On Queerness, Empathy, and Afro-Modernity
Mark Gevisser and Pwaangulongi Dauod in Conversation
Mark Gevisser: Hello Pwaangulongi Dauod. Your piece in Granta “Africa’s Future Has No Space For Stupid Black Men” is explosive, devastating, passionate. It feels very urgent. What drove you to write it?
Pwaangulongi Dauod: In a way I am very chaotic. The kind of guy who messes up things in love, in home, and within systems. A gangster some folks would say. All my life it’s something I’ve been fighting off. This is a piece I’ve been trying to write for a long time but couldn’t get the rhythm for, possibly because my chaotic self was always getting in the way. Or didn’t know how to get in the way properly. I was sad, depressed and burdened with cruel memories of my friends.
I bore this hot shit for months until I was in America last winter, and in my usual intense way—I experience all life in an intense manner—I found myself chatting about the gay club my friend founded in Nigeria one evening while I was in New Hampshire. I spoke about this with a certain reservation; I was not sure of things. The state of my feelings. My friend, Gaiutra Bahadur, bullied me into writing it. Soon after that chat I was in my studio, doing a drawing when I received the push, the language with which to tell it, the rhythm. And I couldn’t contain it. Soon I was sprawled on the floor, weeping like a stupid fuck. I just knew it was there, the rhythm, and had no excuse not to write anymore.
I got back home some weeks after, and combined my chaos, the anger, depression, the cruel memory of the gone friend, and the rhythm. This is how I began writing. I wrote the shit because I was tired of keeping shut. I was deeply sore within and thought writing would bring me healing, will bring him healing, will bring them healing. Will bring us healing. I wanted to be healed and heal, if I can. I was fed up with all these motherfuckers who are obsessed with how people use their sexual organs.
I was hesitant in publishing it even after it was written, because I feel funny about this activism thing. I don’t want to be an activist of or for anything. That’s not my role in this god-forsaken world. I want to be known as a writer, not as a gay or human rights activist. But I decided to send out the piece once and for all, and I’m happy I did.
MG: I’ve also grappled, through my professional life, with whether I’m a writer or an activist. I guess my activism is my writing, specifically in the way I use my platform as a writer to put stories into the public domain that would otherwise remain hidden, or misunderstood. As a gay African—albeit a pale one, from the very bottom of the continent—I feel particularly passionate about writing about, or engaging with writing about, other queer Africans. Such writing counters the notion that “LGBTI rights” are neo-colonial Western incursions onto some kind of essentialized, pure African soil. This is why I love the concept of “Afro-Modernity,” as it’s explored in your essay. Actually, “explored” seems too tame a word—let’s rather say the concept of Afro-Modernity, as it erupts in your essay! The heart of the piece, it’s power, seems to be the tension between this eruption—a manifesto, of sorts, certainly an act of spontaneous activism—and the harrowing story of everyday life, of fear and violence, that surrounds it; through which it seeks to break. Your friend C-Boy kills himself, but does the community of queer “Afro-Moderns,” or perhaps just the notion, survive?
PD: Your incredible piece, “Walking Girly in Nairobi,” is the realest form of activism. Peter and everyone else in the piece would not have been known or read about without you. Your passion and commitment to the plights and narratives of the LGBTIs in Africa is felt all through the reading. The details as a journo, the voice as an activist, and the empathy as a human and a gay man truly helps to counter the prejudices about queer folks in Africa.
There’s a narrative about “neo-colonial Western” gay programs in Africa, being peddled and hawked about by idiots. Most of them are Pentecostal churches and Islamic institutions—they believe that queer sexual orientations are another demonic thing brought about by white people, like colonialism, so the cry for gay tolerance in Africa is thought to be another white man’s machination to pollute and corrupt the clean Africans. It’s absolute bullshit, of course. Historically, biologically, psychologically, culturally, and emotionally, the narrative is the weakest in the history of nonsense.
In fact, such narratives reveal how inadequate we feel about ourselves compared to the West, to white folks. It’s a colonial configuration that stupid Africans still dwell in. It suggests that Africans are not worthy of possessing other sexual orientations. We are all meant to be straight and linear. Diversity is not our thing; that’s for white people. We are not complicated enough, we are too inadequate to be complex humans. Sexuality is a white folks’ thing, like depression, like technology, like development, like civilization, like intelligence. It’s sad to be living among people who believe all this. What the fuck is wrong with us Africans? Why do we delight in missing rare opportunities to be dignified and meaningful?
