Review: “Growing up lesbian in Nigeria”: Unoma Azuah’s “Embracing My Shadow”

AiW Guest: Pernille Nailor.

Written in a clear and powerful language that commands our immediate attention, Unoma Azuah’s latest publication, Embracing My Shadow, is a moving and powerful memoir focusing on the author’s experiences of growing up as lesbian in Nigeria. In the book, Azuah illustrates how she came of age in a setting where she often felt different and alienated because of her failure to live up to cultural and religious norms and expectations around her gender and sexuality. It offers a beautiful and gripping account of how, in spite of this challenging context, the writer came into her own as a poet, author, and LGBTQ+ activist.

By putting her own experiences with being queer into words, Azuah writes herself into an existing canon of authors from the African continent who have made use of the literary genre of the memoir to document and reflect on what it has been like for them to navigate restrictive scripts of gender and/or sexuality. Examples of similar works include Landa Mabenge’s Becoming Him (2018), Nkunzi Nkabinde’s Black Bull, Ancestors and Me (2008) and the edited collection She Called Me Woman (2016).

Yet, Embracing My Shadow is important in its own right. The book is hailed as the first full-length memoir dedicated to portraying the lesbian experience in Nigeria. It is a timely and valuable publication which speaks out against current public discourses on LGBTQ+ identities in a country where discrimination against sexual minorities has reportedly increased since the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was passed in 2014 (‘Gay in Nigeria: “Everybody sees me as an abomination”’, BBC, 30 December 2019). Placing these discourses in a longer historical trajectory, Embracing My Shadow sheds light on the discrimination and hostility towards herself and other LGBTQ+ people from the early 1970s and onwards.

Azuah is one of the most prominent voices on the topic in Nigeria’s literary scene, and Embracing My Shadow continues a trail through which the author brings attention to some of the restrictive politics, norms and expectations around gender and sexuality in her home country. We would only have to look to Blessed Body, a collection of personal accounts from LGBTQ+ individuals living in Nigeria, edited and published by Azuah in 2016. Similar themes are at the heart of her own poetry and fiction, too – consider, for instance, the 2005 novel Sky-high Flames which depicts a young Nigerian girl’s struggle with negotiating the gendered scripts of wife and motherhood which she is expected to follow. Azuah is also one of the first literary scholars to shed light on how she and other authors began writing lesbian experiences into Nigerian literature at the dawn of the new millennium. See, for instance, ‘The Emerging Lesbian Voice in Nigerian Feminist Literature’ in the collection Body, Sexuality and Gender from 2005.

It is within this broader framework that Embracing My Shadow forms an important contribution, allowing Azuah’s readers not only to get the chance to read an account of her life but to be able to form a deeper understanding of the themes and issues that have driven her creative and scholarly outputs thus far.

The memoir is structured chronologically, with the first part taking us through Azuah’s memories of her early childhood in the 1970s, during which her family moved frequently between various towns and cities. She recalls shuffling back and forth between her mother and grandmother after the untimely death of her father; years spent at an all-girls convent boarding school; and, later, those at university. The last chapters of the book trace her first attempts at becoming a writer in Lagos before eventually relocating to the US.

In relaying the earlier of these recollections, Azuah frequently draws attention to the naïve perspective of her young mind, often with humour. And the world around her is portrayed in a similar way – consider, for instance, an episode where the school priest warns the author about the fate of ‘Sodom and Gonorrhoea’ (p. 6). But we also see an inquisitive and independent thinker, a writer and activist in the making – someone who is forced to come into her own from an early age as she tries to figure out how to navigate life at home and in school, all while wrestling with a haunting feeling of being different.

At first, this sensation is triggered by her failure to comply with the gendered scripts in her family:

‘My mother was quick to yell at me for something I did wrong. It was either that I sat with my legs open or I was a little too aggressive because I played soccer with boys. She would chastise me for not knowing my place … [And] taunted me about how I would never find a man to marry me’ (p. 53).

Yet, this sense of difference becomes more urgent as she begins to realise that same-sex attraction is seen as a sin, leading her to feeling ‘lonely’, ‘unfit and of no value’ (pp. 55-6), and haunted by a painful and unsettling insecurity about herself:

‘I wondered if something was wrong with me. Each time I focused on the thought, something sinister hung over me like a dark cloud’ (p. 58).

