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Reviews

Stephanie Newell. The Forger’s Tale: The Search for Odeziaku. Athens, Ohio: 2006. ISBN: 978-0821417102. Price: US$22.95.

  • Robert L. Caserio

…plus d’informations

  • Robert L. Caserio
    The Pennsylvania State University, University Park

Corps de l’article

The Forger’s Tale is at its best in its opening pages, where it resists current ways to understand imperialism’s treatment of colonial subjects and same sex desire. For three decades now scholars have argued that when queer colonialists satisfied their eros abroad they reproduced imperialist hierarchies, treating native lovers as exotic others, to be subordinated and even contemned. Newell ventures to reverse scholarship’s reiterations. They wrongly rely on “silencing and disavowal” of non-European cultures’ awareness of queer love (5). Non-Western practice and recognition of homosexuality, Newell believes, even if under other names, represents an agency in need of recovery. Accordingly, Newell has scoured Nigerian archives to examine how persons in Onitsha Province in the early twentieth century responded to J. M. Stuart-Young, an English “boy-lover” prominently in their midst. Newell’s hypothesis is that if Nigerians treated an obviously queer Westerner with tolerance and even affection, then the story of colonial homosexuality is more complicated than ideas about uni-directional power have indicated.

Stuart-Young’s life in Nigeria loans itself to Newell’s speculation. Stuart-Young in 1900 emigrated to Africa after completing a prison sentence for a crime—embezzlement and forgery—that strangely involved inspirations derived from Oscar Wilde. In Onitsha Stuart-Young became a leading palm oil trader, and for more than three decades he scribbled away at novels and poems (some of them commending “Uranian” pederasty) that he sent back to England for publication while at the same time he fed West African-owned newspapers with his poetry and with numerous columns about his opinions. By the time of his death in 1939 Stuart-Young was a Nigerian celebrity. Onitsha citizens publicly mourned the loss of a man whom they considered an anti-imperialist and a benefactor. The same citizens knew that Stuart-Young fancied young men. What made it possible for Nigerians to take to their hearts an Englishman whom his fellow whites in the colony shunned, not least because of his sexual tastes?

Newell suggests some appealingly subtle answers. Contrary to our assumption that an imperialist is always “on top” of a native culture, Newell points out that palm oil and other “ruffian” traders had to work with native clients and brokers, including powerful business women, to leveling effect. It was women traders who assigned Stuart-Young his Igbo praise name “Odeziaku,” whose meanings included a differentiation of Stuart-Young’s conduct from a “get-rich-quick mentality of European males” (92). The praise name also designated Stuart-Young as ambiguous in gender: a response to the fact that Stuart-Young lived with, or courted, Onitsha’s boys. Adverse local gossip broke up Stuart-Young’s relations with his first servant-companion; but the latter’s family expected to inherit wealth from Stuart-Young: an implicit mark of the family’s recognition of a special tie between the men. In the mid-1920s Stuart-Young daily wooed an adolescent, who was disgusted by the white man’s tongue-kissing of him but who in later life accepted Stuart-Young’s help in starting a profitable business, and who publicly sang his patron’s praises. Stuart-Young’s heir, his last caretaker, was a man Stuart-Young “’was in love with,’” according to a native informant (82).

Besides “Odeziaku,” other Igbo names for Stuart-Young, Newell argues, articulated Nigerian attitudes towards his homosexuality in ways that are matter-of-factly descriptive, rather than condemnatory. He was called woman-fearing, averse to sexual relations with women, but not misogynistic; his homosexuality was identified with the Eke python, a liminal creature who blesses as well as curses; and Stuart-Young was said to be wedded to Mami Wata, a female spirit of fluid metamorphosis—hence a figure for Stuart-Young’s own ambiguous sexual character. The native characterizations, Newell claims, establish a Nigerian “reverse gaze” and “’grammar of difference’” in regard to this Westerner (105). He partly enabled that response. But Onitsha agency was greater. Newell summarizes: “The people of Onitsha opened up powerful alternative identities and realms of interpretation for Stuart-Young, accommodating him even as they …marked his violations of social norms. As a result…Onitsha gave Stuart-Young the opportunity to explore his Uranian desires” (106).

In such a summary, however, Newell jettisons subtlety, and exceeds her evidence. Unfortunately, her book characteristically over-reaches on that score. For Newell to claim persuasively that Onitsha gave the trader-writer opportunity “to explore” his desires, opening up “powerful alternative identities,” she would need to establish that Stuart-Young’s writings before he settled in Nigeria in 1905 were not of a piece with what he wrote afterwards, under the influence of those alleged locally-enabled explorations. Despite Newell’s intentions, however, on the basis of what her account provides Stuart-Young appears stubbornly to have harped on a set of sexual and racial (and racist) themes, unaffected by changing environment and experience.

