“Out in Africa: Same-sex desire in sub saharan literatures and cultures” by Chantal Zabus (Review)


Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’. But then I remember that evening and I cringe, because, of course, I know she can explain; she’s seen it with her own eyes.


Chinelo Okparanto (2013) ‘America’

As Okparanto’s short story entry to the 2013 Caine Prize illustrates, non-normative sexualities drive contemporary fiction from Africa.  Chantal Zabus‘ book has much fiction to discuss: she considers same-sex relationships in Africa through the work of more than 30 post-colonial novelists, plus additional discussion of film and poetry.

The book is framed with a useful introduction to academic literature on sexuality in Africa, a discussion of French and English colonial literature on sexuality in Africa, before considering the way in which novels consider colonial ‘teaching’ of homosexualities, fictions of the diaspora and in what she terms ‘male and female mythologies’ the interrelationship between African spirituality and non-normative sexuality.

700I particularly focus here on Zabus’ discussion of authors’ depiction of W[omen who have] S[ex with] Women in the chapter ‘The Stuff of Desire: Boarding School Girls, Plain Lesbians and Teenage Dykes’.  It provides an intriguing demonstration of change over time in fiction addressing sexuality. She discusses the work of Rebeka Njau, Joanne Njoki, Titilola A Shoneyin and Unoma Azuah amongst others, to argue for the:

increased confidence with which women writers assert same-sex desire in fiction while that desire is repressed in their societies, be it Kenya, Ghana or Nigeria.

Ama Ata Aidoo’s ‘Our Sister Killjoy’ (1977)  reinforces this critique: Zabus suggests Aidoo  ‘tugs her character closer and then abruptly away from the state of queer desire’. In contrast, Rebeka Njau’s ‘lesbian’ character, Selina in ‘Ripples in the Pool’ (1975) is shown as descending into madness, her desires unreciprocated.  Yet even the more recent depictions, such as Sky High Flames, in Zabus’ view ‘only very timidly portrays desiring women’ (2005), despite tapping into a community history of ‘female husbandry’ (where a women could become ‘husband’ to preserve lineage interests).  The acknowledgement of complex change over time in literary depiction is particularly important given women’s near-invisibility in academic literature on homosexualities in Africa.

511XecLh2OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I taught a seminar looking at African sexualities last year, and a key (and challenging) point for students is the power of language.  Zabus’ book helpfully considers the colonising potential of terminology. As Serena Dankwa has discussed in her study of wsw in Ghana, Signe Arnfred’s concept of ‘silences’ can be used to think about how discretion has operated in African communities, not to prevent relationships but to to find a way for people to accept one another’s choices, for:

discretion prevents discursive rather than sexual acts

These silences are further complicated given sexually prescriptive Pentecostal discourses on non-heterosexual relationships.  Zabus acknowledges the impact of anti-homosexuality policies in Africa: such as in Joanne Njoki’s short story ‘The Closet is too Big’ (2013), in which two young women decide that they cannot live publicly ‘and proudly admit our sexuality’.  In contrast to Arnfred’s and Dankwa’s suggestion of sophisticated and empowering silences,  Monica Arac de Nyeko shows two young women dealing with an enforced silence following an unexpected ‘outing’ in another Caine Prize short story:

The one night no one could make us forget. You left without saying goodbye after that. You had to, I reasoned. Perhaps it was good for both of us. Maybe things could die down that way.  Things never did die down. Our names became ever associated with the forbidden. Shame.

Anyango – Sanyu

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's WivesIt’s been noted elsewhere that academics are increasingly under pressure from publishers to produce work that can be used in the classroom as textbook.  I wonder if this is why Zabus has chosen to spread her analysis across Africa, rather than a focus on a region of Africa at least, or even the literature of just one country.  However, this does mean that the book would be particularly useful to a range of students coming to this field for the first time, given that such a wide geographic range of fiction is considered.  This diversity for me has echoes of Wole Soyinka’s recent speech at Storymoja.

 ‘There is no such thing as “African culture”’, the Nobel laureate asserted, ‘there are African cultures.’ 


Publisher information (James Currey)

Full disclosure: review copy provided by Netgalley

Chinelo Okparanto ‘America’  Caine Prize short-listed (available for free via Granta)

Joanne Njoki’s short story forms part of:
Q-zine Issue 6, Feb 2013 The Creative Writing Issue Special issue on African LGBTI creative writing Africa’s first anthology of LGBTI fiction and poetry


Arnfred, Signe, ed. Re-thinking sexualities in Africa. Nordic Africa Institute, 2004.

Dankwa, Serena. “”It’s a Silent Trade”: Female Same-Sex Intimacies in Postcolonial Ghana.” Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 17, no. 3 (2009): 192-205.

Epprecht, Marc. Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of Aids. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.


Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching, Reviews & Spotlights on...

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1 reply


  1. Mädchenmannschaft » Blog Archive » Ein Buch nach dem anderen: Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Roxanne Gay

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