Winner, Christopher Hewitt Award for Creative Nonfiction
Voicing That Inner Scream:
Visibility and AIDS in LGBT Africa
by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko
LGBT Africa held two truths: you fuck, you die. Both truths were intimately woven like tapestry spun by a wild heart against an overreaching government bracketed from the world stage, answerable solely to itself, wielding unmolested corrupted powers. If caught, the government had every right to kill you, shot dead-on-the spot or tortured by electrocuting your vagina, penis, slow but steady as water was poured so the amplified shock proved so lethal you’d fry to death for quick bodily disposal; if lucky, you fucked like you might die. Meaning with intensity, not wasting that urge to connect with someone of the same sex who shared your wish to be Alive, truly Alive because what proved to be deadly was living a lie every day.
Third World fucking is hardcore sex, zero nonsense: we sucked, swallowed, dicked, gulped, licked, fingered, penetrated, moaned, groaned, grunted, squirted, sprinkled, dribbled, bent down, bent over, spread wide, even wider, head-down-ass-up, swallow-every-drop-nonstop whenever and wherever nobody was watching, and if they did chance a glimpse, we fucked even harder, not wasting a drop of love or life or the scraps of sex pieced together in zero-time with a loaded gun at your skull.
Healing powers were summoned to quiet that extra-crispy brand of brutality reserved especially for queer Africans. We licked the death wish within the body’s hidden caverns, our skilled African tongues glossing over bruises from beatings—pipes, stones, Daddy’s belt while your mother watched in silence. We seduced delicious poetry from crushed glass inserted deep within a young lesbian’s tight vagina so her rapist could make her “less gay” to make her more of a “traditional African woman” who preferred “real African men” to masculinity in women.
When it was over, if you survived, you crawled into the shadows where your scream against Death hit fever pitch, head back howling your warning so the community might paint a future through your sound.
We never saw ourselves on TV; never heard our stories on radio; never held parades to celebrate hard-won struggles against nonstop, relentless, day-after-day oppression; had no materials, no paraphernalia, no lube nor tube; no twelve-inch, uncut, jet-black dildo with glow-in-the-dark sprinkles to decorate your cock; no flag, no label, no symbol, no language, no code, no metaphor, no books, no song; no shops, no clubs, no bars; no celebrated space to pour our souls into alternative realities.
No church or sacred community prayed over us or blessed gay people because they said we have no souls. We were invisible, that unreality within reality, a truth so true that when we first appeared they said we were a lie. The ones who couldn’t take it anymore, the ones who refused to stay silent or hide, the few brave ones who stood up to declare themselves openly gay and proud Africans became unAfrican instantly: abandoned by family, disowned by lovers, denied by community, spat on by the ancestors, they went from office workers with (decent) salaries to bums fishing garbage from dumpsters, roaming the streets as sex workers prostituting among tourists to get by hand-to-mouth—if lucky. In a matter of days they got that wild look of someone pushed far out on the edge where the thin line between sanity and insanity was a teetering question of time.
Nobody reached out to help or hope–too risky—so they wasted away in distant lands as whores pimped by some mysterious tourist, returning home with HIV, then dumped in the backwoods of their village to die a slow, painful death in disgraced anonymity. Our very first foot soldiers, heroes and sheroes and tranny-oes who sang their noble song, risking Life’s preciousness to voice a more precious truth. LGBT Africans armed with beautiful queernesses prepared to die for an ideal, unprepared to force-fuck heterosexuals in exile, stunned when treated like strangers at home in their own motherland.
They did not die from HIV/AIDS; NO! NO! NO!, they died from loneliness; acute isolation sapped their strength to rise beyond the grave and reclaim the queer bodies so proudly declared before the world from alpha into omega, beginning from their end. In the end, they never knew their worth to their own community; but we know it and we will sing it forever, proclaiming eternity as we reach for Infinity where queer Africa lives forever and ever, Amen.
For us few watchful survivors on the sidelines, the village sent a clear message: “Fight back, you will fall. Fall, nobody will catch you. Die, no ancestor will receive your rotten, gay body in the hereafter where judgment is even worse.” We looked in the mirror, measured our stubborn pride and saw death. It’s that look you get when you don’t stand in your own truth, when you spin lies to fuel dreams that account for your emotional isolation. We were safer and yet hypocrites; wounded survivors too lost, too confused to trust or risk beyond the paralyzing fear that had us actively stuck in a loveless world: in other words, we were not ourselves.
We broke down, cried like infants—hungry, motherless, vulnerable, unwanted, abandoned. Rather than unravel, rather than end up crazy or strapped to some bed locked away for life in a mental institution because some medical “expert” had determined we were “too insane” to live in a world that wished us dead, rather than end up in prison or an asylum sentenced for life, rather than lose what little power we gained through love, tears and precious bloodshed, we decided to stay invisible, yes, we worked very hard to make ourselves absolutely nothing.
“Better safe,” we thought, so we played at being “normal,” “ordinary,” “average,” “nice”; we made ourselves “predictable,” “routine,” “stale,” “flat,” modeled our behavior after “good citizens” who worship the grave. We fabricated shallow but necessary lies, swallowed spoonfuls of homophobia to stay safe inside the cozy closet. We looked at each other sideways if at all. “Wide-eyed blind” is what I call it, when you look not to see someone but to make sure they stay invisible. Easy enough: how do you identify when your process involves erasing “Self”?
