What it Means to Be a Man: A Dialogue with Vincent Anioke

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A MAN

A DIALOGUE WITH VINCENT ANIOKE

Vincent Anioke was born and raised in Nigeria, studied Computer Science at MIT in the United States, and now lives in Canada. By day, he is a software engineer. By night, he voraciously reads and writes short stories. 

His work has appeared or is forthcoming in literary journals such as Carve, Split Lip Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Callaloo, among others. He is currently working on his debut anthology.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Ontario, Canada, and Kampala, Uganda, via email.

Vincent’s story, “Ogbuefi,” is about a boy who is intensely reckoning with what it means to be a man as defined by various societal forces in his life; he considers how his early poems (“terrible by any standards of craft”) gave him an appreciation for language’s power to absorb and reflect genuine emotion, the sacred and personal covenant between a book and its reader, the conflation of masculinity with violence, and how reality intersperses with fiction.

Davina: You said you entered Ogbuefi into the Commonwealth Short Story Prize because the prize is one of a kind, and truly global. 

Ogbuefi is set against a decidedly local backdrop – a communal village ceremony – and opens with Chibuike curled up on the carpet, watching dancing and singing mice on the telly. Chibuike’s father announces that Chibuike will become an Ogbuefi that weekend. 

Later, in bed and unable to sleep, Chibuike recalls when, two weeks past, frightened by lightning and thunder, he sought refuge within his parents’ room—in the space between their warm bodies. He is awakened by his father before dawn and told that a boy becomes a man by trying.

The language with which you describe the events leading up to that momentous weekend is characteristic of poetry—old winds; air-stealing stenches; baby-mooned clippings. Do you write (or intend to write) poetry, too?

Vincent: I briefly dabbled in poetry during my teenage years at a Nigerian boarding school, during which, newly separated from home by hundreds of miles, I experienced a bout of loneliness and depression. My poems then were quite abstract and melancholy and certainly terrible by any standards of craft, but they did give me an appreciation for language’s power to absorb and reflect genuine emotion. These days, I read short stories alongside poetry, even if I no longer write “poems”. Well-placed lyrical prose can often feel luminous, adding color and dimension to a character’s state of being. 

Chibuike is seven, which limits his own degree of verbal expressiveness but does nothing to dull the intensity of all that he observes, the subconscious associations he makes, both small (how a toenail can resemble a baby moon) and large (how rage, like his in the climax, can feel like a swiftly growing flame). 

Poetic language allows me to render his inner state, a child’s but no less powerful than any adult’s, with greater weight. I’m curious–what are the effects of these poetry-like segments on your reading of the piece? You also mentioned writing both poetry and short stories; does this ever result in a synthesis for you, where segments of your short story are detailed by your inner poet?

Davina: While reading a poem, I’m heavily invested in how it makes me feel. So what some of the poetry-like segments do for me is to call up emotional states that are informed by relationships I have with words or things. My affective reaction to the frangipani tree in your story is informed by my relationship with a certain frangipani tree that’s close to a section of road along which I take long, leisurely walks. (Apologies if that’s not a deep-enough response!)

I want more of the synthesis you mentioned. I want to write more “poetic prose,” although, sometimes, when I ask myself what that means, I don’t always have a ready answer. Do I want more “feeling,” more “language,” more “musicality,” more “economy?”

What I look for in poetry isn’t what I look for in short stories. Consequently, one of the most difficult questions for me to answer remains “what do you think this poem means?” To me, that’s never the point. There are many poems I love, which make me feel a certain way, whose “meaning” I’m still unclear about. No matter how long such poems are, re-reading them when I’m having a bad day brightens my mood. On the other hand, I would never think to re-read a beloved short story when I’m having a bad day. 

My friends and I will squabble for days about what a short story “means.” But as far as poetry is concerned, I’ll say “does it have to mean something, now, today? Couldn’t we wait till tomorrow or next week or never to find out?” Perhaps this is why I prefer to read poetry that defies and resists [my] interpretations.

