The Homoerotics of French Empire Building

Julin Everett, Le Queer Impérial: Male Homoerotic Desire in Francophone Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (Leiden: Brill-Rodopi, 2018); 220 pages; ISBN 978-9004365537 (hardcover)

• June 2021

André Gide’s ethnographic travel diary Voyage au Congo (1927) is conspicuous among his other works, many set in North Africa, for its lack of explicit reference to male homoerotic desire. The source of this absence, as Julin Everett reveals in the introduction to Le Queer Impérial: Male Homoerotic Desire in Francophone Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, stems from Gide’s self-censorship. According to Everett, Gide was wary of including frank depictions of his sexual relations with Black Africans. Despite his well-known appetite for North African boys and his confession to Algerian writer Jean Amrouche—“[I am] very attracted, if I might dare to say, in a sensual way as well, by the negro race” (8)—Gide feared reprisal from his European readership over the more-taboo subject of homoeroticism between White European and Black African men. He scoured Voyage of any such references.

Everett’s masterfully incisive Le Queer Impérial grows from, and ultimately transcends, the tensions at the heart of Gide’s highly racialized and sexualized Africanist writings and the copious academic debates surrounding them. Unlike previous studies of eroticism in francophone colonial and postcolonial literature, which tend to focus heavily on Gide himself or on heterosexual European and African relations more broadly, Everett instead highlights racialized homoeroticism and homosociality as part and parcel of the French imperial project. By attending to the political and cultural specificities of the texts under examination, Everett unpacks the racial, religious, and sexual stereotypes of African sexuality and how French and African writers alike navigate the homosocial space of the colonial and neocolonial state. Everett’s comparative transnational analysis yokes together texts from France’s colonial past by writers Pierre Mille, André Demaison, and Herman Grégoire to the more contemporary work of Black African authors Ousmane Sembene, Saïdou Bokoum, Sony Labou Tansi, and Willaims Sassine. The organizing principle of the book is Everett’s formulation of the queer impérial, which refers to “political and cultural ways of being in which queer, Othered bodies represent erotically-tempting objects of domination” (2). At the same time, Everett conceives of the queer impérial as an individual—a soldier, writer, or colonial functionary—who engages with taboo non-European (i.e., nondominant) sexualities in the service of empire building. This formulation serves as an effective conceptual framework throughout the book as it demonstrates how French imperial power attempts to impose itself on the gendered, raced, and sexualized bodies of colonial and postcolonial spaces and how francophone Africans represent racialized masculinity and homoeroticism through their writing.

Everett neatly divides her study into three sections: the first deals with White colonial literature from France, the second with postcolonial literature written by Africans and set in France, and the third with postcolonial and neocolonial literature written by Africans but set in Africa. The unique thematic and chronological division of the book allows Everett’s lucid arguments on race, gender, and sexuality to emerge from the specificities of each of the section’s historical and cultural particulars. Within each section, Everett first devotes an introductory chapter to comparing and contextualizing two texts, then proceeds by providing a detailed analysis of each in stand-alone chapters. In chapter 1, Everett examines Mille and Demaison’s La femme et l’homme nu and Grégoire’s Makako, singe d’Afrique to highlight how French colonialism produced highly rigid racialized homosocial spaces. Within this setting, Africans struggled to gain access to hegemonic European masculinity and thus were marked as subservient, even feminine. Opening the second section, chapter 4 considers African immigration to the French métropole in the context of male rape and homophobia. Everett argues that in Sembene’s Le docker noir and Bokoum’s Chaîne homoeroticism and homophobia work concomitantly in the dissemination of racialized masculinity, which “opposes a decadent European sexuality to a heteronormative, authentic African sexuality” (77). Chapter 7 opens the third, and perhaps most intriguing, section of Le Queer Impérial by expounding on European and African sexual commodification and exploitation in the postcolony in Tansi’s Je soussigné cardiaque and Sassine’s Mémoire d’une peau. Through these novels, Everett theorizes prostitution as a political and economic incentive in which African civil servants “offer themselves up to be exploited by other men” (128) and “the whore represents the most abundant natural resource of the postcolony” (138).

