Dr. Frieda Ekotto is a novelist and professor of AfroAmerican and African studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Don’t Whisper Too Much (Bucknell University Press, 2019), translated from the French by Corine Tachtiris, follows the stories of women who love other women in a Fulani village in Northern Cameroon, and was recently excerpted on this blog. In this interview, she discusses the nuanced connection between her creative and academic work and new potentials for queer Francophone African literatures.
When, and why, did you decide to write your first novel, Don’t Whisper Too Much, which was originally published in France in 2005? How did the idea for the story develop?
I started writing this novel while working on my dissertation on Jean Genet. I would write the novel in the morning and in the afternoon, I would write the dissertation. There was already a story in my mind, it was a question of getting it out. I began to write to speak of the impossibility to speak; to speak of the silence in which I had been crushed. Writing seemed to me the only way out. It was a coming-out story for me. I had to write it. On the Continent, the whole process of coming out does not exist. It is often others who out you and then you have to confront your family and friends. Genet’s writing was a big influence on me. I wanted to explore questions of silence, suffering and love.
You are Professor of AfroAmerican and African studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan, while your scholarly work covers Francophone literature, particularly Jean Genet’s prison writing. How does your academic focus influence your approach to your creative writing?
My academic work informs my creative work. I deal with the same questions in both. My creative work and research are organized around a perspective that is at once interdisciplinary and theoretical. I mostly concentrate on critically reading discourses that are produced within institutions. I don’t think I write to give messages to readers: I do it with care by breaking with the styles that precede me, by reinventing the styles each time. Genet’s work has been instrumental in helping to uncover a different world or things that seems to me engulfed in the dark.
Representation of sexuality solely as a form of intimacy or subjectivity is actually quite limiting. Heterosexuality, and by extension heteronormativity, is much more than that – it is a paradigm that dictates a multitude of aspects of our lives … Queerness, too, has a similar social, political and cultural potential.
Don’t Whisper Too Much is largely considered the first Francophone African work of fiction to portray women loving women in a positive light. In your view, have “queer Francophone African literatures” gained ground since it was first published in 2005?
Not necessarily. [Francophone African writers] want to talk about queer relationships but in disguise, so the terrain is still very timid or limited. However, Anglophone writers discuss “queer African literatures” easily.
For me, it has always been important to destabilize boundaries between inside and outside, local and global, without losing the specificity that defines different spheres, their literatures, and their politics. This enables a more nuanced, dialectic understanding of the relations between these binaries. For the global, it is urgent to destabilize or challenge how homosexuality in Africa is discussed, including notions such as visibility, which has become a specific kind of visibility and a marker of progress. This, of course, does not take into account the social, political and religious parameters unique to each place.
Representation of sexuality solely as a form of intimacy or subjectivity is actually quite limiting. Heterosexuality, and by extension heteronormativity, is much more than that – it is a paradigm that dictates a multitude of aspects of our lives, not just sexual lives, but social, political and intellectual lives as well. Queerness, too, has a similar social, political and cultural potential – it brings with it possibilities of different kinds of lives, which are not restricted by a single dominant paradigm.
I must remain actively aware that the privileging of identity politics—as they are understood and categorized in the West—over other aspects of individuals’ lives, can erase subjectivities and intimacies. For example, there are sexual categories that don’t fit into any identifiable box; they are familiar and unfamiliar all at once. They hearken to sexual identity categories we know and recognize, and yet disobey the rules just enough to make us feel unsettled. This disobedience could be read as repression, though I would argue that the in-betweenness of the images we see, of texts we produce, their intentional uncanniness is precisely what is politically productive about them.
Thus, at the local level, there is an urgent need to articulate how some of us live our sexuality, in my case, as a woman who loves other women. What makes my work politically significant is that in my writing, I showcase what such a world (women loving women) might look like, and do so with such meticulous realism that it becomes possible to believe in its existence.
I wanted to show the impossibility of speaking. I think when you are an African woman, speaking remains a serious issue. I always feel like words are getting stuck in my throat … we need to own language in its entirety, not just whispered words.
