The Caine Prize For African Writing 2017 Shortlist: A Dialogue With Arinze Ifeakandu

Arinze Ifeakandu (Nigeria) for ‘God’s Children Are Little Broken Things’ published in A Public Space 24 (A Public Space Literary Projects, Inc., USA. 2016). Arinze was the editor of The Muse (No. 44) at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he studied English and literature, graduating in 2016. In 2013, Arinze attended the Farafina Trust Creative Writing workshop and was shortlisted for the BN Poetry Prize in 2015. Arinze was a 2015 Emerging Writer fellow of A Public Space magazine, where his short story was published.

This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana  and Abuja, Nigeria, where the scent of rain is heavy in the air by Email.

Gaamangwe: So first, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Caine Prize award. How are you feeling about being part of the shortlist for the biggest award in Africa?

Arinze: Thank you, Gaamangwe. It feels surreal, honestly. I hoped I’d get shortlisted, but still do not feel like this is real, you know. As a writer and as a human, I feel excited because this is a step in the right direction. Since A Public Space published my story, I’ve been doing the psychological transitioning from A Guy Who Likes to Write to Writer. I know things like this shouldn’t define the way one views one’s craft, but the feeling of accomplishment, of even some small accomplishment, cannot be shaken off.

Gaamangwe: I can imagine. There is that long space where it feels like you are just A Guy Who Likes to Write because there is not this clarity on the exact time one can truly feel and claim that Writer title. I am happy for you, and also in awe of what you have created with this story. When you sat down to write this story, did you hope to accomplish something? And now as you re-read the work, what do you think you accomplished within and outside the story?

Arinze: It’s been three years since I wrote the first draft of this story, and so many details are already getting blurred. But I don’t remember setting out to accomplish anything. I had walked around with this story in me for so long, it just came out that way, voice and characters intact. Re-reading it, I am often in awe myself, and I hope this does not sound smug. But it happens often that one creates something and then looks at what they’ve created and wonders, “Did I really do this?” I feel that way sometimes, but particularly with this story. You should probably also know that so many times I also look at a story I’ve written and am full of self-disgust and shame and dissatisfaction.

I re-read parts of the story recently, and I was struck by the depth of tenderness. My mentor at A Public Space once said that he liked the way Lotanna observes that Kamsi tastes “…of nothing.” I am also struck by the way tenderness is shown in small gestures: Kamsi holds Lotanna’s hands, blows on them, in circles; Lotanna lifts Kamsi’s face and kisses him, hard and gentle. This is something that I am trying to replicate in my other stories. When I read other people’s works, I also look out for these small acts of tenderness.

I cannot say, really, what the story has achieved externally. But I’ve gotten messages from people who said the story made them feel all these emotions, so many people wanting to know what happened to Kamsi. A couple of people said they liked how the characters live in the centre of their universe, how their gayness is not relayed in relation to something else. I think this is a small and sweet accomplishment.

Gaamangwe: I wonder what is it about tenderness that strikes a chord in all of us? Because that tenderness is what stayed with me and what I carried for the whole day after reading. I recalled all of my moments of tenderness, and I wondered what it is about these moments of tenderness that feels so unbearably light? So mostly human, so more than human.

Arinze: I cannot place a finger on what it is about tenderness that ticks so much. I look at my baby brother, and I am full of such love, compact and complete, and it shows in the things I do for him. Tenderness makes me want to make him happy, see him smile, and I do those things.

Like the little boy I saw one hot afternoon. He is about to cross a really busy road, the sun is hot, and the littler girl walking with him lifts her arms. Without hesitating, he hoists her into his arms, carries her. Tenderness makes us vulnerable, and in that vulnerability we often let go of self, so that our joy becomes complete in the happiness of the other. I am very sentimental, and so it wouldn’t surprise me that many people will roll their eyes at this. But it matters so much to me, the tiny acts of love, and when I see them in stories, there is often this tiny moment when my heart melts, when I am awash in sweetness. I want to feel that sweetness every day, and so when I write, I try to re-create those little acts. It’s all so selfish, really.

