Feature image by the_burtons via Getty Images
We Are Flowers, a Queer Nigerian anthology, is defiant and audacious. It has no choice but to be. The collection was published in the online literary magazine Brittle Paper in the years following the passing of Nigeria’s SSMPA. The editors took on the group name 14, both as a reference to the 14-year prison sentence imposed by the SSMPA on queer and trans folks and an attempt to preserve anonymity. We Are Flowers is in an active dance with the realities it’s seeking to argue against.
The anthology is an argument, even as it is artistic expression, because Nigeria forbids such expression from its citizens. The writers and editors of We Are Flowers grapple with telling a potentially illegal story, and therefore are made to justify the telling of their stories.
Perhaps this forced justification is part of why the anthology includes a well thought out introductory section, where editors and writers map out their intentions and hopes for their collection. As Unomah Azuah writes in said introduction: “The task of the anthology moves beyond enlightenment and entertainment. It delves into the topography of advocacy and activism.” Ikhide Ikheola follows up with, “marvel at the gift and resilience of beautiful people who refuse to be ugly in an ugly world.”
The SSMPA and similar ordinances subjugating queer Nigerians do so by distorting public perceptions and intentionally galvanizing the unrest of the populace from things that need to be addressed — like income inequality, Nigeria’s failing universities, and the ongoing pillaging by neo-colonial empires — and redirecting this unrest into useful tools for the state to keep its populace in check by blaming the struggles of the public on the existence of queer Nigerians.
The blame heaped on queer Nigerians (a descendant of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy favored by oppressors everywhere) is a logical leap made possible by ensuring that “queer Nigerians” become the kind of people (in public conscious) that could somehow be responsible for the issues facing Nigeria. In short, queer Nigerians are grappling with the external violence of the state — and an internal crisis of identity.
Identity formation is a vital part of the development of a person. Yet, how do you engage with the complications of identity formation when so much of your expression is criminalized and therefore suppressed?
Who are you when you don’t get to be you?
“We are flowers” is the answer the anthology provides.
Each artist engages with identity through different forms (poetry, essays, and visual media) and different standpoints. The pieces that make up the collection are from a varied source of Nigerians living within the country, as well as queer (and not queer) people aligning themselves with the cause from outside of Nigeria (an unexpected offering the editors incorporated into the anthology). The variation in narrative bolsters the depth of the anthology’s engagement with identity.
It’s easy to pigeonhole queer identity into the expression of ‘queer’ desire, but no one ever taught my body to divide its desires into ‘queer’ and ‘not.’ Meaning, it is the same desire that guides me to play video games and read books that also guides me to make friends and fall in love. Before there’s a “me” that loves, that “me” must first have room to exist. The stifling of my queer desire is simply the subjugation of my desire in general.
It wasn’t until I moved out of Nigeria that I discovered I was not, in fact, a quiet child with little interest in making friends. While our stories are different, I resonate with the protagonist of the short story, “Friends In A Ship” who bemoans that, “A friendship based on a misconception is a fraudulent acquisition. Like fake jewelry, it will fail every examination and test of time.” I understood, innately, that there was a difference between me and the people around me, one so dangerous I couldn’t allow myself to label it. Unfortunately, me not labeling myself didn’t stop others from helping themselves to what was not theirs.
I learned names for “people like me” before I learned of “me.” I was certain I was not a sin, and yet that was the only word given for me. Rather than be a sin, I chose not to be at all. It’s a kind of living death, feeding the functions of the body but not the spirit. It’s even worse when this ‘choice’ happens subconsciously, because your mind is too scared — and too young — to make those choices intentionally.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: Who are you when you don’t get to be you?
I have a few favorite engagements with this question.
First, Osinachi’s visual piece “Ada-Obi.” Images have the ability to give form to unlabeled or even unexpressed experiences while still remaining free from the constriction of language and definition. “Ada-Obi” is a multifaceted piece, reflective of its name. Adaobi is, in igbo, the way to refer to the first daughter of a family. There are numerous expressions of the name “Ada” (first daughter), but what’s interesting is the way Osinachi chose to write the title, Ada-Obi.
The separation between the phrases calls into the picture the (again, numerous) meanings attached to “Obi.” Obi can be the heart organ, it can be a family compound, it can be the title of a ruler, and, in present day igboland, it is a common “boy” name. It is this last definition of Obi that I most enjoy applying to Osinachi’s piece. With a simple hyphen, Osinachi separated and recontextualized a name I’ve been called by often (as the first daughter of my father).
What once left me feeling gendered incorrectly has become an affirmation of my gender and the multiplicities inherent in igbo culture. Visually, the piece engages with traditionally gendered depictions of igbo people, not so much as to present any one gender in a person, but the way they’re all connected. Part of how Osinachi does this is by utilizing elements of Uli (in igboland, an art style associated with women) but not quite making an Uli drawing. It’s a reminder that everything in my culture is an attempt at representing what already is.
What came first, the person or the identity? In Igbo culture, the spirit comes first.
Another favorite is Romeo Oriogun’s poem “You Think You Are Fucked,” which I like both for the title, and the first lines, “wait until you write a poem/ about your father asking what it means/ to be bisexual” because it drew a chuckle at the reminder of a similar horror I faced, and also gratitude that I could now laugh where I once only felt despair. Another favorite poem, also by Oriogun, “How To Survive The Fire,” has the lines: “the first rule of survival is to Run” and “I tell you this to understand my silence,/ to understand why I crawled into my voice,/ I do not want to die.” I always appreciate art from people haunted by the same things that construct my fear.
In stories, Rapum Kambili’s “Gay Wars: Battle of the Bitches (or, The Tops and Bottoms of Being Out in Nigeria)” remains one of my favorite shorts every time I read it. Even if I didn’t deeply enjoy how it’s written as well as what is written, Kambili’s use of “bitch” alone would secure this piece as a personal favorite. In Kambili’s words, “Bitch: A man who rolls his eyes, dangles his wrists, or simply says, ‘I am.’” Beyond that, the Rapum in the story survives with a balance of wit, humor, and aggression that I’ve never been able to figure out but admire.
Additionally, Rapum’s experience is a bit similar to the experiences I had in Nigeria, when I would return as an older teen with a better understanding of my own desires (that is, knowing they exist in the first place). While in America, I labeled the sense of isolation I had grown up with as reflective of the rarity or impossibility of my own existence. It didn’t take long after returning home with a sense of self for me to realize I was terribly wrong, and there were queer people everywhere in Nigeria. Rather than the isolation I expected to continue, I was faced with learning how to safely (for us) navigate the now visible (to me) queer world I was simultaneously told didn’t exist. Rapum, as an ‘out’ gay man in Nigeria, is entrenched in balancing cultivating a life between visibility and invisibility. His observations of the harm done to a community forced to live in this way are layered intricately through the piece connecting his personal and larger communal experience.
As with Osinachi, Kambili and many of the artists in the collection work to define themselves. We are obliged to name ourselves, especially when the world aches to give us false names. The result of this work is a beautiful offering of life, a collection dedicated explicitly to “the victims of the February 2014 Gishiri (Abuja) homophobic attacks. And for all those who have suffered homophobic violence.”
A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and we are flowers.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.