In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Lindsey Green-Simms. Green-Simms is Associate Professor of Literature at American University. Her book is Queer African Cinemas.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Lindsey Green-Simms: Right now there’s a lot of attention being paid to efforts to further criminalize homosexuality in countries such as Ghana or failures to decriminalize it in countries such as Kenya. And these are indeed important stories, but it is also important, as Keguro Macharia reminds us, to remember that homophobia in Africa is not a single story. Queer African Cinemas is a book about cinematic representations of queerness on the African continent. Some of those representations document homophobia, some of them repeat it, and some of them actively seek to undermine it. But what the African films and videos I examine all have in common is that they show queer life, queer love and queer resistance to be multi-faceted, complicated, messy, beautiful, ugly, etc. Filmmakers, unlike journalists, get to create worlds and build characters. And so I think that Queer African Cinemas helps us to understand the current political and social climate by going beyond the headlines, by looking at the intimate and sometimes quiet moments of queerness in addition to the loud or violent ones that often grab our attention. In this way, queerness in Africa is not simply reduced to a story about homophobia but is allowed to exist in all the complicated and conflicted ways that it exists all over the world.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I think that my chapter on Nollywood, the popular Nigerian film industry, has particular relevance to activists and community organizers. The first half of the chapter looks at the body of Nollywood films leading up to Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) of 2014, arguing that even though these films contradict state discourse that denies the existence of homosexuality in Nigeria, they also reproduce homophobia by figuring the homosexual as immoral for local audiences. In the second half of the chapter, however, I turn my attention to films produced by the Nigerian-run and Lagos-based organization The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs). Here, I discuss how TIERs strategically utilizes Nollywood aesthetics, stars, and conventions to appeal to audience’s emotions in a way that challenges the morality of homophobia itself but still presents stories in a recognizable way, non-confrontational way. I argue that TIERs practices what Obioma Nnaemeka refers to as “nego-feminism,” a strategy that makes use of negotiation and give and take that is grounded in African values and morals. To me, these practices of negotiation are quite fascinating and very different from the types of visibility projects that are prioritized in the West, so I think there’s something to be learned from the type of work that organizations like TIERs are doing on the African continent with the explicit intent of engaging African audiences.
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?
I think that there are often expectations about what queer art is supposed to look like, that it should it center on coming out, or positive love stories, or overcoming homophobia. But queer African cinema doesn’t always follow these expectations and I think it asks to un-learn what we think of as resistance. In my introduction I argue that when we disengage resistance from its binary relations to subordination, or domination, or vulnerability we can better attend to all of the imperfect forms of adaptation, life-building, and belonging that become possible outside of those binaries. In my first chapter I look at two films in which the main female character is linked to the African water spirit commonly known as Mami Wata. The chapter discusses how Mami Wata provides a blueprint for indigenous forms of queerness that are improvisational and that suggest ways to disrupt the status quo through waywardness and eccentricity rather than explicit opposition. The emphasis is not on homophobia per se but on more ambiguous and slippery forms of evasion that exist alongside various constraints. And as I said above, some of the films that TIERs are making are also resistant in more quiet or subtle ways. And in my chapter on South African films, I discuss how the resistance there is often disorienting or ambivalent or conflicted. Even when I discuss a movie like the Kenyan film Rafiki by Wanuri Kahiu, which is in many ways a conventional coming out or queer love story, I think we can read it as film in which vulnerability is just as important as overt resistance.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This is a hard one to answer briefly. When I think about below-the-threshold forms of resistance, or forms of resistance that register more subtly, either through music, or through inaudible gestures that communicate inner desires and fears, or through intimate gestures or touches, I am influenced by thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman, Tina Campt, Friedo Ekotto, and Kevin Quashie. And Hartman’s thinking through the keyword of “wayward” as that which indicates both what is uncontainable and, at the same time, constantly in danger of being captured and contained is also quite useful to me. The Ugandan feminist Sylvia Tamale advocates for a form of decolonization or “breaking free” that makes use of African-centered feminist practices, and I’ve thought quite a bit about her work as I look at films that, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, position queerness as intrinsic to indigenous cultural beliefs. Keguro Macharia’s poetic thinking about fugitivity and survival have also shaped my work as has Binyavanga’s Wainaina’s call to free the imagination, Ashon Crawley’s articulation of otherwise possibilities, and José Esteban Muñoz writing on a queer futurity “that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.” There are also a number of queer African scholars and writers like Zethu Matebeni, Serena Dankwa, Unoma Azuah, and S.N. Nyeck whose fantastic work inspires my own and who I’m indebted to in multiple ways. And I think that’s just skimming the surface.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
One of the things that looking at queer African films in all of their complexity allows me to do is to explore the types of frameworks and narratives that become available when one imagines vulnerability—or pleasure and intimacy, or quieter modes of operating differently, or negotiating—as practices of and resources for resistance. In other words, rather than pitting progressive, transgressive resistance against oppressive homophobia, I am interested in exploring all of the various registers in between. One of the ways to categorize the registers of resistance that rest in the middle range between heroic agency and denial of gay existence and rights is through what I call Afri-queer fugitivity, a fugitivity that can be seen in the different forms of fleeing, escape, and past/future reimaginings in many of the films discussed in this book. Fugitivity has been used primarily by a broad range of scholars who theorize African American practices of escape and evasion as they flee from and imagine alternatives to the different types of enslavement and captivity that mark Black life in the United States. But in Queer African Cinemas, I point specifically to an Afri-queer fugitivity, an African and queer fugitivity that inhabits a certain slipperiness, that dreams of lives unencumbered by state-sanctioned homophobia, that breaks or evades rules, and that flees from constraints by mobilizing past, present, and future imaginaries. And while I see Afri-queer fugitivity to be at work across a range of queer African writing, advocacy work, and creative expression, I am particularly interested in the way that films, which combine narrative, sound, and visuals create multi-sensory worlds that resist the limitations of the present by searching for something that can surpass it.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.