Although sexuality has always occupied the literary imagination, the manner and forms of the sexuality represented therein have evolved radically over the past few generations. Michel Foucault might have foreseen the emergence of sexuality as a politically charged narrative in the literary, ideological and cultural spheres, but this did not immediately translate into a plethora of books or writers expressing themselves creatively and openly about human sexuality. In African literature, the emergence of sexuality as a significant thematic focus occurred only in the aftermath of the gradual reimagining of the African literary canon and the emergence of more diffuse and less patriarchal writing.
The novels of Calix the Beyala, Chris Abani and K Sello Duiker are certainly bold examples of how the times, or rather the parameters of the narrative, have shifted – challenging, extending, disintegrating and reconstituting not only how we see and represent sexuality, but the more germane proposition of “what it is”. These writers’ novels are complex examples of the narrative and imaginative possibilities that abound when literature rejects the premise that human sexuality is confined to the sexual intimacy which takes place between a woman and a man. In Beyala’s The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me, Abani’s The Virgin of Flames and Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, sexuality is interrogated in ways that breach the boundaries marking it out as merely an “act”, and expands the horizons of how we think about sexuality to include questions of power, choice, politics and agency.
For this discussion, I intend focusing on The Quiet Violence of Dreams to consider the problematic of how, in “writing back” to the hegemony of heteronormativity, the novel attempts to centre an “othered” sexuality in terms of male homosexuality and frame the recurring questions of identity and acceptance sexuality calls into question. Duiker’s amalgamation of violence into the novel’s exploration of sexuality foregrounds the possibility of viewing sexuality as a means of social domination and negation, and shows how rape is a brutally effective tool for the communication of messages about power and self-worth. The fact that the novel deals so unflinchingly with the subject of rape immediately forces the reader to see sex and sexuality as a conflicted terrain fraught with the dangers and distortions of human malice and imperfection. The gang rape of Tshepo and his mother sets the scene for an exploration of sexuality that tests the limits of that which society finds and defines as acceptable. South African society is one that always strives to align itself with the ideals of its Constitution, but is ever lagging. As a result, although Duiker’s novel is written in a “new South Africa” where most sexual choices have been decriminalised and are protected as an individual’s choice, his novel serves to shake up stubborn stigmas that continue to haunt any kind of sexuality that departs from the heteronormative standard serving as a bulwark against change.
By honestly and graphically narrating the philosophy and practice of subjective sexuality and alternative sexual identities, the novel makes a claim for the legitimising of male homosexuality as an expressed choice and lifestyle. The representation of homosexual sex as a spiritually edifying, transcendental experience can be read on some levels as a bold and direct appropriation of the language and register of heterosexual narratives (which often refer to the sex act as “heavenly”, taking one to a “higher plane” or “cloud nine”, and so on). Perhaps Duiker’s use of a similar narrative approach to refer to homosexual expressions comes across as daring only because we dare to think of the heterosexual “norm” as authoritative and therefore authentic. If we look at it in this way, it seems the novel is pushing for an expanded, more inclusive validation of the different forms of human sexuality.
This quest also leads, unavoidably, to an unapologetic reconstruction of masculinity and maleness – the question of what it means to be a man. How, for example, do you define and develop this sense of maleness when you have been overpowered and raped as a boy and as a young man? How does your sense of weakness, vulnerability and worthlessness tie in with your sense of being a “man”? These are questions the novel grapples with, but the alternatives and strategies of survival put forward by it often come across as problematic. Apart from his mother, Tshepo does not seem to have positive feelings of affection towards any other woman in the text, and it leaves one wondering if this antipathy has something to do with his having been raped and “made to feel like a woman”. His friendship with Mmabatho is characterised by tension and often comes across as being based on mutual need and convenience. Although one often suspects that the shoe is on the other foot, especially towards the end of the novel, when Tshepo is told to be careful of women because they “don’t like him”.