And, look, I don’t want to be the writer that writes above people’s heads. I’m not interested in being vague just because. Is there any pleasure in that? I want to connect, and I want my readers to be able to make meaning of what I’ve written, but perhaps I don’t necessarily want that to be the most important thing. Please tell me this is making as much sense to you as it’s making in my head.

Vincent: What you said makes perfect sense. For me, poetry inhabits the same emotionally transportational space as my favorite songs. Interestingly though, I find that I can return to short stories for comfort as often as I can poetry or music. This functional divergence between us reminds me of the different ways we engage with various art forms, and how that extends a conversation about writing’s range of affective possibilities.

It is tricky to specify from the outset poetry’s role in the stories I write. Often, lyrical lines manifest themselves during the subconscious creation process, when I’m fully in that magical zone where the walls and furniture of my office have vanished and I’m wading through the universe of a character’s headspace. Words arise subconsciously; only after the fact, during the revision process, do I think to myself, “I feel like this line sings” or “This paragraph resonates emotionally”. There is a (not total) degree of non-deliberateness to these poetry-like segments. 

What you said about poems often defying meaning reminds me of listening to Phoebe Bridger’s melancholy album, Punisher, a space I return to often for comfort. Some lyrics are confounding—though not intentionally, I suspect—but they still sit deep within my stomach and move me. It’s all I ever ask for with any writing form, even a short story. 

Davina: Oh, and I must add that I loved the ending. It’s possibly my favourite part of Ogbuefi. How you circled back to the frangipani tree. It was unexpected. (Unexpected to me, is what I meant; I’m assuming you knew the whole time that that’s how it would end.)

Vincent: I’m so glad to hear that you love how Ogbuefi ends. It’s my favorite part of the piece as well, the way everything builds and transforms Chibuike for the worse, and the complicity of both parents, though arguably to different extents, in this change.

Davina: Things worsen for Chibuike because he doesn’t try hard enough. After that initial blow of the machete is delivered, he folds. It is simply too much for him to have to watch Solomon’s throat gaping at him. He wants nothing more to do with the ceremony. He wants home. He wants his mother. He bolts. 

In the privacy of their home, Chibuike’s father is finally able to express his rage. He screams, speaking of shame and calling Chibuike a coward. Before he storms away, he asks Chibuike’s mother to talk to “her son.”

The idea that as soon as a child misbehaves – or does things that are considered disgraceful or shameful, things that offend cultural sensibilities or hurt reputations – ownership of said child immediately transfers to the mother (pending re-transfer to the father after the child has once again adopted more respectable behaviour) – is one to which I relate on several levels; this idea is closely woven into a certain kind of “good parent/bad parent” routine that’s common here. 

The way you work this idea in, though—having the father remind the mother that she wanted three children, as if to say, “well, and look where that got us!”—that was clever. Sometimes, the line between representing things as they are, saying “this is actually what happened; these are the concrete fictional facts,” and perpetuating stereotypical representations is thin, and easy to cross. I worry about crossing this line all the time. Do you worry about this, too?

Vincent: Absolutely. I’m reminded of the Stephen King quote: “Sometimes, murderers help old ladies cross the street”. The danger I reminded myself of as I wrote Ogbuefi was that Chibuike’s father was like so many fathers I knew. Fathers who treat their children as trophies and pounce on their shameful moments like tigers and often revel in an infuriating inflexibility. Putting such a man on the page risked over-simplifying his nature. 

Therefore, at some point during the ceremony, I wanted Chibuike to believe in his own capability by virtue of his father. Chibuike’s legs grow solid beneath him. He tells himself he can become an Ogbuefi. This is a direct result of the briefly tender moment in which his father crouches and holds him and tells him gently that he can do it. The hard-shelled man found a softness with which to strengthen his son. I also imagine that Chibuike’s father displays variations of warmth and affection to his other “pride-worthy” sons. Chibuike, being deemed “at risk” for maturity, is mostly locked out of this side of his father. 