We betrayed each other, hurt each other, cursed, destroyed each other, then worked extra hard to caress the special wounds birthed by queer Africans scarred by extra-crispy harassment. And we drank—too, too much—liquor plus laughter bubbling tonic during troubled times.
Suddenly, one bright morning, everything broke: the sun rose high to cast penetrating light on our lies but they were gone, disappeared; that false, artificial ring in our voice sounded true, even authentic; plastic gestures that made us normal became natural; we were masters of the world and its shallow, stupid standards. So we were comfortable, yes, finally safe. Next day, we were still safe and just as plastic. Following day, still fake, still safe. Next day, more fake, more nice, more polite, more shallow, more insincere, more accommodating, more agreeable, more accepted, more lies, more safe, less alive. Then we were too safe because we were too fake because we were too dead.
More fake, more safe; more safe, less alive; less alive, more dead; more dead, more artificial; more artificial, more insincere; more insincere, more accommodating; more accommodating, more polite; more polite, more approved of; more approved of, more accepted; more accepted, more connected; more connected, more alienated; more alienated, more alone; more alone, more confused; more confused, more lost; more lost, more scared; more scared, less secure; less secure, more insecure; more insecure, more drinking; more drinking, more drugs, more drugs, more numb; more numb, more lies; more lies, more artificial; more artificial, more fake; more fake, more safe; more safe, less alive; less alive, more dead. Such was the formula.
There is a war between my legs. It keeps me pure. To reach out, to touch someone who touches me back fuels the frenzy feeding my lust. Living inside someone for limited eternity. Love defeats death, my soul defeats my mind, scars speak, pain shared, our chaos is made absolutely gorgeous. When partnered it means someone is out there, another African just as starved for life and love. Maybe, just maybe a tribe is in my future if I survive the (present) moment. If I claim the body that holds the story to voice my song, if I taste the death wish during illegal fucking, if I reimagine the world behind my eyelids, recreating reality to make it mine, aaaall mine.
In a world committed to making queer Africans crazy, when I finally look beyond my world, beyond circumstance in search of identity, have I done everything in my power to meet this moment? Isn’t this why some of us refuse to hide? Don’t I like myself more when living in integrity? Aren’t I more alive? Is this the cure?
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but was raised mostly in neighboring Kenya as well as other countries within the east, central African region. Mwaluko’s work as a journalist with Reuters News Agency East Africa became the basis for early dramatic plays, most of which were set in Africa or featured the African immigrant experience. Mwaluko worked for Reuters New York, then received scholarships and fellowships for Columbia University, where he studied writing and French, graduating magna cum laude. His play Waafrika was recently shortlisted by London’s National Theatre’s Africa Playwriting Contest, and his play S/He won best play, best lead actress, and best writer at the Fresh Fruit Festival. Mwaluko adds that he is FtM, queer, and hates pronouns.
When we announced our winners last year for the first annual Christopher Hewitt Award, we wrote that the award was our way of recognizing and encouraging work that “not only builds upon the legacy of thirty years of literature about our community, but also helps to enrich and expand our ideas of what ‘literature’ and ‘community’ mean when we speak about AIDS in the new millennium.”
All that, and the work needed to be really, really good. It seemed a bit lofty to expect all of those qualities to emerge from a contest, let alone from any single contribution, but the entries this year reminded us that good writing really can—and should—open up new possibilities for a genre. It was clear to our judges that what makes great contemporary writing about HIV/AIDS stand out from the crowd is just that: It’s contemporary. It feels fresh and vital, willfully undermining our old stories about illness and reflecting instead a complex global reality, in which diagnosis doesn’t have to equal tragedy and finding a cure turns out not to be a simple victory.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, winner in the Creative Nonfiction category, takes an eviscerating look at current personal and political strife for gay and transgender Africans with HIV and moves towards introspection, asking, “In a world committed to making queer Africans crazy, when I finally look beyond my world, beyond circumstance in search of identity, have I done everything in my power to meet this moment?”
Stephen Mead’s poem “Building Immunities” uses gorgeous, fickle syntax and distilled meaning (“…I dreamed, / river-willed, stirring stillness: / you again, you—”) to imagine a reunion between partners in a world not in which AIDS never existed, but in which lovers have suffered and are stronger for it: “recharged despite the carnage of life.”
Halfway through Stephen S. Mills’s short story “After the Cure,” a scene shift happens that takes the narrator from detailing his near-obsessive making of red ribbons in the nineties to an imagined world in the near future in which there really is a “cure.” In strict literary terms, this qualifies “After the Cure” as science fiction, which Robert A. Heinlein once described as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present.” In this case, Mills’s knowledge includes the wisdom to recognize that after years of activism and long-term survival, gaining a cure will also mean losing a whole way of looking at ourselves and the world around us.
We think you’ll enjoy these three pieces as much as our judges did. They give us hope about the future of writing on HIV/AIDS. And we think they’re really, really good.