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An Epiphanic Journey of Self-Discovery: A Review of Unoma Azuah’s Embracing My Shadow

By Darlington Chibueze Anuonye


Thursday, December 23, 2021.

People who have been chased by monstrous creatures in their dream often describe the experience as a nightmare. But even a nightmare is not as haunting as the persistent pursuit by one’s shadow. People who are chased by their shadow mostly end up muted by the resultant trauma. A few of them transcend the imposition of silence and speak in the language of freedom. Unoma Azuah belongs to the latter group.

Born a year before the end of the Nigerian Civil War, Azuah is a witness to the destructive inclination of a brutal world. Her childhood, marked by constant negotiations between life and death, was a conscious act of self-preservation. Not only did her experience of the war expose her to the cruelty of the world, her personal life, which seemed not to conform to the cultural expectation of her family and community, deepened the sense of fragility that characterized her life until adulthood, a tension that powers her 228 pages memoir, Embracing My Shadow, published by Beaten Track Publishing, Burscough, Lancashire.     

Embracing My Shadow opens with the confession: “I had sinned” and then proceeds to describe the sweetness of the transgression. In that moment of pleasure, Star, Azuah’s schoolmate, becomes the fulfillment of her deepest sexual aspiration. Why, then, does she confess something she enjoyed, something she would return to? Perhaps this is one of the doors through which we could access Azuah’s queer life. 

The queer body has been misidentified as the other. This stereotype is on the one hand deepened by the religious and patriarchal hegemony of the Nigerian society and on the other hand by the inadequate documentation of queer lives in Nigeria. From a naïve young girl confessing her sins before a demeaning priest curious to hear the details of the sexual fantasies of two lesbian partners to a brave woman aware and proud of her queerness, Azuah’s account of her life extends the possibility of visibility and inclusion to queer people in Nigeria and beyond. She does not write to debate her life, she simply shows us herself; she does not explain her life to us, she only narrates it, asserting her Nigerianness and her lesbianism, both of which she insists are valid identities.

Embracing My Shadow is an important book, not only because it is the first nonfiction account of a Nigerian lesbian, but also because it combines the aesthetics of creative writing with the fact of history to reveal the intricacy of the author’s private life and its implication for the Nigerian society. It documents one woman’s attempt to reconcile with her shadow, a part of her that she must reclaim and nurture, in spite of the tensions that exist between her public and private selves. The memoir highlights the problem of identity and reveals the complexity of human nature. Azuah’s journey of self-discovery is a useful precedent for Nigerian queer girls and women drowned in the stereotype which society creates around them, a deviation from their true selves.

Azuah possesses a fascinating personality, and this is why her private life has an immense social and political resonance. The product of an obligatory marriage between a Nigerian soldier and a young Igbo woman, Azuah inherits the complications of her parents’ union. Their marriage not only reminds us of the unpredictability of war, it also underscores the enormity of intertribal sexual relationships during the war. Some of these relationships, contractual and abusive as they were, helped to preserve some Igbo lives, as most of the Nigerian soldiers married to Igbo women felt compelled to obey the call of family and blood rather than that of the nation. And, for many of the soldiers who were already disillusioned either by the lack of empathy of the political class or by the shared misfortune of the victor and the vanquished, it was possible to defy a callous nation. However, most of these sexual relationships marked the rape of the Igbo nation. Azuah’s account of how her mother escaped the clutch of a sexual predator, a Nigerian soldier bent on raping her, points to the collective victimhood of Igbo girls and women during the war:

“So you can run,” another [soldier] said. He cupped my breast with a smirk. “You can run with these big things,” he said jiggling them. However, another, a tall, good-looking one, told them to stop. They were surprised at his reaction, and they bragged about how they had many girls, even those who willingly offered themselves to them to save their families. 

Embracing My Shadows invites us to ponder on the atrocious massacre of millions of lives from 1966 to 1970 in Nigeria. The weaponization of rape during the war, as Azauh reveals, is one tragic aspect that is often ignored in the Nigerian-Biafra war discourse. The vile soldiers show that war is a thriving industry for some people. Their lives remind us of Anna Fierling in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Think of that character’s determination to make a living from the war, her disappointment whenever she hears the war is about ending, her lack of empathy for the victims of the war and you would be shocked by such unspeakable aridity of feelings. But the loss of all her children to the very war she fights to prolong and the eventual collapse of her empire should stir us to re-imagine our notion of courage.

The resonating account of human empathy in the face of hostilities, the mining of overlapping emotions, the echoic rendition of a war orchestrated and sustained by greed, ego and tribal sentiments—all of these demonstrate the ingenuity of Azuah’s imagination. Also, for situating queer love firmly in the midst of conflicted desires, war and the diachronic movement of time, Azuah’s memoir is a testament of hope for lovers whose relationship suffer homophobic hostilities.

To think about the human predicament is to carry a yoke that could break your back. But for Azauh, it is better to know that the pain she feels is a result of the human burden she carries than the silence she accumulates. For her also, to confront the queer condition is to be immersed in the finality of the human struggle, to elevate herself beyond the confines of invisibility, to familiarise herself with the delight of mental wholeness, a feeling so viscerally powerful.    

Embracing My Shadow: Growing Up A Lesbian in Nigeria

Author: Unoma Azuah

Publisher: Beaten Track Publishing, Burscough, Lancashire, UK.

DARLINGTON CHIBUEZE ANUONYE is a literary conversationist and writer. He is editor of The Good Teacher, an anthology of essays that documents the lives and achievements of teachers from the perspectives of their students, curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction and editor of the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. His writings have appeared in Brittle Paper, Black Boy Review, Eunoia Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Praxis Magazine and elsewhere. He is a review correspondent for Praxis Magazine. 



A Review of Unoma Azuah’s Embracing My Shadow

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