We are in a time zone wherein the problematic of queerness is being emancipated through story telling.
“The stories in these books bring a window into easy-to-dismiss lives.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Khosi Xaba. Xaba is a South African poet. Her poetry has been anthologized extensively and translated into Italian, Mandarin and Turkish. In 2014 she was nominated for the poetry category of the Mbokodo Awards. Her book is Queer Africa: Selected Stories.
Note from author: My responses relate to these three books as a collective. When I quote specifically from one book, I will reference them as such:
Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction (2013)[ QA]
Queer Africa: New Stories (2017) [QA: 2 ]
Queer Africa; Selected Stories (2018) [QA: 3]
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Khosi Xaba: We all read from our own positioning and so the book is likely to provide different “points” for different people; entry points, starting points, meeting points and connecting points.
For instance Nine pieces of desire (QA: 2) by Idza L. provided an entry point for me towards understanding the burden of an oppressive religion, within a society. The character in the story tells of her mother: “Mama would never allow me to do that to my hair. Everything to her is haram. Sleeping is haram. Laughing is loudly haram. Eating is also haram.” I had never heard of the word -- haram -- before so I researched that before I engaged further with the writer. I thus entered an oasis of specific information and knowledge, I hadn’t known anything about, until then.
Twenty-six stories from seven countries will give BAR readers access to as many political and social climates and as they read though each story, different “points” will come forth for each reader.
The broader generalized political and social climate is still anti a full embodiment of full self- expression, not just for queer individuals. The stories in these books bring a window into easy-to-dismiss lives. The empathy that the stories invite will I believe have a positive impact on the readers’ understanding of the climate.
Our (my co-editor Karen Martin and I) chose these twenty-six stories out of 95 submissions (QA2), from the first anthology QA we only received 44 submissions and decided to choose from previously published stories, that’s how we reached the total of 18 stories for the first book. For both books we were seeking stories that are so well told/written that they indeed invite that empathy and attendant understanding.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
In my late teens it took the words from Gill Scot Heron: “I said I wasn’t gonna write no more poems like these but the dogs are in the streets.” for me to understand that racism was a worldwide problem, that we were neither fighting alone nor in vain and that the anger was justified. South Africa was isolated and information was heavily regulated, monitored and censored by the apartheid regime. Until I listened to that cassette I had understood racism as a local phenomenon, a peculiar South African thing that we needed to get rid of. I heard those words on a cassette which I had taken from an underground community library, pre television time. In South Africa television was introduced only in 1976. I give this background to make this point: context and circumstance often define what is to be taken away upon reading. There are group take-aways and there are individual take-aways.
“I had understood racism as a local phenomenon, a peculiar South African thing that we needed to get rid of.”
These books carry stories from the many countries of our continent and what is obvious from the stories as a collective humanity that Africans are often denied. The take away then is about the intrinsic commitment to doing good by others, that activism is about. So I hope that the stories will give readers and activists a comprehension of what Barbara Boswell called in her introduction to Queer Africa: New Stories, “…an array of interpretations of what it means to be fully human, queer and African – three categories of identity often misconstrued as mutually exclusive.”
I have often been shocked upon meeting African Americans in South Africa whose understanding of Africa and Africans is limited to the white imperial view. This has often shocked me because it challenged my expectations i.e. African Americans would be more and better informed. Most importantly it made me see the power of propaganda. These stories I hope will help turn that around and that will result in activism and community work that is better informed and wholesome.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Readers learn from books what they are ready to learn. So I am hoping that readers will firstly read all the three books because reading them as a collective is a bit like undertaking an exercise routine, it only works after a number of repetitions.
The particular ideology that these stories address is multilayered and can be unpicked from the folding overs of these words: Black-African-Female-LGBTQIA. Being female/woman in Africa is hard enough because sexism is still not only rife but denied by its perpetrators (males of all colors) and sometimes defended by the people it targets (Black females/women) because that is how internalized oppression functions. A Black female/woman who has an American accent in Africa is received with more positivity in Africa because there is a generalized “higher currency” for Americanness whichever way it is expressed. I could go on and on adding one layer over the other. The point is; sometimes people’s “theoretical ideals” only truly get challenged by the realness of well told/written stories.
And, this is different from real life because the human tendency under real life conditions is to self-protect through being defensive and that does not allow for learning. Reading is private. It is silent. Its power of persuasion is therefore stronger as there is no voice to push against and no person to argue with. So whatever each reader is ready to learn and unlearn will do so in safely of their private space at their own pace. Rereading can be very powerful, far different from reenacting an experience with a person. And often this rereading is self-driven, voluntary and therefor more powerful.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I will confine my responses to intellectuals who are writers as this question is far too broad. Black women writers who came before me, whose work has inspired me, are: Noni Jabavu, Miriam Tlali, Bessie Head, Lauretta Ngcobo, Ellen Khuzwayo. All of them are now dead and 2019 is Noni Jabavu’s centenary. The word “intellectual” is not often used with any of their names next to it but to me they are public writerly intellectuals whose works paved the way for writers like me.
I am also drawn towards women writers from the continent because growing up in during apartheid years, pre-television, pre-globalized communication systems that have allowed social media, what I was exposed to, that was described as “intellectual” was white and male, then white and female, then Black and male. I never came across a single book written by a Black woman until I finished high school. I was painfully aware that there was something missing from my reading life. Bessie Head was the very first Black woman writer I read when I came across her novel, Maru. By then I read numerous novels by African men. It is impossible to conclude that male writers whose female characters are so stereotypical, are intellectual. Similarly, white people’s views and rendering in writing of Black people and their lives made me conclude they cannot be intellectual by any stretch of imagination.
Reading Mariam Ba, Yvonne Vera, Buchi Emechetta and Nawaal el Sadaawi was my entry point writerly intellectuals of our continent.
“It is impossible to conclude that male writers whose female characters are so stereotypical, are intellectual.”
Margaret Busby. And then, there is Margaret Busby. She did it in 1992 with Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present and repeated it in 2019 when she edited New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent. These two tomes are physical manifestations of an intellectual prowess that has asked the question: how do we guard against the erasure of Black women as writers in this world? And then gone on and did the work.
Margaret Busby’s work on these two anthologies has inspired my own work, no doubt about that.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I will return to my argument earlier, put differently: one person’s new world is another’s old world. The stories in these books reveal new worlds for some and confirm that old world for others. When Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction came out in 2013 we were told that it was the first book from the continent that was unapologetically queer and African in the sense that all the stories in the book had a queer-and/while-African theme. That meant a whole new world for the African continent. Over the years this is changing, new worlds are emerging with each passing year.
Similar to other types of fiction, the new world we can now imagine has stories and novels wherein the queerness of the characters is so germane it is insignificant. We are inside a time bubble when the queerness of characters is central to the story and most of the narrative revolves around it and, or, is driven by it. In other words we are in a time zone wherein the problematic of queerness is being emancipated through story telling.
This is timely and welcome but it too has to shift in order to usher in a world in which the variations and shifting nature of gender identity and sexual orientation are so taken for granted that they neither drive nor revolve around the plot.
Imagine a fast paced detective story where a professional investigator whose mission is to find a body and expose a murderer, uncovers precious stones located in some insignificant residential area close to an equally insignificant town in the African continent and this sparks a complex political entanglement that calls for another investigation and a counter investigation and this main character/investigator just happens to be a non-binary, female-presenting, borderline-asexual detective and the narration is centered on their investigative work, we only get to know about their gender identity in tiny tangential and miss-able mentions here and there.
This is a world of fiction I can imagine -- it’s probably an old world for someone else.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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