Stuart-Young’s first published work, a 1903 “memoir” of his friendship with Wilde, demonstrates the ex-convict’s incorrigibility: the volume claims an acquaintance based solely on Stuart-Young’s forgeries of letters from the famous author. Moreover, the volume condemns Wilde for his overt homosexual acts, assigning them a pathological source in Wilde’s indulgence in masturbation. The same pathologizing attitude in 1926 shapes one of Stuart-Young’s “autobiographical” novels, which suggests that male pederasty originates in onanism, complemented by a primal scene’s traumatic effects on a male child, and by a father’s physical abuse. Newell admits the continuity of Stuart-Young’s perspective from 1903 to 1926, but she does not grasp a lack of fit between that admission (130) and her assertion of new Onitsha components in Stuart-Young’s Uranism. That assertion decidedly falls short in the face of Stuart-Young’s eros. His eros undergoes in print no “exploration,” and no movement from fixity towards “alternative identities.”

Newell hides its fixity from herself. Insisting that “Uranian” love in Stuart-Young’s era refers “less to sexually active interference with children than to…aesthetic appreciation of pubescent male bodies in art” (202, f.n. 65), she wants to argue that Igbo influence intensified Stuart-Young’s desires in the direction of less “active interference.” But her claim about what Uranian love refers to is dubiously founded. It also is contradicted when Newell notices that Stuart-Young’s 1908 poetry collection Through Veiled Eyes “is astonishingly uninhibited in its presentation of the seduction and sexual conquest of a boy by an older man” (83). Newell’s special pleading on behalf of Igbo influence achieves no more than focus on another of Stuart-Young’s ideas about homosexuality’s origins. The idea, merely a variant of his writing about Wilde, is that male pederasty is a defensive reaction to what Stuart-Young alleges to be an essential loathsomeness in sexual self-indulgence. Newell certainly does not claim that this particular allegation has an Igbo source. But she does intrude Stuart-Young’s expression of the idea—in a 1925 letter to Frank Harris—into her chapter about Onitsha’s enabling perceptions. According to Newell the letter corroborates Onitsha’s guess that Stuart-Young feared women. The letter therefore should be considered, Newell thinks, as evidence that West Africans comprehended Stuart-Young’s Uranism; and as evidence that their comprehension helped Stuart-Young to understand himself, and his love of boys, more than in his pre-Nigerian life.

Other readers might find it easier than I do to trust Newell’s explanatory surmises; or, for that matter, Stuart-Young’s. When Stuart-Young explains his boy-love to Frank Harris, he predicates it on his reaction to satyriasis. Briefly married twice (in 1908 and 1919), Stuart-Young confesses to Harris that a week with his second wife made him feel “mad with self-loathing” because “I was like a gluttonous child before an X’mas pudding. I copulated as often as twenty times a week.” What a relief, he notes, that “the homosexual embrace is only indulged in sparingly” (95). Newell takes this in earnest, even though Stuart-Young offers Harris his factitious-sounding confession as a good plot for a novel.

Newell admits that Stuart-Young is inveterately a liar—a term that she prefers to synonymize with forger or self-inventor. “To comprehend his…self-invention and the important role of others in the production of his identities,” she writes, “it [is] necessary to appreciate the inspired ‘sincerity’ of [his] self-inventions” (167). Appreciatively, then—in response to Stuart-Young’s fabrication of a doctorate for himself in 1934, apparently to impose on Africans his authority as a man of letters—Newell writes that this lie “may be regarded as the final…most successful of his forgeries or multiple incarnations” (139). How generous of the African-owned press to aid the self-inventive imposition! It did so not only by tolerating Stuart-Young’s enduring racism in even his anti-colonialist columns, but also by providing a forum for his poems, whose staleness Newell excuses with variations on her forgery theme.

As a final justification of her study’s celebration of “forgery,” Newell enlists queer theory’s emphasis on “the open and shifting nature of sexual…identities” (164). But in Newell’s hands queer theory, rather than realizing a superior alternative to the post-colonialist line that Newell undertakes to revise, only licenses an easy way out of intellectual and historical perplexities that Stuart-Young instances. The disservice to queer theory and to history is patent. A major irony is less obvious. Newell’s appeal to “forged” identities and an art of lying derives from aesthetic modernists, especially queer ones, starting with Wilde. Those modernists’ ultimate virtue, and a purpose of their brave inventiveness, was veracity about sex and morality. To celebrate Stuart-Young in the light of a queer modernist topos is jarring, because he seems (in Newell’s portrayal, at least) considerably less inventive, intelligent, and courageous than his well-known Uranian contemporaries.

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