Hausa is a language of love. This assertion, made in the first story in Arinze Ifeakandu’s story collection God’s Children are Little Broken Things butterfly-cut my heart in preparation for the rest of the stories.
Hausa is spoken everywhere in Nigeria, but mostly in Northern Nigeria where it’s one of the many languages indigenous to the region. The furthest North I’ve been in Nigeria is Niger, which is more like a central state, but I know Hausa is a language of love because of my mother.
My mother spent secondary school in Sokoto, one of Nigeria’s northernmost states. She also schooled in Bauchi and spent time in Jos, Maiduguri, and Kano, all Northern states. My mother speaks Hausa (and Igbo and Yoruba and Fula), and in my childhood, Hausa and Igbo were the languages I heard her use the most. She would greet me in the mornings with “Ina kwana?” which is Hausa, or in Igbo, “I teta ofuma?” both of which ask if I slept well. My mother was also my Sunday school teacher, and the first christian song I learned was in Hausa.
Hausa became the thing that connected us across states when I went to secondary school in Abuja while my mother stayed in Lagos. The first thing I did was try to learn Hausa. I never succeeded past the insults and slang my mates were quick to teach me. Still, every other Saturday, when we were allowed, I would call my mother and practice new words with glee. Hausa made me feel closer to her.
My mother’s ability to fluently speak some of Nigeria’s most widely spoken languages made it so I saw my country primarily through language and connection. No matter where we went, we could talk to someone. The rest of my family tends to see the country in segmented ways. The Biafran war — which placed Igbo and Hausa people on either end — did little to gentle the relationship between tribes.
“The Dreamers Litany” the first story in this collection, which follows shop owner Auwal and his relationship with Chief Emeka, engages with these complex realities. Between the layers of hurt, shame, and confusion that clouds their relationship, there’s Hausa. Connecting.
Ifeakandu makes intentional choices not just in the stories he tells but in how they’re told and what is pulled to the surface and woven together.
The back of the book describes Ifeakandu’s writing as “alert to the human and universal in every situation” and I agree. Ifeakandu is able to center the uniqueness of his characters’ stories by sharing what is the same in their realities. Inevitably every experience, even universal ones, are made individual by the individual experiencing it.
To be human is to be, or not. To love, or not. I spend a lot of time thinking about beingness and language and the way humans interact with both things — with duality in general. Humans are in an eternal presence-absence by nature of our being. The moment we’re born, we begin to die, this is the universal. Between life and death is individual potential. Some people call this potential for life, God.
Life has been restricted in an infinite amount of ways. This too is universal. Humans have been kept from expressing the fullness of their own potential, largely by other humans. What happens when you can’t be you, right down to the way you think of yourself even in your head? What do you do if something works to make you an impossible existence to your own mind and spirit.
This is life for the majority of queer people globally — and in Ifeakandu’s book.
Ifeakandu skillfully explores these realities with grace. While the characters themselves shoulder shame and fear, and lash out, the god that writes them does so with a gentle pen. The ten stories in Ifeakandu’s collection move between Kano, Lagos and Enugu, forming a triangle of states that encloses more than half of Nigeria.
Each story is intimate, painful, and beautiful. Ifeakandu explores the lives of queer Nigerians in a way that emphasizes the connection of our struggles. He writes about queer Nigerians but also poor Nigerians. He writes about the myriads of abuse and limitations that stifle life: the misogyny, the tribalism, the capitalism, all of it feeds the things that restrict our lives.
There are at least two things happening in each story: a breaking and a joining or life and death.
Sometimes characters get to choose their direction; other times the choice is made for them. Most times, it’s some combination of the two.
Pain, joy, loss, happiness. Most people experience these things, but what is the shape of your fear? The taste of your loneliness? The color of your peace? The way we respond to our experiences is what’s human. Ifeakandu leans into the response, and the stories are snapshots of responses to life happening, while the characters are being denied the right to life because they are queer.
The stories are not tragedies, though some are tragic. Hope is in the trying, and not the outcome. With stories, hope is in the telling. Most characters in the book try, and the tragedy lies in the limitations on their attempts, external and internal. The characters deal with loss, disenfranchisement from their families, and sickness, all while their right to being is suppressed by legislative authorities.
In all this, the question asked by the book, the title, the characters, is “where is God?”
God in one sense is authority. For queer and disenfranchised Nigerians that the book centers, authority exists to suppress their existence. The violence of the Church in Nigeria for all Nigerians, and particularly for queer Nigerians is something Ifeakandu’s characters must contend with. Shame and the Church often go hand in hand. When secular governmental bodies also reinforce the violence of the church, it can seem and be impossible to escape. Worse, it can feel impossible not to internalize the narratives.
However, the characters in God’s Children are Little Broken Things are written with such kindness that their hurt, which feeds their shame, doesn’t fuel condemnation in me but empathy. The pain of that empathy became a point of catharsis for me. I found myself getting angry for the characters and the things they’re forced to endure. In doing so, I became angry for myself because a lot of those experiences have been mine as well. Very few queer Nigerians are able to escape the “deliverance” of the Church, in whatever abusive form it takes.
When abuse is justified by the people we love, our internal narrative starts to rationalize it, because in that moment it might hurt less, or be safer to blame ourselves. Yet, when we take responsibility for pain that isn’t ours, we internalize another person’s narrative, and can deny ourselves the freedom of our own gaze.
Ifeakandu’s book showed me a different face for God. God in another sense is love. The companionship of close friends. Art. The very possibility of existence itself.
For as much as bigots try to deny people the right to be, they cannot make and unmake a person. They can kill and hurt, but hurting me doesn’t make me less queer, it makes me unsafe. Ifeakandu shows how, even within the seemingly omnipotent reach of suppressive authority, there is love and possibility, if we take the chance to see the connections.
Thank you, Arinze.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.