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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Writing in Practice - Vol. 2 > “Do you need some more explanation?” Practice-led research and the novel Fishing for Naija
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“Do you need some more explanation?” Practice-led research and the novel Fishing for Naija
Author: Olumide Popoola
Olumide Popoola explores the use of Yoruba mythology in contemporary fiction, and examines queer and trans* readings and identities in these re-imaginings and expressions.

Abstract

This article discusses a practice-led PhD in creative writing that comprises a novel and critical reflection. Border-crossing, borrowed from Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), forms the overarching keyword and central tool to contextually tie together theoretical research and practical investigations around language, voice, character development and plot. 

In the novel, questions of positioning and representation are answered for the protagonist Karl, a young trans* person. We witness Karl and his best friend Abu’s coming of age, and explorations of gender, against the backdrop of gentrification in the King’s Cross area of London, oil exploitation in the Niger Delta, and the London (or UK) riots of 2011.

The novel de-contextualizes Yoruba pronouns within the English text, marrying contemporary concepts of gender with Yoruba mythology, in form of the god of the crossroads, Eshu. Eshu is re-imagined in a queer reading (or more precisely writing) to propel us into new possibilities of addressing gender.

The project aims to un-silence ancient (mythological) spaces of queer and trans* possibility from within Yoruba cosmology and draws on scholarly discussions of Eshu to uncover the potential of trans* inclusivity.

 

Key words: Queer African fiction, trans fiction, Nigerian diasporic literature, African literature, practice-led research, Eshu, border-crossing

[Typesetter's note: we apologize that it has not been possible to reproduce certain characters; most notably, "è" has been used throughout as a substitute for the more complex Yoruba equivalent.]

 

This essay discusses some of the key points of the doctoral project "Fishing for Naija – Border-crossing as framework for language and literary form", a practice-led PhD in creative writing. The overall project addresses how border-crossing can be used as a structural tool within the novel Fishing for Naija to highlight and bridge language and perception gaps in relation to gender expression. Border-crossing is borrowed from Gloria Anzaldúa’s ground-breaking book Borderlands/La Frontera, and the resulting canon of literature, borderland writing. Borderlands/La Frontera, a collection of essays and poems, first published in 1987, challenges how we think about identity, and frequently code-switches between its different parts of English, Spanglish, Tex Mex, Spanish and similar, without offering translations. From the book’s back cover:

Borderlands/La Frontera remaps our understanding of what a border is, presenting it not as a simple divide between here and there, us and them, but as a psychic, social, and cultural terrain that we inhabit, and that inhabits all of us (Anzaldúa 2012).

The collection presents both a historical mapping and reflections on the realities and languages of the Mexican/US borderland, as well as on those invisible borders that exist in numerous opposing groups – Latino/as and whites, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. Anzaldúa opens with this definition:

…the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy (2012: 19).

Even more, this entails other meetings, I would argue, infinite possibilities for a joining of difference and otherness, without the violent rupture of assimilation. In a more poetic sense, it is the site where the “unsuitable” merges, where we arrive beyond what we can imagine, to experience now, in the moment, us.

In Fishing for Naija border-crossing is used as a technical and conceptual device. The fictional subjects of the novel occupy the urban centres of London, UK, and Port Harcourt, Nigeria,[1] crossing national borders as well as the borders/boundaries of friendship, gender and its expression, and coming of age. The title alludes to the protagonist’s physical journey to Nigeria, and his cultural and personal enrichment because of it. Naija is a common, widespread colloquial term for Nigeria. The title also references the plight of the Niger Delta, the oil producing region in Nigeria, and the devastating environmental issues related to the oil industry that have, for instance, destroyed large fishing areas. Border-crossing is relevant not only to the actual research but also to the subtler, underlying themes of the novel and explores what Bromley discusses as:

the concept of a ‘border metaphor’, which advocates the adoption of the viewpoint of people moving in and out of borders constructed around coordinates of difference and power’ (2000: 9).