By the time he has graduated to offering penetrative anal sex at the upmarket gay brothel called Steamy Windows, Tshepo, who now operates under the pseudonym Angelo, seems to have developed a contemptuous and undeniably denigrating attitude towards women. Perhaps taking his cue from his loquacious fellow prostitute Sebastian, who suggests that male homosexuality is a state of “high consciousness” not to be compared to lesbianism, we hear some disturbing views from Tshepo on the subject of women. Having received, to his great consternation, a female client, these are his thoughts while he services a Norwegian customer: “That is another thing about women. It is impossible to do a trick with them without kissing them. It’s easier with men; it’s kind of an unwritten rule that even clients understand. But women are different. Perhaps they associate us with their husbands or boyfriends.”
While the patronising, indeed condescending, tone towards women is unmistakable here, one also wonders as to the basis of Tshepo’s conclusions seeing that this is, admittedly, his first female “trick”. The praise given to the male clientele in these thoughts also rings hollow when viewed through the lens of the countless times Tshepo is begged by male clients to engage in kissing to the point where he has had to “give in” in some cases. While many scenes of anal sex between men is described in the novel, not once is the matter of smell ever alluded to by the protagonist with respect to these encounters. But when he has to service a female client: “The smell of our sex is unmistakable. The smell of a woman’s sex is unmistakable.”
So it seems the comparative terms of reference that emerge in the novel’s representation of sexuality begin to sabotage or undercut the idea of an expanded, inclusive social vision of human sexuality. Instead, a dubious “hierarchy of sexualities” is posited that is not only homosexual but also patently misogynist in its views. Consider the following passage: “There is something so comical about watching a woman having sex. They let go so completely. Really, it makes me want to laugh. I have to hold myself back as I watch her face twisted in comical expressions, moaning about things that only she knows about. I thrust quicker and deeper into her. Her expression becomes too much. I have to hide my laugh by pretending to moan harder. I can’t help it.”
Here, the novel’s narrative ideology is clearly operating at cross purposes. On the very next page, the same character asks: “Who is anyone to judge the same impulses that govern all of us?” In the attempt to forge new sexual identities and to do so in ways that are deliberately transgressive, the novel falters and begins to mimic the prejudices of exclusionist heteronormative discourse. It is one thing to argue that male homosexuality is one of many different forms of human sexuality, and quite another to suggest that it is the highest, purest form and some kind of window into a “new world order”. Liz Walker notes the difficulties facing not only notions of male sexuality, but the concept of masculinity itself in contemporary South African society as such: “Contemporary expressions of masculinity are embryonic, ambivalent and characterised by the struggle between traditional/conventional male practices and the desire to be a modern, respectable, responsible man.”
One observes clearly in this novel that the challenge is one that presents itself to both heterosexual as well as homosexual males. Let us briefly consider the vision of marriage that emerges from the novel. Apparently, there is no such thing as a happy and sexually fulfilled heterosexual marriage. This notion is based on the fact that several married men frequent the thrilling comforts of Steamy Windows.
While acknowledging that the institution of marriage has been used by coercive social structures to compel and exclude, one ought not to aid the acceptance of an alternative lifestyle by demonising other people’s choices, as this merely apes the rigid, exclusionist tendencies of the “norm” under interrogation. Stephan Miescher points out that in the past, “the colonial state, Christian churches and matrilineages sought to regulate marriage”. While it is true that the institutions of state and church often overlegitimate this choice, it is also true that people are now free to choose and many choose to be married and heterosexual. The privileging of male homosexuality over other “othernesses” in the novel brings to mind Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s insightful critique: “Historically, the discourse on homosexuality has resulted in an epistemology of opposites.” This is exemplified in the novel, where the desire to be unashamedly for something subtly distorts into being against another.
The ideological slide begins as soon as Tshepo joins the marginalised, cloistered, self-absorbed community of Steamy Windows and becomes Angelo. Upon receiving his first payment from a client, he reflects: “There is something important about the fact that money is pink. Pink Power. Gay power, gay energy, men’s energy, a jumbled thought comes to me, celebrating the occasion.”
