Unoma Azuah is a Professor of English. Her research focus is on Queer Theory, and her recent book project is Blessed Body: Secret Lives of the Nigerian LGBT. Some of her writing awards include the Aidoo-Synder book award, Spectrum book award and the Hellman/Hammet award.
BY OPE ADETAYO
This dialogue happened between a room in humid Ilorin, Nigeria and Atlanta, USA via Whatsapp.
Ope Adetayo: In the beginning, it was quite difficult for you to come to the stark reality that heteronormative sex was not for you. You even engaged in experimental relationships to serve as a beam into that long tunnel of discovery. The first time you heard the word, lesbian, you were not sure until you checked it out in a dictionary. This discovery of self—how has it empowered you?
Unoma Azuah: Discovering that there was a word to describe my being different in a predominantly heteronormative society was both startling and relieving. It almost felt as if I had been diagnosed with a strange ailment nobody knows about or acknowledges. So, finding that it has a name was liberating. It was, however, startling because naming it made it real. It made the idea that I am, perhaps, sick and abnormal a reality. I do, nevertheless, find empowerment in the naming. Secondly, I was constrained to try heterosexual sex because almost everybody around me convinced me that I was not normal, that something was wrong with me. Their opinion about my sexuality being sick and abnormal was aggressive and overwhelming. Consequently, I decided to try having sex with men. I had concluded that everybody can’t be wrong while I, as a lone voice, could be right. Their opinion controlled my life. Their place and position of heterosexual privilege became my constant tormentor. So, I gradually erased myself to accommodate their power.
Ope: “Embracing My Shadows” begins with the expression, “I have sinned”. This is a window into the non-acceptance that characterizes your childhood. You grew from that into becoming a voice for queer literature. How did you navigate this transformation, leaving behind all the luggage of religion and culture?
Unoma: I may move that opening to a different stage in the narrative. However, I moved from the point of surrendering to my oppressors to realizing that I needed to fight for myself. It was either I fought or be silenced or even killed in many ways than one. I felt alone. But I made a conscious choice to fight for myself and my kindred family in every big or little way that I could muster. Somebody has to do it. I have been willing to cry out, to be that voice that would try to cry the loudest for help. It’s been a process. And I must acknowledge my destiny, my mother’s and foremother’s who before the battles knew and know me. I ride on the backs of great women. Women like Leslye Huff who created channels of births and rebirths. My life is a mystery. However, the physical manifestation of my reality is what I hold to push through the pain of judgment, of rejections and suppressions that ironically strengthened and still give me strength. So yes, the beginning burdened me with the weight of sin, thanks to my fundamentalist, oppressive and ignorant Christian background.
“However, I moved from the point of surrendering to my oppressors to realizing that I needed to fight for myself. It was either I fought or be silenced or even killed in many ways than one. I felt alone. But I made a conscious choice to fight for myself and my kindred family in every big or little way that I could muster.“
Ope: Seeing that your early years were dominated by the ingrained fear of sins, it is curious for one to know how you relate with them especially that these early years can leave indelible marks. Are there episodes of flashbacks that remind you of how you discovered yourself?
Unoma: I still bear the scars of those early years. I call them shame wounds. A sense of guilt ate me up for years. Who knows what mortal or psychological scars that trauma has left in my psyche? I do have flashbacks when I am faced with oppressions that are similar to homophobia. When I face racism, I shudder and re-live past pains. When I am turned down for something I have a right to…I feel the flashbacks. Sometimes, even when I am deserving, I get cautious. From my experience, such happens to people who had lived so long in the abuse that they even begin to believe they have no rights.
Ope: Your mother was a central figure in your formation; therefore, her fears and hopes were deposited in you. Your relationship with her reminds me of Jamaica Kincaids signature mother-child relationship—that signature resistance. Do you see yourself as a form of resistance to culture, religion and status quo?
Unoma: Yes. I do. And my mother represented everything her culture, religion and the status wanted. She pushed hard to protect me, but she was merely projecting her fears. She had her share of abuse which forced her at a stage in her life to reveal her unconventional nature. She eventually rebelled, not just by falling in love with an enemy soldier but by daring the consequences. She was married multiple times too and eventually remained a single mother till she passed. In her time, and perhaps that is still the case, a woman should never be single. She faced a hostile society too because she dared to step out of line. She gave me a huge dose of her strength.
Ope: What do you have to say about this passage in “Wind Gust”: “I took one last glance at another isolated corner of my hostel where a couple clung onto each other and were ferociously kissing. 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, but kept walking”?
Unoma: That scene brought home to me the stark hypocrisy and unfairness of a society that thinks it has a right to love and what it perceives to be love and its insistence that heterosexual love should be the only real love. That scene, that sight of heterosexuals flaunting their love felt like an assault. I should hide my kind of love while they make their notion of love the centre-stage of life.
