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Josh Scheinert’s new novel, The Order of Nature, is set in the West African nation of the Gambia, where homosexual activity (an act “against the order of nature”) is against the law and carries 14 years imprisonment, the novel follows the secret relationship between Andrew, an American, and Thomas, a Gambian, as they strive to avoid detection. For a while, they think they’ve succeeded. But as their relationship strengthens, the homophobia that envelops them becomes more hostile; the politics of prejudice catches up. Exposed and arrested, they are forced to confront what it means when your existence is considered a crime, your love against the order of nature. In this interview with Kenyan writer and activist Kevin Mwachiro, Josh Scheinert discusses the novel, his experiences living as a gay man in Gambia, homophobia and prejudice, and the outlook for LGBTQ rights.
Kevin Mwachiro has lived and worked in Nairobi for most of his life. A broadcaster with 17 years of experience in the media sector, Kevin is now building a career for himself as a writer and poet. He has worked as a radio journalist and producer in Kenya, Uganda and the UK. He describes himself as a storyteller, a lover of words and the spoken word.
Josh Scheinert is a lawyer, activist, and storyteller. Hailing from Toronto, he has taught law in Gambia and India, and studied at the University of Cambridge in England.
Kevin Mwachiro: What made you write this book?
Josh Scheinert: This was a story I’d long wanted to tell. Being closeted while living in Gambia brought me face to face with a new dimension in the struggle for LGBTQ rights. Until you live in an environment like that, where the risk of being outed means more than reputational risk or losing control of how you tell your own story, it’s difficult to appreciate how lonely, suffocating, and frightening that can be. When I got back to Canada, I made it a point to become more involved in the push for global LGBTQ rights. This happened at the time Uganda was introducing its notorious “Kill the Gays” bill, so the issue was in the news. But just as the bill faded, so too did people’s interest. One thing I felt was missing, especially in Western discourse, was the human story of this struggle. In between sporadic updates of what was happening in a few countries, the story of what it meant to live in those societies was largely absent. What did it mean for individuals when anti-LGBTQ laws were enforced and backed up by hateful vitriol and deep-seeded prejudice? A novel seemed an effective way to convey this because of how we engage with good stories. By placing readers in the eyes of a character or some place they never knew existed, fiction allows us to discover new perspectives, new ways of thinking and feeling. I wanted to give readers that opportunity.
Kevin Mwachiro: There are times I struggled with this book, there was a lot of anger that it elicited within me. It’s not very far the actual truth, was it hard writing about the oppressive situation faced by LGBTQ folks in Gambia?
Josh Scheinert: There is one particular scene in the book where after writing it I had to take a break. I don’t want to give it away, but you can likely figure it out. That was hard, because as you say, it wasn’t far from the actual truth at all. The story at its core is fiction, notwithstanding being based on certain realities. But this particular scene I knew was truthful, and it’s not limited to Gambia–recently stories of abuse have been emerging out of Egypt and Chechnya. Writing it brought home to me the horror of man’s willing embrace of cruelty.
More generally, however, it was not difficult to depict the situation in Gambia, because I was determined to show it for what it is. The challenge was depicting that while writing Thomas in a manner that he wouldn’t just be pitied for living where he does. Thomas’s situation is terrible. But in capturing that my goal wasn’t to depict him as the perpetual victim where nothing ever goes right. So I had to keep at the top of my mind that there is this character whose circumstances are in some respects awful, but that can’t be the only thing to define him. He’s still a person, and there need to be complexities that stem from that. To me that’s a more effective way of capturing the tragedy that is the reality of LGBTQ people trapped in places like Gambia.
Kevin Mwachiro: We got to know more about Andrew’s life and not Thomas’ i.e. outside of his work. Why is that? Didn’t Thomas have any other Gambian friends? I’d have loved to see more of Gambia through his eyes.
