Rapum Kambili is a Nigerian writer. He has been published in magazines and anthologies in the United States, the UK and Nigeria. His essay, Gay Wars, was nominated for the Brittle Paper Awards in 2017. He is the chief editor of 14: An Anthology of Queer Art.
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in sunny Gaborone and harmattan-struck Western, Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: First of all, let me just say what you guys are doing with 14 is just powerful! I am in awe of your spirits and drive and determination to create a space that archives queer art especially in this beautiful but rigid continent that is pushing queer people outside the border of the society. Tell me a brief history of 14.
Rapum: 14 was founded in 2016 and our first issue, We are Flowers, was released in January 2017. As a gay teenager growing in Nigeria, I was only able to transcend the guilt and shame associated with my sexual orientation when I began reading Young Adult gay love stories on the internet. Thinking of those stories now, I realize that they were not ‘seriously literary’, but they were told with honesty and care, and their audience was not in doubt: They were stories for teen-age gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender boys and girls, and they made me feel less lonely, less confused about myself; made me feel seen.
I longed for a space like that featuring people like me, Nigerians, black people; I wanted a sense of community, even if virtual. After the anti-gay bill was passed and a blogger friend founded Kito Diaries, an online website updated daily with LGBT-centered stories, gossip, news, etc. The blog shaped for us a sense of community and I began to think that the internet could be the place where our revolution would begin.
In 2016, various free anthologies were published online featuring mostly young writers, most of whom were Facebook friends/acquaintances. Toward the end of the year, freshly out of university, I thought this was the right time to do that thing that had been on my mind: Bring LGBT writers and artists together. We had been doing work as individuals already, and so I knew a number of us, was already friends with more than a handful. When I told Absalom that I was thinking of starting an anthology featuring the works of LGBT writers or writers who are allies, works that focus on our lives and experiences, he said he’d been thinking about it as well! In the space of hours, we had assembled an editorial board, had set up office on Facebook where the enthusiasm was palpable. We decided that we wanted the anthology to revolve, in name and date of publication, around the anti-gay law, to turn it into celebration. The idea was for Nigerians, whether seasoned writers/artists or ‘regular’ people who just wanted to tell their stories, to have a space to do just that. The response was overwhelming, works coming from other African countries as well. The anthology has since taken a pan-African face, and we are happy with this. It has also given our communities something to look forward to, and it is this sense of communal ownership, of Our-Own-ness, that we are so proud of.
Gaamangwe: I love that. There is nothing more powerful that owning yourself and having a community that validates that own-ness, a community that validates you and sees you. But what is even more powerful about 14 is that it is a opening space for all humans to be seen as their own humans, as valid humans with valid experiences.
The desire for all of us is to be seen, to be witnessed, to be allowed to just be our own selves, and each time we step up into our own-ness and stand in front of the world and say this is who we are, deal with it, we open the world. We move and shift ourselves to that space where we can start seeing each other. This does something quite magical to our soul. Some healing, some self-acceptance.
Take me to your Facebook office, how do you come up with the vision of an anthology? What was the desire with The Inward Gaze?
Rapum: We planned to release a second anthology in August 2017, a themed issue focusing on “Sex”, but we did not get enough submissions to make the anthology work. We might try a themed issue again but not this year. The Inward Gaze, like We are Flowers was named after we had read and edited the works for the issue.
We sent out calls for submissions expecting, only, that the works we receive have at their core the LGBT experience. Every other thing, whatever theme we glean, is accidental.
Reading and looking at the pieces for The Inward Gaze, I noticed that they were apathetic to the Heterosexual Gaze. The artists were speaking a language they knew well, a language they had spoken in safe spaces, in rooms full of other queer people. They were talking about love, sex, longing in a way that these experiences were all that mattered. There was no tempering of experience, no explaining. It seemed, having created this space for our community, our artists did not feel the burden of censorship or interpretation.
Gaamangwe: That is so important and powerful. I had the same experience as well. It was a collection of beautiful, funny, tragic and heartbreaking human stories.
But let’s talk more about the heterosexual gaze. While I have never experienced the heterosexual gaze, I have experienced the male gaze and it is terrible. Navigating life as a black woman is a daily struggle. But I find that articulating for myself, naming all the instances of male gaze returns the power to me. For my sanity, I must say when I am uncomfortable. I must make the men in my life aware of their privilege, and I will go all out for people to check themselves. It is exhausting, and most times I will rather not do it. And many times I don’t do it. But we have buried so much for so long that we cannot keep quiet anymore. How is your personal experience with heterosexual gaze? What is the hardest part of it and where do you find your stillness in this chaotic, hetero-normative inclined world?
