in the far past. For instance, Leaving Civvy Street, The Big Stick, and A Boy is a Boy is a are set in the 1980s, I would say. As an aside, all three of these are about the white experience of the wars in southern Africa at that time. Also, Poisoned Grief, written after Herman Charles Bosman, is set in some kind of early 20th century rural past, maybe even earlier than that. And Pinch is set in the Anglo-Boer War. I would imagine that finding older stories or extracts from novels would mostly involve on our part an element of queering them. This could be an interesting exercise for another book.
I think it would be significantly easier to find non-fiction writing on earlier queer experience, for instance in the Gala archives, and that could make another interesting book.
• What was the reason behind producing an anthology of gay/queer writing?
Xaba: Gala was looking for an innovative activist way to reach broader communities and fiction was an exciting addition to the range of advocacy and educational materials that Gala had produced in the past. Fiction offers an imaginative space that allows for a range of possibilities and ways of seeing and being. It bridges gaps.
Martin: Yes, and that activism was specifically geared towards queer arts. The book will also do human rights work, of course, but we want to showcase queer African fiction to promote it and the other arts. Expression is an important part of being human.
• Why did you choose to use the word “queer” and not “gay”? What’s the difference?
Xaba: The word queer is embracing, it allows for a range of ways of being, including fluidity and transition. It is also political. Being queer and African is undeniably and deeply political.
Martin: Not everyone is comfortable with the word “queer”. It is contentious, certainly in the African activist context. Some people see it as less political than, say, LGBT or LGBTI as a descriptor. Some people see it as more radical, because it is less clearly defined, more open to interpretation. Even Khosi and I don’t make the same of it. For me, it includes any way of being and identifying that challenges the big norms of Western society. For Khosi, sexuality is a crucial part of the power of the word “queer”. And yet we are both comfortable using it. To describe our book as “gay” is mostly read as “gay men”, and that limited focus may only interest a few readers.
• How has the anthology been received so far?
Xaba: The Wits Writing Centre was a full house on the day of the launch in Johannesburg. We also launched it at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town with a lively discussion moderated by staff members at UCT. A lecturer at UCT, Dr Derrick Higginbotham, is already using Queer Africa as part of a queer literature programme he introduced. He informed me that his students absolutely love the anthology.
Martin: That’s great news about Queer Africa being used for teaching queer literature. I would love to see it used for teaching contemporary African literature too. And I would love to see how the anthology is received in international settings. I am imagining it would be appealing to the queer African-American community, for instance, but ultimately to adventurous, progressive readers everywhere. I don’t know what is possible regarding distribution though. The book was made on a small budget.
• Are there any plans for a follow-up volume?
Xaba: At both launches people asked about Queer Africa 2. There was a clear sense that a second volume would be welcome, and Anthony Manion, the director at Gala, is keen to explore funding possibilities to make that possible.
Martin: Yes, readers want more. We also saw that there are budding writers who need minimal but expert help to become good writers. I mean help before the story gets to editing. It made us sad to turn down stories that had so much potential but weren’t up to scratch. Workshops or some other kind of help with writing craft would bring more queer work into the contemporary African literary scene. And of course there’s also poetry.