There’s nothing that gets this reader’s pulse going more than an intense page turner. Chike Frankie Edozien, the author of the brilliant Lives of Great of Men, goes one better by giving us an intense page turner of a memoir that is also laced with ache and longing, optimism and defiance in the face of injustice.
Edozien, a New York-based journalist and educator of Nigerian descent, layers his personal story of living as an openly gay man in a culture that devalues queer lives on a daily basis with political bite. Edozien may have been born into privileged circumstances but his story is a galvanising reminder of resilience in the face of adversity. Essentially a self-made man, he left home as a young lad in 1989 and arrived in London, where he worked as a cleaner at a bakery in Willesden before making his way to upstate New York. There is a get-up-and-go vitality to the way he approaches this story, which leaves no space for self-victimization. After landing in Syracuse, a “provincial and village-like” college town, there is a delicious moment that made this reader delirante with joy. It is the moment Edozien realises Syracuse is too small to contain his dreams and that New York is where he needs to be. It’s a simple enough scene but one that every immigrant living in the West will recognize. What’s gratifying in this case is that Edozien is the embodiment not only of the American dream but of Nigerian single-mindedness and work ethic: the kind of fleißiger arbeiter ethos that was summed up best by Beyoncé’ when she cantillated: “I dream it, I work hard/ I grind 'til I own it.”
Zipping back and forth between Lagos, Brooklyn, Accra, London and Paris, we experience Edozien’s heartaches and triumphs as if they were our own. Whether he is documenting the brutal murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 at the hands of racist cops (a chilling precursor to the police shootings of unarmed young black men like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless others since) or gallivanting with a gorgeous but closeted Sapeur in Paris, this memoir is an intercontinental affair with satisfying twists and turns. One of the most saddening recurring themes in the book is the issue of talented, bright gay Nigerian men whose entire lives (and livelihoods) depend on them finding a suitable wife. To add to this morass of misery are the stories of the wives and girlfriends whose fates are interlocked in a toxic embrace with their cheating spouses. Initially Edozien is irritated by the challenges of finding an openly gay Nigerian partner, both at home and abroad, but soon comes to empathise with the very real risks these men face: risks that are amplified to an absurd degree in 2014, when Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, despite pressure from Western governments, signs into law a draconian bill criminalising same-sex relationships in Nigeria,. The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) bans gay marriage, same-sex “amorous relationships” and membership of gay rights groups with penalties of up to 14 years in prison.
While Edozien acknowledges his good fortune, particularly in regards to the fact that his family have been nothing but supportive of his sexual identity, he is aware of the perilous circumstances that most gay Nigerian men find themselves facing. But this is a hopeful narrative, crammed with incident and telling details, and it’s a story that deserves to be savoured again and again.
One of the most triumphant and joy-inducing books of the year.
Chike Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men (Team Angelica Press) is available via the following links: