“Love Holds Things Together”: A Q&A with Jude Dibia
In 2005, Nigerian writer Jude Dibia published Walking with Shadows, a novel that follows a gay male protagonist as he attempts to reconcile his “outing.” Even though the issue of homosexuality is a taboo subject in Nigeria, the book’s popularity grew through word of mouth, and bookstores eventually stocked it on their shelves to meet the demand. In 2014, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was instated, criminalizing homosexual relationships. Due to the increasingly threatening environment, Jude Dibia left Nigeria.
Dibia is the author of three novels and several short stories. Featured in local and international anthologies and magazines, his work has also been recognized with the Ken-Saro Wiwa Prize for Prose in Nigeria.’
Although he is best known for writing about the controversial issue of homosexual identity, Dibia became a writer for the simple fact that he wanted to tell human stories. In his work, which addresses the intricacies of relationships on every scale, he seeks to move toward a literary culture where sexual identity is a non-issue.
In this interview with Sampsonia Way, Dibia talks about Nigeria’s publishing environment, his current work, and the novel that got him into trouble. Jude Dibia is the current ICORN writer-in-residence of the Malmö City of Refuge in Sweden.
On Walking with Shadows
When I go to literature or books, I am either looking for escape, answers or better insights on issues and things. I think if you are a gay boy or girl who is going through doubts and depression, a book, music, film or just visual arts with images that reflect who you are goes a long way in reaffirming that you matter, that you exist, and that you are not alone. The idea that a huge section of Nigerian society has been silenced and refused any visibility in the arts was something that bothered me a lot.
What was your process for writing a book without a literary precedent?
I searched for similar African literature that was out there, but I did not find anything within my reach. I read some literature from other continents that had treated this subject and was greatly influenced by the writings of James Baldwin and then another American writer, E. Lynn Harris. I am almost certain now that some literature written by African writers have explored this theme in the past before my book, however, I haven’t come across one that has a gay person as a central character.
- Publications & Awards
- 2005:Published Waking with Shadows (Blacksand Books)
- 2007:Published Unbridled
- 2008:Unbridled shortlisted for the Nigeria Literature Prize
- 2010:Received Honorable Mention in Commonwealth Short Story competition for short story “Somewhere”
- 2011:Published Blackbird
- 2012:Blackbird shortlisted for the Nigeria Literature Prize
- 2014:Left Nigeria after the passing of the Anti Same-Sex marriage law
- 2015:Became guest writer at ICORN City of Refuge in Malmö, Sweden
What are the most important aspects of gay life in Nigeria that you wanted to portray with your writing?
I wanted to acknowledge the most basic and simple reality: gay people exist in African society. Being gay does not preclude one from being human, responsible and different from anyone else. There have been so many negative images and ideas fed to too many on what being gay means.
I do not claim to have written a book that captures the complete portrait of Nigerian LGBTQI+ identity. I have only captured a small piece and I doubt anyone will be able to capture the complete spectrum of LGBTQI+ identity in any piece of literature. As a writer, I took the liberty to explore a few issues plaguing my society by using a few characters. There are still plenty of untold stories out there.
“I wanted to acknowledge the most basic and simple reality: gay people exist in African society.”
How does literature validate existence?
Literature is like a time capsule that captures not just the visuals of what life is, but also manages to capture emotions and document them albeit for entertainment, escape or knowledge. When a people are excluded deliberately, the message that is passed on is that they do not matter. Imagine if there was no literature to capture the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda or even the Biafran War.
What did the popularity of Walking with Shadows indicate about the discrepancy between Nigerian society and Nigerian law?
It started a long discussion on the rights of LGBTQI+ Nigerians as well as the legality of creating laws that target helpless people. Some people’s opinion changed on how they viewed LGBTQI+ persons. Some people were forced to question their humanity and of course, some people refused to even contemplate or consider the idea of a society with openly gay people. For me though, I was intrigued by the discussions it made possible.
How did you decide on the uncommon narrative structure and character development of Walking with Shadows?
Walking with Shadows was a linear story with very little flashback. The setup and conflict of the story happened within the first chapter and the rest of the story handled the resolution. This is not very common in many stories, but it seemed to work for Walking with Shadows. The entire plot of the story hung on the “outing” of the lead character and after that there is an urgency to see how he handles this and makes peace with his family and work.
Walking with Shadows is one of my few stories that came to me almost fully formed. I knew the beginning and ending even before I started writing the story. There were some few unexpected twists that came while I was writing the story, but the main plot and structure were hardly altered.
I saw an interesting angle in creating, as a protagonist, this man who is loved and respected by many but who also had a secret. As we all have secrets I simply had to mine that feeling of vulnerability–which many of us can relate to–and use it in building this character.
The best characters are always flawed. Because as humans we are not perfect, it is important to reflect this in the characters we create. No one will believe in a character that is flawless even when they are the protagonists of the stories.
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