Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees: When gay characters attract death threats
22nd Feb 2016
The stories were not ‘big p’ political, but her characters Gloria and Nnenna offended a handful of readers: they were Nigerian characters, and they were gay.
She recalls: “I received threats saying, ‘If you do that – and these are the names of the characters – if you do that Gloria and Nenna thing in Nigeria then we will kill you’. It might have been a joke but it wasn’t funny.
“They wrote it to me on Facebook, and several people felt it necessary to forward it to me and check I’d seen it. It might have been to make me careful or whatever but it was just a very sad thing, I thought, that someone should write that in the first place, and that I would be getting threats on Facebook.”
Now her novel Under the Udala Trees threatens to bring the same unwanted attention all over again. Set in the Biafran war, the story follows a girl who falls in love with a girl.
Jude Dibia is also familiar with the homophobic threat in Nigeria. His novel Walking with Shadows (2005) was said to be the first Nigerian novel with a gay male protagonist.
Dibia argues that the representation of gay Nigerian characters, or gay characters written by authors with Nigerian heritage goes a long way in dismissing the concept and idea that being LGBT and African is an ‘alien’ notion.
He explains: “It allows many young and older Nigerians to see themselves represented in fiction or otherwise and empowers them, making them feel not only counted but also that there are others like them. Their experience is not singular.
Dibia argues that LGBT Nigerians will play a big role in changing how they are perceived in society.
But, he adds: “The key is in educating more people on LGBT issues and, with knowledge comes understanding and eventually overturning harmful laws that persecute LGBT persons in the society.”
Robert Sharp, comms manager at English PEN, warns that threats against authors are felt by the whole literary community: “It is always shocking when an author is threatened because of a character they have created. The threat against Chinelo Okparanta for creating gay Nigerian characters is not only an attack on the LGBTQ community, but on the creative imagination as well.”
He encouraged readers, translators and publishers outside Nigeria to support human rights by publishing, translating, reading the work of Nigerian authors who are writing about this issue: “That is a practical and targeted form of international intervention that avoids being patrimonious, and instead enriches literary culture everywhere.
“Throughout history, literature has always played a crucial part in campaigns for equality, and will do so again in the struggle for LGBTQ rights in Nigeria. Novels and short stories offer us the opportunity to empathise, reminding us of our shared humanity.”
She recalls: “I received threats saying, ‘If you do that - and these are the names of the characters - if you do that Gloria and Nenna thing in Nigeria then we will kill you’. It might have been a joke but it wasn’t funny.The path ahead for Nigerian writers is not yet clear, but it is obvious silencing writers is unacceptable not only to them but to publishers, translators, readers, and anyone else in the literary community. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy runs utterly at odds with storytelling as we know it.
Luckily for Okparanta, three or four years on from the death threat, she says African readers already seem to be more open about LGBT identity: “Things have changed a little. In the past when people would come to me privately, secretly and say, ‘oh, thank you so much’. They would say ‘thank you for writing that story, it really spoke to me’ but they would never do it publicly.
“Now some people will even tweet about it or send me messages in writing, like to my website. People are getting bolder now. Even when you yourself might be in danger from doing that, you feel it’s important.
“That’s a huge step because it’s been a thing that everybody’s hush-hush about. No one wants to get judged as a bad human being or sinner because Nigeria is so religious.”
After all, she says, she didn’t even set out to write an ‘LGBT’ story in Under the Udala Trees – that’s just how it happened: “I wanted to write a story where a girl falls in love. Yes, she falls in love with another girl. But it’s just a love story.”
Happiness, Like Water was an Editors’ Choice for The New York Times Book Review on September 20, 2013. It was also listed as one of The Guardian‘s Best African Fiction of 2013, and in December 2014 was announced as being on the shortlist for the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Ellie Broughton is the Lead Features Writer for For Books’ Sake.