AiW Guest: Katarzyna Kubin.
It was the second day of the Africa Writes Festival, a week ahead of Black Pride. The heatwave beat on in London whilst, in the British Library, the animated festival crowd buzzed and mingled to and from events and around booksellers’ stalls. In the cool, softly lit space of the Auditorium, full with audience, four women – publishers, editors and writers – gathered on the “Loving Womxn” panel to exchange about their own stories as queer women of colour, their writing and editing process, and their role in facilitating and bridging the connection between writers and readers. The panel was also a celebration of three new publications by and about queer women of colour: Sista! (Team Angelica, 2018), a collection of stories of same-gender-loving women of African and African-Caribbean descent with connections to the UK; She Called Me Woman (Cassava Republic, 2018), a collection that portrays what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria; and La Bastarda (Feminist Press, 2018) by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first novel by a woman from the Central African country of Equatorial Guinea to be translated into English, which tells the story of a teenage orphan who enlists the help of other village outcasts to find her father and then falls in love with the leader of a gang of girls rebelling against rigid social norms.
Chaired by Eliza Anyangwe, founder of The Nzinga Effect, dedicated to amplifying the stories of women from Africa and the African Diaspora, the panel included: Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, co-founder and publishing director of Cassava Republic Press; Liv Little, founder of the award-winning, UK-based online platform gal-dem; Trifonia Melibea Obono, journalist, researcher in political science, and author of the novel La Bastarda (Feminist Press, 2018); and Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, co-founder and executive director of UK Black Pride.
The hour-long exchange brought nuance to the event title, which might otherwise seem a straightforward invocation for queer women to be purposeful and fearless in voicing their stories. Obono opened the discussion via a pre-recorded video message, which signaled some of the key themes of the conversation to follow.
Embodying Multiple Selves
The first topic taken on by the panel, representing the diverse perspectives of queer women, was inspired by Obono’s comments about how La Bastarda (Feminist Press, 2018), banned in her native Equatorial Guinea, had caused controversy as some women felt that, by drawing attention to them, the novel made their situation more dangerous. The panelists were then prompted to discuss the difficult decisions they have made as editors and publishers who aim to represent the diversity of stories and perspectives among queer women. In producing collections such as Sista! (Team Angelica, 2018) and She Called Me Woman (Cassava Republic, 2018), which involved open calls for submissions, or in the on-going editorial work of a platform such as gal-dem, the panelists considered how to resist reinforcing stereotypes whilst also upholding narratives that distinguish queer women.
Bakare-Yusuf described publishing and story-telling as “creating an archive of the future”: the point is to document the plurality of present experience so that future generations can better understand what preceded them and avoid making the same mistakes. She admitted that this approach was sometimes challenging. As an example, Bakare-Yusuf read from one story in the She Called Me Woman collection, which conflicts with her feminist ideals because the author portrays conventionally patriarchal norms in her same-sex relationship. “We cannot expunge the present or the past for future generations,” concluded Bakare-Yusuf as a way of emphasizing that personal views should not influence publishing decisions.
Shifting the conversation to the level of the individual, Opoku-Gyimah agreed – “We can’t erase the past” – and mentioned a story in Sista! in which the author reflects on what it’s like to remember to have been a boy. Drawing on her experience with storytelling, the moderator, Anyangwe, suggested that publishers shouldn’t aim to show a fully formed image of queer women, but rather as works in progress.
Violence and Safety
Reflecting on Obono’s account of the safety concerns among LGBTQ people, an audience member described her native Zimbabwe – “…the government would focus on homosexuality as if hunger and poverty were less important” – to note that “we couldn’t even have this conversation in many places in Africa.” She asked the panelists to address safety issues. Speakers shared the safeguards they implemented in their work, such as encrypted messaging and taking part in trainings to prepare for backlash to publications with LGBTQ content.
Opoku-Gyimah stressed the value of exchange to better understand the specific situations of LGBTQ people around the world. She recounted her meeting with the artists and activist, Zanele Muholi, to learn about the South African context, including approaches to addressing violence and ensuring safety, particularly in advance of events such as Black Pride that are attended by an international audience. “Stories need to be heard,” said Opoku-Gyimah to emphasize listening as a crucial part of both learning and teaching.
Speaking to the UK context, Little asserted: “Not everyone will understand where you’re coming from, but with time I’m less concerned about that.” Her remark resonated as a hopeful response to Obono’s opening comments about the importance of her novel reaching a wider audience (thanks, in part, to the English translation) as a way of drawing attention to the situation in her home country.
Our Stories Include Laughter and Love
Throughout the panel there was an eagerness to underline the singular importance of fearlessness and pride. Bakare-Yusuf stressed that an exclusive focus on violence, death, trauma does not decrease these problems. Entertainment, including storytelling, can be a reaction against the kinds of politics that demonize people of colour and LGBTQ people. Storytelling opens the space for a fuller spectrum of life to be celebrated. Little agreed that a focus on trauma and violence risks reducing the narrative to one of victimhood. There must be space for laughter, joy and love in the stories that are told, she opined.
Little also recounted how she came to editing and publishing via her thesis on women seeking asylum and her work with Imkaan, a UK-based organization focused on the problem of violence against women of colour – the stories she heard underlined for her the need to broadcast women’s experiences. In her work with gal-dem, stories that entertain, amuse and celebrate positive experiences such as love, sexuality and every-day life are equally important. These reflections prompted panelists to exchange about the challenges of portraying queer women’s sexuality and the need for representations that are different to the hypersexualized images of women in mainstream media.
The exchange throughout the event was uplifting and motivating, but also tempered by a lived experience that continues to be touched by racism and homophobia. Readers can further engage with the perspectives and ideas addressed during the panel through the three new publications, which the panelists helped produce and which archive the voices of queer women from across Africa and the African Diaspora for the past, for now, and for the future.
Katarzyna Kubin has been contributing to Africa in Words since 2016. She is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). Her research explores affect in postcolonial texts, as an entry point to consider identity, representation, and authorial ethics. She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.
This is the first in a series of posts following up this year’s Africa Writes Festival at the British Library in London. AiW partnered with Africa Writes this year to host a Literary Podcasts panel, ‘Books in your Ears’ on Sunday 1 July, a conversation with the voices and producers behind Not Another Book Podcast, BakwaCast and No Bindings – with video interventions into the discussion from 2 Girls & A Pod – on the growth in podcasts and one of the most exciting trends in African literature. You can read the first of our posts on literary podcasts, by AMLA Network Convener Gaamangwe Joy Mogami who shared with us her take on these new spaces of literary discussion and her top 5 recommended listens. Watch this space for our reviews of these podcasts and for other panel and event reviews after Africa Writes publishing on AiW over the next few months.