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The Pan-African Teenager in Kayinsola Olorunnisola’s In My Country We’re All Crossdressers

by Carl Terver

In Kayinsola’s imagination of postcolonial reality, its victims are all crossdressers.

In front of a catholic church building in Makurdi is a signpost with the Caucasian face of St Thomas, curly-haired; the saint wields a staff in one hand and a Bible in the other. When I face it, I imagine myself as a reincarnated ancestor staring at the phantom. This ancestor, when he looks up, beyond the signpost, he sees the stained-glass windows of the church building with the faces of more strangers on this building with a bell tower. It dawns slowly and painfully on him that he is staring at his enemy who conquered him, now in possession of his heritage. In Kayinsola Olorunnisola’s In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers, this returned ancestor is a teenager—a typical portrait of an artist as a young man—who has read Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. His thoughts are not different from the ancestor’s and he goes about with a brooding spirit. In his imagination, “crossdressing” is the metaphor he conjures to grapple with his post-colonial demons and lost heritage, as the first words in the chapbook begin his interrogation:

This is how you spot a cross-dresser:
1He wears his lips red, a testament to 2the covenant of unholy sacrifices 3made with the blood of his fathers, whose black 4bodies dissolved into the blueness of 5an ocean . . .

The poem ends: “The story begins with a ship and ends 12with a drowning.” Olorunnisola’s vision doesn’t need long inspection before its theme, the postcolonial, is grasped. The poems imageries are tropes of conquest, identity, lost history, and so on. The imagery of “ships,” its monstrosity and a behemoth image of conquest to the black world, which James Baldwin described as “watching the conquerors arrive,” is raised, once more by Olorunnisola’s teenager.

He is helpless, typical of the young mind burdened by too many worries of the world: in his case, his baptism of black consciousness. As he wars with the conflict of reconciling the image of his conquerors and his conquered history, he registers his pain: “my tongue is a path split into the feet/ of two warring continents Atlantics apart”—and neither of his split tongue carries “the majesty of my sacred name/ into realms of identity. . . .” His consciousness of loss awakens his muse to reclamation, revival, and redemption from his present scars. He dreams:

my daylight fantasies morph slowly into dinosaurs,
a futile longing for the splendor of yester-lives,
to crawl back into the womb of time and be reborn
as the progenitor of a race so lost in the complexities of life.

But he isn’t deceived by his fantasy. This defeatist imagination reduces his world into non-existence and a fraction compared to his conqueror’s. So in the poem “Speaking My Name with An Accent,” he exerts power over this conquest in lines like “Kányinsọ́lá is not the kind of music that flows/ river-like with the adopted tongue forced/ into my mouth by capitalist boats of conquest.” It is a way to assert his identity and own his heritage, to reconquer and feel the soil of his ancestors under his feet. He charges at the coloniser: “do not bastardise it”—his name—“with your accent,/ it comes from a long line of men with throats full of songs,” to declare the humanity of his people.

This quarrel continues in one of the quiet but provocative poems in the chapbook tactfully titled “Interview (Or The Choking Weight of Simplicity),” a philosophical dialectic on destiny. When he is asked to state his name, he begins his answer but digresses:

Did you know that my people have a ceremony
just for naming newborns, assigning them
destinies before they get used to their mothers’
loves? But I wonder who gave my people
their names, this colour the darkest of lights
trapping a civilization in backwaters of doom . . .

It questions man’s devotion to the mystique of spirituality, traps which Francis Bacon called idols of the tribe, in such ideals like the ritual of name-giving. Does it matter? Here he is, many years later; an undeniable reality of colonial conquest is that such totems of sacredness can be destroyed by the barrel of a gun. If Olorunnisola’s ancestors assigned destinies to their newborns in the names they gave, it wasn’t to spell a time of doom in the future, was it? Which descendant inherited a name with bad luck, “trapping a civilization in backwaters of doom,” bounding men in chains to pass through Doors of No Return, to the end of destiny? An end that plotted his fate, till today. This is depicted too well in the poem “Mathematical Equation for the Myth of Lakunle Alara,” where “(x × y) + 300 + m = k.”

The equation begins, establishing variables x and y; then a solution and the eventual equation, in the typical mathematical method of deriving equations. For Lakunle Alara, our teenager’s alter ego, however, the equation derived from his name is a chronicle of slavery to colonialism to modern day, exposing the only truth of Europe’s occupation of colonies as wholly for economic gains. In tandem, Olorunnisola’s Pan-African teenager explains Lakunle Alara’s tragedy in close economic terms: maths, where the name Lakunle Alara is “the lyrics to a divine song/ of wealth and all things desirable to men . . .”

fact x:
La+ kun+ le = wealth is plentiful in this house/come have a taste of this abundance
Alara = one with style/come watch my glory soar
La + kun + le ≠I have too much, come take it all away
Alara ≠ one who is ready to lose his honour

fact y
Europe = the home of the pilgrimage of black slaves
Europe = the place where ships are made
Atlantic ocean = willing accomplice.

solution (xy)

x × y = Lakunle is bound in chains
x × y = Alara becomes a nigger

centuries later
xy + time (300years) + a little bit of myth (m) = Kanyinsola Olorunnisola (k)

recap
(x × y) + 300 + m = k

This presents a rare beauty of poetic rendition, however, ironically tragic in how the teenager’s intricacy with his plight as a disturbed African child manifests: it’s that aptly-written essay on blackness and its troubled identity. But its brilliance easily distracts the message. It perfectly depicts Africa teeming with intellectuals but mocked by degeneration.

In the poem “Afrobeat Broke My Heart,” the teenager mourns the appropriation of Fela’s Afrobeat by pop-stars: where the ancestor music was “created to pacify a burning country/ or to set fire to the garment of unruly gods,” the descendant philistines have made it

unrecognisable, its mouth full of the wrong
languages [it now has a name for each of its many frivolities]
an accomplice to the lustful swaying of sweaty bodies
crashing into one another and birthing a nation of desecrators.

We pardon his righteousness. But he indirectly raises some questions. Is Pan-Africanism and decolonisation dead? Is the spirit of Fela’s Afrobeat dead in its appropriated expression? With this weight, he defends his generation to Fela in another poem “Defending My Generation to Fela”: “You have to understand” he says, “that some of us are like water, only impurities give us colour […] we are lost but one needs to be lost to find his home sometimes.” Fela becomes a burden to the his thoughts, enslaved to the dream of the continent’s liberation which he feels he has betrayed. So he charges Fela: “stop haunting me in my sleep, stop calling my name on the radio, stop burgling your way into my poems . . . .”

In the titular In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers a word stands out—“immovable,” from:

. . . into 
irreconcilable halves stretched further apart
by motion & something quite immovable,
we stand amidst the ruins . . .

The enemy left us in limbo, so that we turn to him, once again, for salvation. But we contradict ourselves as our survival capitulates and aspires to the same evil that has kept us in a place of cosmological stasis, the teenager’s words striking—sweetening “our tongues . . . at the taste of lands which/ will never see us.”

Few of Olorunnisola’s contemporaries are known for such aureate poetry. Many have cultivated an unoriginal, cult style accentuated to a popular idiom. In Crossdressers, Olorunnisola shows an arrival of language, and his introspection about the theme he explores is careful. However, he comes to recognition, once in a while, only for his prose—shortlisted for Writivism (2019) and winning the K&L prize (2020)—and not his poetry. This must be corrected. We dive into Crossdressers and may not swim in catharsis but the currents whisper it a little◼

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.