Enkare Review has taken down the story; what next?
“This is always a risk in art. The solution remains as it has always been: Get out (of the gallery) or go deeper in (to the argument). Write a screed against it. Critique the hell out of it. Tear it to shreds in your review or paint another painting in response. But remove it? Destroy it?” Those are the words of Zadie Smith in an essay published in Harper’s Magazine where she writes about Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, after calls for it to be taken down in a letter written to the curators of the Whitney Biennial. That question of our collective response to what we perceive as bad art is worthy of consideration after the magazine Enkare Review pulled down a short story titled ‘Little Entertainment Centres’ written by Jekwu Anyaegbuna and published in their ‘Inclusivity’ issue.
In ‘Little Entertainment Centres’, Wilson, the son of divorced parents, was sent to his aunt Chimoge after his father “won the custody battle — not through the law courts but by sheer display of muscles.” The story begins as his aunt sends him back to his father after discovering he is a pedophile, and from there he narrates his journey back to his sexually aberrant father, who attempts to cure him by sending him to a mother-son sex-working duo. He defends his predilection for children in multiple diary entries, and talks to his mother who is undergoing abuse in the hand of her new husband. This story is noteworthy for how many ‘freaks’ it tries to pack into a single narrative like a collage of knock-off Diane Arbus postcards.
Anyaegbuna’s story was touted by Enkare Review editors as Lolita-esque, and it’s easy to see why they made that statement. Humbert, the unreliable narrator of Vladmir Nabokov’s masterpiece, claims his hebephilic nature is tied to a relationship he had in his early teenage years with a girl his age who went away before they could have sex. Anyaegbuna’s Wilson states that his own peadophilia is a result of his aunt forcing him to have sexual interactions with a little girl, who also went away, long before he became a teenager. But if Nabokov’s Lolita is a masterpiece, and Anyaegbuna’s story has been deleted off the internet, it can be surmised that the problem isn’t simply pedophilia. Anyaegbuna’s story has attracted ire from its critics because it portrays a character who justifies pedophilia by comparing it to homosexuality, a device often deployed by homophobic Nigerians as reasons for their hatred. The argument against this is simple: sexual interaction with children is reprehensible, even when it’s legal, because children do not have the agency to give consent to adults.
Yet, the reason Nabokov’s story is celebrated and Anyaegbuna’s story is received with spite isn’t just moral. The mere existence of disgusting characters who perform reprehensible acts has never been enough reason for its censorship. ‘Little Entertainment Centres’ is a poorly written story. The characters are barely human. They’re a collection of what one assumes is the writer’s list of deviants: A woman who has sexual interactions with her dog; a man who has orgies with widows; a mother and son who practice sex work in the same hotel; and a driver who brags to his passengers about having sex on the seat of his vehicle and makes sexual passes at them. You can write one or two of these characters into a good story where they’re humanised despite their flaws, but putting them all into a short story feels like the fever dream of a man who thinks all deviations from sexual norms are evil and needs to create a sexual boogeyman for readers to prove his point.
Skilled writers know there are no taboo subjects. What exists, however, are people who should not touch those taboos because they lack the tools to handle them with grace. Anyaegbuna, by his own admission, is only interested in shocking his readers. And mere shock is no value. Stories, even when they’re crafted to scare us, are valued for what they reveal about our humanity. ‘Little Entertainment Centres’ tells us nothing about being human beyond the fact that there are monsters among us, and it does this poorly than the metro section of a newspaper.
In their mea culpa on Twitter, Enkare review writes that their hope was that the story “gives you a headache, makes you angry but hopefully also makes you curious about this world that was built.” I’m eager to inform them that all it did was give me a headache. It wasn’t cohesive enough induce anger and definitely had nothing to make me curious about how the world was built. I admit this blasé reaction to it may be a function of who I am. Queer folks are angry at it because, through his shoddy excuse for storytelling, Anyaegbuna furthers a rationale for hatred without complicating it. The reader who agrees with the narrator leaves the story with nothing but a validation for their thoughts. So, while people who worry about humanity are angered by the story, those who already perpetuate hate will celebrate it in their closet and perhaps even in public, considering the currency of hatred in Nigerian media.
