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Chantal Zabus, Out in Africa: same-sex desire in sub-Saharan literatures & cultures.

CHANTAL ZABUS, Out in Africa: same-sex desire in sub-Saharan literatures & cultures. Woodbridge: James Currey (hb 45 [pounds sterling]--978 1 84701 082 7). 2013, 292 pp.

These are interesting and equally frustrating times for African literature. Writers are delving into new genres such as science fiction and online writing, but they are also exploring painful experiences, especially the daily challenges faced by nonstraight Africans at a time when we are being told by many political and religious leaders that homosexuality is un-African. This book by a leading scholar is a timely contribution to our understanding of a long and complex history of same-sex desire in Africa.

Chantal Zabus uses works by African scholars such as Nevile Fload, Ifi Amadiume, Unoma Azuah and Marc Epprecht to grapple with what the young Kenyan intellectual Keguro Macharia considers 'moments of subject-making and subject-unmaking' in African queer studies. To debunk the myth of the un-African-ness of homosexuality, Zabus begins by exploring the names some fifty African precolonial societies have for same-sex desire; the various examples of same-sex desires in Africa for well over two centuries; and the framing of same-sex desire in the context of colonial modernity. In the process, she problematizes the term 'homosexuality' when used in the African context, because what is deemed to be homosexuality by some Western scholars may not necessarily be considered as such by many on the continent. As Zabus explains:
   Exclusive homosexuality would not have been and is still not a
   viable option for Africans who value wealth and patronymic
   extension through marriage. Also whether one penetrates or is
   penetrated may be more important than the gender of one's sex
   partner ... The very concept of 'sexual orientation' would
   therefore be alien not only to ancient Greeks but to both
   pre-colonial and post-colonial African men as well, who, when
   choosing sexual partners, do not see themselves as 'homosexual'
   since they take up the 'manly' role of penetrator in the sex act.
   (p. 26)

Throughout this book, Zabus commendably draws on texts written in English and French: academics tend to focus on African writing either in English or in French, and not often do we get an analysis that brings both together. She also depicts in detail Europe's fascination with the African body, in which the sexualized and undisciplined African body appears as the antithesis of a disciplined and organized Europe. This, of course, is not a new revelation to scholars of African studies, but what is new is Zabus's revelation of homoerotic lust for African men--and what she describes as 'situational heterosexual' lust for African women--by European men.

The book draws on a wide array of texts to historicize the way in which the church penetrated the African mind by first controlling the body. The writer ties the church to the root of the criminalization of homosexuality in several African countries by arguing that many African leaders, who are today condemning homosexuality as un-African, inherited such attitudes from colonial-era missionaries. But this agenda also permeates African literature: using examples drawn from three different generations of writers, Zabus shows the way in which some writers are too willing to suggest that same-sex desire is a legacy of colonialism rather than something that is part of African history.

Zabus is arguably at her best when using works of literature to analyse African same-sex desire. Fler analysis shows the way in which literature can provide us with the starting point that 100 per cent non-straight Africans are arguably central to our understanding of history, politics, shifting sexual meanings and erotic choices. Zabus also commends the works of writers such as Unoma Azuah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin and Temilola Abioye for their 'implicit "queer" gesturing' (p. 125). Together with other notable emerging voices from Africa, such as Binyavanga Wainaina and Sahilja Patel, these writers regularly use the freedom offered by the internet to focus attention on marginalized bodies, and they are also willing to advocate for gay rights, within and outside literature.

Zabus masterfully weaves the present and the past together; her passion and knowledge will never fail to awe the reader. In Chapter 4, for example, she invokes the phrase 'postcolonial gothic' to describe the shadowiness of queer Africans, figures who have been dogging African history for centuries but who remain spectres within that history. On the one hand, her close reading of these texts shows the way in which art and life imitate each other--fictional narrators and real-life figures continue to see totally non-straight Africans as a menace and unsavoury, and simultaneously depict them as supernatural and phantomlike. On the other hand, Zabus reveals a long history of subversion of this marginality by queer figures and writers alike.

This book is a must-read for anyone--academics and non-academics--who wants to understand some of the complexity surrounding the history of same-sex desire in African societies. It makes an important contribution to our understanding of how literary analyses of same-sex desire in Africa can be employed to query history and can contribute to our understanding of contemporary attitudes towards sexual behaviour that do not conform to societal norms.


Universitat Bayreuth

doi: 10.1017/S0001972015000406
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Author:Adenekan, Shola
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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