Afro-Modernity is a prophecy and fire invented to terminate Africa’s centuries’ old stupidity. All of its stupidities. And communities of Afro-Moderns survive. We just have to look around the nooks and crannies of the continent, a little beyond our politics and its old and new players, beyond jaded narratives and lazy stereotypes, to see and engage with that community. My dear friend C-Boy is dead and gone; but Afro-moderns like him are well alive and mad enough to fuck away the stupidities that persist. We are in the cities and villages, in prisons and mental homes, in brothels and university campuses, in cyber space and meat-space, in government and on the streets, everywhere. Gays, lesbians, transgenders, transexuals, heterosexuals and more all together. We are near visibility, we are the next thing. The new genre. We exist!
Do you believe in Afro-Modernity?
MG: What I love about the concept of the Afro-Modern is the embrace of a hybrid, syncretic identity that is rooted in Africa but draws on global experiences, and indigenizes them. The writer Taiye Selassi coined the term “Afropolitan” a decade ago, to describe a generation of “not citizens, but Africans of the world,” distinguished by “the refusal to oversimplify; the effort to understand what is ailing in Africa alongside the desire to honor what is wonderful, unique. Rather than essentializing the geographical entity, we seek to comprehend the cultural complexity; to honor the intellectual and spiritual legacy; and to sustain our parents’ cultures.” I guess I’m particularly interested in how queer identity has become a marker of Afropolitanism. When I was researching my next book—on the “global sexuality frontier”—I came to Nigeria, and I was fascinated in the way queer Nigerians are constructing their identity both by becoming part of a global online community—my God, I’ve never seen so many smartphones, everyone seems to have at least three—and by digging into their own cultural traditions. So in Lagos, I met people who were exploring the transgenderism of Yoruba deities, and in the north, I met people who were trying to understand themselves within the context of the tradition of “Yan Dauda,” a “third-gender” identity that long predates colonialism . . .
PD: I love how you see this, how you want to see and understand things. My greatest challenge in interacting with people is being able to see what they see.
I am happy to be aware of the identity-making and remaking that is happening everywhere now. Or aware that the world is now ready to recognize this thing evolving around identity. In Nigeria, just as you noted, the queer community is consciously reconstructing its reality. Ten years ago non-straight people were all shivering and fucking in secret corners, but no more. Despite the clampdown, people have decided to be rough, smart and creative, to construct spaces and forms that allow them be their own beings. The beings that they truly are.
I am excited to hear you are working on a book on sexuality. Especially because you are African. I want to know the connection between the high potentials of our bodies and the amount of sex we have, if there is one! I don’t have enough sex. I always feel that no one knows how to sexually explore my bodies as well as me. (I use “bodies” because I see the individual parts of my body as entire wholes, especially when I try to engage them during sex.) I see people sexually, but suddenly become disappointed when we engage in sex. So I masturbate a lot.
MG: I often wonder what the relationship is between political regimes—particularly repressive ones—and sexual behavior. Do you think your sexual life will become different now that you live in a different political “regime?” Or does the digital age mean that we all, really, live in the same regime: so much of the ‘disappointment’ with offline sex might come from the idealized way that we experience online sex, pornography to be precise, no matter where we are.
I understand you have moved to the United States and that this is, at least in part, because you found yourself to be unsafe in Nigeria. You write that people are no longer “shivering and fucking in secret corners” but are claiming space in ways that are “rough, smart and creative.” This is one of the major themes of my own research: how so much of what is called “homophobia” or “transphobia” in parts of the world such as our own needs to be understood as backlash, by conservative patriarchal forces, against young people like yourselves who emphatically claim space. Your queer elders would have fucked other men on the quiet and gone on with the heteronormative lives on the surface, but your generation refuses to do so—and there are consequences for this. It seems to me that this is what your Granta piece is about, in many respects: the costs, often tragic, of claiming such space. Do you feel able to describe what has happened to you in the last months, since you published your piece in Granta?
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PD: You are a beautiful man! To respond to your first question—my sexual life might be different here in America, but not my sexuality. I worked in brothels as a young person, from the age of ten until only recently. So I’ve interacted with people who love having sex. I watch porn too. And these experiences have conditioned my body to be stiff to manipulations other than my own. Whenever I have sex, I sense no one knows how to explore me. I am then disappointed, with myself anyway. But I enjoy my bodies when I am the one doing things to them.