In Fishing for Naija this concept of movement around power and notions of difference is located within the characters’ voices and their language, as a larger metaphor, relevant to their development and place in society or their environment. In the novel, we follow best friends Karl and Abu, both 17, who live in King’s Cross, London. Karl, a trans* person,[2] who uses the pronoun he, is a constant target for the wannabe bad boys of the area, but Abu stands by his side through thick and thin, and has roped the rest of his family into becoming a surrogate family, as Karl’s mother is often hospitalized. One day Karl finds a letter from his uncle in Nigeria, addressed to his mother Rebecca, which asks her to let Karl’s father finally know about his existence. Karl embarks on a turbulent journey to Nigeria, to finally meet the father he thought did not exist. When he gets to Port Harcourt, which lies in the Niger Delta region, his father has disappeared. While waiting for his father to reappear, Karl makes friends with local activist Nakale. Nakale shows him the damage that the oil exploration has done in the area. Meanwhile the 2011 riots break out in London and the distance tests Karl and Abu’s friendship to its limits.

The novel takes the written text apart to search for a voice that mirrors inclusivity in terms of Karl the protagonist’s gender expression by replacing the English pronoun with the gender-neutral Yoruba pronouns, ó, è and òun. The selected Yoruba pronouns match the informal tone of the novel. There are two ways of addressing people in the Yoruba language: those who are your peers or younger, and those older, or whom you wish to respect. Ó, è and òun are from the former category; in an English translation, they would correspond to an informal he/she/it, his/her/its, and him/her/its.

Furthermore, Karl’s language adapts in the interactions with Nakale. His urban London speak "mingles" with the English he encounters in Nigeria, and produces a subtle compound language. The voice, or language(s), in that regard, engages with Trinh T. Minh-ha’s definition of writing as “an ongoing practice concerned not with inserting a 'me' into language, but with creating an opening where the 'me' disappears while 'I' endlessly come and go” (1989: 31). Language becomes the place where friendship is "documented" and negotiated; where being close to another is reflected. In the following passage Nakale challenges Karl’s view that Nigerian (they call it pidgin in this extract) and Urban London English should be separated, and not mixed, as Nakale has done: 

“I’m just so tired, Nakale. I needed a minute.”

“Me, I dey get am my friend.”

“No, it doesn’t work like that. You get me or pidgin, not both.”

“Why not?”

Nakale made bloody sense, like usual. Karl was lost in è track. “Not sure. You’re right. I dey get you.”

“You fi teach me proper London pidgin o.”

“For sure. But we don’t call it pidgin.”

When had ó become such an annoying smart-ass?

(Popoola 2015: 143).

Border-crossing brings a shifting of point of view and voice to the novel. The reader is to be slightly un-settled in a narrative that mirrors the concept of identity fluidity. Judith Butler (1990) speaks in particular about gender and its construction. Gender she suggests, establishes itself always in relation to its expression, which is not innate but learned, thus in itself un-stable. In the case of gender, scholars such as Butler argue that once historical, cultural or social contexts are changed, its seeming (binary) simplicity is, or at least can/could be, challenged. In fact, gender, as widely accepted now, is not innate but performative:

...gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kind constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self (Butler 1988: 519).

The problem is only posed when and because “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives” (ibid.: 526). These gendered performances, or in other words so called feminine or masculine behaviour, are not a (biological) given, but are culturally imposed and perpetuated. In the novel views around gender are not overly discussed. This is a deliberate choice, and an attempt to shift discussions to another place: the emphasis is on approaching each other in a respectful manner. When Karl tells Nakale that he is trans* Nakale shifts the conversation to one about friendship.

The heat was like a blanket. Thick one. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad. If you’re enveloped like that what could happen? What the eff could bloody happen?

“Me… I don’t know how to say am.”

“Karl–”

“Yes.”

“For passport him say you be woman. Na be de thing you fi tell me?”

There was an abyss again. Not a gap. Strike, defeat. No middle part. Nakale shuffled on his mat and one arm came away from under his head. Karl was looking for the right words that would stop this suction that was pulling òun into the thin mattress through the floor into the bloody atmosphere and who the fuck knew if è body would hold, if it would remain in one piece.

“How do you know?”

“The woman at the buka.”

“But how does she know?”

“Maybe she feel am. Ah neva ask her. She say people pretend that we can know everything by looking and saying there is this side and that side. But we can’t. It is never like dat. She say to be a friend is to be there and wait for the time. For the time to talk. And then listen.”

