LGBT Rights in Gambia have been a hot topic as the former administration was very vocal about their position against it; as same sex relations are illegal. Josh Scheinert is a lawyer and author who spent time in Gambia as a lecturer from 2010 to 2011. His recent book “The Order of Nature” was released last year and is a gay love story set in the West African country.
The Rustin Times caught up with the writer for a chat on the book and LGBT rights in The Gambia.
TRT: The Order of Nature is your first book? What inspired the book?
JOSH: The Order of Nature is my first book. When I left Gambia in 2011, the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill was shining a spotlight on global LGBTQ rights. Many groups and governments, especially in the West, struggled with how to respond constructively. I paid very close attention to ways in which some Western advocacy backfired, further emboldening people’s prejudice. For someone who wanted to add my voice to the dialogue on LGBTQ rights, I had to think about how to do it effectively. Ultimately, any advocacy campaign is about telling a story, so that’s what I decided to do. Fiction is a unique and powerful tool to open people’s minds. It enables a person to experience something or explore an idea that they otherwise might not be exposed to. In this sense, stories have the power to build awareness and empathy when other means might not be available. Raising awareness and empathy for global LGBTQ rights was something I thought I was well placed to do given my experience in Gambia. The Order of Nature is what emerged.
TRT: How has the response to the book been?
JOSH: It’s been positive. First and foremost as a novel, it’s a story with characters that resonate with readers. As a first-time fiction writer, that’s been good to hear! In terms of telling this specific story, several readers who’ve gotten in touch say the book made them aware of a reality they didn’t know existed. Other readers from countries where homosexuality is criminalized have written to say the novel challenged them and their views on the plight of LGBTQ persons. Returning to that objective of wanting to raise awareness and build empathy, to know that the novel contributed to that is quite gratifying. Where I’d like to see more of a response and conversation around the book is in Gambia itself. As much as I love the country and have very fond memories of my time there, conversations about LGBTQ rights is still largely absent. In having that discussion, I hope the generosity of spirit that embodies Gambia extends to the LGBTQ community. With a new government in power now, as the country tries to chart a new path forward, perhaps there’s an opportunity.
TRT: There is a “White Saviour” theme that borders on literature written by Non-Africans. Are you worried that it might be the issue that critics will have with the book?
JOSH: I’m not entirely certain what you mean by the question, but I’ll answer it in two ways. First, if you’re referring to the plot of the novel itself, that’s not the case. There is no white saviour in the book. Andrew, one of the characters in the relationship, is American. But for me, it was important to have an Andrew so that I could contrast his experience as an American with that of Thomas, the main Gambian character. The difference in LGBTQ experience across nationalities is something I wanted to get across.
In terms of me as a writer being a white saviour, I don’t think that’s an appropriate characterization. The quest for LGBTQ equality is fundamentally the work of communities on the ground – whether in Nigeria, Gambia, Indonesia, or Canada for that matter. It’s never been my objective to displace local efforts or think that my writing would have some magic touch that people closer to local sentiments lack. But I think I, and any writer for that matter, is fully within their right to use stories as a means of evoking empathy and broadening a reader’s understanding. The purpose of fiction is to be able to transplant ourselves out of our own lived experience and into someone else’s. That extends to the writer of fiction as well. Now that doesn’t mean as a writer you have a completely blank slate – you have to be respectful and responsible in your process and in how you craft your depictions.
As for the book, if people take issue with a toubab writing a book set in Gambia between an American and Gambian man, I’d first ask them to read the book and point out where they think I haven’t treated either characters or places fairly. Just as I try and avoid generalizations, I would hope critics or sceptics would too.
TRT: What impact do you hope this book will have?
JOSH: I hope it starts new conversations or furthers existing ones about how we treat our brothers and sisters. Even though the novel is set in Gambia, it is ultimately about how we treat each other, how we react in the face of difference, or identities we might not understand. That’s a universal issue. I’ve focused on one instance that I think highlights and captures the challenge and necessity of all of us trying to do that a little bit better.
TRT: What more can we expect from you in the future?
JOSH: Hopefully more books!