Davina: The part where Chibuike’s mother is clipping his toe-nails, and he’s musing about how she once belonged to him but now mostly belongs to the house, made me chuckle. What a coincidence, I thought. One of my short stories closes with a poem about a house with, among other things, boards to tame the restless mice; a house that’s apparently now ready for a woman—a quickfooted but homesteady woman—to be brought to it.

“The universality of gendered expectations never ceases to surprise me. The relationship you highlighted between physical appearance and perceived masculinity strikes me as another way stereotypical manhood is built on suppressing parts of self, on existing only within socially-mediated pre-configurations.

As you so rightly put it: “at the end of the day despite language or country of origin, we are all one.” This thing called humanity is a shared thing. We are in one or another way thinking similar thoughts and/or exploring similar subjects. The idea that we may often occupy similar mental positions while inhabiting different geographical spaces—that idea that someone out there is, as it were, reading my mind—comforts me. That tendency towards telepathy is what I find most pleasurable about reading.

What do you find most pleasurable about your reading experiences? Do you adhere to any rules of etiquette? I’m the reader that underlines sentences and writes notes and comments in the margins. So, I try to ensure that my friends read my books before I do, otherwise they complain and accuse me of having “bad manners.” I would never use a book as a doorstopper (my bad manners have limits), so I don’t see why I shouldn’t at least be allowed to fold every page that contains magic. 

Vincent: The covenant between book and reader is sacred and personal, so you should be allowed to highlight and circle and fold and even doodle characters on every page to your heart’s content. I’m one of those annoying folks that relishes the “new book” smell each time I hold one. I’ll trace my fingers over the cover, flip through the fresh-inked pages, and inhale. I’ve been growing a physical library of fiction and non-fiction, but with bookstores closed and Amazon shipping times often finicky during the pandemic, I’ve been more prone to e-books. They’re helpful in their own way. I can look up unfamiliar words on the spot, for instance.

The greatest pleasure I find with reading is its ability to displace me. Not just across space or time, but into a whole new being. The vividness of a fully-realized life in a story is akin to wearing new skin, to walking the rain-drenched cobblestones of their town, to reliving the pains and pleasures of their childhoods, to indulging with great understanding in their self-destructive habits. At its height, reading can feel like such a spoil, like continuously gulping such sensory details in such volume should be some kind of sin. 

But for all the convergence reading affords me with a fictional being (a being that nevertheless indisputably exists), I find that reading’s artistic power comes from the moments of divergence–when a character surprises me, when their paths take unexpected turns, when they reveal some history that adds to mine, expands mine, makes me feel like I’ve learned just a tiny bit more, about human nature, about the world, about the capabilities of self. This harkens to my belief that reading stories is crucial because it makes the unknown known. 

Davina: There’s a moment when Chibuike and his family are eating dinner and Nonso, Chibuike’s brother, is talking about the black eye he gave to Victor, an older student who tried to make Nonso wash his clothes. Chibuike’s father laughs; in fact, he is so amused that his complimentary table-thumping rattles Chibuike’s bowl. Chibuike’s mother, on the other hand, says nothing. 

You mentioned that you carry your worldview and thoughts into your stories. I’m interested in the kind of thoughts about manhood, vis-à-vis violence, that you carried into Ogbuefi. (Something that gets talked about a lot here, for instance, is how “real manhood” seems irreversibly linked to the ability to give – or infect others with – violence.)

Vincent: Yes, this is such a crucial point of Ogbuefi, the reason for its existence at all. Chibuike’s pain, despite fiction’s indirection, is my pain. In many ways, I’ve failed to adhere to standards of masculinity that society has sketched for me. This informal sketchbook exists along two correlated axes: suppressing certain kinds of emotions and enacting an often violent physicality. 

On suppressing emotions:

– In the all-boys boarding school I attended, friends were often averse to hugs, as if a boy’s platonic touch would cause them to spontaneously combust. Hugging a male friend in the vicinity of your peers elicited jeers about you being “suspect”.

– Recently, I came across this Twitter thread about if a man would let his close male friend sleep on his chest — many replies were negative. Those who said they would permit this were swiftly mocked.

– My sisters and I trade “I love you”s frequently. My brothers and I not at all (not for lack of trying on my part).

