Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Nigerians

[Image: The cover of "Blessed Body" is black and gray with striped crossing vertically and diagonally. In the center is the silouhette of an African person's head. To the left is a cut out of a face with jagged teeth. In the center is the title of the book in large, light green letters with the byline in smaller white letters below it. The author's name is in white letters at the bottom of the image.]
This review can also be found on my goodreads.

Blessed Body is a book of stories from a variety of LGBT Nigerians. In Nigeria, LGBT rights are not only unrecognized, but any homosexual activity can be punishable by 14 years imprisonment. It is even illegal to hide one's knowledge of an LGBT person even if oneself is not gay. Learning these facts at a reading I attended by Unoma Azuah gave me an even greater appreciation for the level of courage it took for all of the people in this book to risk telling their stories.

This review has taken me longer to write than most. It is difficult to know the best way to discuss a book about such an important and delicate topic- as a queer, transgender, and white resident of the United States from birth- and give it the description it truly deserves.

Content note: the rest of this review contains discussion of sexual assault, physical violence, and other abuses. Proceed with care.

The stories in this book highlight well just how many barriers there are for someone in Nigeria to understand their own identity let alone express it out in the world. Due to British colonialism, the homophobia of many Christian churches was forced upon people in Nigeria. In many areas of pre-colonial Africa, including Nigeria, gender and sexual expression were allowed to be much more fluid. At times it was even seen as special and/or celebratory. In post-colonial Nigeria, many people's idea of love and acceptance for LGBT people involves taking them to church for "deliverance" which often involves physical punishments. More horrific mistreatment of LGBT people commonly includes corrective rape (where men rape perceived lesbians in feigned attempt to turn them straight) and "jungle justice" (where mobs of vigilantes take anti-homosexuality laws into their own hands, resulting in severe beatings or death of suspected LGBT people.) The stories in this book include many of these experiences.

Many people discuss not even having words for the romantic, sexual, and gendered feelings they were having at young ages since some religious Nigerians believe that there are no LGBT people in Africa. Others believe it is a manifestation of illness. And those who are accepting or are LGBT themselves must keep everything hidden. These barriers not only keep children from discovering who they are, but it also causes them to be silent when they are abused out of fear that they will be punished. Many of the stories include abuse of children and adults by others in which they blame themselves.

The book is broken into sections with different topics pertaining to the group of stories. My favorite section, and also the section with most (but not all) of the best writing, was called "Unapologetic." It is an excellent ending to a book full of very difficult stories. While it does not contain only happy stories, it does contain ways that people found acceptance of themselves and escape from self hatred, even when they were in danger. As Gamal Turawa shares in their story about their journey:

"I learnt... that being true to yourself is a powerful force that can surprise and protect you if you trust it fully. A lot of us look for that acceptance in others when we should first find it in ourselves."

My constructive criticism of this book for future editions: I wish many of the writings, especially in the beginning, were longer. It took me a little while to settle into the book because each time I began to be immersed in someone's story, it would end and move on to the next person. I wanted to know more of many of the peoples stories. I also think it could be advantageous to have an edition of the book for people around the world like myself who are ignorant of some of the laws and practices in Nigeria. Some of the specifics I discuss in this review I had learned at Azuah's talk or from research online. I think having an introduction and/or epilogue that calls attention to the differences between homosexuality and gender nonconformity in pre and post-colonial Africa and gives some extra information would put this important text in better context for many readers. These things would have pushed the book to 5 stars for me.

Blessed Body is a telling. It is a necessary sharing of experiences that are hidden and silenced boht in Nigeria and elsewhere. I am very grateful that these people took the risk of telling their stories and am grateful to Unoma Azuah for contributing and editing the text.

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