Adrian, the protagonist of Jude Dibia’s 2005 novel Walking With Shadows, is a mid-career business professional whose life is rocked by a coworker’s decision to out Adrian to his wife, children, and any member of Adrian’s family that deigns to listen.
The novel follows Adrian through the crisis, as he navigates his crumbling sense of self, and the hurt, shame, and stigmatization from his family. The novel includes perspectives from Adrian, but also his family and friends. At first, the center of this hurt is his wife, Ada, who is unexpectedly confronted by the news that upturns her entire life and that she can do very little about.
Dibia is a brilliant hand at developing characters that feel true and genuine, even though I might not entirely like them. In fact, Dibia’s ability to keep me invested and rooting for characters I don’t like is part of what makes Walking With Shadows shine. There are few villains in this novel, just hurt people with limited options trying to weave through where life has placed them.
As the novel develops, more of Adrian’s character comes to light, but Adrian as an adult — a confused, stressed, well meaning workaholic who tends to make decisions with one eye closed — is never as clear as the first glimpse of him we get in the novel.
As a child, Adrian goes by his Igbo name, Ebele, until he decides he will be reborn as Adrian after his baptism. Ebele, so ready to die and shed all parts of himself, but not aware that what he’s feeling is shame. This is the clearest view of Adrian’s character and the first chapter of Walking With Shadows. I doubt Adrian was aware of this, but the rest of the novel is Adrian trying to find the person he killed, after he’s been shocked out of his illusion by the forced outing.
Ada’s response to Adrian’s outing is harsh. Not because she’s hurt or upset, but because of how that blends with homophobia. She assumes Adrian is cheating on her, immediately going to get an STI test, and she isn’t interested in hearing what Adrian has to say or even that he was being outed because he had been part of a fraud case against a coworker. She treats Adrian like his being gay was something he did to her, rather than an aspect of who he is.
What Adrian did to hurt Ada wasn’t “be gay.” Rather, he made a decision that affected both of them, without giving her the information she needed to make a consensual choice. The hurt was lying about his ability to emotionally and physically invest in Ada and the way he was distant from her and their child as a result. Marrying someone for dubious reasons isn’t a “gay” thing; it’s a people thing.
Still, by the end of the novel, I’m Ada’s biggest fan. Despite her being a person directly hurt by Adrian’s actions, she manages to work through that hurt. Most of her uncharitable thoughts don’t get directed at Adrian, and she goes out of her way to protect him from her family and ensure his access to their daughter — though she struggled there for a bit. Conversely, most people in Adrian’s life are too shocked by someone they love being different — truthfully, they’re ashamed by how his sexuality would affect them — to love him right.
Where Adrian’s personality bothers me is that he seems rather unaware of the privilege he holds within a patriarchal society. The stigma of being an unmarried or divorced woman in Nigeria is often enough to drive women to early graves. In worse cases it could spell estrangement from the woman’s family and from her children. Patriarchy cares little for logic and seeks to reinforce blame on women for the actions of men. A large part of how this happens is shame.
It is this shame that drives so much of Ada’s hurt because it’s a shitty and dangerous situation for her — something Adrian never seems to realize because he’s focused on his own shame and hurt.
Adrian is so much like who I was as a child. As children, our experiences and feelings can be larger than what we have the cognitive ability to process or skill to communicate. Without the aid of a caregiver, they get buried until they become a part of our unprocessed subconscious, still affecting our lives and actions but outside the frame of our awareness. This is called a shadow, and Adrian has spent his whole life suppressing his.
Like Adrian, I was a quiet and sickly kid. Unlike Adrian, I was raised as my mother’s daughter, so I have little experience with the rough play encouraged in boys, and it was not a bad thing for me to enjoy playing with dolls. In fact, my disinterest in boys was a good thing (until it was time for me to get married). As a child, I wasn’t different because I was gay (that came with teenagehood), I was different because I was autistic.
