By Simon Demetriou
The story of a queer, working class Nigerian boy being taken out of poverty by publishing a novel of what he calls ‘queer resistance’ that he had to hand write before transferring onto his mobile phone before having it selected out of hundreds of manuscripts by a brand-new imprint of Grove Books – now, that’s a story that’s worth reading. As it happens, this is actually the story behind And Then He Sang A Lullaby, rather than the story inside Ani Kayode Somtochukwu’s debut novel.
Not that the story inside the book is bad. Two Nigerian boys, one affluent and athletic, the other poor and noticeably effeminate, who each deal with their homosexuality in very different ways until coming together in an ill-fated romance has the makings of a perfectly good plot, if not a particularly original one. August feels the weight of Nigeria’s masculinist culture from the moment of his birth, since his mother chooses to have him despite the doctors’ warnings, presumably because she has so far produced ‘only’ three daughters and her husband is denigrated by even his own mother for being ‘a weak man who could not father sons’. Needless to say, August’s mother doesn’t make it past delivery, adding to August’s sense of pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations of him as ‘a perfect boy who would take the torch that was the family name’. He starts to find acceptance and identity as a talented track athlete, but when Usain Bolt’s crotch starts drawing an uncomfortable amount of his attention, he begins to realise he will never be what others want.
While August visibly seems to possess the masculine markers he needs to avoid suspicion and gain acceptance, Segun, the only child of a politically radical mother and a father whose role in the novel is negligible, is a target from the very start. His speech and mannerisms lead to a miserable, bullied childhood, but also to an early acceptance of who and what he is. In this way, Somtochukwu explores the power of exposure and the complacency of accidental camouflage, while sensitively showing both the arbitrariness and the pain caused by both.
Evidently, then, the messages within and without And Then He Sang A Lullaby are both powerful and sadly relevant. For this reader, however, the background and thematic significance tend to highlight the relative weakness of the writing, in particular the telegraphing and slight clunkiness that cause the novel’s failure to realise its aims. Still, And Then He Sang A Lullaby certainly succeeds in publisher Roxane Gay Books’ goal of bringing attention to writers emerging outside of traditional publishing networks, and this is an aim well worth any reader’s support.