He sat up. “When me and you become friends she tell me, make ah better be true friend if ah be any friend at all.”

“She said that?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And wetin?”

“What do you think? I mean…”

“Ahbeg, now you say it be problem?”

He lifted his head, looking at Karl. Karl kept staring at the ceiling. There wasn’t anything to see in this darkness but still. You didn’t have to face your friend head on. Not all the time, anyway. Fuck that.

“Karl, me I dey stay for here. You need some more explanation?”

(Popoola 2015: 149)

In this excerpt Karl and Nakale have been hanging out for weeks. Nakale is more concerned whether he has been a good friend to Karl: faithful and receptive, waiting for the right time. Loyalty, one of the central themes of the novel, becomes the marker that either keeps things in balance or unhinges them, not Karl’s gender identity. The breaking of trust, or the failure to be there for your friend is the real challenge. Karl becomes guilty in this regard, later on in the novel, when he doesn’t return to London to stand by Abu’s side, although the latter is asking him to.

Fishing for Naija employs concepts and characteristics of Eshu, the Yoruba god (orisha) of the cross-roads. It gives a contemporary reading of Eshu as allegory for the inherent possibility to fully acknowledge and accept trans*ness from within the context of Yoruba mythology. Eshu becomes or provides the tools for writing, for addressing Karl in a manner appropriate for the larger discussion about gender. As a narrator, Eshu chooses to tell the story employing the Yoruba pronoun for Karl, instead of the English he/his/him, not to disregard the choices he has made for himself, but to connect him with his heritage in a meaningful way. Eshu, known to trick humanity not for the sake of trickery but to expel them into new levels of humanity, is the orisha (god/deity) of the crossroads, who is able to communicate between divine and earthly realms. He becomes the bridge between context and reality, where language and need meet. Gillian Beer argues that the notion of the trickster god affords us the possibility to explore what has been excluded from "the grand narrative" of gender. I would echo her claim that “the trickster is a good thought-tool for feminism, a boundary breaker between thought patterns, sexes, species...” (Beer 2000: 7), and add that in this context it specifically allows for a queering of our engagement with gender.[3] In the above scene we briefly hear about the woman from the buka (a small eatery). She takes up Eshu’s mission by instructing Nakale to be sure of his priorities before embarking on the friendship with Karl.

Border-crossing directly relates to Eshu. It hints at one of his dwelling places, the crossroads, but it also denotes his larger function: when Eshu appears, he asks us to open a door, and to cross the threshold to a new state of understanding or being. He asks us to "meet ourselves" and, through the challenge of finding out something new, align what we have learned with what we are used to, or comfortable with. In addition, border-crossing denotes a meeting of earthly matters and divine ones:

The crossroads is a real place between imaginary places – points of departure and arrival. It is also a place where negotiations and deals are made with higher powers... The crossroads is a junction between the individual and the world (Komunyakaa 1997: 5). 

Eshu speaks to our interconnectedness, demanding acknowledgement of it, as well as that we answer to his call. In Fishing for Naija there is a connection between Yoruba mythology and current concepts of gender, and the general notion that not everything can be defined, or known completely. Border-crossing is used as a metaphor not only for a physical crossing of borders but the internal states of negotiation. As Hicks highlights: 

Border writing emphasizes the differences in reference codes between two or more cultures. It depicts, therefore, a kind of realism that approaches the experience of border crossers, those who live in a bilingual, bicultural, biconceptual reality (1991: xxiv).

This crossing extends from the languages used, which often deploy code-switching between the various tongues the writer or artist works and lives with, to the creation of compound forms that defy common literary genres.

 

