ABIDJAN – Thiossane and Moctar meet in classic West African fashion. Trying to send a text message one day to an old friend from school, Thiossane, an educated but unemployed resident of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, enters the number incorrectly and instead reaches Moctar, an uneducated grave-digger who has recently lost his job.
Moctar responds enthusiastically, saying “I want us to be friends,” and the two strike up a conversation about trade winds and the weather. The text exchange becomes somewhat more serious when Thiosanne confides that he is deaf. Moctar consoles him “with simple words,” responding that it doesn’t matter, then asks Thiossane if he has a woman in his life. Thiossane says he is sexually attracted to men only. “Me too!” Moctar replies. “But it’s a secret. No one can know.”
The two arrange to meet, and their relationship forms the heart of J’attends mon mari (“I await my husband”), the debut novel from Ivoirian author Karim Deya and perhaps the first novel out of Francophone West Africa to have, at its core, a positive depiction of homosexuality. The book is groundbreaking in many ways, from its graphic depictions of gay sex to its rejection of a form of escapism pervasive among West African sexual minorities — specifically, the idea that life will improve only if one flees to Europe or finds a white partner. At the same time, however, the book’s embrace of a nuance-free, pro-gay, anti-homophobia message — the book jacket notes that the author seeks to use literature to express a “cry of revolt” — makes it difficult to see the protagonists as actual people, and precludes a deeper understanding of the challenges they face.
Thiosanne is the book’s first-person narrator, and he has much in common with its author. Both are gay West Africans. Both are conflicted about God and take a dim view of organized religion. And both lost their hearing when they were 9 years old, meaning they were outcasts of a sort even before they came to terms with their sexuality.
From the moment he is born, Thiosanne’s life is shaped by the vagaries of mob logic. Because he does not physically resemble his father, his mother is accused of having an affair with someone else in the neighborhood. Though no evidence is produced, Thiossane’s father decides to leave his mother, depositing her and their child at the home of Thiossane’s maternal grandfather. When Thiossane is eight, his mother marries a Catholic man and, without explaining why, leaves Thiossane with his grandfather when she moves in with her new husband.
Thiossane’s first romantic relationships, both with foreigners, are similarly unpredictable. He is particularly scarred by his romance with Pierre Rémi, a French doctor who vows to help Thiossane get hearing aids. Pierre Rémi has a flair for drama, often falling under days-long spells during which he refuses to speak or to write anything but poetic verse. He also has an abiding sense that he is not like other Frenchmen in Senegal, having renounced the expatriate highlife to focus instead on his work. But he goes into fits of jealousy, forcing Thiossane to take twelve HIV tests to prove he has been faithful. When Thiossane follows up with a request about the hearing aids, Pierre Rémi goes into a rage, and his disdain for Africans comes through: “Ah, these Africans! All crooks, monkeys who imagine life is so easy! Do you have any idea how much hearing aids cost?” Thiossane concludes that, instead of treating him as a human being, Western men are more likely to reduce him to “an ethnological pastime.”
Not long after they begin seeing each other, Thiosanne and Moctar have their first encounter with the type of overt homophobia that has made Senegal one of the most hostile environments for sexual minorities in the region. To celebrate Easter, they visit Thiossane’s mother at her new home, even though mother and child have never really reconciled and Thiossane remains resentful toward her husband. The party atmosphere turns sinister when someone informs the police that Goor Jigen — a word in Senegal’s Wolof language that translates to “man-woman” and is used as a slur to denigrate gay men — are present in the neighborhood. The police arrive quickly, but they are not looking for Thiossane and Moctar. Instead, they interrupt the ceremony to round up all men in the neighborhood who are not overtly masculine and subject them to a public beating. The police then search the suspects, and those found with condoms and lubricant are taken into custody. They face up to five years in prison under Senegal’s law banning same-sex sexual acts.
