/ 17 June 2024

Kobby Ben Ben on breaking the queer ceiling

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Brave: Ghanaian author Kobby Ben Ben was at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival. His first novel No One Dies Yet has queer themes but it also contains broader social commentary.

When you read No One Dies Yet, the writer is trying to say, ‘I know what you want,’” says Ghanaian author Kobby Ben Ben, as he explains his approach to writing over breakfast in Rosebank, Johannesburg. “You want to get to the murder. You want to know who died — but there are more important things than the murder …”

Ben Ben started writing No One Dies Yet, his debut novel, in 2020 when the world was oppressed by a pandemic. Part of it was written during his long-term quarantine in Ghana, after being one of the first people to contract the virus. 

The book itself, however, is set a year earlier — The Year of Return. 

This was a major campaign by the Ghanaian government to commemorate 400 years since the first documentation of slaves in the US. As part of it, descendants of enslaved Africans were invited to visit Ghana and to celebrate its culture and heritage. 

The campaign attracted mostly African-Americans, who poured wealth into Ghana’s tourism industry.

It was a positive image for Ghana — but that’s not the story Ben Ben sought to tell about it. 

Instead, No One Dies Yet is a raw, personal and literary experience that doesn’t follow a linear trope but meanders through the dense political climate of Ghana to the underground queer scene in the country’s capital, Accra, through three gay African-Americans and their two local guides — one of which Ben Ben named after himself.

Without giving away too much, it’s a murder mystery carried along by quick, witty dialogue, imperfect scenes written perfectly and a story­line that provides golden nuggets of literary invention and genuineness from page one, from: “Independence came and left. Colonisation left and came. Harry came and left. It was we who killed Harry,” to the words on the final page: “You’re not a vessel, Kobby,” Vincent had responded. “If you were, they’d let you know where to send these bodies. But this, this, could be your leg in the door!”

Ben Ben says it was his intention to write a book with flawed gay characters and an anti-hero trope.

“I don’t think there is a book — even in Africa — that writes queer characters to be human, to be flawed. 

“You have these queer characters that fit these media-friendly narratives, like, the queer characters are so sad you want to give them their rights — those kinds. 

“I didn’t want to write a queer character like that,” he said. 

“I can be good, I can be bad, I can also be grey. All humans are in that grey area. We have bad thoughts, we have good thoughts — that’s what makes us human. 

“I never wanted to write a character that was palatable to the Western audience — they are kind, they are nice, we are rooting for them. I love writing anti-heroes, by the way,” he says.

Ben Ben’s book was released in August, months before Ghana passed draconian anti-gay laws, and, as expected, it was not as well received in a country that seeks to oppress and erase gayness. 

But Ben Ben emphasised that, while it contains graphic queer elements, it has so much more.

“The sad thing about that is the book is just 10% queer. I’m more driven by the socialist issues I bring up about how the government is using the local, second-class citizens at the expense of this big Year of Return programme. 

“Those are my main points. That’s what’s driving the book. 

“The sex bits are just there to make readers know that we are queer people and this is the kind of sex we have. 

“People who read the sex bits are, like, ‘Oh my god, Kobby, why would you write a book like this?’ Why wouldn’t I write a book like this?”

Ben Ben pauses and resumes.

“Do you know how brave it is to be a Ghanaian in this current homophobic climate and write about queer issues? Do you even know? 

“People don’t actually think African queer people have sex — or exist. So, me, writing a book that centres queer pleasure … I wrote before that and the bill — and Ghana is passing one of the harshest homophobic bills on the continent,” he says.

Ben Ben says people who know about it, but haven’t read it, call it the “gay-sex” book which, to him, is more of an indication of the reading culture in Ghana than it is  about his novel — or him.

Our conversation, like his book and his personality, meanders through different topics and is sprinkled with endearing facts about the author.

Reading has been big in Ben Ben’s life since he was a child. His mother would “beat him” to get him to read but he is forgiving towards her because it gave him the wings to write with freedom. 

He shared that his surname is actually Bembe and Ben Ben is a pet name his mother gave him. He uses Ben Ben on his books, so his father doesn’t find out he is writing queer novels. He is forgiving towards his father too.

After coming to South Africa to attend various book events, including the Franschhoek Literary Festival and Kingsmead Book Fair in Johannesburg, Ben Ben says the freedom in South Africa reminded him about the oppression in Ghana.

No One Dies Yet (1)

“The thing with our context is, you don’t realise you are being oppressed until you do something that makes you free. I have learnt to live with oppression so much that it feels normal.

“I will miss kissing men in public, oh my god. I did that in Cape Town. It really changed my life. Just being able to do that,” he says with evident enthusiasm.

His personal life experiences are blended into the book and Ben Ben says some of the characters are loosely based on people he knows.

“I wanted to create these characters with unique, interesting lives that were far from what the African-Americans were experiencing …

“[People] see a book that is queer and they expect the queer narrative to be bigger than the other things but there are more things than queerness,” he says.

“I never wanted a book where queerness was the main plot — that’s just so lazy — because, as queer people, we have so many things hitting us from different angles,” he says. 

“So, as a human being, I could not just write a novel and that’s the thing about novels — it’s not a memoir, so you can only just depict an aspect of someone’s life and roll with that story, but for me, beyond the novel I can’t forget social commentary. 

“It’s more social commentary than novel to me, despite the fact that it’s fiction. It’s still more social commentary. There may be a plot in it, but there are still these issues I want to talk about.”

Ben Ben shares another bit of insider information — he wrote the entire novel on his phone.

“It was so easy for me because, I mean, first of all I am not a fast typer, so I am comfortable, but also the fact that, when I am writing on my phone, the text seems intimate when I am editing it. It’s so close to me that I can look at it and alter it the way I want.

“Every word is personally, intimately chosen. 

“It was right in my face, so I just felt like it would be nice because I could tweak the sentence and make it look this way. No sentence was left to chance.”

Ben Ben didn’t write No One Dies Yet with a specific reader in mind, and says because of the multi-layered nature of the book, there are things that everyone can relate to.

“I really did not have a target audience when writing this book. I wanted to represent diverse interests and diverse issues in the country.

“A lot of the time, the alleys and the roads are more beautiful than the destination. 

“I can tell you that, at the end of the novel, this is who died, but like, we need to get to the things that cause the tensions, the things that cause the rivalries between these characters. What caused the killing?”

And that’s exactly the journey No One Dies Yet will take you on.