Literary background

Trans* themes seem to be rare in the Nigerian (diasporic) literary canon. As far as novels are concerned, Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames (2007) and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet (1998) are solitary examples, written in and from a diasporic perspective. Both feature trans* protagonists, although Black in Abani’s novel is not sure what his idea or choice of gender is, or will become. Kay’s protagonist Joss Moody lives his life as a man, marrying a cisgender[4] woman and adopting a son. Only when he dies does the outside world, including the son, get to know of the gender that Joss was assigned to at birth. What is significant is that both novels take place outside Nigeria, on another continent (Trumpet in the UK, The Virgin of Flames in the US). The novels reference the African lineage of their characters: Joss’s father was an (unidentified as in country) African sailor and Black’s father an Igbo immigrant. Both texts set the expression of gender-queerness or trans*ness within a western context, however in Virgin of Flames it is the Igbo heritage that initially demands cross-gender performance. Black’s family is said to be inflicted with a curse that kills all male children under six. To outsmart the curse, Black is dressed as a girl until he turns seven. As an adult, Black struggles with recovering a picture of his past. He remembers fragments at a time and attempts to piece them together to shed light on his desire for cross-dressing and his homoerotic feelings. He has only a few reference points to his Igbo heritage. One is a photo that shows him dressing as a girl, which Black wears around his neck in a plastic pouch. The pouch also includes an envelope from his father. It is the last letter he sent before disappearing during the Vietnam War. The letter bears two Igbo words: Obinna, Black’s Igbo name, and Echefulam, meaning "never forget me". Gender is explored in Virgin of Flames in all its im/possibilities, tied to social and cultural conventions, yet simultaneously destabilized by social and cultural factors. In a conversation with his friends Iggy and Bombay about his homo-erotic feelings and his liaison with stripper Sweet Girl, he responds to Iggy’s claim that his cross-dressing is a way to return to a moment of safety within his childhood:

“That’s just the problem,” Black said. “I don’t know if I wear that dress because I am looking for my father, myself, because I want to be a woman or simply because Sweet Girl is a lesbian (Abani 2007: 198).

Madhu Krishnan (2012) argues that Abani’s choices challenge the essentialist notions of African authenticity with his altered Igbo tradition in the novel, which allows for a new vision within African literature that does away with fixed and unchangeable parameters. Abani plays with cultural expectations, and with the notion of tradition. The Igbo heritage becomes the site where binary gender expression is queered, albeit not voluntarily, but in reaction to a threatening external force. Similarly, Fishing for Naija aims to highlight the possibility of trans* expression within Yoruba mythology, and argues that understanding and acceptance is possible from within the cultural heritage, if one looks at the principles and attributes of Eshu closely.

 

Eshu and language

It is not a Yoruba "thing" to speak too directly. Verbal communication is dominated by exchanges of well-wishes and greetings, flattery, exaggeration and banter. The Yoruba have a long-standing tradition of proverbs, which deliver opinions through their complex interpretations and meanings. Matory, for instance, argues that “Yoruba daily speech is full of proverbs and allusions, whose persuasive power derives from the tendentious but implicitly self-evident analogies...” (2005: xxiii). Bakare-Yusuf contends that “Yorubas consider it indelicate to ‘speak with the whole mouth’” (2003: 129). This can result in issues not being addressed openly, especially if one is mindful of the strong tradition of seniority, which demands respect towards those who are elders, or socially higher-ranking. Eshu is a fitting tool here to challenge imposed silences and engage with topics that might seem un-addressable due to reasons of politeness.

Eshu Elegba, commonly known as Eshu, is a widely discussed Yoruba orisha (deity). The frequent description of Eshu as trickster or trickster god is not ideal, as it can prevent a more detailed look at his complex nature. For the purposes of this work, and the part Eshu plays in Fishing for Naija, he is best understood in the context of the Yoruba mythology (as god of the crossroads) and the Yoruba worldview itself, rather than by conflating him with similar but different traditions. Eshu is stubborn, yet visionary, and he always needs to be addressed first, to carry the messages (prayers) between humans and the orishas. He is the translator between earthly and higher languages and realms. In Fishing for Naija he carries the language(s) between the different places, Port Harcourt and London, but also the different codes: London "urban speak", Nigerian English, "proper" English and Yoruba pronoun.

Eshu offers escape from habit and rigidity of social laws as a shape-shifter who can assume various roles, guises and forms, which invites a queer reading. Various scholars have addressed Eshu’s queer traits, without using the term queer, precisely because of his abilities to perform various roles. Funso Aiyejina calls Eshu “the androgynous deity” (2010: 5); Henry Drewal, John Pemberton and Rowland Abiodun comment on a photo of Eshu figurines that shows pairs of male and female figures: “it is Esu who possesses the power to bring opposites together in fruitful relationships” (1989: 29). Gabriel Gabdamosi explores Eshu in the BBC Radio 3 essay, "An informal history of the male nude" (2012), also highlighting his gender ambiguity. Ulli Beier contextualizes Eshu as a possibility for productive opposites and paradoxes:

Esu is not only a potent man, he is simultaneously an attractive woman… The fact that Esu can be represented either as male or female illustrates a basic component of his personality that can express itself in innumerable opposites and paradoxes. At the same time it symbolizes a basic principle of Yoruba wisdom. In the Yoruba world view nothing is final, nothing exclusive; everything is in a continuous state of flow; every image is subject to change; any symbol is subject to constant new interpretations (2001: 31).