More disturbing is the consistent and careful exclusion of lesbianism (“men’s energy”), as well as women in general, from the realms of this subversive, regenerative power. The privileging and glamorising of the male homosexual prostitute borders, in places, on the absurd: “People look at us and think that is all we do – fucking. But I’m telling you with all the things we have done and seen we could do anything. I could be a president one day.”
Then again, this is stated by the same character who believes that young boys fellating older men will gain superior wisdom. Surprisingly, Angelo, who was victim to a sexual assault in his childhood, says nothing about the need to protect youthful vulnerability from the force that is adult sexuality. To me, the novel’s attitude towards sex also seems conflicted. While it can be purely physical (“It was not making love. He fucked me good.”), it is simultaneously represented as the gateway to attaining a special transcendence. At times, it is just plain confusing, as Sebastian explains: “You must be very careful with your emotions. We all sleep with each other here, all the time, except Shaun, he’s married. I could even sleep with you.”
The language of the narrative switches effortlessly between erotic and pornographic, and sometimes the interchanging use of two different registers is jarring. While mere “fucking” is glorified in one instance, in another the beauty of making love is depicted as being without equal. It is an ambivalent attitude, but perhaps it mirrors a complexity that is inherent in human sexuality. Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi would most likely disagree. She notes: “The erotic has often been compared with the pornographic, even though, as Lorde has pointed out, pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.”
Repeatedly in the novel, homosexuality is presented not just as an alternative choice that deserves to be accepted like all others, but as the gateway to men discovering their truest selves and their highest pleasures: “Men really haven’t been given the chance to explore their sexuality. Men are either married or expected to be. There is no in-between. So men haven’t nearly explored the possibilities of being men.”
One suspects that this new vision of masculinity is as replete with exclusions and prejudices as the old patriarchal discourse of traditional literary structure and early African literature. Marriage in this novel is exposed as a trap to limit the creative possibilities and abilities of maleness. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is the site where a man might truly explore what it “really” means to be a man. Perhaps it is only through this exaggerated sense of homosexual ascendancy in the grand scheme of things that Angelo and his cohorts can deal with their suppressed shame of working as prostitutes.
It may also be a way of coping with the stigmatisation of homosexuality in general. One finds a conflation in the novel between the fact of being homosexual and the fact of being a homosexual prostitute. This strikes me as a narrative strategy for survival, even of staying sane. But one feels that more creative and less antagonistic ways of representing these sexual choices can, and will, be found.
Andrea Cornwall speaks to these challenges of shaping a hybrid masculinity: “While the notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ may serve as a useful way of exploring identities in an era where influences were more limited, the very fluidity and hybridity of contemporary identities reveal its instability. Plural versions of what ‘to be a man’ can or should involve suggest, in turn, less a distinction between ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and other residual variants than a spectrum of ways of being that are more or less valued by different kinds of people.”
It is the appreciation and tolerance of difference that is ultimately lacking in Duiker’s lengthy, engaging story, even though it is framed as a bold assertion of that same right to choose, and live out, a “different” sexuality. Tshepo does not come across as someone who is comfortable with his sexuality. Rather, he is starry-eyed and defiantly homosexual. His work with children seems to be a vocation suited to him because of his “gayness”. By placing homosexuality at the top of his hierarchal understanding of human sexuality, he has sadly fallen into the same trap that handicaps those who oppose different sexualities.
This is a question which all who endeavour to “write back” to dominant narratives and histories must continually engage with: whether it possible, and whether it is necessary to eschew the presentation of the oppressed or othered’s story as some kind of Holy Grail; or whether it is justified, in the arena of imaginative regeneration, to present a passionate polemic such as Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons, which comes to the poetically appealing and yet patently false conclusion that the oppressed and othered subject is the possessor of a timeless and untainted historical consciousness and value system to which they need only return in order to cast off the chains binding their souls and minds. It is a question that will and must present itself anew to every attempt at “writing back” to the oppressive hegemonies of our time.
It is also a question that every oppressed subject must remain alive and alert to – be they women, black, queer or poor.
Pic Credit: Dean Hutton (2002)