Ope: You are not economical with vividness and truth in your book. There is a point that makes me feel like: Yes, here is a woman that has given a big middle-finger to all pretence and has embraced her shadows, so to speak. In “Wind Gust”, you write, “I need to masturbate. My roommate was there, and the toilet was too repulsive. It reeked of stale shit, and littered with chunks of dry pieces of feces and maggots. I couldn’t use it. I wanted to run into the open field and scream till I passed out. I was so randy and I could have stuffed any woman’s fingers or tongue up my vagina. I had to control myself.”
This is a complex level of openness that involves a deep embrace of one’s truth. Is this you asking for more exposure to the real feelings of queer people in writing?
Unoma: It is. The feeling which, of course, is only human was intense enough to make me crave what I truly desire. The vividness was my attempt to make people visualize the abstract and complex layers of my sexuality in spite of all the symbolic filth that were barriers and that surrounded me like an encroaching army. What I felt and feel is real. It was suppressed enough to almost drive me insane, but it was there. It wouldn’t go away. That reality is what I needed to accept or lose my soul.
Additionally, it was as if the system was set up to make me implode.
Ope: As you grow, you experience a change in the socio-economic landscape in terms of people you relate with. Let’s talk about the change from the want of Ona and Maureen to Madam President and Nelly—how do you reckon these factors like location and status inform expression and safety of sexuality?
Unoma: These locations were either non-existent for non-standard sexual orientation or homosexuality exists but practised covertly. In other words, beyond my University/College years where there were no possibilities for me to express my sexuality as a lesbian or where such possibilities were hidden or buried, the socio-economic landscape that was Lagos for instance, opened my eyes to pockets of closets where lesbians who had fulfilled societal requirements of being redeemed by marriage to a man or being found worthy because one has earned the status of being a mother carried on their hidden lesbians lives. They had paid their dues to society. Nevertheless, they existed as invisible lesbians. It felt hypocritical and at the same time sad. These women were living a life of lies even under the veil of what our community had demanded of them. So, they put up a front that they are normal because they are married and they have children, but their true lives are under the dark shade of stark secrecy.
Ope: This brings us to the question of space navigation. Queer people have been made invisible. You have pointed out a very uncomfortable fact about the sexual smokescreen queer people put up to survive and you are brave enough to never adopt that. In the new American environment, how complex is this level of conformity over there?
Unoma: I did try a number of survival techniques which included trying to date men. That didn’t pan out too well. So, it’s really sad that the same sexual smoke screen ends up choking us further rendering us invisible. In the new American environment, though homophobia exists, it is not as bad as Nigeria because there are laws that protect LGBT rights. I hope it remains so. Some of those rights have been threatened and continue to be threatened depending on what political party is in power. So, I wouldn’t also say that America is a paradise for Queer people. Some have been killed and attacked and the killing continues especially the killing of transgender people. So, no, America is not a paradise yet. I have worked in conservative and highly religious areas of America’s south where the hostility to my sexual orientation was quite obvious. Added to that are racism and other layers of hate that come with being, not just black but an African, immigrant and lesbian. These tags that come with me are too loaded so in many ways than one, my type is further pushed to the fringes of the American society. Everywhere, be it Nigeria or America, has its peculiar issues. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I can express my love and that the law of the land recognizes me as a human with full rights, including the right to same-sex matrimony.
Ope: There is this phenomenon of “double invisibility” for black women, like blacks and women trying to exist equally in societies that condemn them to the periphery. Now, your book somehow explores “triple invisibility”, let me call it that: as a black, woman and queer. On a final note, what do you perceive as the future of this triangle? How do think people like this will survive ingrained homophobia in a country as hostile to queer sexuality as Nigeria?
Unoma: With time these triangular persons will be centred or become part of the centre. As we evolve as the “other” in our new spaces, the gradual dismantling of societal ills like homophobia, sexism, and racism must take place. This may not happen in my lifetime, but it will come to be. For now, I will keep fighting for my humanity which is my very essence. I am not a shame. I am not an abomination. I am not unnatural. I am as human as those placed by fate or faith at the top of the power hierarchy be it in the dominant Western narrative that sees me as unworthy through a racist lens, or in the dominate heterosexual narrative that dismisses my existence. I will keep finding platforms through which to speak up. I will keep disrupting the status quo in every way I can, big or small.
On being a woman, I hope that patriarchy, the great grandfather of sexism, would also be brought to its knees.
Ope Adetayo is currently a year three student of English at the University of Ilorin. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Agbowo, Sahara Reporters, Fragbits, Commonwealth Correspondent and GIMUN Blog. He is also an editor at Fragbits.