Set in the backdrop of a radically anti-gay Nigeria, And Then He Sang a Lullaby by Ani Kayode Somtochukwu—the inaugural title from Roxane Gay Books—follows the story of two young men in university in Enugu City, simply trying to survive. August, a first-year student-athlete with low exam scores, whose overbearing sisters have all but raised him after his mother died in childbirth, has internalized his God-fearing tendencies to the point that he has repressed his homosexuality, while Segun, after an unpleasant breakup tinged with homophobic, state-sanctioned violence, has resorted to casual sex on hookup apps and radical socialism as a way to deal with his grief. After a huge anti-gay bill is passed by the Nigerian government, their unlikely matchup leads to a tender, painful story of survival which asks what it means to love—as a queer person and even more, as a human being, in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Both young men come to their university with dreams of escape—Segun from the tormentors of his childhood and his lost teenage love, and August from his helicopter sisters and cold, distant father. When they find each other, outwardly effeminate and out-of-the-closet Segun refuses August’s advances, telling him that he cannot commit to a relationship with a closeted man. August says, “It was one of the reasons he admired Segun so much, because he wished he loved himself the way Segun loved himself.” But they cannot avoid each other, and August confesses: “He had thought about this very carefully, what to say. And in doing so, he had wondered if this feeling in his heart wasn’t love. He didn’t know what that type of love felt like, so there was no way of knowing for sure. And could it really be love if he wasn’t sure of it?” They connect, and find happiness, a fleeting happiness—the Same-Sex (Prohibition) Act passes, and suddenly they find themselves targets of even more homophobic violence than they already were.
Segun understands this implicitly, even if August does not: “‘Class war is an actual war, with real-life casualties, and the ruling class knows this, and they do not give a fuck.’” One of the brilliances of this novel is the distinctness of the voices of these two characters. Told in alternating chapters, Somtochukwu weaves these two protagonists seamlessly into one another, their voices intermingling and sweeping in and around one another, adding to the urgency and suspense of the novel. Early in the book, as we get to know the characters, this technique is used to create tension, as Somtochukwu leaves us with cliffhangers, encouraging us to read on as we learn more about each boy and his individual storyline. As the narratives merge, it becomes a story of more complete information, but we can slip in and out of each narrator’s head, creating nuance and displaying the difference in the way the two men think about each other, and the world.
Homophobia, and its consequences, becomes a deep thread in the novel—from the childhood scuffles that Segun and August both encounter to the brutal beating of the novel’s climax, but the real message of the novel is about revolution. Queerness, the novel seems to be saying, is a revolutionary act. This is a wonderful novel in the sense that it does not exist in the shadow of America—it is a truly African novel, taking place solely in Africa and with African concerns, and it’s exciting to see it brought to American readers. It’s truly a revolutionary book for its deep dive into radical young queer Nigerian culture.
Unfortunately, it falls into a rather obvious category of tragic queer narratives—it’s one of a large number of books about LGBTQ+ folx who meet tragic ends, due to homophobia or other related circumstances, and it didn’t feel like it was adding anything to the conversation in this regard. In this sense, this was a disappointing showing from Roxane Gay Books, an imprint which promises to be radical and left-leaning. But with all the other strong material in the book, from the powerful voices of the two narrators, the incredible detail and richness of the scenarios, and the deep tenderness and love shown between the two main characters, this is potentially forgivable.
Masquerading as a book about radical queerness, this is really a book about revolution, and it comes at the perfect cultural moment. There is hope for us, says Somtochukwu, and it lives in the places that American readers may not immediately be looking to. It may not be the happy ending that we’re looking for, but it’s an ending we can believe in, and Somtochukwu and Roxane Gay Books have championed an excellent new voice in fiction, which we will all be watching.
Publisher: Roxane Gay Books
Publication Date: June 6, 2023
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo