No happy endings in Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s novel, “Blessings” – Sale Tamani

Blessings by Chukuebuka Ibeh is a tender and engaging queer novel published by Masobe Books and released on 7th March 2024.

Obiefuna is the much-wanted first child of Anozie and Uzoamaka. His mother had suffered several miscarriages before he was born only to find herself pregnant again with Obiefuna’s brother less than two years after his birth.

Ekene is the outgoing child, neatly fitting in with the other kids, while Obiefuna is seen as “abnormal” from a young age. Growing up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, he is teased by the other boys when he goes to play football with his brother. They think they can sense his innate femininity.

He’s not safe from ridicule at home either. After winning all the dance prizes at a family party, his father Anozie makes to whip him with his belt. “Are you a woman in a man’s skin?” he asks. Obiefuna’s mother steps in to stop her husband. Watching her son dance, she is “convinced that there was nothing remotely closer to perfection.”

Earlier in the novel, Anozie had stumbled upon Obiefuna and Aboy, the apprentice at the family’s business, in a clinch. Anozie’s response was to pack his son off to a strict Christian all-boys boarding school miles away in Owerri.

It’s a bleak place, where “he learned to stay out of the way of seniors: never look them in the eye, cross to the other path when they were sighted, never even smile.”

First love, first enmity and first rivalry follow, along with the first steps towards a sense of identity. Obiefuna’s mother, Uzoamaka, is caught between caution and maternal support, womanly ambition and the price of marriage to a dogmatic man. Comforting her son after her husband’s rage, “she held his head to her breast his temperature was rising and felt her blood rise to her head from rage.”

An emotive, affecting debut.

Blessings is marked by the political underpinning of the story.

Homosexuality is not just misunderstood, feared or loathed – it is criminalised, and this element of state repression adds a pressing risk. Everything Obiefuna does, feels and wants is marked by the government as forbidden, and it’s moving to read about his struggles as his horizons narrow and loneliness sets in.

Wistfully watching footage of an American man proposing to his partner after gay marriage is legalised, one of Obiefuna’s friends asks: “When will we get this?’… a look of animated longing in her eyes.”

As Obiefuna matures, leaving school to attend university, the novel also steps up a gear, taking on a more overtly political stance. Now in 2014, the action takes place as Nigeria has officially criminalised same-sex unions. A few months later, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducts schoolgirls in the north and after a long absence, Obiefuna goes home to see his father.

“There’s even a law now against it. You could go to prison for doing this,” he warns his son.

“I’ve been imprisoned all my life, Daddy,” is Obiefuna’s response.

This time Obiefuna’s father, slowed by age, doesn’t try to hit his son. Instead Obiefuna walks out of the house, into the open air. He jogs around the streets of his childhood, and then in the novel’s final moments returns to his father’s house, bold enough now to stand up to criticism, to face pain head-on.

Obiefuna’s strategies for survival largely consist of passivity, compliance, patience and conformity. Obiefuna’s life expands as he finds an alternative “chosen family” and is forced to engage with the weaponisation of queerness by the Nigerian political class. But so much of this story is actually about Obiefuna’s attempts at stillness and invisibility, as he does the expedient thing betraying other queer friends and keeping the secrets of dubious authority figures to ensure that people do not “figure out” who he is.

It will be painfully recognisable to many marginalised people that Obiefuna’s arc is dominated by his continuation of the campaign of erasure his father initiated against him. As such, in a novel of secrecy, silences and silencing, Ibeh’s sentences throughout are fastidiously pruned.

Ibeh delivers his story in beautifully understated prose, Obiefuna is drawn with compassion and sensitivity, engaging our sympathy as he contends with heartache, fear and humiliation. There can be no happy endings here, as Ibeh makes clear, but as his moving, empathetic novel draws to its conclusion there is the possibility of hope, at least for Obiefuna.


Tamani Tatiana Sale writes from Jos. She writes about everything that trembles and softens her heart. She can be reached on twitter @Tatiana_tamani 



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