Josh Scheinert: Thomas’s life in Gambia is largely solitary. Like the novel says, since his arrival in Banjul from the village he was raised in he hasn’t made many friends except for Suleiman, whose friendship plays an instrumental role in the plot. Thomas is not comfortable in his surroundings. He’s never fully fit in. There are closeted people who are good at pretending. They wear whatever mask society demands of them and have little trouble going with the flow. That’s not Thomas. He has high emotional intelligence. The homophobia and prejudice in Gambia isn’t something he’s able to get past; he knows he doesn’t and will never fit in if people discover who he is. This prevents him from forming relationships. And you see this in his relationship with his family – he’s there with them, but also incredibly distant.
Kevin Mwachiro: Does this make Thomas pitiable even though you don’t want to portray him that way?
Josh Scheinert: Hmm. I don’t know. That’s up to the reader. To the extent that he is pitied, at least he comes across, hopefully, as a more complex character rather than just an object of pity.
Kevin Mwachiro: I found it interesting that you set Andrew’s coming out in Gambia? Why is that?
Josh Scheinert: In contrast to Thomas, Andrew’s emotional intelligence is far less developed. This makes coming out a burden that he’d rather ignore and keep pushing off. He didn’t think his family and social circles at home would’ve been supportive, and he lacked the confidence or drive to do something about that. The only reason it happens in Gambia is because of Thomas. And that was unplanned.
Kevin Mwachiro: The audience for this book is western and I say this because of the language of the book and you confirmed this to me. Do you think it will connect with the ‘gay’ community on the African continent?
Josh Scheinert: Well the audience of the book is Western, but it’s also meant for people in Gambia and Africa more generally. One thing I’ve observed is that it’s much easier for people to maintain their prejudices in the abstract. You can hate gays, or whoever, when you don’t know them. You can also ignore what it means to hate, the consequence of that prejudice, when you don’t have to confront its consequences as felt by the victim. What I wanted to do in the book is change that for a Gambian and African audience. By forcing the reader to confront the true toll of what their prejudice entails, it’s my hope that some people will start to question whether these views are really worth holding onto. But I’m also not naïve.
To go back to your question, I’d love for the book to connect with LGBTQ communities across Africa so that it can be used partly as a tool to help further this conversation about how different communities treat their own. And you connected with it–so that’s a start!
Kevin Mwachiro: How do you look beyond the anger, homophobia and fear that cuts across the book?
Josh Scheinert: First, I don’t think you can or should look beyond it; it’s there and it’s real. But perhaps more to your point, in terms of not letting it overwhelm you, I’d say that there’s lots of love in the book too. In a situation otherwise hopeless, Andrew and Thomas’s relationship gives us another perspective: even in darkness there can be light. Yes, I know what you’re going to say – they get discovered. But if you can somehow separate that, or overlook it for the purposes of this answer, I think there’s something powerful there. Despite society doing all it can to keep people apart, when people love each other they’re going to strive as hard as they can to find a way to be together. At some level that’s got to make you hopeful, or at least less despondent, when confronting all the negative. It may be a long road ahead, but the forces that propel our side forward cannot easily be defeated.
Kevin Mwachiro: You lived in Gambia for a year. What was that like for you as a gay man and did that make it easier in writing this book? How did you get by?
Josh Scheinert: I was very closeted while in Gambia. By the end of my time there only six people, all expats, knew I was gay. It wasn’t a subject I broached with locals; I knew how they felt and didn’t want to jeopardize my position. I was there as a university lecturer, not an activist. It was frustrating to have to hide who I was, but I also don’t remember the frustration ever becoming too much. I think I adjusted to the reality. The fact that I was only there for a fixed period of time probably made it easier. The luxury of my passport was not lost on me.
Kevin Mwachiro: And being a toubab (white person) as well?
Josh Scheinert: That does provide a measure of protection that’s not always available to locals, but Gambia was less predictable at that time. It would’ve been unadvisable to draw too much comfort from that fact. President Jammeh declared at one point after I left that diplomatic immunity wouldn’t be extended to LGBTQ diplomats if they were discovered. As he became more vocal about standing against the imposition of Western values, being a toubab might’ve even made you more of a target.
