Mar 30, 2013

Things Fall Apart: Homophobia in Colonial Africa

Outside of the Republic of South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa today is more homophobic than the worst of the 1950s Dark Ages in America: "kill the gays" bills, gay organizers imprisoned, President Mugabe's "worse than dogs and pigs" speech.  By official policy, no Africans are gay, except maybe a few brainwashed by perverted Westerners.

But neither intense homophobia nor the belief that no native gay people exists preclude gay symbolism.  Things Fall Apart (1958), by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died last week, is the first African novel to receive a wide readership in the U.S.. And a classic study of homophobia.

In 1890s colonial Nigeria, Igbo village leader Okonkwo is obsessed with appearing unmanly.

His father, Unoka, was fond of music and language, lazy, indolent, sophisticated, neglectful of his wives and children; in other words, gay-vague, and Okonkwo is terrified that he might end up "that way," too.

Okonkwo is made guardian of Ikemefuma, a boy prisoner from a rival village, and grows fond of him.  But when the village oracle says that the boy must die, Okonkwo does not hesitate to deliver the killing blow, even as the boy is calling him "father."

Okonkwo doesn't mind his daughter Ezinma playing boys' games and rejecting marriage, but he is horrified by his son Nwoye, who is gentle, kind, and artistic, fond of music and poetry.

When Nwoye is "recruited" by Christian missionaries -- representatives of a soft, feminine, gay-coded religion -- Okonkwo considers it the ultimate betrayal, and disowns him.

The white people and their effeminate Christianity continue to encroach on his village, trying to turn "real men" into "sissies." Okonkwo kills one of the white "sissies," and then realizes that he will be tried in colonial court for the murder. That would be the ultimate humiliation, so he decides to commit suicide instead.

No one in the novel openly expresses same-sex desire.  But we can find ample gay symbolism in the hyper-masculine fear of the feminine "other."