These fruitful paradoxes offer opportunity for an existence that is not regulated by prescribed systems of behaviour. Eshu’s abilities to trick can be read as a form of reversal, conjuring both unlucky and lucky encounters, prompted through the accidents (chance) he enables. The terms luck and chance can be misleading, as they suggest a randomness that might imply they are without purpose. Perhaps "timely challenges", which appear when fate "knows" that they are needed, even when the person is still unaware, might be a more appropriate interpretation. For Hyde these prompts are essential to growth, because “no self-contained world can induce its own fundamental change because self-containment means it knows nothing beyond its own given” (1998: 118). In Fishing for Naija the friends learn through painful separation – more painful for Abu than for Karl – that some of their growing up has to happen independently. Their reunion, however, brings them to a new, more mature place in their friendship. Eshu reminds us not to take things for granted, which is echoed in Fishing for Naija when Karl’s and Abu’s friendship is challenged.

Borrowing Eshu’s voice as a narrator serves several functions: he is commentator, intervener/meddler, and the disruptive element. He chooses to lend the gender-neutral personal pronouns of ó, è and óun, to pull Karl to his fatherland by embracing him from within the Yoruba culture. Karl’s western background is not used as a means of rejection that claims trans*ness to be a western import. In Fishing for Naija the queering of Eshu is only relevant to Karl because it is specific to his personal cultural heritage, as the Ogoni and other ethnic groups of the Niger Delta region have their own beliefs, mythologies, languages and practices. In other words Eshu is a Yoruba god, not a Nigerian one. Sylvia Tamale (2011, 2014), Olajide Akanji (2014) and Marc Epprecht (2008, 2014), among others, argue that the contemporary idea of an essentialist heterosexual African sexuality is a rather recent, conservative notion of African leaders that obliterates the pre-colonial practices of diverse sexualities.[5] By using the Yoruba pronoun for the English text Eshu takes up the conversation about gender himself, and makes a case for the need to dispense with its rigid terms. The use of the pronoun works here not with the aim of eventually including it in the English language, but by widening the understanding and experience of the need of a neologism that can encapsulate our understanding of gender and its fluidity. Eshu makes things uncomfortable by dragging them out into the light, and leaving some of his "contributions" for the reader to figure out, like the unexplained pronoun in the novel. The pronoun is not introduced; the reader has to grapple with the unusual words, the only help being a brief pseudo-definition at the beginning of the novel:

Karl? My boy was being dismantled by the leader of the threesome, his hands on Karl’s wrists banging òun into a corner between a wall and a fence. Ó hovered there, the metal slowly digging into è nice jeans.

represent(ation) 

verb/noun

1.    Find that which speaks for.

2.    Find ways to cross some assumptions.

3.    Make it to the next level.

4.    Not just the state of being represented but of adding to, connecting.

5.    The description or portrayal of someone in a particular way. 

Karl. That one. So immaculate. It was troubling. Abu even had a little fit earlier that evening because Karl had been doing è usual, must look pretty thing. (Popoola 2015: 3)

Although there is a "helping" device, the made up definition, which occurs throughout the novel for various keywords, there is no actual explanation for the Yoruba pronoun. The reader is left to decode, or simply accept it. In the novel, only the narrator uses the Yoruba pronoun. In direct speech Karl is addressed with the English male pronoun, according to his wishes.

