Over the last 48 hours, two different incidents have dominated my internet space. First, American actor and singer, Jussie Smollett was attacked. Then, Enkare Review magazine published what would definitely go down as the most controversial story of the year in the African literary circle, a story by 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Jekwu Anyaegbuna written in graphically offensive detail from the perspective of a man who is sexually attracted to children.
Very early yesterday morning, Empire star Jussie Smollett was physically assaulted by two men who yelled homophobic and possibly racial slurs at him. They battered him with their hands and poured a chemical substance suspected to be bleach on him before escaping the scene. As expected, condemnations have since poured out from around the world, most notably from fellow black superstars Viola Davis and Naomi Campbell who took to their social media accounts to express their disgust of the situation and offer support to the actor.
Even though some reports have tried to restrict the motivation for the attack almost solely to racist violence (the assailants reportedly screamed ‘MAGA!’), I doubt Jussie Smollett would have been attacked if he wasn’t gay. Now, even though I have never visited or lived in America, I have always perceived it to be a cozier environment for all forms of sexual minorities than most of the more conservative societies we live in. That in 2019, a TV star could be assaulted by persons prejudiced against homosexuals shows how much hate and ignorance still brews even in more progressive societies.
That brings me to the other subject of discussion: the pedophilia/child porn-themed story published by Enkare Review in its Inclusivity issue. In the story, the writer’s narrator detailed his sexual exploits with children and wondered why he was not being accepted even though everyone else was deeply involved in other moral vices of their own. He then went ahead to draws parallels between pedophilia and homosexuality, and using the growing acceptance for homosexuality, wondered why he couldn’t execute his natural urges the same way homosexuals are ‘allowed’ to do.
The story was met with so much backlash that it was taken down in just a few hours for a possible review. The managing editor even had to step down. However, the damage has been done and I will tell you about it.
First, the story—which comes out as hurriedly written prose aimed primarily for provocation and devoid of any artistic brilliance—reads like a form of advocacy for inclusivity of pedophilia, which is well, absurd. But for the benefit of doubt, let us assume that it isn’t. Let us assume that it’s just fiction designed to entertain or to shock. But it is difficult to make a case for it so, as it was highly irresponsible of the writer to try to draw comparisons between pedophilia and homosexuality. Over the past few years, entitled ignorant people have used this same argument to justify their homophobia. I personally have expended a lot of energy arguing vehemently how pedophilia and homosexuality are miles apart and very different.
Then Enkare Review waves a middle finger in our faces, goes on to publish a story centered around child pornography with this appalling argument, and expect a slap on the wrist?
Yesterday Jussie Smollett was attacked in Liberal America. Africa is still a largely conservative continent with intense prejudice against homosexuality. The African literary circle has spent the better part of the past few years trying to create a more humanizing perspective of gay people; pushing stories in ways that evoke understanding, empathy and ultimately, acceptance. A story that tries to normalize pedophilia in the same manner that the literary world has used to promote advocacy for homosexuality cannot be anything apart from self-serving mischief.
While discussing with my friends, we questioned the motivation of the writer of the story. Was he just writing for artistic purposes? Was he relying on fiction to push advocacy? Or, more cynically, like a friend suggested, was he trying to, using satire, mock the gay rights activism in literature by writing a pedophilia-themed story in the same style as the now so-called cliché trend of queer stories?
The prosaic quality of the story has also been heavily panned. While a lot of people have expressed their disappointment at the prose, taking into consideration the hefty profile of Jekwu Anyaegbuna, others have questioned why a magazine like Enkare Review chose to publish such a poorly written story. When someone raised this question, another friend commented on the proliferation of badly written queer stories that have been given undeserved relevance by the literary world in the past few years.
Prior to this controversy, there has existed the erroneous notion that sloppily written stories with ‘unconventional’ but sentimental themes are held to gentler criticism, more likely to be accepted. Perhaps, the Enkare Review editor who selected this story was counting on this? This begs the question: are literary magazines trading quality for shock value?
Yesterday, amidst public vitriol from all corners, Enkare Review finally capitulated and pulled the story down (“for review”, they said), duly disappointing the writer of the story who had prior to this, totted the magazine’s horns across social media, describing Enkare Review as the bravest, fearless and most intelligent. For taking on his story.
Certain quarters have expressed concerns over this, as they claim it is a form of literary censorship. I strongly disagree with them, though. In recent times, there has been a significant surge in rape cases involving adults sexually violating children. When one writes a story that attempts to glorify this in such a pretentious manner, in a way that almost looks like advocacy, then it is harmful. When art is harmful to the most vulnerable people in society, then it is best kept as far away as possible.
About the writer
Victor Daniel is a Nigerian writer and student of Law. His short stories have been published in African literary journals such as The Kalahari Review, African Writer, Brittle Paper, The Naked Convos and so on. His nonfiction piece “God’s Mailbox Is A Traffic Jam” has also been published in the print version of Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.