The Order of Nature is a story about a green-eyed American man who accepted a teaching placement in the Gambia right out of college, thrusting him out of his middle-class life of privilege into a world he quite was not prepared for. Andrew is the perfect kid; smart, sensitive and well-rounded but he also had a secret. He liked men and so when he accepted a placement to one of the worst places on earth for LGBT people, he wanted to make friends, do his job and generally stay out of trouble but life had other plans. He met and fell in love with a young Gambian bartender and this love eventually turned both their lives upside down.
The story starts really slow and the plot wanders around a bit which can make an impatient reader loose interest, however, Josh did a decent job of playing up the human element in the story. His descriptions are very vivid; the streets of Gambia come alive on the pages of the story, you can see the people, hear them, smell the air. The story envelopes you and plays on your empathy; it often happens that when literature takes on strong topical issues the human element is often lost in translation. The abuse that Thomas faced when they were “caught” was beautifully captured and powerfully felt. I was reading that part in transit on a trip with my friends and did not even realize I was crying until a friend asked why I was crying. Storytellers often focus on specifics and details and ignore the fact that they are indeed telling a story about people. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did a stellar job with Half of a yellow sun; while the war was the central plot of the story, she managed to keep us focused on the people whose lives were affected by the war. This was something Josh Scheinert also managed to do; at the end of the day he was telling a love story, an impossible one between two men in the most difficult of circumstances and he did a good job of pulling that off.
Some parts of the book were tedious to read through and many other parts of the plot struggled. Save for Andrew and Thomas, other characters were not properly developed with some downright inconsistent. Suleiman for example; I struggled to accept that he would agree to pen the sort of articles he did for his newspaper while covering the case seeing that he had always been on Thomas’ side and he came across as a revolutionary. I also did not believe that Mr. Jalloh would even agree to testify in the first place, following how he was always repulsed at the thought of homosexuality. The story is loaded with stereotypes about Africa with some sprinkling of the white saviour narrative common with stories set in Africa and written by non-Africans (read: white people). For example, why is ‘expatriate’ used throughout the story for some people (read white people) even though we know that this term is often not used for others (read: non-white people). I was not also surprised that Thomas was cast as the “good African” who made his lover promise him he would leave if the US government figured out a way to get him out.
The story should have done with some suspense though, I would have loved to be surprised by the fact that it was Issatou who reported them; everything pointed to her from the beginning. I wanted to see some background as to why the lawyer accepted their case; a case nobody would ordinarily want to touch. The sex between Andrew and Thomas was very disappointing and cringe-worthy, following a pattern with some queer fiction in which same-sex activity is whitewashed and made as mainstream as possible probably so as not to offend those who do not like LGBT narratives. These were two men who were in love, the lone sex scene in the story should have been better written to capture what they felt for each other.
The continent of Africa still remains majorly homophobic to dangerous levels. Funny thing is that contrary to what many people believe, Homophobia and not homosexuality actually came from the west; before the colonizers came to plunder our land our ancestors majorly did not care about who loved whom and who had sex with whom. What we often miss however is the lives that homophobia affects and this is something that this story tried to shed light on. Social attitudes need to change beyond just dismantling homophobic laws; and it is important to note these laws are made by leaders who are seeking legitimacy for their incompetence and so find a populist issue that they can rally their people around, no matter the consequences. A wise woman said that the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority and I couldn’t agree more.
“All I can tell you Suleiman is that what I got from what I did, I would have never gotten if I did not do it. And for a time it was more magnificent than I had ever imagined life could be. What’s better? To live so you can be old, filled with regrets and bitterness, just to stay breathing? Maybe. No one can say. I chose one way, I refused to give up, and along the way discovered things I didn’t know were possible. And now this is my fate”
This is a very important story and one which needed to be told, while some of us can enjoy our privilege the opinions we hold can have consequences for others.