Iweala’s novel, “Speak No Evil,” comes out as we’re witnessing a burgeoning African—and specifically Nigerian—literary attention to same-sex sexuality.
Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel, Speak No Evil, begins by offering a familiar yet beautifully told coming out story. Niru, a teenage boy in Washington, D.C. with successful Nigerian immigrant parents, faces up to his gay sexuality thanks to a failed seduction on the part of his white female best friend, Meredith. She puts the dating apps grindr and tinder on his phone, propelling him into an attempt at a first date with a boy, which is promptly discovered by his parents: drama ensues, including a trip to Nigeria to be spiritually cleansed, and Niru then secretly beginning a relationship with an African-American boy, Damien.
Speak No Evil has been widely reviewed, but discussions of the novel haven’t yet placed it in the context of a burgeoning African—and specifically Nigerian—literary attention to same-sex sexuality. Jude Dibia’s 2005 novel Walking with Shadows was the first Nigerian take on the coming out novel, eventually followed by Chinelo Okparanta’s 2015 Under the Udala Trees, which combines the story of an adolescent lesbian awakening during the Biafran War with a long struggle to get free from a loveless heterosexual marriage during the subsequent “peace.” In between those two novels, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Chris Abani, and Nnedi Okorafor, among others, have written multiple same-sex loving and gender-queering characters. Speak No Evil coincides with the publication of the first gay Nigerian memoir—Chike Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men: Living and Loving as an African Gay Man, and Unoma Azuah’s edited collection Mounting the Moon: Queer Nigerian Poetry. Meanwhile, young male writers in Nigeria, including the poet Romeo Oriogun, the short story writer Arinze Ifeakandu, and the essayist Chibuihe Obi, are increasingly publishing works in African-curated online venues such as Brittle Paper that speak with a new level of frankness and fearlessness about gay sexuality, and many of them are writing about their own lives and identities.
American readers might not know about the urgent diasporic African literary conversation about sexuality that Iweala’s novel steps into, but from an African perspective the coming out novel is a politically and aesthetically complex genre, one that Iweala seems to be both adopting and transforming. The coming out narrative can be important and inspiring for queer Africans who often feel compelled to publicly claim their identities in environments where homosexuality is increasingly criminalized, as it has been in Nigeria since the passage of the draconian Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act of 2014, which goes so far as to mandate a penalty of ten years in prison for anyone found to “witness, abet and aid the solemnization of same-sex marriage or union,” or who “supports the registration, operation, and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organization, processions or meetings.”
And yet, as many queer African thinkers have noted, the very idea of being “gay” and the narrative models for that identity come primarily from the Global North and therefore threaten to erase alternative local modes of queer existence.
Speak No Evil does not so much offer a clear critique of the coming out narrative as it does a redirection: about two thirds of the way through the novel, it abruptly interrupts its own coming out arc. Niru has just finished winning his final race in high school with his personal best time. After the race, his proud father decides to let his son drive his prized Range Rover. But as they are driving, Damien keeps buzzing Niru’s phone, making both father and son anxious. When his father reaches for the phone, Niru swerves, then pulls over to hand the wheel back to his father. But rather than getting back into the Range Rover, now tellingly under his father’s control, Niru decides to run away. Describing his urge to flee, Niru says, “My chest burns, but I don’t stop. Just keep breathing, I tell myself. It gets better.” What should happen next, what the “it gets better” narrative promises, is a happy coming out story. By referencing the project that advice columnist Dan Savage began in order to reassure gay youth that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that their homophobic home lives will soon be forgotten for a brave, new queer world, the narrative implies that Niru is running towards a brighter future. Niru will find love, maybe with Damien, maybe with another man; he will live his life on his own terms; he will find success in his own way; he will tell his story in the way that he alone sees fit. His father calls after him but Niru keeps running, side-stepping a potential coming-out moment, and noting that “there is nothing left to say.”
The line “there is nothing left to say” is in fact Niru’s last line in the novel. At this point, Meredith’s voice takes over the narration. The second part of the novel flashes forward six years when she returns to D.C., a D.C. clearly under the pall of the Trump administration, to help her parents pack their home. We learn from Meredith that it’s to her house that Niru ran after the altercation with his father. When he appears at her doorstep, Niru is distraught, wanting to “disappear,” but he convinces her to go to a club near where Damien lives. From there, events spiral out of control and a fight between Meredith and Niru is misread by bystanders and the police. While the first two thirds of the novel deftly and compellingly follow the ups and downs of Niru’s coming out, the last section cuts this narrative short, turning away from questions of sexuality, and focusing instead on race politics in the United States.
This boldly abrupt switch in narrative voice, like the final paragraph of Things Fall Apart, highlights the importance of telling one’s own story—specifically, here, the story of a queer young Nigerian in America. The coming out narrative is cut short, and paradoxically the character who pushed Niru to come out is the voice that takes over the narrative, and we become immersed, whether we want to or not, in her emotional landscape. This move seems to call into question the white liberal drive for a coming out narrative as the story that must be told, even as Iweala makes the reader mourn its disappearance. When Niru’s emotionally distraught father appears on Meredith’s doorstep after the events at the club, Meredith is given a shot at redemption, an opportunity to make up for her role in the trouble that befalls Niru. But instead, Meredith doubles down and makes her help conditional on publicly outing Niru. Ultimately, how one reads this exchange will determine how one views the novel’s relationship to traditional coming out narratives. Many readers might indeed stand behind Meredith, but other readers, including queer readers, might find themselves relating more to Niru’s father, the strict and homophobic patriarch whose love for his son is painfully evident in this last section of the novel. This tension suggests that Speak No Evil is interested in modes of privacy and publicness that are more complex than “out” or “closeted, but that are unavailable to these characters. At the end of the day, the hijacking of Niru’s coming out story by racism and white liberal obliviousness is both emotionally devastating for the reader—it does not get better for black queer boys in America—and a thought-provoking breaking of the conventions of the genre.