An Interview With Nick Mwaluko
Author: Jeremy Tolbert
February 27, 2017
As part of our partnership with the New York City Department of Education, we will be featuring writers currently involved in the LGBTQ Writers in School Program. We begin with a brief interview with Nick Mwaluko.
Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is a FtM, queer, and was born in Tanzania and raised mostly in neighboring Kenya, plus other east and central African countries. Nick has written several award-winning plays, including S/He, Asymmetrical We, Blueprint for a Lesbian Planet, Queering Macbeth, Brotherly Love, Trailer Park Tundra, Once A Man Always A Man, Mama Afrika, Mwena Mweni and more. Waafrika 123, a three-part trilogy set in rural Kenya, features an interracial relationship between a blond queer lesbian American woman formerly with the Peace Corps and a preoperative queer named Awino from the local Luo tribe. The play’s many awards include Best Lead Actress, Best Director, Best Play; it was published in 2016 and remounted twice with Thinking Cap Productions. S/He, was remounted three times for Florida Gay Pride and published in Plays and Playwrights 2009. Nick has held several artist residencies, most recently with The Public Theater, America’s largest non-profit theater company. In addition to writing plays, Nick is currently writing a queer African novel.
What was the inspiration for Waafrika 123?
There was a woman in our village; she had been exiled. As is the custom, the elders told us of her exile, warning us not to go near her until they gave us permission by saying it’s okay to engage with her again. Nothing unusual about the procedure, completely in-keeping with custom. The unusual thing was that neither me nor my friends knew why she had been exiled; usually we’d know because tribal code makes it very clear from the time you are born which in/actions lead to exile, your social death. I was maybe seven years old when all this was unfolding. I ignored my elders, became completely obsessed with this woman and her mystery circumstance, following her any and every spare moment at my disposal. One day, the curtain to her window blew open so I saw inside her home; a wellspring of shame passed though my seven year-old Self. I think Waafrika 123 is a product of the intense shame I felt spying on a life lived in exile, a life experiencing its social death privately which my obsession violated publicly, or at least less privately and therefore more pronounced personally in some ways. Writing the play, I think, was my reckoning with a deep need to resurrect her life back from the dead, to quiet my shame and hers, lessen our shared oppression somehow. No, she was not lesbian nor queer nor romantically involved. I gave her a queer identity to transform exile, her social death into something magical. I felt the best person to give her best Self to would be someone like her and not like her, a woman who was a foreigner so that the rules pertaining to her exile did not apply as much as accountable to a shared Self. This is all speculation; I honestly don’t know why I wrote the play Waafrika 123.
Why did you choose to write this as a play as opposed to a novel?
In February 2017, AfTransAm, my collection of short stories will come out. The book contains poems and essays as well. I have published poems, essays and short stories in various qtpoc or queer anthologies. But mostly I write plays. I’ve written over two dozen full-length plays, almost all qtpoc-centric. The world of Waafrika 123 unfolded as a play.
Why did you choose to discuss female genital mutilation? Has this issue personally affected your life?
In Waafrika 123, female genital mutilation is in direct conversation with Bobby’s rape. They are both violations fueled by patriarchy, driven by misogyny in service of male glamour. Shame is a core value, a tool of the oppressor. Shame is what I wanted to problematize, examine, take apart, destroy then remove. Here’s how: both characters do not identify as “traditional women” and so the female genital mutilation and rape offer a more complex, more charged significance because of their gender expression, sexuality and politics. This is true for the characters as individuals and true for them as partners in a queer relationship. So, their future makes queering language a vital necessity to their survival because there is nothing, no language at their disposal to describe who each one of them is and who they are as a couple. And since plays are driven by language (and silences—plus (in)action and gesture), this is interesting for what their future holds in Queer Africa, which is the mythical space they see for themselves at the end of the play. And since female genital mutilation is done on a girl to make her a woman, what happens when it’s done to someone who doesn’t identify as a girl? Is he/they a woman because the tribe says so or not because they say so? Is it ineffective, transformative, cementing? What do the Ancestors say? What will they make of that body in the hereafter when they meet with it? Is there a body for that realm or does consciousness meet with consciousness, queer consciousness with Ancestral wisdom? Is the damage done through rape more accented on a lesbian? What about the union between the raped lesbian and queer body that has experienced female genital mutilation? What is their shared poetry? Can it be as dramatically astounding as their shattered lives and broken bodies lifting each other up in the name of love? How will they transform the world’s cruelties into magic?—a monument to qtpoc survival and testament to our lasting existence.
And yes, female genital mutilation and intersex genital mutilation have personally affected my life.
How is LGBTQ movement in the United States compare with the LGBTQ movement in African countries where you’ve worked and lived?
In Africa, LGBTQIA people are killed for how and who they love. Protections in any constitution often don’t override social codes of conduct, especially in certain areas. Right now, Uganda is cultivating conditions that have lead to the murder, plus mass exodus of many LGBTQIA Ugandans forced to hold refugee status in neighboring countries where they are treated worse than horribly for their sexual and gendered selves. Moreover, the seeds for a queer genocide in Uganda are being sown so that citizens betray fellow citizens to stay safe from a state-sanctioned propaganda machine distracting people from important issues like income inequality, lack of educational and medical resources, massive theft and bribery of government officials; using queers as scapegoats to deflect from these concerns that truly impact their future. Undeniable is the link between colonialism, patriarchy, transphobia, queerphobia on the continent so that when we unlearn colonialism, patriarchy, misogyny, we may unearth what is truly vital to our shared identities when in community. In terms of being vilified by society, in terms of being cast as government propaganda spun through “fake news”, the current US administration isn’t different in its treatment of LGBTQIA folks, especially if you factor in the extreme nature of the recent shift swooping down on the most vulnerable lives.
Racially, we in East Africa are not as conscious/sensitive to our blackness as are qtpoc in the US. We ‘re not as aware of our global racial identity in the way that South or even southern African queers are because they live in such close proximity to whiteness, and have done so historically. Race is one of the multiple identities that make us unacceptable on so many levels within and outside the LGBTQIA movement; understanding this is vital.
If anything, the multiplicity of labels is creating more queer spaces and making them queerer, but I wonder if it’s bringing us any closer. In other words, is more language a potential obstacle to deepening our queer connection? True, it is generating something vital, but perhaps at the expense of something just as vital. Perhaps more language is emptying language of meaning, communication of connection, inflating the ego at the expense of the divine?—since that is what language is for, I believe. The good thing about having a queerphobic administration is that we will be tested as a community and as individuals, and whatever remains will have survived and that is vital to who we are.