Experimentation with the writing of different genders or linguistic designations in literary texts is not new, and perhaps more readily found in science or speculative fiction, especially by feminist writers. In Pronoun Envy Anna Livia explores a number of works, including literary fiction, which have raised the notion “that gender categories are themselves problematic, especially when tied to grammatical gender” (2001: 58). Of particular value to this project is Livia’s discussion of Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You (1971), which uses kin as unmarked gender, and June Arnold’s The Cook and the Carpenter (1995), which uses na, nan and naself as pronouns for its non-gendered language. Arnold does not reveal the gender of the three people in the central love triangle of the story until the end, thereby challenging the expectations readers have in relation to each character’s behaviour: 

Each time a reader encounters the neologism kin, na ... he or she is obliged to grapple with the ideological motivation behind these terms. Why have these pronouns been invented? What is wrong with the traditional pronouns they replace? (Livia 2001: 138) 

A similar engagement is asked of the reader of Fishing for Naija. There is little helping hand besides the brief definition of representation, but the narrative itself should bridge the mis(sing) understanding. To leave the reader to figure it out was of course, in a way, part of the overall aim: to construct an experience within the novel that signifies a place of unknowing, where not everything is clearly signposted. It is something we have to learn to be comfortable with. In Karl’s case, one could argue that only affording him a different pronoun highlights and yet again alienates him in the landscape of his peers.  Furthermore, it does not question the overall structures but stabilizes binary gender signifiers for all other characters. These are questions that could not be solved at this point, as the pronoun choices are tied to cultural heritage, and Karl is fishing for his connection with Nigeria. In Aldama’ words, “language is a social tool and as such is part of reality, but the writer has to turn language into a personally customized tool to represent what he or she wants to represent or to say” (2003: 20f). The English, in this case, is customized only in relevance to Karl.

 

Conclusion

By using the Yoruba pronoun Fishing for Naija becomes more than an addition to literary works, as it also asks of readers to engage, perhaps unconsciously, with language itself and its underlying thought patterns, to simulate a version of un-defined-ness. Jamika Ajalon asserts in her essay, "The fugitive archetype of resistance: a metaphorical narrative":

A fluid code is needed. Once we find symbols/language which subverts repressive, dominant discourse(s), it is important that those symbols continually shift – are mutable. Too often "radical" discourse is subsumed into the majoriborg machine - once it is static, it runs the risk of becoming essentialist, reflecting the very prison from which it sought to escape (2012: 127). 

Ajalon proposes to continuously re-evaluate our decisions and knowledge. This is a fluid process and there might never be an end to the "un-doing" this might cause.

The significance of this project is the production of original creative work from within the engagement with its theoretical underpinnings, in this case language application, gender discourses, and challenging views of who (or which countries) see themselves as more trans* and queer-friendly than others. The disruption of the language, by Eshu, both highlights Karl’s alienation and status, on some level, as the most vulnerable and most courageous person in the network. Eshu is the critical/theoretical approach, as well as the disruptive guardian orisha, who watches carefully over Karl, yet switches each road just as Karl arrives at its beginning. This gives Karl – and his friends and family – the opportunity to grow beyond the initial trajectory of their lives. Eshu, as a metaphor, has pushed for a deeper engagement with gender, not for Karl, who is growing up fine, but for me the writer to find an appropriate way of contextualizing his journey. It asks me, in the context of my practice, to apply the contextual ideas practically and to think through what it means for the characters involved. It draws attention to the problem of having now shone the spotlight on Karl even more, at least in some sense, as the only character with a non-English (and therefore within the text unusual) manner of addressing. It also asks how this could make a wider impact, as the reader has to grapple with the unfamiliar words. The Yoruba pronoun might make for a reading that defies complete clarity. In this regard it echoes the fact that we, as human beings, of course never really understand each other, at least not on all levels or accounts. More often than not, what is deemed understandable, or acceptable, is closely related to what is classed as normal. By crossing the boundaries (or borders) of what we are used to, language wise, we might attempt to get closer to leaving notions of normality, of "insider/outsider" out of the exchange.

 

* * *

 

Eshu, do not undo me,

Do not falsify the words of my mouth.

Do not misguide the movements of my feet,

You who translates yesterday’s words,

Into novel utterances,

Do not undo me,

I bear your sacrifice.

