We meet author and activist
How many people engage with the world outside the west is one of DETACHEd stats that we 'sad react' to, but author Josh Scheinert sees differently.
After years of activist labour in the global south, Josh Scheinert's new book, The Order of Nature, tells the tale of Andrew, a young gay guy who volunteers in Gambia. But when he meets the charming local bartender Thomas, the two must navigate a landscape that positions their very love as verboten.
When same-sex activity is criminalised (still? I hear you shout) in over 72 countries, the project of LGBTQ+ liberation is one not anywhere close to realisation.
We spoke to Scheinert about how he wrote a book that confronts what it means when your existence is considered criminal and how we can work towards a more transnational LGBT+ activism.
What inspired you to write The Order of Nature?
I'm from Canada, and I lived in Gambia from 2010 to 2011 and had previously volunteered in Uganda so had spent quite a bit of time hiding my sexuality in countries where it was illegal. That inspired me when I came back to Canada and I started to write op-eds and connect with different activists within the global LGBT+ advocacy community. I was trying to find the best way for me to contribute to that project, and one thing I saw was missing - especially in North America - was the human aspect of the LGBTQ+ rights narrative abroad. So much of the discourse takes place in the abstract. You would talk about laws that exist to criminalise certain behaviours and prejudices, but nothing captured the individuals who live and are trapped in these societies who, unlike me, can't get up and leave.
I found the best way to remedy this was telling a story. How do you tell a story? You write a book. The genesis of the whole project was to write a book that was the most effective way to tell the story of what it means to live in these societies where it is not only legitimately illegal to be who you are, but to then have no real way out.
In terms of writing these characters, how did you seek inspiration for their experiences? You noted that while in Gambia you hid your sexuality, did this inspire or inform the characters? Or did you speak to locals about their experience of navigating this invisibility?
It's quite fictional. There's little direct experience of my own in the book, and when I was living there and being covert, there were a few expats who knew who I was but I was not trying to navigate Gambia as a closeted gay person as my sexuality was irrelevant. The experiences of the characters did not happen to me as I wasn't in their position.
How I came up with the characters is a product of much in the same way as a lot of authors formulate their characters: What's the setting? What am I trying to do with these characters? So you construct characters around that. For the authenticity factor, from living there I got to know people quite well. I made wonderful friends, and by teaching in a university there I met students. The characters in The Order of Nature are in the university age bracket. I had a lot of first-hand knowledge and experience of what it's like to be an early 20-something Gambian.
And what is that?
Saying that, we shouldn't say it's singular. What's it like to be a 20-something Gambian? They were living under a democratic dictatorship - the same guy got elected every five years - and when I was there, politically, you had to start to be more careful and hesitant about speaking your mind. Being more guarded despite being at this age when you knew that your society was a little different, especially in terms of government and the types of freedoms you were given. It's a difficult question to answer, it's very stratified.
One thing I picked-up from the feedback of the book is that the reception focused on what the aims of the author of the book could be. What were your aims? One reviewer noted that the text works to expose “the reader to a world where individual freedom is at a premium.”
I think I would agree. One thing that is a frustration of mine is, before I started writing the book, was when I would have conversations or hear people talking about LGBTQ+ rights abroad and people would say, "those countries will get there". Places like Kenya or Uganda, they're just behind where we are in the west. In one sense, maybe that's true, but on the other hand, while we're "waiting" for this to happen, I want you, the reader or you, the societal commentator, to at least know what the costs are of "waiting". The main Gambian character is Thomas, so, what does it mean for Thomas while we "wait"? The objective was to take an issue that so many engage with in abstract and humanise it. The book is no political manifesto. The aim of good fiction is that the reader comes away with a new perspective that they didn't necessarily know was there before.
At its core, this is a book of how we accept our neighbours. How we treat our kin and that it being set in Gambia adds a unique layer to it that sets it apart in certain respects. There's a universal thread woven in the story.
from speaking to people who have read the book, has anyone been inspired to take action?
I'll tell you about a Gambian who read the book. A number have picked-up the book and one piece of feedback I received was that the book was traumatic to read because it brought home to this individual what it meant to live in a society where they had been conditioned to be indifferent of the suffering and plight of queer people in the country. If there's a shock value that wakes people up to look inwards and say, "Is this who I am?" then that would be a tremendous reaction.
The level of vitriol in Gambia is terrible. You can't exist as openly queer without being in danger. What I find interesting on a human-level, is that you have Gambians who I have nothing but fond memories of, but you take those same people and when it comes to this one issue you flick a switch. If this book can in any way contribute to a conversation that shines a light on that contradiction that would be great. It's the universal question of prejudice.
How can individuals in the GLOBAL NORTH LGBT+ community do more to engage with human rights of queer people globally?
One of the things that enabled me to write this book was connecting with global LGBTQ+ activities around the world. I have friends in Uganda who work for various civil society groups. When we were in India we befriended people in the community there who had been battling against the laws, so, there are amazing organisations both in our own countries and the global south that are working on this issue. Connecting with this strong foundation of activist community when it comes to engaging with this issue in the global south.
One of the best things the global north can do is listen. It was very interesting being Canadian as around the time the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill was coming into the news for the first time, to much credit to Canada's Foreign Minister of the time spoke out forcefully against the bill to call out and make public the issue of the bill. What that did was that it put the Ugandan government and the individuals working on the bill into a very defence position in the spotlight.
What they didn't want to be seen back home was caving into Western pressures, so, they entrenched their positionality even more deeply as they didn't want to look as if the Canadians forced them to alter their values. What the Canadian government did was they changed their approach and stopped making public, forceful statements. But what they did do was work behind the scenes with Ugandan activists and aid in building civil society organisations.
I bring that up to illustrate that we can all have good intentions and want to help, but if we're not listening to and connecting with the people on the ground who live this existence, then there's a chance our actions may not be productive or even counter-productive.
You can order The Order of Nature here.
AUTHOR: JOSH MILTON