Kevin Mwachiro: Have things improved and do you think that with the new government things will get better for the queer community in Gambia.
Josh Scheinert: Things actually got worse after I left. As former-President Jammeh’s rule grew more unpopular, he became more openly hateful towards the LGBTQ community, with no opposition at all, at least publicly, from Gambian society. With the rhetoric we started to hear, I’m not sure I would have gone to Gambia even a year after I was there. In terms of the new government, I’m skeptical. The prejudice in Gambia is deeply rooted and Jammeh succeeded in uniting the country on this point. It will take concerted and courageous leadership to begin undoing that damage. And political leadership won’t be enough. Leaders throughout Gambia, in media, religion, education, and civil society will also have to facilitate society’s transformation on this subject. The challenge shouldn’t be underestimated.
Kevin Mwachiro: One character, the lawyer Abdou, is a LGBTQ advocate. Surely there must be a few people like him in Gambia who are willing to speak for LGBTQ rights?
Josh Scheinert: There have been attorneys who’ve defended accused LGBTQ persons in Gambia. I don’t know them personally, but I imagine they are acutely aware of the environment they’re working in. What I’d be more curious to learn is whether there are lawyers who would challenge the constitutionality of the country’s law criminalizing “acts against the order of nature,” for example like in India and Belize. That type of legal action is different than ensuring due process is fulfilled for a particular accused, which is still important and shouldn’t be overlooked. But going after the law itself is an attempt to make a much more transformative change in society.
Kevin Mwachiro:What do you hope this book will achieve?
Josh Scheinert: I’d like the book to be a conversation starter. I want people who hate, or think they hate gay people, to read the book. I want people who see persecution of LGBTQ persons but don’t care to speak out, or are too afraid to speak out, to read the book. It goes back to why I wrote the book and my belief that it’s our inability to humanize and fully empathize with our brothers and sisters that allows hate to fester the way it does. Right now there are too many places where LGBTQ people are invisible, meaning societies can conveniently ignore them or easily vilify them. I want the book to be part of a growing arsenal that’s making it harder and more uncomfortable to do that. I know that doesn’t translate to automatic acceptance, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Kevin Mwachiro: You mentioned that you battled with setting the book in either a fictional country or in the actual Gambia. Why did you settle on the decision that you made?
Josh Scheinert: I have wonderful memories of my time in Gambia, so writing a book that would paint the country in a less-than flattering light was a bit unsettling. But at the end of the day, that’s Gambia. It’s a country of cruel contradiction. On one hand there’s an admirable generosity of spirit. But the opposite is true when it comes to LGBTQ rights and dignity. I thought that had to be highlighted and confronted. Anything else would’ve been dishonest.
Kevin Mwachiro: The book doesn’t paint a great picture of tolerance in Gambia. What are your positive experiences of the country?
Josh Scheinert: Maybe it’s ironic to say, but the people. Gambians are generous and warm. I was working as a university lecturer, and several of my students cared as much about my well-being as I cared about their studies. It’s a tiny country, which gives it a charm missing in some of the larger, busier places I’ve lived. The country is also beautiful. It’s not called the Smiling Coast for nothing.
Kevin Mwachiro:Any idea on how the book has been received in Gambia and now that the book is out, do you think you’d still be welcome in Gambia?
Josh Scheinert: I’m not sure how it’s been received. There have been a few articles that note the book’s publication and give a cursory plot summary, but the situation is still such that people are uncomfortable speaking out in support of homosexuality. That means it’s still probably relatively easy for Gambians to dismiss the book – just another example of a toubab trying to force foreign values on them. Maybe in private there are some hushed conversations starting to happen, at least I can hope.
To your second question, right now I don’t have plans to return to Gambia. I’d love to go back–not just because of the book, but because it’s somewhere that’s special to me. If I was invited to return, I’d gladly do so.