My inability to do things as quickly or easily as other children was a problem, especially because I was bigger than everyone else and knew how to read books even adults struggled with (“you can read Shakespeare but you can’t tie your shoes?”).When I explained that I was struggling, I was not believed. I was told I had to work harder or smarter. There had to be a reason I wasn’t getting it right, and there was, but no one around me was prepared to hold the answers, and I became the problem.
Like Adrian, I did what any child does when you’re repeatedly rejected for who you are. I hid. I hid so well that when my gender and sexual identities became questions, it wasn’t difficult to have yet another thing I couldn’t tell my family without endangering my safety. Like Adrian, I did try to come out, but the violence and condemnation in my family’s mouths about people like me made me swallow myself.
If I was to come out, it would be when I was no longer under their roofs, where they couldn’t hurt me. It was a decision that meant, for most of my life, I knew the people who claimed to love me the most would send me to my death in the name of salvation. I cannot overstate the shame and feeling of unworthiness that leaves a child with.
Unlike Adrian, while I hid myself from other people, I didn’t hide myself from myself. That choking feeling of not being able to speak or communicate with the people you love because you’re not sure who or how they want you to be, knowing that if you get it wrong you’ll be met with violence? Yeah, that feeling sucks. It’s been my childhood promise to myself to find a place that doesn’t feel like home, and that while other people might make me feel like shit, I would never do that to myself.
My younger self was able to hold a belief in a world where we’re seen and loved because it was in all the books I was reading, and I figured those thoughts had to come from somewhere, right? I’m grateful to child-me for the decision to save us, because with age I got more disabled, and more queer. What’s ironic is, I doubt my sexuality would be such a significant portion of my life if not for the prejudice I expected and experienced. I was dogged in my quest to love myself, so I started with what I considered to be the most shameful part of me. I wanted to understand how queer people could have any other feelings for themselves besides this pain and hurt and shame. I learned that my difficult feelings weren’t about me being queer, but about what I knew it meant for me. I started learning about difference, not just in gender and sexuality, but in mind and body, language and creed and culture.
I started to see how the urge to conform and the violence that greets us when we don’t “fit” are aspects of colonization and suppression. We are raised to see differences punished and then told that punishment is a result of difference, not a global system invested in keeping us from knowing and being ourselves. A person is poor or houseless because they didn’t work hard enough. Suffering because they do not know god. And so we are raised to “not be poor” and “not suffer” with little attention given to the kind of world that punishes lack and suffering.
Colonized people especially have been conditioned to treat differences with shame and abjection. After learning this, I understood that what I needed to be safe was to be surrounded by people who exist in a different reality from what is common or accepted. People who don’t see my worth in my sexuality, my ability to earn income or survive this hellscape reality.
If I wasn’t guarded on who and what I allow to speak shame into me, if I was surrounded by people who had conditional love for me, who required me to split myself into digestible parts to stay my family, they would kill me in their attempts to “love” me and cure my difference.
I think that’s the crux of Walking With Shadows. The parts of us we’re conditioned to believe are shameful are parts of us we should hold close and be intentional with. They are the parts of us we need to love, hold, and understand, because it’s hard to love yourself from shame, and the closest chance we have of setting that shame down, of experiencing a love that holds most, if not all, of us is asking and allowing the people that love us to see all of us.
While Adrian’s story ends on a somewhat hopeful note, it was bittersweet to read within the context of present day Nigeria and America. Adrian’s worst fears and more have been realized in Nigeria. It was never completely sweet for queer Nigerians, but the world Adrian exists in — where his friends say, “what’s the worst that could happen?” to him coming out, where he could even consider fighting a discrimination case at work, and where his fears on his sexuality, great as they may be, are limited to the response of his immediate network — is very different from Nigeria today.
The homophobic fires of protestant evangelism are only growing, but we are growing, too.
We, the different ones, we the shadows. I see it in Nigerian music, in our films and protests, and even in our heartbreak and stress. Something has to give, and oppressed people are running out of things to give.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.