Rapum: The moment I stepped into secondary school, I became aware of my difference. In primary school, everybody, from friends to family to teachers, acknowledged my effeminacy in a mildly disaffected way. The moment I stepped into secondary school, though, I became aware of myself as an Other. It was an Anglican seminary and the authorities were always in search of Homosexuality. They searched for it on the bunks at night where two young boys curled up together or shared a mattress because one had wet his bed. They searched for it in the swaying hips of boys who knew no other way to walk. They did not want us to hold hands or show affection to friends. The chaplain and his wife made it their calling and purpose to fish out so-called homosexuals. The chaplain’s eyes were everywhere, an aggressive gaze.
As I grew older, in senior secondary school, my classmates (I had since changed schools) became demons, spewing Homo at me. I used to lash out a lot, I cried once, but mostly I was angry, full of rage. They had no right to dictate how i walked or who I wanted to kiss.
That rage has lingered until today and I deal with the straight gaze by channeling that anger and also by celebrating the things that are mine, by immersing myself in my community. After secondary school, I gradually came to a point of utter self-acceptance and I began coming out to friends and colleagues. By coming out, I was confirming what many suspected already. By the time I was in uni, I did not even need to say it. I did things and said things that enforced my presence. If my classmates started talking about a hot girl, I talked about a hot guy. I insisted to be seen, especially in that space where I could not possibly be in grave physical danger. The heterosexual gaze is often aggressive and tainted by entitlement. Sometimes, it is friendly but unaware. Whatever form it takes, I have learned to ignore it, to insist on the completeness of my own experience, of my own existence.
Gaamangwe: Your self-acceptance and insistence to be fully your own human is so inspiring and vital. Especially because right now the straight gaze has become quite aggressive and violent.
In your introduction you wrote: “2017 saw the violent attacks on artists of queer expression, the arrest of some forty young men who had gathered for HIV sensitization, the raiding of rooms of LGBTQ students, and widespread backlash in the literary community to the emergence–or, rather, flourishing–gifted voices in the literary space”.
This is highly concerning and terrifying. But how do you as a gay man navigate your sense of self, owning and experiencing your sexuality in this space of possible grave danger? How does this possible violence impact your work over at 14?
Rapum: Part of the exercise of living fully is being alive, surviving. I have learned to know when to retreat, when to step into the shadows. For example, in a hostel full of aggressive homophobic boys, I’d speak out loudly against homophobia but never let it slip that I’m gay (I wouldn’t say I’m not gay either, I’ve never done that in years). I would wait until I have built friendships with some people to whom I can then come out without the threat of violence. In a space where I cannot be put in immediate danger, I wouldn’t care less.
In editing 14, we are adopting the same tactic, using pseudonyms, staying out of the light. We encourage our writers, especially those writing nonfiction, to do same. But we are equally happy to have our writers in the light if they choose. The idea is not to step into the front, blazing (there will be a time for that, when we have grown to a level of near-untouchability) but to move forward, step by step, dodging when need be, advancing, attacking, dodging again but never, ever shrinking.
Gaamangwe: It’s truly disheartening that you and others have to go to great length to exists in the world. To create in the shadows, well at least sometimes in the shadow. It genuinely makes me furious that people are so invested in policing who people love. But your spirit is fire, and it will eventually burn all this hate one day.
Until then, what dialogues has 14 opened? What reflections are you receiving from We are Flowers and The Inward Gaze? And what do you find moving within any of the possible dialogues and reflections?
Rapum: Sometime last year, I was at a friend’s when someone came to spend the weekend. We got talking. He asked if I had read the anthology and that if I hadn’t I should. My friend then said to him, “This is Rapum.” I was surprised, and moved, by his reaction, the way he hugged me. This is not an isolated event. We’ve gotten messages, emails from people saying how grateful they are for the anthology, how it has affected their lives. Prior to the publication of The Inward Gaze, we had folks who knew us, messaging and calling to know when it would be out because they couldn’t wait.
What these responses show is that there is a vacuum that the anthology is helping to fill. Folks who download and read and share this anthology are delighted because they see themselves, their experiences represented holistically. I don’t know the extent to which our readers have taken the conversations about the anthology in their inner circles, but their enjoyment of the work is everything, and that is part of our agenda: To collect and edit works that people can enjoy.
Gaamangwe: That is so powerful Rapum. Your work is an act of defiance against total erasure. And today, Nigeria, Africa needs more acts like this. We need to crack wide open the old walls that are trying to keep us captive.
So, you are here now, two powerful anthologies published. What now? What possibilities lie in the future? What are you and the 14 team dreaming of?
Rapum: We hope to have an e-zine by next year where works can appear more frequently. I am also thinking of having a section for Young Adults fiction when the website is set up. As a teenager without an immediate LGBT community, stories published on iomfats.com, love stories written specifically for young LGBT people, saved me from internalized homophobia and doused my loneliness. Hopefully, we can reach younger members of our community.
Gaamangwe: That is amazing. You should definitely do that. Do everything you want. Thank you for joining me in this space.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.