As homosexual relationships are publicly scrutinised, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things reveals the tactics with which gay men suppress their desires, or otherwise pass them in plain sight…
By Sybil Fekurumoh
To live on the fringes of society, where the basic freedom to live and love is a profanity, demands acts of great courage. Nigerian writer, Arinze Ifeakandu, presents his debut short story collection, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things, with which he delves into the secret lives of gay men in Nigeria. Within the nine stories in the collection, Ifeakandu captures queer expressionism in literature. But these narratives extend beyond simple tales of love and romance found in hidden corners. Ifeakandu fearlessly traverses the multifaceted dimensions of Nigerian societies, including its culture, politics, and societal expectations.
Love, with its peripherals, is a universal language, regardless of one’s sexual predilections, and Ifeakandu delicately manoeuvres queer relationships in the margin, with openness and grace. Two married men meet at the beginning of “The Dreamer’s Litany,” which opens up the short story collection. One night at his shop front, Auwal crosses paths with the much wealthier Chief Emeka who continuously pursues Auwal until their relationship blossoms into a clandestine affair. Chief’s desires are corporeal and transactional and he rejects Auwal’s emotional affections. This story sets the rhythm for the exploration of love, angst, and fear that pervades the entire collection.
As with a couple of other stories in this collection, Ifeakandu makes privy the one-sidedness of power dynamics in relationships. In “The Dreamer’s Litany,” this dynamic comes about from wealth disparities, with the upper hand for the wealthier. In another, “Good Intentions,” the age difference brings about this power imbalance, in favour of the older person. Ifeakandu also brushes on many domestic subjects from marriage, to parenting, and family values, and how the Nigerian society embeds its cultural and societal values with the way themes like infidelity and harassment, and abuse is deliberated. It is also on the basis of upholding cultural and moral values that Nigerian society justifies its homophobia.
Throughout the collection, there is a constant dread of being exposed. In “Happy is a Doing Word,” two childhood friends separate when they are outed as children, for their curious inclinations. While one tilts to a more admissible heteronormative lifestyle, the other hides his queer affections. In “Good Intentions,” an older lecturer’s reputation is threatened as his colleague and members of the school board stage a public hearing over his sexual discretions with a younger student.
When one’s sexuality is relentlessly gawked at, merely living becomes a constant fight for survival. In “Alọbam,” Ralu tries to protect his love interest, Obum, as a promise to Obum’s brother, Makuo, who is his bosom friend.
“I know he likes boys…,” the weightiness of Makuo’s words is tangible when he says to Obum. “I am telling you because you are my person, alọbam, and I know you will understand when I say that I’m worried that his life will be very hard here because of it.”
As homosexual relationships are publicly scrutinised, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things reveals the tactics with which gay men suppress their desires, or otherwise pass them in plain sight. To hide in public is to learn the antics of blending in, searching for the right gestures, gazes, brief hugs, and handshakes.
“What the Singers Say about Love” is perhaps the most endearing tale in the collection for me. Two lovers, Kayode and Somto, are compelled to hide their intimacy and negotiate how much they can show their feelings as Kayode steadily rises to fame. This story also reveals the stereotypical lens through which homosexuality is narrowly rendered, and the faux masculinity that gay men have to exhibit. “…I could not stand the sound of his voice, the carelessness of his laugh, the ease with which he became one of them, throwing guy and manchi around, words with which they peppered their sentences, as though to remind one another that they were indeed men..,” Somto declares of Kayode’s forced machismo.
Each story in God’s Children Are Little Broken Things appears to happen simultaneously, as the events unfold in similar environs. Kano, Nsukka, Lagos, Abuja, and the other unnamed places in northern and eastern Nigeria, become places that bring to mind a sense of intimacy for those acquainted with the environs. One is attuned with the “charming yet disorienting” city of Lagos, teeming with its buoyant populace, eastern Nigeria, with its red earth and weathered roofs, the tall and whispering dogonyaro trees, and the scorching sunniness distinctive in the north. Ifeakandu’s mention of plantain groves and the harmattan colds of the dry season creates a feeling of wanderlust for those ignorant of the terrains. The pop-culture references also signal the modern times that the stories are set in, with namedropping of contemporary Afrobeats artistes and popular television shows.
There is heftiness, yet tenderness in the titular story, “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things,” which portrays the double whammy of Lotanna’s internal conflicts. Lotanna is coming to terms with his new-found affection for Kamsi, a music student, and the pressure to break up with his girlfriend. This conflict is compounded by the constant tumult in his family: his father’s philandering, and his mother’s failing health, which further alienates Lotanna from his father. Despite Kamsi’s uncertain outcome, the chapter closes with Lotanna’s final acceptance of self, a consistent theme with the stories in this collection.
The power of acceptance extends far beyond individual boundaries, illuminating the essence of humanity amidst a backdrop of societal denial. Its radiant glow enables others to empathise and grasp the universal language of love and grief, to become allies, and to foster an earnest understanding that transcends barriers. Such shared grief is revealed in stories such as “Where the Heart Sleeps,” where a grieving daughter seeks closure after her father’s demise and finds solace with her father’s lover. They both navigate the depths of sorrow and find solace in each other’s shared suffering. “Michael’s Possessions” is my favourite story in this collection, and while it moves at a swifter tempo compared to the other stories, it explores the different ways individuals may handle their pain, as a divorced couple grapples with the death of their child. As “Mother’s Love” closes the collection, a mother weighs the extent of her love for her son, side by side with the revelation of his sexuality, presenting a moral quandary that forces her to confront the interplay between her affection and her personal beliefs.
Ifeakandu’s debut has been received with positive critical acclaim, with his reflection of queer relationships earning him coveted literary prizes, including the 2022 Republic of Consciousness prize for the US and Canada, the Story Prize Spotlight award, and the Dylan Thomas Prize of 2023. Homosexuality is still criminalised in Nigeria, and in these stories, Ifeakandu weaves the delicate ways gay men navigate this barrier that impedes their freedom. In God’s Children Are Little Broken Things, the vulnerability experienced by gay men, much like any marginalised group, is laid bare, revealing a poignant truth: everyone desires affection. Despite the attentiveness to conceal their passion, the unyielding power of love perseveres, transcending barriers and proving as formidable as death itself, and ultimately embracing all individuals, irrespective of their background or identity.
Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.