Later, away from the mob, Moctar summarizes the neighborhood’s reaction to the arrests for Thiossane, who is unable to hear the comments. Here, Deya neatly lays out some of the most common arguments heard against homosexuality in Senegal and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa: that it’s against God’s wishes and nature’s law, for example, and that gay people are motivated by some kind of financial incentive. A polygamous Senegalese lutteur, or wrestler, declares that gay people are no better than animals, and that if one of his sons “became Goor Jigen,” he wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. When someone suggests that Goor Jigen might be born that way, and that God created them intentionally, one of Thiossane’s relatives is so offended that she simply leaves. The day ends with Thiossane and Moctar stealing a kiss in an empty hallway, but images of the raid haunt Thiossane, who perceives them as a “reflection of my own destiny.”
Moctar, too, appears to have been rattled by the incident, and he soon disappears for 27 days. When he returns, visibly thinner, he announces that he has spent the time at a friend’s house in the village of Toubab Dialo, meditating in complete silence. He says he has come to see their relationship “as a sickness,” and concludes that it must stop. “I can no longer hide myself, Thiossane, and live like this, in fear of being discovered at one moment or another,” he writes in Thiossane’s notebook, which is how the two communicate. “I can’t take part in the revolt. I will suffer too much.”
Thiossane, however, is determined to keep the relationship alive, and he launches into a tirade about how Moctar shouldn’t give up so easily. Just as Deya earlier presented common arguments against homosexuality, here he ticks through some talking points against social conformity: how sexual categories are artificial, and how the concept of normality is used to buttress outdated social conventions. Moctar breaks down in tears but is finally convinced. “What are we going to do?” he asks. They decide to try to flee to Europe — Moctar will go first, and Thiossane will follow. When the French embassy rejects Moctar’s visa application, they stick to the plan anyway, and Moctar sets out to migrate illegally.
The book then jumps ahead three years, during which time Thiossane has had no news of Moctar. Though he is content to float through daily life in Dakar daydreaming of their reunion, his life is altered a final time by a mob.
After a talented, gay couturier named Iba dies, the imam at the local mosque makes advances toward his mother. She rebuffs him, and the imam vows revenge. He orders the exhumation of her son’s body, saying the angels are distraught that a Goor Jigen has been buried in the local cemetery. This turns into a public spectacle, with an angry crowd gathering to throw stones at the corpse and spit on it. (The scene was inspired by real-life events: In 2009 and 2010, the bodies of at least four men believed to have been gay were exhumed by angry mobs in Senegal).1
Distraught over the violence, Thiossane decides to take a stand and come out as gay. He also decides that, rather than fantasizing about a life of exile in Europe, it is his responsibility to stay in Senegal and work to improve conditions there. The novel ends with Thiossane confessing his sexual orientation to police, who respond by beating him and taking him into custody. This closing confrontation pits a clear protagonist against a clear villain, good against evil, and thus turns the novel into an easy morality tale. The sense of righteous indignation experienced by the reader, however, should not be confused with genuine insight into what’s going on.
* * *
In his 1949 Partisan Review essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin, the novelist and essayist, makes explicit his disdain for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel written on a different continent about a different kind of injustice.
Baldwin begins with Miss Ophelia’s response to a remark from St. Clare that rationalizes blacks’ subservience to whites. “This is perfectly horrible!” Miss Ophelia exclaims. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” In this exchange, Baldwin explains, Miss Ophelia is “speaking for the author; her exclamation is the moral, neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found in the hanging walls of furnished rooms.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin goes on, “is a very bad novel” — not just for its sentimentality, which Baldwin despises, but for its absence of fully drawn, believable characters, its “terror of the human being.” Stowe sets out with a single objective: to demonstrate that slavery is “perfectly horrible.” As such, she is “not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer.” While she exhibits “laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture,” she ignores what is, for Baldwin, “the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.”
In its portrayal of modern homophobia in sub-Saharan Africa, J’attends mon mari similarly dodges this question, and it would appear the author intended to do so from the very beginning. Deya told me he chose to set his novel in Senegal, where he has spent only a short amount of time, because, unlike in Côte d’Ivoire, homosexuality is criminalized there, and, as a lawyer by training, he is interested in legal issues. But the choice of Senegal also makes it easier to present a starker image of the plight of sexual minorities, while at the same time avoiding thorny questions about the origins of the homophobia his characters encounter. Unlike a novel about homophobia in Côte d’Ivoire, which presumably would need to explain where it comes from, the homophobia in Deya’s book exists first and foremost as legal fact, and therefore doesn’t need to be interrogated.
