I picked up Lives of Great Men by Chike Frankie Edozien last week after waiting for a while to lay my hands on it. I had planned to read more nonfiction in 2018 and Memoirs remain my favorite sub-genre, so it was exciting to delve into this book. Also as a gay man I was elated; there weren’t really any memoirs by gay Nigerian men I could find (Hello Kenny Badmus, we still await that book you are writing) so this was it. I remember going on a date once with a man in his 50s who flew into Lagos to visit his family and what was meant to be a romantic evening became an interview session of some sort with me asking him tons and tons of questions about growing up gay in the 80s and him patiently answering all my questions. This was how I felt reading Chike Frankie Edozien’s book; it was like I was having a conversation over a drink with a wiser gay uncle, one who lays it all bare. However I am often reluctant to review memoirs because I always ask myself if I have the right to weigh in on someone’s story, but this is a very important story which needed to be told.
Chike writes with a voice that is tender but at the same time bold, telling his story with such honesty and bravery uncommon in these parts. He takes us through his childhood, into early adulthood and subsequently his time in the west. He is open, frank and does not come across like he cares about being judged. His story resonates with a lot us; growing up in a dangerously homophobic country and navigating relationships with family, friends and finding yourself in the process. Chike concedes that Nigeria was not always as homophobic as it is today, laying the toxic environment we have today on evangelical Christianity that came from the west and populist laws made by politicians seeking favors with the electorate. He excites me with his humor and wit, while describing his experiences with such a vivid earnestness that draws you to him.
There are some things I would have liked to see in this book; for starters I wished he threw light on the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the gay community in the 80s and part of the 90s. He was in the US at the time and I want to believe he may have lost friends or at least knows people were affected by the epidemic. I have done a lot of reading up on the epidemic and the lack of interest in the disease by policy makers believing it was some sort of punishment for “fags” by god, I sincerely wish Chike had gotten into some of this and shared his perspective of what went on behind the scenes. I also think some of his time stamps are confusing especially when he talks about the men he dated; I struggled to place who came before who and who was dated at what time, plus the Judge Judy in me wanted to see if he cheated on the good doctor lol.
Chike talks a lot about his acceptance by his family which I think is remarkable, I also like that he conceded that this isn’t the norm for most Nigerian families. However I really wanted to see if he had conversations with his family on his sexuality and what their thoughts were, except of course that support was automatically given without any reservations whatsoever. I also would have loved to read more about his time in Nigeria growing up as a gay man before he left; he talks a lot of his time in Ghana and a few other countries, I wanted to see more of Nigeria. One thing I however appreciated was when Chike delved into the economic implications of homophobia. Out of all the gay men I knew growing up just a handful remain in Nigeria; I am talking doctors, lawyers, programmers, writers etc. skilled people are leaving Nigeria in their droves because of the anti-gay rhetoric and we do not see how problematic this is and its implications for our economy down the line. My dear friend Bisi Alimi wrote an article about this and sadly Africa is not paying attention until the entire continent wakes up with a huge skills gap because it has allowed bigotry to thrive.
I like how non-judgmental Chike is about other gay men and their choices particularly those who get into these marriages with unsuspecting heterosexual women. I used to be very judgmental about gay men who marry women but as I got older I began to understand this bit. I would argue that they should have stayed single but one thing Chike highlighted which I have come to realize is that staying single may not be good for your career. Very recently I got promoted to a more senior role along with someone else in my company; our appointments were announced at a company forum with everyone in attendance. The human resources head went ahead to read out our citations and for the other guy after reeling out his qualifications and experience she mentioned that he was happily married with three kids to a roaring applause. When it got to my turn, she listed my qualifications and experience then went ahead to add my hobbies; I did not receive the same applause that he did, there and then I felt judged and it was on their faces. A bias has been created and if I am running for a more senior position with the same guy, this bias may affect the outcome. So these days I understand when I see gay men who are married, I understand what the pressure can do to your mental health as well as to your career. I loved that Chike threw light on this.
This was a really good read and very importantly a necessary one. We often talk about how visibility helps; if more and more Nigerians knew gay people who are just like everyone else around them, it will help in accelerating social acceptance. However most importantly this book will help a young Nigerian gay teenager feeling lost and out of place, he will pick up this book and draw strength from it realizing that he is not alone. There are lessons for everyone, from families of LGBT people on how to be supportive to straight people on how not to be problematic allies. I am so glad Chike wrote this book, I finished it in one night and I will say that Chike Edozien owes me a full night’s sleep.
Lives of Great Men was reviewed by Dennis Macaulay. Find him on Twitter @Dennis_Macaulay