Things have been happening since the publication of my piece. I’ve been getting attention from zones that wouldn’t otherwise have interest in me. I don’t know how to understand these things. Bloggers want me to write for them, editors want to read my other works, agents want book proposals, conveners are offering me speaking, reading and panel invitations. In fact, I’ve received emails from people who think this is my chance to be famous and rich. Someone else wants to use my story to start an activist NGO. But these are the positives. People now see me as intelligent and worthy marketing tool. And I laugh about this a lot.
On the other hand, the past few months have been brutal and beyond logic. I started receiving threats on Twitter. Insults, curses and all that madness. But I know Nigeria very well, so I wasn’t too scared. Nigeria is a very gay country, but publicly it’s very anti-gay. It is one of the gayest anti-gay countries in the world. Nigeria’s sexual discourse is surrounded by fear, ignorance and shame. So it is not a complete discourse. I sensed that most of the people who attacked me didn’t mean to say what they said. They don’t even know how to talk about sexuality. In fact, I got this email from some guy who believed that the story I wrote was not true, that it never happened. I wasn’t surprised at all, I’m used to this—I grew up with it.
But then I was attacked in my house in July. My belongings were looted and torched. I was lucky to have escaped alive. It is a horrible experience and I am yet to have the language to tell it with. I hope to be able to soon. I wasn’t prepared for any of the shit I went through when the attacks came.
Is it the same in South Africa? I want to know about the amount of homophobia there.
MG: I’m really sorry to hear about the attack. Do you know who did it and what their motivations were? I have experienced criminal violence—a gun to my head for three hours and the certainty I would die—but I think that’s different. It wasn’t because of who I am. There was something rational about it: the criminals wanted stuff. I don’t know how I would survive what you have been through. What comes through your Granta piece is the way both anger and humanity are responses to violence and fear. I hope that, in your healing, you balance out the two: they are both so important.
South Africa is confounding, in that there is legal equality—up to and including same-sex marriage (my partner and I are married, something I don’t think either of us are comfortable with, but hey, contracts are useful), but there is still terrible violence on the ground—even though attitudes are changing. A persuasive recent survey shows that while most South Africans accept that queer people have rights, they disapprove of their actions. South Africa is also a very violent place, a very misogynist society. Women get raped. Lesbians get raped. Femme boys and transgender girls get raped. Wealth is a protection against this, to a point. A car is a protection against this, to a point. But if you have to walk—and if you don’t have the protection of a man—you are vulnerable: hence the high levels of sexual violence against black working-class lesbians. Of course, even if you do have the “protection” of a man you are vulnerable too—maybe to him. Interpersonal violence is one of this country’s greatest problems, fueled by unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse, and despondency and crises of expectation. Much has changed for the better in South Africa, but we are not the “rainbow nation” that the Mandela era envisioned.
PD: I am yet to understand the minds behind the attack. But I am sure someone in the literary community who knows my pen name revealed it. And the attack had the usual motivations: you are living in one of Allah’s own cities, and that means you must “behave!”
I love that you talk about vulnerability. I don’t know why it is something I am attracted to. My loved ones feel it’s a crazy feeling that needs to be pushed out. Do you ever admire being vulnerable at any point in your life as a person and a writer? I walk around knowing I am very destructible. That I can easily destroy and be destroyed. That my only role in this world is to make this happen. To destroy myself. And instead of becoming fearful, I become excited.
MG: I think my vulnerability—and a self-acknowledgement of it—is at the core of my work as a writer. This notion that journalists, in particular, need to be “thick-skinned” is misguided. If you work, like I do, with other peoples’ stories, a thin skin is essential, so as to be able to empathize. But I do protect myself: I don’t think I feel anything akin to the thrill that you articulate, at being on the edge. When I’m in that mode, I panic, and freeze, and can’t write at all. My last book, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, is a memoir, but even there, the revelations are very controlled!
You are in the US now. What are you doing, and what are you working on?
PD: I am working on a memoir—a long memoir that I plan to release in volumes. Four volumes. This is my major project, but I will be writing short pieces to make some seed money for a literary/artistic project I plan to build in Nigeria. It’s called OpenSpace: a space for art, literature, theatre, and festival. I want it to be a large, influential art and literary center for Africa.
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