Silent Nigeria: cultural expectations around gender and sexual norms

Chris Abani’s Graceland, an astounding novel published in 2004, concerns teenager Elvis and his family as they grapple with the growing influence of American culture within the dynamic postcolonial city of Lagos, Nigeria. Elvis is enthralled by the American film and music industry, prompting his life-ambition to be a professional dancer. However, living in an impoverished city and constrained by the need to make money, there are little to no opportunities for Elvis to achieve his dream. Yet he never truly accepts his circumstances and continues to question the way of life in Lagos. The knowledge that you do not fit within your community can be punishing enough, however recently there has been a new law passed in Nigeria which encourages people to look for signs of difference, specifically in regards to homosexuality. The law supports homophobia and criminalises same-sex unions, including persons who witness or help such unions. There is one scene in particular I want to concentrate on in Graceland, at the beginning of chapter sixteen, in which Elvis watches his aunt Felicia apply make-up. Through my close-reading of this scene I hope to convey how “difference” is a fabrication, a notion designed to control and divide a large group of people, discouraging unity, because of the risk it carries for the recognised authorial power. Collaboration fosters the hope for equality and justice.

He was amazed not just at how much makeup made her aware of herself, but by how much he wanted to wear that mask. It would be the perfect remedy for his painful shyness. She smacked her lips together over a piece of tissue to blot the lipstick, making him squirm uncomfortably. …
He envied her this ability to prepare a face for the world. To change it any time she liked. Be different people just by a gentle hint of shadow here, a dash of color there. She could even change her hair to suit her mood: sometimes wearing huge Afro wigs that scoured the sky’s underbelly; other times, the elegant plaited stalks called mercy, as though they were stakes in a hunter’s trap, or the playful run of cornrows—his favourite. …
As she clacked out on six-inch platforms, riding on the echo of her teeth kissing, he reached into the wastebasket for the tissue that wore her lip shape in distinct red. He pressed the paper lips against his, eyes closed, inhaling all of her.

Elvis is 13 here and lives in his childhood town Afikpo with his family, who throughout the novel place an extremely high emphasis on being a “man” and maintaining your family’s name. In spite of this, Elvis does not consider make-up here as feminine, but as a tool to fix himself, to “remedy” parts of his personality that do not fit into his family’s idea of being a “man”. However, by masking his shyness, Elvis masks a part of himself. This notion of “fixing” himself reveals his belief that he is inadequate in fulfilling the expectations of his culture and, by implication, his family’s concept of masculinity.
The application of make-up causes Felicia to be more “aware of herself”, or so Elvis believes. Make-up can be an expression of yourself, but it is also a chosen and prepared face. Elvis’ desire to wear this mask emphasises further the discomfort he experiences when he is expected to play a certain role for his family. He views make-up as providing a solution to this, allowing access to a whole wardrobe of personalities to choose from and enabling him to play whatever role is needed, while never exposing his own personality and the aspects of himself that are vulnerable to persecution. The “paper lips” Elvis presses against his own stresses the delicacy of these faces Felicia paints on and their brief temporality, proving how inadequate make-up is as a long-term tool. This mindset of hiding who you are doesn’t solve problems, but silences and quashes problems until they disfigure under the pressure and gradually change to fit into the roles society has fabricated.
Elvis’ need to supress his personality brought to mind Adam Nossiter’s article from the New York Times concerning the “sanitizing” of gay people in Nigeria under the new law. The article highlights how, where before there was silence, people are actively looking for signs of “gayness” in order to punish. Under this law, people are viewing homosexuality as more than sexual orientation, as a lifestyle, a way of talking, dressing, acting. In this scene I have close-read, Elvis does not theorise over his sexual orientation and whether what he is doing is “wrong” or “different”. Yet in the eyes of Nigerian law he is, with the possibility of being sentenced to 14 years in prison, due to the effeminising view on make-up. Nossiter’s article, “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays”, can be read in full here: and a brief summary of the new law passed can be accessed here:

Harriet Weston – English Literature student at the University of Reading

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