By Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds)
Corresponding email: A.vanKlinken@leeds.ac.uk
LUCAS member Adriaan van Klinken, Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, recently published a new book, co-authored with Johanna Stiebert, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson. The book is titled Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible and was published in the Religion in Transforming Africa series, by James Currey Publishers. Here, he answers a couple of questions about this latest publication.
How has this book come about?
In 2013, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed by the Ugandan Parliament. In the years leading up to this, and in the aftermath of it, LGBT Ugandans began to leave the country, searching for safety and better living conditions. This continued when the Supreme Court annulled the Act in 2014, because the level of social and political homophobia remained high. Hundreds of LGBT folks crossed the border to neighbouring Kenya, where they entered the slow process for resettlement elsewhere with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). While in Kenya, these refugees live in difficult conditions and struggle to make ends meet.
I encountered some members of this refugee community when I was conducting research for my book Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and developed a strong relationship with The Nature Network, a community-based organisation in which refugees had organised themselves. Together with the leaders of this organisation, Sebyala and Hudson, I developed the idea for a research project that, in the end, resulted in this book. Funded by the British Academy, the project aimed to render visible the life experiences of a marginalised community by telling their stories, and to put these into a creative dialogue with the Bible – a book that is often used against LGBT people, but that remains a source of inspiration and faith for many of them. My Leeds colleague Johanna Stiebert, who has a longstanding interest in the social role of the Bible in African contexts, joined the project, and the four of us ended up co-authoring the book Sacred Queer Stories.
What is the key argument that your book develops?
The book develops several key arguments. One is methodologically, foregrounding the importance of storytelling methods in the work with members of marginalised communities, such as the LGBT refugees participating in our project. A second argument is about the Bible as both an African and a queer text, which can be effectively mobilised as a resource that speaks to the life experiences of African LGBT persons and that can be used to affirm and empower them.
What innovative or critical contribution does the book make to African Studies?
Over the past twenty years or so, queer African studies has emerged as a new sub-field of African Studies scholarship. It seeks to nuance generalising narratives of ‘African homophobia’ by examining the histories and cultures of gender and sexual diversity in Africa, and by foregrounding the agency of LGBT communities. As part of this field, several collections of LGBT life stories have been published, from countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Nigeria. This book builds on this strategy of life-story telling as a critical method, documenting the life stories of a particularly marginalised, and hitherto often overlooked group: LGBT refugees on the continent. It thus expands the queer African archive. Moreover, it further develops the method of autobiographical storytelling by engaging with the stories from Scripture and facilitating a creative and empowering dialogue between the two. It is the first book that reclaims the Bible as a resource for African queer experience, and as such makes a very original contribution to queer African studies, as well as to African biblical studies. A key contribution here is that the book considers the Bible as a major cultural artifact and therefore also as a potential resource for community activism and social transformation. This is not to deny the problematic role that the Bible has played, and continues to play in African societies, tied as it is to a history of European colonialism, but to demonstrate that the same text has been appropriated by local populations, has become meaningful to them, and can become liberating.
Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?
Can I give two? First, a quote from one of our participants, in the final session after one of our workshops:
It was a genius idea to use the Bible to reflect on the life of us as LGBTI persons. Because so many people have used different catalogues to write about the LGBTI. But to use the Bible as a source, to write something from the Bible, is great because it is respected. The Bible goes way back in time and it is credible. Using the Bible is a good way to respect and be respected. The Gospel is a book of life, and we should use it to reveal our lives.
Second, a quote from the Conclusion of the book:
This book has mapped a new chapter in the long history of the Bible and its reception in Africa. Building on African biblical hermeneutics of liberation, and on strategies of reading the Bible with ‘ordinary readers’, it has demonstrated how the Bible can be appropriated as a tool of liberation of communities that are marginalised on the basis of their sexuality and gender expressions. … The book challenges the emerging field of queer African studies, to engage with religion in all its dimensions, including sacred scripture, as a potential site of LGBTQ+ empowerment and politics. Moreover, it demonstrates to African cultural studies that the Bible is an influential popular cultural text, the significance of which is not limited to the religious sphere narrowly defined, but extends to the realms of community organising, social activism, and creative and performative arts.