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Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost And Found In Johannesburg’: A Memoir: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Mark Gevisser’s extraordinary new book takes on several projects at once: It’s a memoir of his own and his family’s history; an exploration of the geography of Johannesburg, both human and natural; and an ambitious portrait of LGBT South Africans of all races both during and after the apartheid era. It's also the most exciting book of nonfiction I've read in a very long time. 

Gevisser-lost-and-foundIt begins with a childhood game. In the 1970s, whiling away the hours of a privileged childhood, Gevisser would choose a name at random from the Johannesburg Telephone Directory, and then use his parents’ street atlas to plot a route from his home to the stranger’s address. But when he happened upon an African name in the directory, Gevisser found that his atlas provided no route between their neighborhoods, no way to plot a course from his bucolic suburb to the townships “where the black people who worked for us would go to church or to visit family on their days off.”

And so Gevisser’s game became a kind of political education, giving rise to a lifelong fascination with borders—how they are constituted and how they are crossed. What’s most powerful in this very powerful book are the leaps it makes across its own boundaries, the connections Gevisser makes between his different projects of memoir and reportage. He finds “links between my own sense of alienation because of an illicit sexuality and the subordinate position of the majority of my compatriots,” and he tracks these connections through his personal history and the history and geography of his city.

As he pores over old maps, newspapers, and photographs, Gevisser realizes that “apartheid was embedded in the development of Johannesburg from the very start.” The very topography of the city—marked by hills formed by gold mining and sinkholes where the honeycombed terrain caves in—inscribes a social structure in which the subterranean many work for the obscene benefit of the few. In its carefully enforced boundaries, Johannesburg was “a world…defined by what it had been walled against, dammed against: I was safe in direct relation to the insecurity of those outside.”

Much of Gevisser’s work as a journalist has focused on collecting the stories of LGBT people in South Africa, and he finds that it was often in queer communities that the lines so carefully policed in the larger society were crossed. White gay men hosted parties in their homes where men of all colors could congregate past curfew; at a beach popular among gay men, “white and colored or Malay men cruised across the color bar.” Hillbrow, a gay area, became “Johannesburg’s first deracialized neighborhood in the 1980s.”

But Gevisser is careful not to romanticize this history: many gay whites fled Hillbrow once blacks moved in, and he makes clear how privilege, including protections for LGBT people, continues to be distributed with wild inequity. “You can rape me, rob me, what am I going to do when you attack me? Wave the Constitution in your face?” one black drag queen says to him in a moving passage about LGBT protections written into the South African constitution. “I’m just a nobody black queen.” But even in this case things are more complicated still: “She paused,” Gevisser goes on, “and then her face lost its mask of bravado and bitterness. ‘But you know what? Ever since I heard about that Constitution, I feel free inside.’”

Gevisser doesn’t minimize the risks LGBT people still face in South Africa, especially the many LGBT immigrants who flee their own countries in hope of greater freedom. Instead, they find both that they are denied the protections offered to LGBT citizens, and that in addition to homophobia they face growing hatred of immigrants.

Mark-GevisserIf the crossing of borders is often a liberating, even exhilarating prospect in these pages, it is also fraught with danger. Shortly before finishing this book, while he was visiting friends, Gevisser was the victim of a brutal, terrifying home invasion. This experience, which he alludes to in the book’s first pages, hovers over everything he recounts. He is typically complex as he narrates it, terrified and enraged but also unwilling to dehumanize his assailants. “These were well-brought-up boys, once, before they became monsters, emasculated by poverty, by unemployment, by the culture of entitlement, by the AIDS epidemic, by the degradation of traditional life and the failure of urbanism to provide any sane alternative.”

Gevisser’s account of the remarkably varied shapes LGBT lives take in South Africa finally focuses less on the hardships they face than on the remarkable ways they manage, despite those hardships, to find whatever joy they can. It’s impossible to do justice either to the scope of Gevisser’s book or to my admiration of it in a short review. It accomplishes what I take to be the work of serious literature: it leaves me with a greater sense of marvel and compassion for the lives of others, a richer and more complex understanding of the world.

Previous reviews...
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Head of Anglican Church Says Embracing Gay Marriage Could Lead to Murder of African Christians

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, has warned that embracing same-sex marriage could inadvertently lead to the persecution and murder of Christians around in the world, particularly in Africa.

Justin welbyIn an interview with LBC on Friday, Welby said that he'd been warned while on his visit to South Sudan that the Church of England accepting gay marriage could lead to some communities believing having Christians among them could make them gay and reacting by murdering the Christians. As such, he cautioned the church to refrain from making any drastic doctrinal changes, such as allowing members to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies. 

"What we say here is heard around the world," the Archbishop, who had earlier revealed that the average Church of England worshipper is a sub-Saharan African woman in her 30s, responded.

"Well, why can’t we just do it now? Because, the impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Nigeria and other places, would be absolutely catastrophic, and we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here.

"At the same time, we have to listen incredibly carefully to the LGBT communities here, and listen to what they’re saying, and we have to look at the tradition of the church, and the teaching of the church, and the teaching of scripture, which is definitive in the end, before we come to a conclusion.

Throughout the interview (which you can check out here), Welby appeared to be trying to appease both religious tradiitonalists and those who want the church to recognize LGBT equality. To his credit, Welby recognized the damage that homophobic behavior causes on LGBT individuals, particularly teens.

