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  • "Watering the Imagination":Childhood and the Spaces of African Queerness
  • Bernie Lombardi (bio)

You have all seen the great abomination of your brother. Now he is no longer my son or your brother. I will only have a son who is a man, who will hold his head up among my people. If any one of you prefers to be a woman, let him follow Nwoye now while I am alive so that I can curse him. If you turn against me when I am dead I will visit you and break your neck." { … } Okonkwo was very lucky in his daughters. He never stopped regretting that Ezinma was a girl.

—Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart


The emergence of African queer scholarship offers the occasion to re-read Okonkwo's two gender-non-conforming, or queer, children, Nwoye and Ezinma, against the normativizing impulse of Things Fall Apart's story-world. While the novel's narrative acknowledges the extent to which these two characters do not comply with normative gender roles, it refuses their full becoming as it concentrates [End Page 687] on Okonkwo's undoing. While Okonkwo vociferously refuses non-normative gender performances, his suicide gestures toward new spaces for alternative configurations of gender and sexuality. I suggest we reimagine Nwoye and Ezinma and explore their gender instabilities as points of entry into representations of queer sex-gender configurations in African literature.1 Specifically, this essay explores how textual manifestations of queer childhoods are literary modes of engaging with unbelonging in recent writings by two queer2 African writers: Binyavanga Wainaina and Diriye Osman. Taking my cursory reading of Things Fall Apart as a point of departure, I suggest Okonkwo's consternation with his children's compromised gender performances allows readers to recognize how the trope of queer childhood challenges restrictive social contexts.3 In twenty-first-century African writing, the proliferation of queer childhood, as a common trope, increasingly demands re-imaginations of belonging beyond the nation without rejecting African geography as its locus. Narratives about African queer childhood attune readers to re-imaginations of the future.

In her study of childhood in third-generation Nigerian novels, Madelaine Hron analyzes childhood as "a particularly resistant space, of complex, on-going negotiation and articulation of difference that is perhaps not as readily accessible in the stable, socially structured world of adults" (2008, 30). This conceptualization of childhood as a space of resistance makes it a vehicle for interrogations of a social entity's present and its orientations toward the future. However, disruptive or non-conforming children do not permit postulations of normative futures. Queer African writers extend this convention in constructing queer selfhood in their literature and for imagining alternative African ontologies: queer childhoods disrupt social consensus on normative futures. Whereas Hron's theorization of childhood assumes an easy relationship to the imagined nation, representations of queer childhoods struggle to find a space within national narratives as they attempt to express the existence of non-normative sexualities.


Binyavanga Wainaina's writer's trajectory illuminates this struggle to claim the nation (in his case, Kenya) and assert the presence of non-normative sexualities. Although he published his memoir, One [End Page 688] Day I Will Write About This Place, in 2011, he did not reveal his homosexual identity until 2014, when he published what he calls a "lost chapter," titled "I am a Homosexual, Mum." By presenting the essay as a lost chapter, Wainaina points out the significance of this missing element to his selfhood; the lost chapter identifies a sense of failure in the original and declares a need to revise his memoir. The absence of queer selfhood also reflects a larger failure on the part of the Kenyan society that he describes. As the title of the book suggests, Wainaina understands his story as determined by his relationship with place. Writing memoir, thus, requires reckoning with his sense of belonging to a larger social entity.

"I am a Homosexual, Mum" displays Wainaina's self-conscious desire to re-write his story: not just how he tells his story, but how he lived his story...


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pp. 687-694
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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