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Queer Naija Lit: “The Lives of Great Men” Interrogates the Measures of Masculinity and Greatness

My internal identity journey as a black genderfluid person involves engaging with my relationship to masculinity. I’m figuring out what it means to be masculine in a patriarchal world, something I think is a personal and communal responsibility.

Common narratives on masculinity are often blatant reinforcements of patriarchy, and anything outside of that is subjugated. I want to be outside of that narrative, which means my reflections on masculinity prioritize BlaQueer  — a term coined by Dr. T. Anansi Wilson that is a portmanteau of Black and Queer — masculinity in the myriad ways it exists. Communal narratives and reflections help me understand my own positioning and provide me with tools. As a result, Chike Frankie Edozien’s memoir Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man is a very important book to me.

Edozien writes with journalistic precision, befitting his trade, and it makes the book a compelling, multifaceted display of genius.

On one layer, The Lives Of Great Men tells the story of Edozien’s life so far. His childhood in Nigeria, his migration to America through Europe, and his search for purpose. This search draws him to journalism in New York City, and eventually around Africa, reporting the experiences, hopes, and challenges of queer and minoritized Africans.

From his secondary school principal, who teaches with the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poem that inspires the book’s title, to his first friend Paulie, to his first love, Edozien shares several intimate portrayals of the men — mentors, friends, lovers, and family — that live and love alongside him on his life journey. These men, great men, are great in their love and how they reach for it. What makes them great is their authentic and earnest attempt at life.

I think being Queer saved me. As a kid, the most important thing in my life wasn’t being a kid, but being a good kid. I wanted to make my caregivers and teachers — the people I loved and respected — proud of me. Many of my life goals were a reflection of the things they wanted for me. Realizing I was queer, something they most definitely would not be proud of, made me consider, for the first time, what I wanted.

I came to recognize the ease with which I did what was wanted and expected of me as a symptom of my disconnection from myself and my resulting lack of desire for life in general. I was stuck and miserable because I was alive in a literal sense, but I wasn’t alive. My choices, actions, and spaces were not reflective of my values and were not conducive to my peace. I was a child at the time, so this was largely a failure of my caregivers to nurture my spirit, but the gift and joy of adulthood has been creating that life for myself.

Edozien’s work echoes a similar sentiment. His choice to be himself turns into loving himself and his community. The Lives of Great men is an unabashed, vulnerable testament to love. The love Edozie painstakingly grows for himself is central to the memoir, and this love is only possible as a reflection of the love he shares with the other men in his life.

Edozien’s memoir also explores the economic challenges of migrants, primarily within NYC.

I emigrated with my mother, so at first it was not me but her who had to deal with underpaid, backbreaking work and xenophobic harassment. Later, when I found myself estranged from my family — something common for queer migrants — the easy university jobs I’d been picking up didn’t cover me anymore. As with a lot of immigrants, but particularly men, I was shut out of every job but warehouse and manual labor, so the backbreaking continued.

It was nice to see elements of my economic experience as an immigrant be reflected by someone else, even as Edozien was experiencing these things decades prior. There were places our experiences diverged as well. Edozien’s experience in America is largely impacted by his training and experience as a reporter in New York.

Where Edozien loses me a bit is in his commentary on both non-men and women but queer African women specifically. Edozien acknowledges the way that women and non-men are impacted differently by anti-queer laws, particularly the way a lot of homophobic laws in Africa seem to target men more explicitly. At the same time, the book doesn’t quite outline the struggles of queer African women beyond the stronger pressure to marry. Though it might be unintentional, Edozien also presents queer women as being more acceptable societally.

Queer women know this acceptance is often a fetish. In my experience, queer women face a similar violence to men. In Nigeria, especially with the passing of the SSMPA, queer women also face physical harm in the streets and cannot always safely walk about. There’s also intimate, private violence which isn’t the center of the queerphobia explored in The Lives of Great Men. Still, considering the title, I did not go to this book expecting reflections on the lives of non-men.

Edozien’s stories also trace, quite accurately, the political, social, and historical landscape of queer Nigerians primarily, but queer Africans at large.

Edozien also pushes back against the party line narrative that queerness is unafrican. Like other queer African authors, Edozien takes time to outline the different presentations on queerness and gender diversity in Africa. While his factual points, listing queer communities like Senegalese ‘goorjigen’ or Ghanian ‘kombla besia’, are helpful, it’s Edozien’s personal narratives and accounts on the different queer communities he encounters as he travels through Africa for work that speak to me the most.

Edozien’s lived experiences, written into the book, overlap with key places and critical moments in recent African queer history.  Edozien explores the impact of the British Empire on African countries, as much of the anti-queer policies on the continent can be traced to the colonial era. He also explores how this was picked up by American evangelists. Specifically, Scott Lively who in 2009 gave a lecture in Uganda titled, “Exposing The Homosexuals Agenda” (yeah, he’s who we have to thank for that). In this lecture, Lively claims that queer people “have taken over the United States, the United States government, and the European Union … Nobody has been able to stop them so far. I’m hoping Uganda can.” After Lively’s speech, Ugandan lawmaker David Bahati introduced the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality act. These acts build on each other, spreading through different West African Nations, and from his travels, Edozien is able to share his perspective on their impact.

From first-hand experience and witnessing, Edozien also details the political and economic realities of queer migrants and asylum seekers. From his witnessing of his friends — largely other queer African men — Edozien is able to show how the homophobic laws in Africa drive out highly talented and qualified Africans from engaging with their country.

The memoir, told in a collection of stories, weaves these extended arms expertly, creating an insightful, vulnerable, and compelling book. Reading The Lives of Great Men is, to me, like reading the words of a living elder. I’m grateful for this book’s existence.

Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.

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Chinelo Anyadiegwu

Chinelo is a Nigerian-American Texan and soon-to-be Long Beach resident and English Graduate Student. They’re super interested in stories and narrative and they hope to write a queer, afrofuturist fantasy epic that’s years in the making.

Chinelo has written 31 articles for us.


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