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I wrote ‘Lives of Great Men’ for Nigerians and the wider African continent – Chike Edozien

Chiké Frankie Edozien is a professor of Journalism at the New York University. He is also a journalist and writer. his recent book, Lives of Great Men, was recently released to great acclaim. He spoke with Kayode Ogunbunmi. Excerpts:

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You have visited a number of countries to promote your new book? Was the response what you expected?

“I wasn’t sure what to expect except that there would be very interesting conversations. And so far within the continent and in the diaspora the dialogue surrounding our diversity historically and now has been robust. For those who have read ‘Lives of Great Men’ in these countries they have been forced to think about their own families, their own friends, their own histories and then it no longer becomes this theoretical gay or lesbian or bisexual person. It is no longer an abstract scenario and then their reactions are often one realizing they need to rethink hardened positions or at the very least become more compassionate.

And this is what happens with reading. It can often be an intimate act, in the privacy of your thoughts. And then you can look a yourself and ask ‘is it worth it criminalizing my brother or sister for seeking happiness in away that I wouldn’t do?’ Is it worth it in 2019 forcing people to marry folks they can barely stand knowing fully well they would be seeking companionship elsewhere?

Ultimately the dialogue happening around our world and our lives as queer people in Africa can and should not be one dimensional where there is tyranny of the majority of voices who lack understand, empathy and compassion and reduce the existence of their brothers and sisters to sexual activity they do not comprehend. From East Africa to Southern Africa, Europe to India these conversations have been fascinating when I’ve had them with readers and potential readers and for me no African should be in a position, wherever they are in the world to be told by others what their lives should be like, we who have the cradle of humanity cannot be told that heteronormativity can be the only norm of our existence.”

What was your motivation for writing the book and how hard was it to pull off?

The original idea was more an an academic one. A documentation of lives unseen in contemporary West Africa. But of course that changed once the spate of virulent homophobic driven attacks on people began to be the norm. When it began to be acceptable in society because the government had sanctioned it. After the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan, it seemed to become normal to arrest people, men and women in the privacy of their homes or at parties and parade them for the media for people to mock, deride, and shame.  From Lagos to Abuja, Benin to Asaba, there were all these stories in newspapers that were poorly done and meant to shame people. People had their health status revealed and all for what?

Which one of those people shamed in the media had looted national funds?

Which one of those people had stolen from their neighbours?

Which one of those people had been a 419er?

But suddenly folks in uniform where deriding and heaping scorn of fellow citizens for their private lives. And thugs had also taken to blackmailing people, stealing beating and bullying people they tricked into coming to them for dates because they knew they could get away with such conduct. Few LGBT people who have been harassed, robbed, and beaten up have the confidence in the police force to report.

And it doesn’t help when a police spokesman is on social media ‘advising’ Nigerian gays to leave the country for their own good. Does she now get to decide which Nigerian gets to live in their own homeland?

It is not lost on many that politicians like Jonathan, and the failed presidential aspirant, Oby Ezekwesili are happy to go London to raise their profile by smiling and projecting inclusiveness with talks about universal human rights or ‘equality of opportunity’ for all Nigerian citizens including our LGBT citizens but come home and condemn them unequivocally when out of sight of the donors whose favor they are currying.

So the motivation morphed into quelling the narrative that LGBT people do not exist in our society or that they are so few to be consequential. It wasn’t too hard to pull off because these stories and these families are here, have always been and are consequential. It’s been rather sad to see the number of high performing Nigerians, at the highest levels of world excellence, decamp the nation to work all over the world and simply write off the homeland due to homophobia. That narrative in the book was painful, simply because the nation needs her best and brightest more than the countries paying them a pretty penny to further develop already developed nations.

You are a journalist, a journalism teacher and a writer. How are you able to juggle these different roles?

As long as I am able to tell stories that make a difference in people’s lives, I will forever be a journalist. It keeps me in service to my many communities. Being a teacher and a mentor came later in life and I must say molding careers as a professor has brought me joy but it is extremely hard work and I’ve never been afraid of hard work so juggling those two roles in my career while working as writer of long form, books, book chapters and the like is normal for me. I know no other way. I’m constantly working on things simultaneously and trying to leave an impact on our world, as the Wadsworth poem goes I’m trying to “leave my footprints on the sands of time.”

You were at the Ake book festival in Nigeria. What was the experience like?

Aké is a joy. Aké is an African treasure. That Ouida Books (my Nigerian Publishers) chose Aké to unveil my book here was marvelous. The audience there always challenges you. They are readers and won’t hesitate to challenge you on your work so you need to bring your ‘A’ game to the Aké stage because it is surrounded by excellence. And your book may be new but those folks who attend already have a sense of what is in it and may even have read it already. So I was thrilled to be there and open myself up to Nigerian readers. I’d been to Aké previously before the book was out discussing my work, so I knew what to expect when I was invited to the 2018 festival.

It was a great launching pad also because the audience is not just Nigerian, but Africans from across the continent and the diaspora so people have questions. But it was also a joy to see many people there, heterosexuals who had read the work and took the time to publicly acknowledge what it meant to them. The fact that many families suffer, not just the gay and lesbian members who are treated poorly by some of us.  That they got it meant the world to me because frankly, I wrote this book for Nigerians and the wider African continent so Aké was an affirmation of a job well done. Yes, it won the Lambda Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the Publishing Triangle and Gerald Kraak, but no literary accolade that the book has received compares to the joy of the praise it received from a wide swath of Africans at Aké.

Do you think Nigeria is ready for the message in your book?

Indeed. Nigerians have been more than ready. In December I read from ‘Lives’ at two events in Abuja and the audience were engaged, and full of great questions and the dialogue flowed. All of the attendees were Nigerians at an event organized by the readers of Abuja and its environs. We as a people cannot be underestimated. There are loads of thoughtful thinkers out there among the populace. They may not always have the clout to get their opinions in the major news outlets but it would be a fallacy to think that the loudest voices are representative of the majority of the citizens out there.

Do you have any other work in the pipeline and what is the focus of that?

Yes. I always have projects that I’m working on. And my next major piece of nonfiction will be work that is in service of us. Probably dealing with an underserved community. My work has always been in service and I do not expect that to change.