BAR Book Forum: S.N. Nyeck’s “Routledge Handbook of Queer African Studies”
The author provides a “queer” perspective on African identities, politics and economies.
“The clash of perspectives on difference, inclusion, gender and sexual diversity is very much present on the African continent.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is S.N. Nyeck. Nyeck is a Visiting Scholar at The Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative at Emory School of Law. She is the editor of the book,Routledge Handbook of Queer African Studies.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
S.N. Nyeck: First of all, the book is a collection of different voices and perspectives on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual (LGBTQIA) identities in Africa and how they intersect and complicate our understanding of difference and intimacy in relationships, sexual, social, political or otherwise. LGBTQIA identities, identified here as ‘queer,’ should never be reduced to one hyper-politicized label only. Same-sex/gender intimacy is, however, a way in which LGBTQIA understand themselves, their contexts, and relational purpose in the world. The book provides a “queer” perspective on African identities, politics and economies. The readers will enjoy the richness of LGBTQIA experiences in different countries and contexts and appreciate how grounded they are in negotiation. This is to say that this book reflects on the challenges of fully respecting LGBTQIA persons in African societies. It simultaneously documents how belonging is very much embedded in everyday life beyond sensational news and politics. For instance, a few chapters show that queer persons often choose to rely on African ways of being and belonging within specific communities thereby leading to change in perspectives and mutual recognition.
What is important to understand is that although the state apparatuses have in many ways superseded and distorted traditional modes of being and belonging in Africa, to approach human rights as if deriving from the legal protection that the state solely affords to certain categories is sometimes necessary but imperfect because the quest for dignity is distinct from the quest for rights. Given their contexts and critique of existing dominant conceptions of difference, gender and sexuality, (conceptions indigenous to Africa and those imposed through (neo)colonialism), LGBTQIA struggle in Africa is better seen as a struggle to bring African lived experience back in conversation with homophobic institutionalism of religious and political origins. The clash of perspectives on difference, inclusion, gender and sexual diversity is very much present on the African continent and the struggle is not just a matter of what individuals or states do or fail to do. It is very much framed and influenced by transnational global market forces and religious ideologies that are changing approaches to collective solidarities; a change that is certainly felt in the ways in which social life and services are more and more privatized in Africa. In sum, readers will enjoy the focus on everyday interactions from cultural and ritualized spaces to the classroom of colleges and universities to the twists and turns of daily economic survival that make LGBTQIA experiences very much embedded in Africa’s socio-economic and political realities.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
This book is different from my previously edited one, Sexual Diversity in Africa (McGill University Press, 2013), in that it brings together voices and perspectives from within and without academia. Non-scholarly perspectives open up all sections of the book. This organizational choice was deliberate on my part privileging experiences in the trenches to inform and guide scholarly reflections. Themes that emerge from activist-contributors are very innovative and in some cases have not really been dealt with in the academic literature. For example, community organizers may find interesting intersecting discussions on land rights and sexuality, protest movements and marginalization of LGBTQIA perspectives; education reform, social media and the transformation of relational possibilities in Africa. Bridging and guiding the contributions from the trenches and from academia throughout the book is queer poetry in revolutionary stanzas.
Several academic contributors highlight the importance of social and cultural spaces that affirm the humanity of all persons. They remind us that while the state continues to play a central role of allocating resources and legitimacy to some groups and not to others, non-state actors and spaces may benefit from strategies that are contextually relevant and from holistic approaches to supporting LGBTQIA persons, groups, and contexts. Quite a few chapters invite the readers to think sexuality and gender not as abstract concepts but as real bodies engaged in various economic transactions. Talking about money and economics from LGBTQIA perspectives lends itself to recognizing the existence of structural limitations and the dehumanizing economic policies that continue to affect most Africans regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
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?
Learning and unlearning are great intellectual exercises, but they do not necessarily lead to the transformation of the un-learners. There might be two ways of approaching this handbook: one is to treat the LGBTQIA subjects as purely external and in this case, one might ‘learn or unlearn’ a thing or two in this handbook. The other approach is a more reflective one; where one might want to see similarities where differences are supposed to abound between LGBTQIA persons and the reader’s self. What one might want to un-learn is not just abstract knowledge about another subject or group, but also knowledge of one’s self. “If you climb up a tree, you must climb down the same tree,” says an African proverb. As it happens, wisdom is often one degree of separation from the obvious in Africanist modes of communication. The issue of learning and unlearning is not restricted to mind-driven/inspired actions only, in this case climbing up or down a tree. Wisdom is in the encounter with the immovable that is action processing while remaining undisturbed by the direction of specific turns and returns: The same palm tree. The handbook invites encounters with that which is beyond thought processing, action and identity processing, sexualities and asexualities normalizing only. Homophobia, transphobia and all types of exclusionary positions are borne from a common mistake in understanding and interpretation of wisdom: that s/he/they who once climbed a palm tree up never realizing that s/he/they could climb the same tree down conclude(s) that those who go down must have climbed a different tree; or worse, that their directional inclinations diminishes one’s movement upward. In the Africanist garden of being and belonging there are many trees and they are big and immovable enough to accommodate all human traffic including queer in-directions.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My role as the editor of the handbook was not to promote my muses. The idea of an ‘intellectual hero or heroine’ is one that I find suspicious at best especially when ‘the intellect’ as a dominant category and its subsequent hegemonic violence over types deemed irrelevant or inferior is not interrogated. The search for or advertisement of heroes and heroines is not exactly what motivated me to edit this handbook. In fact, the handbook does not claim to be a panoramic overview of the field of African Queer Studies. It simply focuses on themes that the contributors deemed relevant and pressing. The contributors then are my heroes and heroines and this book offered some of them the opportunity to publish their first major written work. Audre Lorde once said about the queer subject that it is never meant to survive. To the extent that activists and scholars continue to put ink to paper, writing becomes a heroic act through which the traces of queer existence survive in Africa and elsewhere. The physical and bodily investment in writing and in sharing personal narratives, as some chapters do in this book, shows embodiment of what Audre Lorde once termed the “erotic as power;” the creative power that frees us from exclusive Cartesian binaries with their hierarchies of knowledge and pedagogies.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
The question of LGBTQIA belonging in Africa is certainly one of imagination and engagement. Imagination in the sense that Africanist thinkers and activists are grappling with language that simultaneously empowers and disempowers. In so doing, they are bound to be critical of all preconceived notions of difference and identity. Engagement is needed because the LGBTQIA subject is very much present and alive in Africa. Its autonomy and influence, however, will depend on its ability to resist the totalizing discourses of queer apologists and detractors. The struggle to find voices and practices that celebrate the “here and now” of the many renditions of LGBTQIA experiences in Africa is ongoing. It is hoped that this handbook contributes a stone to building the fortress of, inclusive and affirmative cultures, societies and states in Africa and elsewhere.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new 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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