Similarly, there is little attempt to explore the motivations of individual characters. Though Thiossane at one point offers some insight into his neighbors’ love for gossip — he describes it as a natural desire to tear down those who have more than they do, a form of resistance against structural inequalities over which they have no control — the reader learns little about their individual stories or why they might find homosexuality particularly offensive.
Thiossane’s mother, who clearly has a complicated relationship with her son, says only three things in the novel: “Don’t ruin my hair,” “Don’t dirty my clothes,” and “What are people going to say?” The failure to draw out this character is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity. In his remarkable collection about the lives of queer Somalis, Fairytales for Lost Children, Diriye Osman uses deft portraits of parents and guardians to give a softer face to homophobia — to humanize, rather than demonize, those who are consumed by it. In the story “Shoga,” for example, the grandmother of the narrator, who is an orphan, rejects his homosexuality not out of blind hatred but out of genuine fear over losing what remains of her family. “She was afraid that once I left home for college I too would never return,” the narrator says. “I tried consoling her but she didn’t want pity. She wanted a guarantee. I couldn’t give her that.”
In Deya’s novel, the one secondary character whose story does receive a bit of attention, albeit elliptically, is the Catholic husband of Thiossane’s mother. Toward the end of the novel, this man dies in a fire in his bedroom, and witnesses remark that at the time of his death he was wearing a woman’s wig. The implication is that he spent his entire life in the closet (an implication Deya confirmed is deliberate). But without any more knowledge about his background or his life, it is difficult to know whether to view him strictly as a victim or as someone who has, himself, internalized and embraced the homophobia that threatens Thiossane’s relationship with Moctar. Like everyone else outside of the central relationship, he is ultimately less an individual character than a member of the homophobic masses.
Just as Deya’s antagonists fail to take individual shape, his heroes, too, remain remarkably one-dimensional, almost to the point of being idealized. Thiossane is, throughout, the star-crossed romantic who can convince Moctar to completely alter the course of his life through words alone. Moctar, meanwhile, seems to reflect little on just how much his life will change if he flees to Europe, focusing instead on his single-minded devotion to Thiossane. Nowhere do we see the fear that Baldwin captures so effectively in his 1952 novel Giovanni’s Room, primarily via the indecisiveness of his main character. Nowhere do we see the thinly veiled internalized homophobia that is the natural product of living in a society that insists on emphasizing, at every turn, just how rotten gay people are.
Toward the end of novel, after the French embassy refuses Moctar’s visa, Thiossane is devastated, and he heads to the embassy building in the middle of the night for a retaliatory attack. The author’s language here suggests that Thiossane has amassed an impressive arsenal, and that the “detonation” will be “memorable.” What he actually produces is a poem condemning the visa process and warning that France will pay for its denial of the dreams of countless would-be African migrants. He glues the poem to the wall.
It is clear that, like Thiossane, Deya also sees words as weapons, though the “detonation” J’attends mon mari might produce so far remains unrealized. It is true that, in the Ivoirian context, Deya’s novel is completely original. And were a significant number of Ivoirians to read it, including homophobic Ivoirians, the book could pose a compelling challenge to the most pervasive and persistent anti-gay talking points aired in the country.
However, up to now, J’attends mon mari has only been published in France. Outside Deya’s network of contacts, then, it has primarily been read by people who aren’t familiar with the West African context, and know only that the region is hostile to sexual minorities. The book’s central problem — Deya’s unwillingness to go further in exploring the roots of this hostility — reinforces for this audience the perception that it is senseless and inexplicable. And the danger of viewing a problem as senseless is the corollary belief that it is immutable, and that nothing can be done to overcome it.
1 Callimachi, Rukmini. “Even after death, abuse against gays continues.” Associated Press. June 12, 2010.