This conclusion should be obvious to any reasonable reader, and this makes the words and actions of the editors at Enkare review all the more befuddling. “This new issue is all about inclusivity and you will find brilliant, brilliant stuffs [sic] in it,” wrote Basit Jamiu, the fiction editor, on Facebook. “There is a story that will hit you hard for its bold theme and execution too.” (Let’s ascribe the pluralisation of stuff to the tendency, which I share, to relax grammatical rules while posting on social media.) Why did Jamiu consider a story about pedophilia fit for an issue about inclusivity? Why did he think it is bold to write about pedophilia in a way that conflates it with homosexuality? And what does he consider bold in Anyaegbuna’s poor execution of an unreliable narrator and pornographic details.
In their mea culpa on Twitter before retracting the story, the editors state their errors as not including a “trigger warning at the onset regarding the content,” a failure to “properly handle the particular sensitivity of the story involving children,” and the lack of an “Inside Fiction piece to accompany the story,” referring to an interview that would have illuminated the story from the perspective of the writer. On Facebook, however, Jamiu the fiction editor wrote “Everywhere STEW :D” an obvious expression of glee at the activity that followed the release of the story. That note on Twitter is obviously in opposition to Jamiu’s Facebook exhilaration, and this contradiction is at the centre of my concern that the story has been taken down from Enkare review website, with the promise that it will be returned in a sanitised state.
My attention was drawn to ‘Little Entertainment Centres’ by a writer friend who wanted to understand if his disgust at it was grounded in literature. I ignored the story at first, hoping to read it later after I was done with my chores. But I was shown the reaction of Romeo Oriogun to the story on Twitter, where he asked that the magazine take down his poems from their site, and knew that story would be pulled soon. A few hours afterwards, it was deleted and anyone who wanted to read it had to rely on people who had made copies in anticipation of the take down. It is important for writers to have a strong moral voice that responds to bad ideas with but what happens when people who have bad ideas understand that mere removal of the ideas from public space is enough to stave criticism?
Bad ideas have resilient lives. They rarely die and have the capacity to survive underground for years, festering in the minds of people who are firm in their belief that they’re right and the world is wrong and someday they shall be proven right. It’s also well known that debating bad ideas often does nothing but give them a platform to spread. But rather than push these ideas underground or help pollinate them, I wish our impulse is to “write a screed against it. Critique the hell out of it. Tear it to shreds in your review.”
The fact that an editor like Jamiu, who is well regarded among young writers on the continent for the work he has done in curating a celebrated anthology can describe bad writing that furthers repressive thinking as bold should offer a pause to anyone interested in progressiveness among young African creatives. Some ideas that are believed to be consensus, accepted without debate, are simply not spoken about. The assumed consensus isn’t arrived upon via conversation, but fostered by silence.
There is little by the way of ideologies among many young people who have become champions of thought in Nigeria (I do not know enough about young people in other part of Africa to speak about them). With the exception of feminists, and perhaps those who have a background in religious thought, there’s little in the public space by that articulates what we believe in as supposed “progressives.” What this leads to is an attempt to enforce behaviour without establishing the thought that undergirds them, seeking to reap where we haven’t sown.
There are truths we believe to be self-evident and hope that all people agree with. But some do not know, many refuse to accept these truths, and we’ll be fools if we think there’s an homogeneity of belief. Outrage is useful. “We use whatever strengths we have fought for, including anger,” writes Audre Lorde. But I hope we don’t accept that reality that the response to anger has become hiding out and banking on temporary amnesia.
The last time a Nigerian poet was accused of sexual assault, his response was to disappear, hiding away to survive the storm and return triumphant. There’s a loss of opportunity when we do not perform a postmortem of misbehaviour, especially among people who traffic in thoughts and stories. We may get a sanitised version of Anyaegbuna’s story in the coming days, but I hope Jamiu is honest enough, if he still believes in the boldness of the story he published, to articulate the thinking behind his actions and open them to rigorous criticism. Otherwise, we’re simply here to whitewash sepulchres.