Gaamangwe: I love that Arinze. Tiny acts of love matter. I would love to envelop myself with that kind of tenderness always. But sometimes life is some hours of heaviness, and then comes these swift, almost missable moment of pure love, and it’s this that makes us thrive through the heaviness.  But I think of Lotanna and Kamsi, and what their experience of each other says about love? The two had between them a whole lot of tenderness, some heaviness, some grief, and some horror. But there and everywhere is love.

Arinze: Kamsi and Lotanna found, in each other, something that most people will stumble through life, seeking. From the moment of their meeting, I want to imagine that something clicked, that their spirits called out to each other. However, life is full of conflicts, of these moments of “heaviness”, as you put it. That heaviness seems resident in Lotanna, because it is his backstory that we get to see. In the relationship between his parents, we see how much of our joylessness is self-inflicted. We see, also, how much misery we can cause for people we are supposed to love. These are points of heaviness that could be avoided, decided open; Lotanna’s mother could wake up one morning and walk out of that marriage, or not. It could make her happy, or not. I think Lotanna realizes that after what happens to his motherhe realizes among other things that life is full of so many uncontrollable variables, that he ought to make a decision on what he can control.

Kamsi seems more like the contained character, but he is actually the one, of the two, who receives the most heaviness on his person, personally. Lotanna’s running and returning and running again, and that alone cannot be easy to put up with. There is this moment when he just walks away, but from the very beginning he has been the pillow upon which Lotanna falls back in moments of great hurt. You know this thing when people say, in moments of grief and loss, that the pain is bearable because of a friend or a family member or a spouse. That one can find a place to cry freely, and be nurtured back to health, I think that is the tenderest of all tendernesses. And it can only spring from love.

Gaamangwe: That is the tenderest of all tendernesses! But Arinze, that the spring of love is also the spring of pain is a bind we, human, are trying to navigate. This love story is  a love story because of Lotanna and Kamsi, Lotanna and Rachel,  Lotanna and Dumebi, Lotanna and his mother, Lotanna and his fatherand  all these love stories cannot exist without the other.  I learnt that we cannot isolate our love experiences from each other, because all love springs from the same river, the same human. It is all so damn frustrating isn’t it? And all of that uncertainty! What choice did Lotanna really have in all that happened to him? How does all that happens morph into bondage that hold us hostages in all the other new moments and love stories?

Arinze: Watching people, I am subdued by the thought that our lives are mere repetition of our parents’ lives. Things that many saw, growing up in their grandparents’ house, they see those things play out in their parents’ own marriage. Similar low points, similar high points. It occurs to me, then, that even as we receive love from our families, we also carry so much baggage. You grow up in a family where love between father and mother has turned to spike, and you grow up acting out unconsciously the script of a person who sees love as transient, as something that you enjoy for a while until time mars it. You carry your parents failures with you. Only a leap of imagination and a decisive action can pull one from that kind of entanglement.

In this story, we feel Lotanna’s struggle with this baggage. So much is different in his entanglement with Kamsi and Rachael and his father’s many entanglements; and yet so much is similar.There is a point when he is fed up with everything and he confronts his father. A moment passes when he looks at his father and sees that they are in fact alike. A moment of revelation, troubling revelation. Of course he does not act on this revelation right-away. I also get a sense that his relationship with Kamsi is shadowed, consistently, by the dysfunction in his family.

All in all, I believe that one must exercise a level of self-determinism if one wants love, and by extension, happiness, to work.

Gaamangwe: How does one consistently exercise self-determinism though? Like you said we are merely spiral of entangled webs of experiences that stretch from our childhoods, our parents  and our ancestors. We don’t really know how deep our shadows go and how far they are from. But this is really troubling, because we do want to be different, to evolve and to untangle ourselves. And what of the other shadows that come from society? Especially when we think about sexuality and love. Doesn’t it seem that some times society’s shadows help creates our self-destruction and dysfunction?