In the young writer’s mind, this experience of being different is conflated with the fact that she was born during the Nigerian civil war to an Igbo woman and a Tiv soldier – a fact which leads to Azuah being rejected by her father’s family after his death and leaves her with a lingering sensation of being out of place:

‘I felt “dirty” about being birthed at that time and with an enemy soldier, even though my father saved my mother’s family. The war, her story, always made me conflicted, as if there were two people that didn’t belong together living inside my being. My parents, a union that morphed into a monster that lived inside of me: a lesbian … I wanted to be one: one person, from one ethnic group, whole, straight, like everybody else’ (p. 16).

In the chapters to follow, we get to see how the young Azuah nevertheless looks for ways to be herself. Early on, she speaks out against the gender norms she faces but quickly learns that it is best to keep her opinions to herself to avoid trouble. And even if she subjects other people’s ideas and expectations around her sexuality to similar scrutiny, often turning to writing to express herself, she soon realises – although without fully understanding why – that she needs to be careful when pursuing relationships with other girls, especially at boarding school where she is expected to follow a conservative Christian doctrine.

By the time she enrols at university, Azuah is fully versed in the scripts that are laid out for her as a young woman, but remains critical of fixed ideas of gender and sexuality (‘Why couldn’t I have the same freedom to kiss my lady just like that in the open, in public? I questioned the unfairness of it all’ (p. 149)). At this point, she is also worn out from the exhaustion of living on the margins. While this avoids the humiliation and shame she has experienced previously when other people have found out about her sexuality, it means that she lives ‘most of [her] days … invisible’ (p. 128).

The final chapters lend a reflective quality to the memoir that add further depth to Azuah’s story by depicting her move to Lagos – a time in her life which the book places in a wider historical context. Initially, we get the sense that she finally finds a collective of like-minded authors and other creative people where she can write openly about her sexuality. But this is not without consequences, as seen when the response she receives to her work takes on a hostile nature:

‘Nigeria already had a sodomy law hanging like a noose around the necks of homosexuals, but Christian and Muslim fanatics would be quick to lynch an outed homosexual … From verbal abuses to written notes to mailed letters, I was warned to steer clear of such a dirty lifestyle’ (p. 202).

Even though she remains ‘resolute to keep … proclaiming [her] existence’ and ‘testing new waters in queer writing’ (pp. 212-3), she notes: ‘I had lived for so long with mental and psychological abuse that I began to believe that I deserved all the pain I endured’ (p. 213). When the verbal threats and abuse escalate, leading to a physical attack at a bus stop, she eventually decides to reach out to a friend in the US who helps her secure a US scholarship, realising that ‘I needed to leave to be able to look at it [Nigeria and Lagos] in perspective’ (p. 214).

Embracing My Shadow is a meditation on the effect this experience of difference has had on Azuah as an individual. But equally, her rendition of her life is a celebratory reflection on the importance of love and desire. As much as the memoir brings out the worst aspects of the writer’s lived experiences, the book is also full of evocative and beautiful descriptions of her love relationships, illustrating how they have offered a place not just of refuge but belonging:

‘I lay on her thigh, and it felt like cushions of clouds, cradling and warm. Warmth seemed to rise from her and seep into my cold chest and my whole body. This felt like home. This was where I belonged’ (p. 84).

And instead of hiding her same-sex attraction, desire and longings behind metaphors and symbols, or between the lines, Azuah places them at the centre of the text and alongside the many incidents of discrimination and homophobia she faces. In this way, she illustrates that these aspects, too, are an important part of the lived reality of Nigeria’s LGBTQ+ community.

See further:
Azuah, U. N., 2005. The Emerging Lesbian Voice in Nigerian Feminist Literature. In: F. Veit–Wild & D. Naguschewski, eds. Body, Sexuality, and Gender: Version and Subversions in African Literatures. Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, pp. 129- 141.

Unoma Azuah is a professor of English at Wiregrass Georgia Tech. Valdosta, GA, USA.  Her forthcoming edited book project is entitled Wedged Between Man and God: Queer West African Women’s Stories. Some of her writing awards include the Aidoo-Snyder award, Urban Spectrum award, Flora Nwapa/ Association of Nigerian Authors award, Leonard Trawick award and the Hellman/Hammett Human Rights award.

(photo c. of Beaten Track Publishing)

Pernille Nailor recently finished her PhD at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Her PhD thesis explores different manifestations of belonging in a diverse selection of texts associated with the concept of Afropolitanism in Anglophone literary and popular cultural production. Her focus is on texts circulating in urban centres in Ghana, Nigeria and their diasporas, and she is particularly interested in how belonging takes on different meanings in cultural production as well as how contemporary experiences of belonging are shaped by various social actors and intersect with other constructs such as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class.

Embracing My Shadow: Growing Up Lesbian in Nigeria is available from the publisher’s site – its shop – which has access to other links to purchase the book.

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