Throughout, Everett draws on her penetrating textual analyses of colonial and postcolonial literature in pioneering discussions of colonial rape and sadism (chapters 1 and 2), homoerotic fetishism (chapter 3), African masculinity and homophobia (chapter 4), the White gaze and postcolonial voyeurism (chapter 5), double consciousness (chapter 6), prostitution and imperial power (chapter 7), postcolonial discourses (chapter 8), and queerness in African postcolonial literature (chapter 9). An appreciable strength of these fertile considerations stems from Everett’s skill at engaging past and contemporary interlocutors of gender, race, and sexuality, including Achille Mbembe, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, Gayle S. Rubin, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. It is especially the latter two that Everett evokes in drawing clear distinctions between the frequently conflated definitions of homoeroticism, homosociality, and homosexuality. Avoiding the trap of reading all same-sex sexual object choices or desires as homosexuality, Everett instead digs into the cultural particulars of her study through homoeroticism because it predates the “invention” of homosexuality and more aptly considers a range of same-sex behaviors and attitudes not necessarily bound to self-identification or to the creation of a community “structured around a set of constantly developing sexual values” (18).

While Everett does not explicitly examine Caribbean narrative fiction in Le Queer Impérial, her study nonetheless offers many possible contributions to the field of Caribbean studies, including in her discussions of European colonization and in her critiques of the “postcolonial” as a “monolithic geo-political signified” (147). Building from Belinda Edmondson’s contention that the West Indies has long been ascribed a quality of “somewhere elseness,” Everett draws a striking comparison with the African postcolony, which, “like the West Indies, lies in-between the real and the imaginary” (147).1 This shared quality of discursive detachment further cleaves the postcolony, or the so-called third world, from the global North. This distinction becomes especially salient when considering prostitution in the postcolony as “an acting-out of imperial power on the bodies of the global south” (135). Everett’s in-depth discussion of prostitution in Africa as a form of “economic and class gratification” (129) offers an extension into the study of Caribbean sex work, complementing previous analyses, notably those by Kamala Kempadoo. In particular, Everett centers the “economic relationships between European adventurers and their male porters or houseboys” (131) as one form of “contracted domination” (129) between the colonizer and the colonized, thus offering an opening to consider homologous homoerotic relationships in the colonial Caribbean, a line of inquiry that has hitherto not been sufficiently investigated. Everett also explores the in-between space of the postcolony as “a location of gender-bending, of ambiguous eroticism, and of uncertain racial and national identities” (149). As such, Everett’s final chapters have implications for thinking through queerness and intersexuality as part and parcel of Caribbean cultural identity and driving forces of postcolonial Caribbean literature. To that end, her readings of the many slippages between masculine and feminine personas in postcolonial African literatures provide a compelling companion to studies of Caribbean gender-crossings, such as, for example, Charlotte Hammond’s recent Entangled Otherness: Cross-Gender Fabrications in the Francophone Caribbean (2018). Ultimately, through her work on Black Africa, Everett offers readers an opportunity to disturb the “unyielding taboo” (169) of imagining the queer Caribbean.

Le Queer Impérial more than succeeds in its aim to provide “a new approach to reading male homoerotic desire and domination in Francophone colonial and postcolonial texts” (6). By significantly advancing the fields of postcolonial studies and gender and sexuality studies to the often-neglected study of Black Africa, Everett’s kaleidoscopic analysis of homoeroticism paves the way for future transnational considerations. Perhaps one of the only features lacking here is a formal conclusion. While Everett’s insightful provocations throughout each of the book’s nine chapters may be enough for some readers to draw their own conclusions, others may regret not being directly guided to an opportunity to consider the far-reaching implications of the queer impérial formulation on new horizons. Nonetheless, Everett carefully mines each of the texts she studies as political and cultural documents as she works to correct the myopic and silencing work of hegemonic colonial and postcolonial discourses, especially relating to gender, sexuality, and race.

 

Ryan Joyce is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French and Italian and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Tulane University and is a Visiting Fellow at the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans. His research centers on queer writing, activism, and history in Haiti and the francophone circum-Caribbean. His work has appeared in Small Axe, The Black Scholar, and Women and Performance.

 


[1] Belinda Edmondson, Making Men: Gender, Literary Authority, and Women's Writing in Caribbean Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 20. 

 

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