Arinze: I remember talking to a guy, in my second year in university, about sexual orientation and self-acceptance. How old was I then? 18, 19? I was brimming with positive energy. How could he be happy if he kept running from who he was, from the love that is natural to him? I remember that in that small room darkened by shadows of coming rain he paused me, and there was a smirk in his eyes. “Do you believe that happiness is a choice?” he asked. Most certainly, was my reply. I remember that he looked away, briefly, shook his head. And then he told me of how, growing up, his mother took him to a psychologist to cure him from his effeminacy which, she believed, was a proof of his gayness. And then he talked about someone from our school who had committed suicide, there were a number of suicides, mind you; talked about how the guys parents had found out, how their reaction drove him to that extreme and final form of self-determination. He spoke at length and then, pausing, he asked, “How can I say I have chosen happiness when I cannot live freely, when people want to hurt me because of this?” He concluded: “Even though I’m into guys, I have chosen to be straight.”

Gaamangwe: This is heartbreaking. Here a young man, as do many young men, chooses the freedom of the body over the freedom of his soul. Society over himself.  I don’t know Arinze, this frustrates me. Pisses me off really. I remember my heart breaking when I read what Kamsi said about what the other guys wanted to do to him, to “beat the gay out of him”. There are other glimpses of this kind of violence in the story. What pulled you to this, and why do you think this came through in the story as it did?

Arinze: If I wrote that story without showing a glimpse of that violence, I believe my story would be incomplete and a tad dishonest. Still, I do not remember consciously sitting down and making the conscious decision to put that scene. Like many scenes and sections in the story, that one flowed out from what the story wanted, and I had other moments afterwards to reconsider. Ours is a country of false righteousness, of violent righteousness. We judge as evil the most inconsequential things, such as the love affair of two boys or two girls; we treat this inconsequential thing with utmost violence. And yet we lie on a daily basis, in our jobs and in our private lives, small lies and big lies, lies that have destabilized our families and our country. We shirk responsibility. We are mean to one another. Our righteousness lack the most basic element of goodness: Self-reflection. It is without question and without contradictoriness, and it is fragile, and wrong-headed. And so it becomes violent.

This is the world that Kamsi and Lotanna inhabit, a world in which a known thief is placed above the best homosexual citizen. It is only natural that their existence in the story reflects this reality. It is an important point of conflict in the story, and I would like to think that it served its purpose.

Gaamangwe: It did. I don’t understand self-righteous people. Homophobia is rife everywhere but lately I have become aware of how dangerous it is in some parts of Africa, especially in your country. It is really terrifying and heartbreaking. Are we not all deserving of love and free-will? But yes, this story is serving a purpose, because now we see how far we are and how much we need to work together to unlearn and relearn basic human rights.

On purpose, what purpose do you imagine for your stories? and for yourself as a writer?

Arinze: I could be modest and say that it’s perhaps too early to assign purpose to my work, but it’s too late in the night right now for pretense. Purpose, however, is a bit heavy-handed and can be limiting, no? I want my work to have wings and soar and touch as many lives as possible, to be enjoyed by people of all walks of life, of all sexual orientations. If birds could read, I’d love for my story to touch them. But when I started out writing these love stories as a teenager, I always had in my mind an image of a lonely gay boy lying on his chair, reading what I had written and getting it, totally getting it. I think my purpose would be to reach out to all those lonely and not lonely gay boys and girls all over the world, but first at home; for them to see, in my stories, something about themselves that is beautiful and worth living for.

Gaamangwe: ​Oh that is beautiful and really important. I wish you all the best with this Arinze, and the Caine Prize Award! Remember you are already doing your purpose. ​

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for The Caine Prize For African Writing 2017 Shortlists.

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