With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak
Transgender narratives seldom emerge outside white, Western experience - at least if we're talking about mainstream publishing. African trans, I'm aware only of the occasional documentary, which is what makes this book so especially valuable. An edited collection of personal stories, gathered in Nigeria, She Called Me Woman has provided me with the kind of sometimes harrowing, always illuminating insights my studies have lacked so far, and I recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about queer identities in Africa.
The personal accounts are mainly by lesbian and bisexual women – only one is openly a transgender woman, 33 year-old JP. Another, BM, is a transgender man unable to countenance coming out for the hurt it would cause their family, while a third considers themselves genderfuck. What becomes apparent is Nigeria's complex diversity, not only among Christian and Muslim communities but between regions. DK, 42 years old, refers to Yoruba culture and the relaxed attitude of her community to queer identities, though she also highlights a national law established in 2014, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition bill, with a minimum prison sentence of 14 years apparently for anyone caught in same-sex relations. In most of the narratives, the Internet has become the medium of communication and self-understanding, allowing dating and online communities to flourish in spite of the prohibitions, as revealed by PD.
Some of the stories are traumatic, and it is difficult not to mention the toxic effect of patriarchal religion. Corrective rape, for example, is a recurring theme, and in some cases as with BM and KZ, rituals of 'deliverance' are conducted that suggest exorcism to rid the person of their subversive sexuality or gender 'confusion.' Perhaps the saddest account is QM's, who describes an arranged marriage she was forced into, without any prior warning, to help 'fix' her sexuality:
'I didn't know him. I didn't know what he was like. We met the day we were married. He was older than me. He was not educated. He sold all these foodstuffs. I was the third wife. I stayed with him for three years or so. It was hell . . . I was inside the house for two years without coming out . . . Even when I was sick, I had no right to go to hospital. He would just go out and buy some drugs.'
More heartening are the tales of how families, originally resistant to LGBT expression, over time learned to overcome their hostility. More broadly, the defiance and confidence of the people in these accounts shines like a flame: you know when you read their accounts that they'll live their life, regardless of the opposition. One of my favourite parts is by the transgender woman, JP, who recounts the influence of the strong, independent women around her who become her role models:
'For the most part, though, I was favoured. I am eternally grateful to . . . the University of Ibadan. I had one . . . who took a shine to me and other people who cared about me. In fact, all the women who groomed me were powerful and wild in a positive way. The wires in their brains used to touch. They thought outside the box. They were strong and hated injustice. Sometimes they were super aggressive. Somehow, I fell under the tutelage of such women.'Queer studies needs more of these kinds of narratives; from a transgender perspective, it's also a useful reminder of the diversity of trans experience, the damage caused by patriarchal norms (and yes, patriarchal religions), and of the role financial independence plays, especially for women, in ensuring a life worth living.