In many African societies homosexuality is seen as “un-African” and a western import. Bills have been proposed to ban same-sex marriage, people are imprisoned, or even worse, murdered if found to be gay, and women are subjected to “corrective rape” to cure them of being lesbians. I’ve always found literature to be a powerful tool in expanding knowledge so I began to wonder how same-sex relationships were depicted in African literature.
Homosexuality in Contemporary African Literature
Homosexuality in African literature used to be stigmatised as either an “un-African” activity or attributed solely to Western influences in Africa. Works by Daniel Vignal and Chris Dunton point to that. Vignal analysed 23 novels including Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons (1973), Kofi Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother (1971), Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1973), and Yulisa Amadu Maddy’s No Past, No Present, No Future (1973) where he observes that “for the majority . . . homophilia is exclusively introduced by colonialists or their descendants; by outsiders of all kinds; Arabs, English, French, metis and so on. It is difficult for them to conceive that homophilia might be the act of a black African.” Novels examined by Dunton include Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound To Violence (1971), Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother (1971), Maddy’s Our Sister Killjoy (1977), Mariama Ba’s Scarlet Song (1985), and Soyinka’s The Interpreters.
Most of these novels depicted homosexuality negatively. In Edia Apolo’s short story collection Lagos Na Waa I Swear, a lesbian relationship is stigmatised as “grossly repulsive, un-African and most unlikely”. In Two Thousand Seasons, Armah portrays homosexuality as a practice of the Muslim from the desert who began the first seasons of enslavement. In This Earth, My Brother, the houseboy Yaro left his white master “because he wanted to turn him into a woman”.
Some novels don’t treat homosexuality negatively or as a by-product of Africa’s contact with the West. An example is No Past, No Present, No Future (1973) by Yulisa Amadu Maddy. This novel follows the lives of three African men who migrate to Europe. One of the characters, Joe Bengoh, is homosexual and the novel not only traces his earliest experiences with a mission priest, but also explores his two friends prejudice towards him – they view homosexuality as sick and morally inferior and so reject him. In the end, however, Joe is the only one of the three whose acknowledgment of his true self does not destroy him. Another of Maddy’s novels, Our Sister Killjoy, openly discusses being lesbian. A more recent example is Tendu Huchai’s Hairdresser of Harare (2010), which tells the story of a young man forced to lead a double life to avoid the harsh consequences of being openly gay in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
A significant body of contemporary LGBT literature comes from South Africa. Here authors like Damon Galgut’s Sinless Season (1982) and Stephen Gray’s Time of Our Darkness (1988) explored homosexuality, when it was illegal during apartheid.
After the end of apartheid, and the growth of LGBT rights, there was a growth of LGBT South African literature. These include Mark Behr’s Embrace (2000), Ian Murray’s For the Wings of a Dove (2000), Michiel Heyns’s The Children’s Day (2002), Barry Levy’s Burning Bright (2004) and Craig Higginson’s The Hill (2005), which all deal with boys’ developing sexuality. Other examples include Guy Willoughby’s Archangels (2002) and Michiel Heyns’s The Reluctant Passenger (2003), both of which depict same-sex relationships or experiences, mainly between men. In 2008 Michael Power’s novel Shadow Game was re-published. Shadow Game depicts the love affair between a white man and a black man but was banned in South Africa when it was first published in 1972. Other notable works include K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001) in which a black man, after suffering severe trauma, becomes a male sex worker and encounters same sex experiences, Tatamkhulu Afrika’s Bitter Eden (2002), which explores men who identify as heterosexual struggling with issues of masculinity and intimacy, and Fred Khumalo’s Seven Steps to Heaven (2007), which explores a relationship that develops between a white and a black man, whose previous sexual experiences were all heterosexual.
Women have made a smaller contribution to LGBT literature in South Africa compared with their male counterparts. Notable examples include Rayda Jacobs’s Confessions of a Gambler (2003), which tells the story of a 49-year old Muslim woman, with a gambling addiction, trying to come to terms with the fact her son is gay and dying of AIDs. Barbara Adair’s In Tangier We Killed the Blue Parrot (2004) looks at a bisexual American couple Paul and Jane Bowles, living as expatriates in Tangier, involved in same-sex love affairs with Moroccans. Another LGBT-themed book is Open: An Erotic Anthology by South African Women Writers (Schimke 2008), which contains a significant number of stories about being lesbian or bisexual. Other female writers who have LGBT themes in their wok include Suzy Bell, Makhosazana Xaba, Liesl Jobson, Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes.
Unfortunately, few works published so far examine homosexuality from a black woman’s perspective, although Jane Bennett’s collection of short stories, Porcupine (2008) includes a representation of being black and a lesbian. Another example is a short story, “The Glass Pecker” by Lindiwe Nkutha (2005). The story is about a bisexual South African black woman, Nonceba, who commits suicide after her lover does the same. Go Tell it to the Sun by Wame Molefhe has a short story “Sethuya Likes Girls Better”, depicting a married woman forced to suppress her sexuality to conform to societal pressures; while Black Bull, Ancestors and Me is a memoir of sangoma, a traditional healer and lesbian.
LGBT literature in Africa
While an exhaustive examination of LGBT literature in Africa is virtually impossible, the few works presented here show that the genre has come a long way from depicting homosexuality as “un-African” and foreign, especially in South Africa where most of the literature is coming from. While white South African men writing about white gay male identity dominate, there are a growing number of black male authors, like K Sello Duiker, who look at additional issues of race and class. There are also female authors who tend to include more progressive depictions of women’s sexuality. Overall, these works convey images of homosexuality which challenge stereotypical views. Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go. There isn’t that much work coming out from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and there needs to be more works from black lesbian women and transgender people.