- The Promise of Lesbians in African Literary History
IMPLIED LESBIAN READERS AND AFRICAN LITERARY FEMINISMS
Although scholars have now acknowledged the frequency of samesex desire and same-sex relationships in African literatures, they have yet to recognize that the sexually queer subjects in African writing are overwhelmingly male. When women's same-sex desire is found, it is inevitably roomed in the short story. This scarcity of women's same-sex sexuality in the novel has enshrined the short story as the genre in which writers stake claims about women's same-sex desire (Munro 2017). The genre's domination has produced some effects: (1) an emphasis on depictions connecting Africa and outer-continental locations in Europe and the United States; (2) the predominance of twenty-first-century perspectives; and, (3) the focus on private affective attachments or failed solidarities between individuals. The publication of Chinelo Okparanta's Bildungsroman, Under the Udala Trees, changes this literary landscape. Okparanta joins Unoma Azuah and Lola Shoneyin as another Nigerian novelist to feature women's same sex desire in a novel. Her novel, however, makes critical interventions in literary history. Its evident turn to earlier novels by Nigerian women rekindles stalled conversations about lesbian representations and African literary feminisms.1 By coupling [End Page 675] female same-sex desire and sex with the vast premises of civil war, law, national identity, and literary history, Okparanta forefronts the relationship between sexuality and literary and political authority. This decidedly meta-fictional novel introduces a lesbian teacher and a lesbian reader to promote alternative literacies for the enmeshments of sexuality and political authority.
In The Sexual Constitution of Political Authority, Aleardo Zanghellini (2015) argues that the disavowal of same-sex desire has been central to the construction of political authority and good political conduct across cultures. Although he focuses on political trials in which allegations of homosexuality or non-normative sexualities damage political reputations, his work illuminates recent deployments of homosexuality in African political cultures in which the denials of homosexuality or antagonistic attitudes toward sexual minorities reinforce political authority. Under the Udala Trees portrays how similar attitudes shore up political authority, but its brilliance lies in replicating the dispersal and deployments of sexuality in pursuit of multiple forms of authority that are incorporated into the fabric of the everyday. This exploration of relations between sexuality and authority becomes evident when the protagonist, Ijeoma, makes the bildungsroman's requisite encounter with a library in her lover's home:
I read many books, many months of consistent reading, at least two hours every evening: Agatha Christie's crime novels, Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard. Efuru, by Flora Nwapa. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. I had already read Things Fall Apart, as it was on her shelf, I read it again.(Okparanta 2015, 188)
Having Ijeoma reread Achebe within the lover's library flags the drive toward alternative reading protocols in Okparanta's novel. In all of his novels, Chinua Achebe exhumes the relations between sexuality and the "constitution of political authority" (Zanghellini 2015, 2–3). That examination is apparent in Things Fall Apart, which features two gender non-conforming children in Okonkwo's household and the latter's anxieties over family successions. The novel also portrays the suppression of same-sex desire in the constitution of political masculinity and the deployment of aggressively competitive homosociality in service of colonial conquest (see Osinubi 2016). That relation between sexual activity and political authority appears [End Page 676] forcefully in the final pages of Okparanta's novel but it is turned toward women's complicity in the diffusion of political authority and sexual normativity.
Although African feminist scholars and women writers critiqued Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the argument can be made that African feminisms smoothened its ascendance to literary and scholarly authority, in part, by disavowing same-sex desire. Historically, African feminists nursed a difficult relationship to non-normative sexualities (Arnfred 2009; Currier & George-Migraine 2017; Lewis 2008; Nfah-Abbenyi 1997). Julianna Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi recalls objections to a conference presentation on lesbian figurations in African literature at a conference of the African literature association despite the notable...