Renewed ways of being in contemporary African literature

PhD researcher Megan Fourqurean studies Nigerian literature that explores gender and sexuality through religious symbols.

Megan began her PhD studies after completing a Masters in the School of English at the University of Leeds. She previously published a paper about South Asian literature, titled ‘Agential realism and trans-corporeality in contemporary South Asian literature’.

Megan teaches the module ‘Creative Africas’ at the Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS), which examines representations of Africa in cultural production from the continent and beyond. They discuss a wide range of subjects including LGBTQ+ religious activism and representations of identity through art, literature and music.

She is drawn to the richness and texture of contemporary Nigerian literature.

Her doctoral research looks at how literature uses Igbo spirituality and cosmology to frame its characters and their experiences of gender, personhood and belonging.

Another understanding of the world

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, is one example of the novels that Megan studies. It is a novel whose narrative is led by the perspective of a spirit.

It shows a unique way for the author to represent themselves and their characters within the framework of Igbo cosmology. They are not wholly human in this representation – they are spirits first.

Megan says about this book, “it was beyond anything I’d read before.”

This novel as well as others by Emezi, Chris Abani and Chinelo Okparanta are part of a movement in Nigerian literature that refuses to conform to the Western ultra-scientific world.

Instead, their readers must meet them within their understanding of the world based on African histories and knowledges.

When talking about what they’re trying to accomplish, author Akwaeke Emezi says their novels “inhabit realities that people don’t consider real and valid.”

They are pushing against ideas that the Western perspective is a universal one.

This is despite a long history in which African authors have felt obliged to make their work catered towards white and Western readers and in which African knowledges have been subjugated and discounted by Western institutions.

In terms of the practice of reading this literature, Megan says, “I constantly find myself questioning and challenging how I’m reading these books and writing about them, to ensure I'm not replicating the appropriative colonial violence on the text that the authors themselves are pushing back against.

“This is a demand we should all put on ourselves when writing and engaging with beliefs and practices that are not our own.”

Depicting gender nonconformity and sexuality through religion

One of the themes that Megan investigates is gender fluidity and sexuality. In these novels, the authors refuse to frame characters with the Western assumptions of what it is to be gender non-conforming or same-sex loving.

In some novels, it is through religion and spirituality that the authors explore gender and sexuality. For example, authors use the water deity Mami Wata as a symbol of acceptance.

Mami Wata is a Goddess who appears around the world in the African Diaspora. She has ties with the transatlantic slave trade in terms of her themes of water, commerce and modernity; yet she is also associated with healing, home, protection and rescue.

Another association of Mami Wata is that she provides safe spaces for people who don’t conform to or follow social ‘norms’, including gender-diverse people.

Some priests of Mami Wata practice their devotion to her by growing their hair and wearing feminine clothes, which disrupts typical expectations of gender. Regardless, the priests are valued and respected as who they are.

Megan traces Mami Wata’s presence throughout literature and asks how the authors utilise the Goddess as a framework to discuss identity and belonging.

Embodying Mami Wata

In ‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ by Akwaeke Emezi, the main character practices what a real-life Mami Wata priest would, by wearing sacred colours, growing their hair and embracing their spiritual being.

They don’t use terms like ‘gender nonconforming’ or ‘transgender’. They also don’t have access to methods of social and physical transition like hormone therapy or surgery, which in the West, are common for people to talk about when discussing gender nonconformity.

However, when this character goes to the market, they’re spoken to as if they are embodying Mami Wata. In a way, this character is using the Goddess as an avenue to reshape themselves. Through the symbolism of Mami Wata, they are understood and accepted for who they are.

This transition shows that the essence of acceptance is within African history, religion and spirituality, despite many of its countries criminalising non-conformity such as same-sex relationships.

Other texts that incorporate Mami Wata and other indigenous Nigerian deities in relation to gender and sexuality include ‘When We Speak of Nothing’ by Olumide Popoola, ‘For Sizakele’ by Yvonne Fly Etaghene and ‘An Ordinary Wonder’ by Buki Papillon.

These authors are part of a wider artistic movement that pushes towards a cultural acceptance of varied genders and sexualities. They use frameworks that are inherently Nigerian and African to show that the concepts are a part of their culture and spirituality.

Although the whole stories are not true to life, Megan explains how key aspects of these novels “aren’t really fiction.”

She says: "These are authors who are taking real practices, religions, beliefs and realities and using them to bring their fiction to life and make their fiction work on behalf of these realities."