It’s great to have a conversation with you. Have you been well?
I have been well, doing my best, thanks for asking. Hope you’ve been well?
1)Yes, very well thank you. I received news of your forthcoming book with enthusiasm. Congratulations. How do you feel about your forthcoming debut collection?
Thank you. I feel expectant. I just started working with my editor on it, and even the process, the work involved, it feels good.
2) You said in a tweet, that you started the stories in your collection as a boy, and finished as a man. Are there elements of “yourself” in the stories? You know how people say “ we are what we write.”
It’s a debut, of course it’s autobiographical! Seriously, though, there are parts of me in the book but those parts are not so much autobiographical as they are spiritual. I wrote the first story when I was seventeen—it wasn’t “God’s Children are Little Broken Things”—a story that has gone through at least two or three re-writes. The story-line remains the same, but the handling of the emotional stakes changes with each draft. What we have there is my interpretation of—my—experience over years, at first innocently hopeful, then skeptical, then a little patient, I hope.
3) It’s been a couple of years or thereabouts since you relocated to the United States. What has changed in your perceptions as a writer, if any?
I have had to make a case to myself for emotional writing, for vulnerability. People here worry about sentimentality, and this is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I cannot use cheap emotion as a distraction for what’s lacking and therefore have to challenge myself, a curse because many young writers are then afraid to be vulnerable. Allowing expressiveness, which comes naturally to me, to flourish, while learning to hold back when necessary, that’s one way I have grown as a writer here.
4) What is urgent about Queer Love as a major theme in your writing?
Love, as a thing in the world, is a major theme in my writing. Love of self, of family, of friends, and partners. Queer love would naturally be central in my work because I am gay, and because I long. In primary school, my classmates would buy notebooks and ask me to fill them up with stories and illustrations, which I did happily—the pleasure on their faces as they read what I’d written and drawn, their excited prattling about what they’d read, made me feel warm all over, and I knew I wanted to do this forever. By the time I was a senior in secondary school, I’d stopped drawing comics, had begun writing longer ‘novels’ with very gay stuff: I’d sit in class during break and write, feeling entertained, creating loves I wished I had. I was reluctant to share these stories with my classmates, had stopped sharing stuff with my mum and uncle long before, as my written stories became gayer; and yet when I allowed my classmates take my pages home, their responses were almost uniformly one of curiosity: Why did this boy dump his boyfriend? That was unfair. What happened to their mum? This, from guys who on a normal day used homophobic taunts as whips and walls. Years later, when I began to know other queer people and readers, seeing the way they relished the love stories, that solidified it for me. I learned then of the power of stories to touch, to move us beyond our regular, simpler impulses, to remind us that we were not alone, that we are real, and my ambition ever since has been to write books that move, that show life at its starkest beauty and ugliness, and to place tenderness at the center of it all, making it very, very queer.
5) Which do you miss more about Nsukka, The Writers’ Community or your choir rehearsals?
Ah, Ada, you want to cause fight! That’s a very interesting and difficult question: I miss both differently yet equally, I know that seems impossible but it feels true. I miss choir for the bus trips and the singing and the concerts and carols and my close friends with whom, walking home after rehearsals or Service, I would sometimes sing on the road; I miss our radical acceptance of one another. I miss The Writers’ Community for the dreams we shared, for the conversations about writing, the fun; for Discourse Tour with the bonfire and stories and chill, sometimes passionate, arguments resolved with hearty laughter, for our support of one another; I loved that homophobes could not stand the group and so left, loved that people who had been homophobic stayed back and became our biggest allies, that the second group was larger: I miss the queer people who made that possible.
6) Arii, I have known you as someone who is never subtle with issues of queer persecution, kitoing to be precise. And I know you have had your fair share of suffering as a queer person, more so because you grew up in Nigeria. Does writing help you heal from those experiences? Can writing be a form of therapy?
Writing has helped me think through my issues as well as offered some escape. The older I get, though, it becomes clearer to me that real healing will have to happen—largely—outside of writing.
7) What do you think is the most essential ingredient of a good story?
It changes every other year, every other moment. Right now, ‘understanding’ feels like the most essential thing. A good story is not afraid to confront evil, neither is it afraid of good, of beauty. It simply understands, accepts, confronts; it shines a light on the world and we see everything clearly, it holds a mirror under that light, and in it we are all reflected, even if in varying tones and degrees.
8) I have heard a lot of young writers doubt themselves. They wonder if they are doing it well, they worry if anyone would ever read them and if anyone would like their writing after reading them. Did you ever feel that way? And do you think doubt is important in the journey of becoming a writer?
Doubt is a fact of life, and we all experience it. Maybe Putin doesn’t have it (I think he does!) but most of us do. I do not know if it is necessary for growth, but tackling it is. Crippling doubt is a different monster. I’ve had crippling doubt in other aspects of my life but not with writing, and this has something to do with the things I heard growing up, from family, my community, and especially my teachers in secondary school, about me as a student, choirboy, writer. My writing doubts are like small masquerades, they freak me out a little, make me push myself, but they do not immobilize me. Other doubts do that. Some people have deeper doubts about writing: in the areas of my life where my doubt seeks to immobilize me, I try to be honest with myself, to work on myself, to learn and to grow, I try to accept what must be accepted and change what has to change, to take risks in spite of fear and to forgive myself when I fail or ‘chicken out.’
9) Do you think it is necessary that all queer people come out publicly?
Coming out is a very powerful act of asserting oneself, and very necessary. We should not have to come out, but to get to that place, more people will have to: it’s absurd and true. But it’s an act that requires compassion, for others and for oneself, as it can be a very dangerous act for many, especially for the poorest among us. People are coming out already, though, and supporting one another because that is very important, support systems, a radical feeling of community backed by solid acts of care.
10) If you have the power to change one thing about the world, what will you do?
I would eradicate suffering.
Thank you so much for your time. I must admit that every moment of the conversation was blissful.
Thank you, Ada. It’s always wonderful talking to you.