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

  • Robert L. Caserio

…plus d’informations

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

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. …

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