For LesbianVisibility Week, we had an interview with Unoma Azuah, Nigerian writer, author, and activist whose research and activism focus on LGBT writing in Nigerian literature. Unoma Azuah is a professor of English at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, Valdosta, GA. Her research and activism focus on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights in Nigeria. Recently, she concluded a book project on the lives of gay Nigerians entitled, Blessed Body: Secret Lives of LGBT Nigerians. Some of her writing awards include the Aidoo-Snyder book award, Leonard Trawick award, the Urban Spectrum award and the Hellman/Hammett award. Her latest work, a memoir, Embracing My Shadow, is described as “powerful” by the prestigious Ms. Magazine.
We sit with her and engage her as she gives us a little bit of back story about her writing career.
WHER Initiative: How have you been able to occupy space in the Nigerian literary scene?
I am not sure I understand what you mean by “occupy space.” However, as one of the first Nigerian scholars/writers to introduce LGBTQ issues in the Nigerian literary scholarship, I think I “occupy space” to be a pioneer writer on queer issues in the Nigerian literary scene. For instance, one of my celebrated essays looks at the emerging Lesbian Voice in Nigerian Feminist Literature. My works on LGBTQ human rights issues earned me the Hellman-Hammett Human Rights Watch award and the Aidoo-Snyder award from the African Studies Association. My collaborative works with organizations like the International Gay, Lesbian and Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and PEN America led to reports and book projects like “Nowhere to Turn: Blackmail and Extortion of LGBT People in Sub-Saharan Africa” and “Silenced Voices, Threatened Lives: The Impact of Nigeria’s Anti-LGBTI Law on Freedom of Expression.” However, I do write works of fiction, poetry and drama.
WHER Initiative: We recognize your advocacy for the LGBTQI community, can you share your experience, mostly your challenges and achievements as an LGBTQI+ rights activist.
Being an activist for not just the rights of Lesbians, Bisexual and Queer women, but human rights including the rights of the girl-child, has been quite a journey, and I am still travelling on that path. It’s been quite challenging and life-threatening when it comes to my persistence in the rights of our LBQ community. For instance, staying up late some nights trying to figure out safe spaces where some women can stay because they have fallen out of favour with their parents due to their sexual orientation is no easy task. Additionally, investing time in advocating, mentoring, counselling and using my platform as a writer to pen down how and why discriminatory policies against sexual minority groups affect not just the gay community but the whole nation takes an emotional and psychological toll. Navigating anger and trying to stay focused on effective strategies to humanize our lives textually and vocally doesn’t come easy. In several cases, I have been physically threatened and attacked, insulted, spat on and have been called a disgrace. Does that deter me, no. The truth remains that human beings have multiple sexual orientations and no amount of insults or denial or the threat of hell and brimstone can stop that fact and that reality. I consider collating and publishing LGBTQI Nigerian stories in the book titled, “Blessed Body,” an achievement. I am also grateful to have partnered with Women’s Health and Equal Rights (WHER) to birth the “Queer Nigerian Poetry” anthology, which I co-edited with Michelle Omas. These are notable achievements because there is still a dire need for the production of knowledge with regards to our humanity and our rights.
WHER Initiative: What motivated you to write passionately about the LGBTQ community?
The story of my passion for writing about the LGBTQ community is more proactive than motivational if that makes sense. I grew up feeling “strange” different” “off” and it was quite lonely. I thought there were no other persons like me, so what homophobic people said about me was true. But, as I got older, after all the self-hating, all the deliverances, and humiliations, nothing changed. I also started to meet a few people who confessed to me that they were like me, and I wondered why nobody I had encountered then were not saying something about their difference or, countering the lies homophobic people tell about us. Since I had a love for writing, I decided to use it as a tool to fight for me and my “tribe.”
WHER Initiative: In what ways do you think your books have impacted queer Nigerians?
As much as I get tons of hate mail and disparaging comments and insults from Nigerian homophobes, I think my books have positively impacted the Nigerian queer community because I equally get a lot of mail from them acknowledging what I do and write about. They say that they are hopeful. I am also hopeful that one day, we would be widely accepted just as we are. The fact that some of us are different and that we all can’t be the same has to be part of Nigeria’s reality. Our differences make us stronger and better. Differences are blessings; they are not something to be hated or feared. That is the message I try to convey in my memoir. I hope that the little lesbian in Lagos or Kano or Port Harcourt would come to know that she is enough and whole and that there is nothing wrong with her even when her sexual orientation does not fit into the sexual frame of the status quo.
WHER Initiative: What advice can you give to young writers who want to pursue the same ambition?
Don’t give up. Keep hope alive. Have faith in yourself and humanity. Read as much as you can especially the masters and write without looking back regardless of whether anybody appreciates what you write or not: let it be a passion, something you enjoy doing. Strive to be independent.
WHER Initiative: Thank you so much for your words and for speaking to us.