– on Don’t Whisper Too Much
Corine Tachtiris, the translator of Don’t Whisper Too Much, was your student at the University of Michigan when she began to work on the book. Did you participate at all in the translation process?
I was always encouraging her to go for it and to do her best. It was a labor of love and I am very grateful that she did this translation. She did all that work alone. She had Emily Goedde, who is also a fantastic translator herself, reread the text once she was done. They both worked very well together to refine the translation. The end result is beautiful. Corine used her finesse for listening to produce this translation.
The second half of Don’t Whisper Too Much is explicitly critical of Western anthropology. In a Plume interview with Corine about her translation, she talked about how in your writing, you deliberately “refuse the anthropological lens through which African literature tends to be read in the West.” Can you elaborate on this stylistic choice?
I wanted to offer a critique of the discipline of anthropology. Anthropologists have studied Africans for centuries. But now it’s the African’s turn to gaze at the white world. With this reversal, I find the means to inscribe myself in the wake of a tradition originating in the 1930s with Negritude thinkers. The Negritude movement offers an opportunity for Blacks to show whites that it’s now their turn to do the gazing. It does not make sense that Africans cannot fly to France to do research on them. Many anthropologists wrote me, noting my point. I think I strike a chord here. I was already doing decolonial work, demanding that the West open up space for us to intervene as well.
Strikingly, in Don’t Whisper Too Much, the narrative switches between first-person and second-person seamlessly. What was behind your decision to employ this technique?
I did not think about this, at all. I was exploring the monologue and talking to the other in the second person. Sometimes, people said the novel is difficult to read, and yet others love the novel. The project was to talk to myself and to the other. When I write, I forget all ideology, all cultural memory, therefore, I am not surprised that I was switching between first person and second person seamlessly.
Why did you choose to publish the novella Don’t Whisper Too Much together with the collected stories Portrait of an Artiste from Bona Mbella?
The narratives are dense and short, so it made sense to combine all these stories. Through them, I wanted to offer the fact that African same-sex sexuality and gender diversity, as a sort of case study, has become a strongly contested and debated issue. Because of globalization, which gives the international community greater access to information and allows it to interact more directly on local levels, the visibility of African LGBTI+ communities have increased. Partly in response to this increasing visibility, voices opposed to the recognition and protection of these rights have become more pronounced. Same-sex sexuality is conceived of as deviating from traditional African values, or as a “bad habit” imported from the West.
While same-sex sexuality was criminalized in many parts of Africa as part of the colonial project, these laws have been sharpened in some countries, engendering a societal backlash against LGBTQI+ persons. We must consider these conditions as we revisit slavery and colonialism, and their representational practices that continue to define “Africa” and the “West,” yet we must not lose sight of the fact that African LGBTQI+ individuals are being harmed and even killed, physically and emotionally, now. Their histories, which we find, for example in the film Stories of Our Lives (2014) by Jim Chuchu, remind us that we must listen to individuals, consider their experiences and acknowledge how notions of gender are changing here and everywhere.
What can you tell us about the title of the book (which in the original French, Chuchote pas trop, has the same literal meaning as Don’t Whisper Too Much)?
I wanted to show the impossibility of speaking. I think when you are an African woman, speaking remains a serious issue. I always feel like words are getting stuck in my throat. The Afro-American feminist bell hooks has summarized my feeling about language in her piece entitled “this is the oppressor’s language/ yet I need it to talk to you.” She said, “Language, a place of struggle.” I am fascinated by language. It is hostile; it gives possibilities to show the unknown. To know how to use language in one’s life is immense. We need to start speaking, not whispering.
Within African modernity, growing attention is being given to sexuality as a key field for social analysis. As we begin to discuss questions of gender and sexuality in the politics of resistance, it is crucial to return to significant moments such as slavery and colonialism, these global events that have entered our consciousness as historical narratives. For our understanding of events has to do with how events are told and retold, who tells of them, whom the events are addressed to and in what order they are represented. In brief, we need to own language in its entirety, not just whispered words.
Interview by Salwa Benaissa
© Photo by Marthe Djilo Kamga