By Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds)
Corresponding email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Adriaan van Klinken, Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, recently published a book co-authored with Ezra Chitando: Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (African Arguments series; London: Hurst & Co and International Africa Institute / New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
Here, he answers some questions about the book.
How has this book come about?
A few years ago, I spoke at the launch of the book Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria, by Ebenezer Obadare. In my contribution to the panel discussion, I specifically focused on the way in which Pentecostal Christianity is shaping the politics of sexuality in contemporary Nigeria, and in Africa more generally. I mentioned how Pentecostalism is often seen as a driving factor behind homo- or queer-phobia, but also presents a potential for an alternative politics of sexuality – one that affirms human dignity and diversity. During the reception afterwards, I was approached by the editor of the African Arguments series, run by the International Africa Institute in London. Referring to my comments on religion and sexuality in Africa, she asked me to consider putting together a book proposal on this topic for the series. Although I did respond by saying that I had too many writing projects already, later that night I couldn’t catch sleep, as the outline of a book already begun to emerge in my head. The idea of writing for the African Arguments series was appealing because the series publishes affordable books, written in an accessible style, and aiming at a non-specialist audience, and because the IAI supports wide dissemination on the continent.
Together with my long-standing colleague and collaborator, Ezra Chitando from the University of Zimbabwe, I developed a proposal for a book that could change the conversation about sexuality in Africa. Ezra and I have previously edited two book volumes about the ways in which popular forms of religion fuel the politics against homosexuality and LGBT rights on the African continent. But in this book, we wanted to offer a different account.
What is the key argument that your book develops?
Religion is often seen as a conservative force in contemporary Africa. In particular, Christian beliefs and actors are usually depicted as driving the opposition to homosexuality and LGBT rights in African societies. The primary aim of this book is to nuance this picture, by drawing attention to discourses and social movements emerging in Africa itself that engage with religion, specifically Christianity, in progressive and innovative ways—in support of sexual diversity and the quest for justice for LGBT people. With its hopeful tone, the book echoes Marc Epprecht’s book, published earlier in the African Arguments series, Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance.
Presenting ten case studies from across the continent, the book documents how leading African writers are reimagining Christian thought; how several Christian-inspired groups are transforming religious practice; and how African creative artists creatively appropriate Christian beliefs and symbols. In short, the book explores Christianity as a major resource for a liberating imagination and politics of sexuality and social justice in Africa today. Of course, this does not deny the reality that Christianity is also deeply invested in the politicisation of homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, in this book we seek to foreground African agency and progressive religious thought, in order to counterbalance secular approaches to LGBT rights in Africa, and to decolonise queer theory, theology and politics.
What innovative or critical contribution does the book make to African Studies?
In recent years, queer African studies has emerged as a new sub-field of African studies. This field examines and rethinks the ways in which sexuality and gender are intricately part of African histories, societies and cultures, are the subject of political contestation, and are at the centre of newly emerging political subjectivities, social movements and creative cultures. Although a lot of critical and innovative work has been done in this field, religion has not always been made part of the conversation, or only in a restrictive way that associates religion with conservative politics and with cultures of queer-phobia. A key argument we make in this book is that a decolonisation of queer African studies requires a critical and constructive engagement with religion as a central part of African social, cultural and political life.
Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?
“This book is based on three central premises: one, sexuality has become a key site of struggle where African identity is imagined, negotiated, contested and transformed. Secondly, Christianity is a critical discursive field in which this struggle over sexuality in Africa takes place. Following from that is a third premise, that Christianity—as a tradition of faith and thought, a practice of lived religion, a site of institutional power, and a major factor in public culture—can also (and in fact, already does) contribute to the creative re-imagination of sexuality in contemporary Africa. The latter proposition might be the most contested one.”