Back in July, the Church of England introduced a campaign to combat homophobic bullying in schools across the UK.  


Tanzanian MP To Submit Bill Outlawing 'Gay Recruitment'

Tanzanian Member of Parliament Ezekiel Wenje recently told The East African that he plans on submitting a anti-gay bill outlawing “gay recruitment” in his country.

WenjeThe East African reports:

Mr. Wenje said homosexuality is on the rise in Tanzania because the existing legislation does not provide a sufficient deterrent.

Under the current law, convicted suspects face custodial sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment. According to Section 154 of the Act, any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature is liable to imprisonment for life.

But Wenje said the law does not cover those who induce others to become gays or those who promote the behaviour.

He said there are many gays in Dar es Salaam who operate in the open, go to bars and social places, and that more young people are choosing the lifestyle.

Mr. Wenje is optimistic that his Bill will receive support from his colleagues and eventually get passed into law despite a predictable donor stance on the issue.

“We should not care about aid, we should care about our values and the future of the country,” he said when asked if passing of such law would not lead to donor’s freezing aid like is happening in Uganda.

TanzaniaAccording to the book The Dictionary of Homophobia:

Male homosexuality has been illegal in Tanzania since colonial times (Tanzania was a German colony from 1884 until World War I, then a British colony until independence was declared in 1961). Articles 154 to 157 of Tanzania’s penal code render all homosexual relations between men punishable… [though] (there is no mention of women).

Having said this, the law does not seem to be regularly applied, or if so, only erratically… And there is a burgeoning gay movement in the country; Community Peer Support Services (CPSS), an association for the defense of gays and lesbians, has been in existence since 1997 and currently has 334 members whom it trains to become activists. According to CPSS, the situation of gays and lesbians is better in Tanzania then in all its neighboring countries.

Though that would certainly change if this proposed bill becomes law. In 2012, a gay rights activist was murdered in Tanzania.


Jailed Suspected Gay Nigerian Men Released On Bail

The seven suspected gay men were imprisoned in January during the initial wave of arrests under Nigeria's vicious anti-gay law. An angry mob had called for the men's speedy convictions soon after they were detained. 

AFP reports:

A clerk at the upper sharia court in the Unguwar Jaki district of Bauchi, which is hearing one of the cases, confirmed the release of three of the men.

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"The court granted bail to the three remaining suspects at the last trial session on 11 March, pending the determination of their cases," said Abdul Mohammed.

"The judge's decision to grant them bail was borne out of the fact that none of the accused was caught in the act, which is an indispensable condition to warrant the death sentence. That means they would not get the death penalty at the end."

The other four men are on trial at Tudun Alkali upper sharia court, also in Bauchi.

The men's cases have been heard in secret after an angry mob pelted the defendants with stones after a hearing on 23 January, demanding their immediate execution.

Police had to break up the riot with teargas.

"Since the mob action on 23 January, the sodomy trials have been going on in secret in another location and the trial dates are never made public," said Mohammed.

Sharia law provides for death by stoning for sodomy once it is established by four witnesses to the act or voluntary confession.

Earlier this month, four other suspected gay men were given 15 lashes with a horse whip in public.

What's it like to be gay in Nigeria? Watch a BBC news segment which attempts to answer that question, AFTER THE JUMP.

Continue reading "Jailed Suspected Gay Nigerian Men Released On Bail" »


Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe: 'Gays Are 'Inhuman'

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has in the past threatened to jail and behead gays, only this month learned that they exist in his own country. Now, in a talk in Zimbabwe's capital, he's keeping his hate speech alive by referring to gays and lesbians as "inhuman."

According to the Washington Blade:

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“The West says we must accept there is change in the world, that gays have human rights,” he said during an event at a hotel in Harare, the country’s capital, that commemorated International Women’s Day as the Herald, a Zimbabwean newspaper, reported. “Gays have no human rights. They have human rights – human rights for doing an inhuman thing.”

Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights responded to the Blade:

“These comments are consistent with Mugabe’s past statements, describing gays as worse than ‘pigs and dogs.’ For Mugabe to declare gays and lesbians as somehow inhuman, on a day meant to celebrate equality, is horribly ironic and reprehensible.”

In other Mugabe news, the leader says he will boycott next week's European Union-Africa summit in Brussels after his wife was denied a visa to attend the event.


Homosexuality A 'Social Evil' As Serious As Terrorism According To Kenyan MP

Anti-gay Africa

Africa is perhaps the least hospitable continent for homosexuals, which is actually illegal in 37 countries and is subject to widespread taboos, thanks in no small part to the dissemination of lies and stoking of hatred from evil religious evangelical lunatics like Scott "The Nazis were gay" Lively and Martin "Eat da poo-poo" Ssempa.

While Uganda is one of the most hostile, Kenya is not far behind. Since 2010, 595 cases of homosexuality have been investigated, according to MP Aden Duale. In an assembly with other MPs, Duale even said that "gayism" and "lesbianism" are "as serious as terrorism," a level of educated insight that harkens back to the days of Oklahoma representative Sally Kern.

However, Duale responded to calls for tougher laws to penalize homosexuality by saying that the Kenyan constitution and penal code were sufficient, and that the decision to not follow Uganda's methods was in no way influenced by the fact that international donors have suspended aid to Uganda in response to their treatment of homosexuals.


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