- Out in Africa: Same-Sex Desire in Sub-Saharan Literatures and Cultures by Chantal Zabus
Chantal Zabus’s Out in Africa: Same-Sex Desire in Sub-Saharan Literatures and Cultures looks at an extraordinary range of anglophone and francophone texts from the nineteenth century to the present. Zabus shows that literature has been increasingly charting gay and lesbian identities as opposed to same-sex practices; a gay Pan-African republic of letters is being forged. The book is a treasure trove of resources, bringing into view the scale and variety of the field of queer African studies and setting out a series of interesting discursive formations.
Zabus begins with the “European ethnographic imagination,” through which our knowledge of queer African pasts is often mediated and which she argues grafted concepts of pederasty, sodomy, and “situational” homosexuality onto African same-sex relations. The chapter raises the issue of naming or interpreting sexualities without occupying the position of the imperial anthropologist, or performing translations that are misrecognitions. Chapter two shows how central homoeroticism was to the colonial project in Africa, analyzing Pierre Loti’s Le Roman d’un Spahi (1881) and Henry Morton Stanley’s My Kalulu (1873). Zabus argues that “even if power-relations are at play and the subaltern cannot speak, such relations point to fractures within the colonial project” (52). The texts and figures she explores, however, indicate that, as Joseph Boone has argued, white gay formations in the colonies have been complicit with the work of empire.
Her third chapter documents a shift from homosexuality as a deviant practice into which one is initiated to homosexuality as innate. In African novels from the 1960s and 70s, European priests corrupt African male youths. In Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows (2006) and Biyi Bandele’s The Street (1999), however, African priests abusively try to make gay African men straight. Her parallel account of francophone writers—Camara Laye, Abdoul Doukoure, Bernard Nanga, and Saidou Boukoum—focuses on their translation of existentialism, whereby one is not born gay, one becomes gay, by coming to Europe. Zabus then moves to the writing of female same-sex desire in West African and Kenyan texts, charting a shift from the “tentative” and ambivalent “queer gesturing” in novels such as Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy (1977) and Rebekah Nuau’s Ripples in the Pool (1975) to the more assertive, sexually frank writing of the 1990s onward, in works [End Page 192] by Lola Shoneyin, Unoma Azuah, and Helen Oyeyemi. In the fifth chapter, Zabus takes up Michiel Heyns’s notion of an “erotic patriarchy”—the seductions of patriarchal masculinity for white gay men—in examinations of novels by Mark Behr and Stephen Gray. In contrast to her analysis of white colonial writers, here Zabus argues that white male “queerness was both oppositional to apartheid and yet part and parcel of it to the point of sustaining it” (162). For Zabus, this compromised literary formation contrasts with the challenges to apartheid’s racialized heteronormativity offered by diasporic writers Bessie Head and Shamim Sharif.
In the final chapter, Zabus examines early twenty-first-century texts by K. Sello Duiker, Doumbi Fakoly, and Calixthe Beyala, arguing that the presence of Greek, Egyptian, and West African myths in their texts indicate a “level of insecurity in dealing with same-sex desire, as if these writers wished to demonstrate that their culture was ancestrally hospitable to gender variance” (8). This is a very intriguing inter-textual framework; but the cross-temporal, cross-cultural mythos that these writers produce is arguably a form of creative queer world-making in a quite different mode than that of the secular West, rather than a failure of nerve. Zabus finishes with a critique of Zandile Nkabinde’s memoir Black Bull, Ancestors, and Me (2009), suggesting that the channeling of a patriarchal ancestor undermines the “lesbian” part of Nkabinde’s “lesbian sangoma” identity. This disapproval of a specific form of African self-fashioning sits uneasily with Zabus’s conclusion, in which she “pleads” for “an...