(Hyde 1998: 239; Gates 1988: 35)

 

This is a prayer for Eshu that is widely cited in scholarly discussion on the topic. To return to the trajectory of practice-led research, my reading of the prayer, echoing the aims and objectives of my project, would embrace the undoing as the place where we will find knowledge. In that way Eshu might exemplify the opportunity for accepting that we can never really know each other completely, and therefore have to accept how we present ourselves, whether we can always grasp it or not. It is this place of the ungraspable that will afford a “small scale knowledge”, as Sarah Wall calls it (2006: 3), where we encounter and embrace the state of fluidity that is part of all of our identities. And the element of surprise, which might perhaps be unsettling, emerges as the valuable moment in our relations, bringing us to a closer encounter with each other, by not pre-inscribing anything, or demanding clear sign-posting, be it as readers, writers, or persons in general.

 


 

[1] Port Harcourt, which lies along the Bonny River, is a large port town and the capital of Rivers State, in the Southern region of Nigeria. It has become one of the chief oil-refining cities, and one of the wealthiest in Nigeria with offices from the multinational Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell and American energy company Chevron.

[2] Trans*, trans with an asterisk, is used to denote a person not living as the gender they were assigned at birth, a person that is not traditionally cisgender (see below). The star is used to encompass the vast spectrum of identities and to honour that there is more to non-binary gender than a trans woman or man, for example gender queer, bi-gendered or a-gendered

[3] I am using Beer’s definition of the trickster god here although trickster itself is a limiting view of Eshu.

[4] Cisgender is a term denoting a person living as the gender they were assigned to at birth.

[5] I do not conflate trans*ness with sexuality or queerness but want to point to the wider scholarship on queerness on the continent. Kwame Essien and Saheed Aderinto give an overview of the scholarship in regards to countering the claim of an inherent and absolute heterosexuality on the continent. Their essay "Cutting the Head of the Roaring Monster" (2009) discusses academics such as Neville Hoad, B.S. Pincheon, Marc Epprecht, Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, who have all written on the topic. Another comprehensive resource on the topic is Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas’s edited collection, Queer African Reader (2013), which includes trans* narratives.

 

References

Abani, C. (2007) The Virgin of Flames. London: Jonathan Cape.

Anzaldua, G. (1999) Borderlands/La Frontera. The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Beer, G. (2000) Narratives Swerves: Grand Narratives and the Disciplines. Women: a Cultural Review. 11 (1/2), 2-7.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Hicks, E. (1991) Border Writing. The Multidimensional Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hoad, N. (2007) African Intimacies. Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. 

Kay, J. (1998) Trumpet. London: Picador.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Livia, A. (2001) Pronoun Envy. Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pelton, R. (1992) The Trickster in West Africa. A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Popoola, O. (2015) Fishing for Naija – a Novel. PhD Thesis: University of East London. 

Trinh, M.-H. (1989) Women, Native, Other. Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

 

Bibliography

Anzaldua, G. and Moraga C. (1984) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table- Women of Color Press.

Bakare-Yusuf, B. (2003) ‘Yorubas Don’t do Gender’: a Critical Review of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. African Identities, 1 (1), 121-142.

Barrett, E. and Bolt, B. (2010) Practice as Research. Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

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Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

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Dibia, J. (2006) Walking with Shadows. Online ordering: Lulu.com. 

Epprecht, M. (2008) Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS. Ohio: Ohio University Press. 

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Popoola, O. (2015) Fishing for Naija – Border-Crossing as Framework for Language and Literary Form. PhD Thesis: University of East London. 

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Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian-German who presents internationally as author, speaker and performer. Her publications include essays, poetry, short stories, the novella this is not about sadness (2010), the play text Also by Mail (2013), as well as recordings in collaboration with musicians. In 2004 she won the May Ayim Award in the category Poetry, the first Black German Literary Award.

The scope of her work concerns critical investigation into the "in-between" of culture, language and public space where a sometimes uncomfortable look at complexity is needed.

Olumide holds a PhD and MA in Creative Writing, and a BSc in Ayurvedic Medicine. Fishing for Naija was her doctoral project. Excerpts of the novel have been published in Feminist Studies 41:1, Guidebook for Reporting Gender and Sexuality (Project Hope, Nigeria) and in Sable LitMag (forthcoming). 

Her short story collection breach, with co-author Annie Holmes, will be published in 2016. breach is a commission by Peirene Press and will feature short stories developed from interviews with refugees in Calais.

 

 

 

 

 

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