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Author Arinze Ifeakandu shines a light on gay Nigerian lives

A gay couple pose for a photograph at a club in Lagos, Nigeria, October 27, 2019.

A gay couple pose for a photograph at a club in Lagos, Nigeria, October 27, 2019.

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The Nigerian writer has won the major Dylan Thomas prize for his stories of gay love, loss and identity

LONDON - Nigerian author Arinze Ifeakandu has often dreamed of a society where gay people do not have to hide their love or live in fear of homophobic hate.

But LGBTQ+ people are pushing back against repression through creativity and community, said Ifeakandu, whose debut book "God's Children are Little Broken Things" won the prestigious Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize for literature this month.

"I always believe in the agency of people," said Ifeakandu, 28, whose book follows nine stories of LGBTQ+ men in Nigeria.

"And when you push people, (they will say), 'Look, I don't have a choice about who I am. So I (need to) find a way to survive in this society.'"

There is limited gay representation in arts and media across Africa, where more than half of nations ban gay sex, but Ifeakandu is among a growing number of writers and creatives telling LGBTQ+ stories across the continent.

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Nigeria is a deeply religious country, where many reject homosexuality as a corrupting Western import.

In 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed into law, which bars not only gay relationships but also any public sign of same-sex affection or membership of LGBTQ+ groups, with punishments of up to 14 years in prison.

States in the mainly Muslim north also operate a parallel sharia legal system that can impose the death penalty for gay sex.

"For the longest time, I would imagine what the ideal looked like - how would life look like if I did not share a country with a bunch of ignorant people?" said Ifeakandu, who now splits his time between Nigeria, Britain and the United States.

His book does not explicitly attempt to answer those questions, but they are implicit in his stories of LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Nigeria.

Though they revolve around love and loss, politics - particularly the situation for LGBTQ+ people in the country - backgrounds the collection.

'Rage and anger'

Ifeakandu's literary prize came shortly after Uganda’s parliament passed some of the world's strictest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation last month, which would criminalise the "promotion" of homosexuality and impose the death penalty for some crimes involving gay sex.

The move by the East African nation has sparked anxiety among many LGBTQ+ Africans who fear other countries could also move to repress gay rights.

Kenya has recently seen an uptick in homophobic rhetoric, while senior politicians in Tanzania and Burundi have called for crackdowns on homosexuality.

Ifeakandu said he could not comment on the situation in Uganda, more than 3,000km away from his home in Nigeria, but recalled how his own country's 2014 crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights sparked an upswelling of anger and resistance.

From those emotions came creativity – many people took to writing blogs, Ifeakandu said, and new relationships and friendships were formed.

This is a central point of his work, he added, how adversity – either from the government or the public – can create bonds grown previously disparate people.

"The idea (at the time) was to sort of cage us," he said of the Nigerian anti-gay law.

"It had the opposite effect because there was a lot of rage and anger."

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