– A classmate called me a homophobic slur when I talked about liking Taylor Swift for all the emotions she stirs in me.

– Flogging children for misbehavior in elementary and secondary school was commonplace. “Are you a boy or a girl?” a teacher asked me when I cried after our class was flogged for noise-making. We even had full songs for boys who shed tears without attempts to hide them, complete with hand-claps: “cry cry baby, I want to see your mommy, shame”.

On enacting physical violence:

– An informal hierarchy existed in boarding school. Senior students exuded power over their juniors and physically enforced it. You could ask a boy one class below you to wash your clothes or give you their piece of chicken. If they refused, if they snitched, they were slapped, punched, kicked. This was cyclic–the bullied boys in turn could similarly attack their juniors.

– At a club I visited my first month in Canada, the police got involved after a man attacked another for trying to romance his girlfriend. This pattern of territorial male violence seems universal.

– In 2011, the Nigerian Senate passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill. The resulting international controversy made this a hot topic in boarding school. Peers frequently expressed their disgust at “men who walked like women” and “allowed another man’s genitals in their anus”. The rhetoric was often violent: “Let me catch one of them! I will beat them bloody.” These same classmates proudly talked about the lesbian porn they enjoyed watching. Their disgust with homosexuality framed it as unnaturally un-manly and worthy of violence. 

– Beyond specific anecdotes, I grew up with commonplace notions of the ideal man as reflected in TV shows, movies, stories. He bore a stoic physicality. If a snake entered his marital bedroom, his wife shrieked while he reached for the machete and swiftly beheaded it. He was muscular and sports-prone and could fix a faulty truck and never cried. When I moved to America for university, I understood the prevailing stereotype of the Black man as hypermasculine. Reckoned with the pain of close friends whose fathers beat their mothers and struck them in the stomach, and in softer moments of vulnerability, defended their actions as “toughening their boys for the world”. 

Memories around my sense of diminished masculinity formed the backbone of pain I took into my early poems. Earlier, I called those poems terrible by standards of craft. But by standards of their own purpose in my life at the time (tools for communicating and expressing my feelings), they were a resounding success. 

These so-called expressive tools are crucial for our well being, a corked bottle for handling negative emotions. It is a great failing that boys are so often denied such outlets on the basis of their boyhoods. After suppressing their emotions, they must then turn to a protective physicality that gradually becomes instinct.

Davina: Your mention of poetry as an expressive tool recalls what Dami Ajayi said

As you know, our ideal of masculinity is that brash macho thing that is as rigid as the muscle in front of your nightclub or worse, an unyielding wall without a history or feeling. But I assure you, men cry, and I am not using that often deployed adjective, ‘real’ on purpose. We cry and hurt and feel things because we are human too. What I have done here is to practice my male vulnerability on the page as a prelude to living it in person.

Vincent: In Ogbuefi, Chibuike routinely finds the world rejecting all his normal expressive tools. He seeks out the warm space between his Mama and Papa on stormy nights, and is chastised for it. His tears are met with a promise of violence (his Papa saying, “Shut up you stupid boy, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”) And crucially, the vulnerable space he inhabits with his mother, the space that lets him open up to her before the ceremony — “I’m afraid” — is shattered when he seeks her after failing to become an Ogbuefi. He hugs her and she turns away, rejecting him. Writing that scene hurt. 

Because what comes next? Chibuike, sweet and sensitive, a boy prone to finding ways to entertain a goat with a stick, finally leans into the only tool he has left, the tool glimpsed from the black-eye tale his brother told, from Solomon’s open throat, from his father’s explosion at the end. He is transformed into the kind of boy society’s toxic impulse creates. He actively dances away from the tears in his chest, choosing instead a physical rage that is as learned as it is tragic.

Davina: Thank you so much for sharing about all the places where the pain began, Vincent. And how these places inspired Ogbuefi. Although pain is as fundamental a feeling as, say, love, it remains difficult to talk about, much less openly, in many spaces, even in a poem that’s not meant to be seen by anyone else. So, again, thank you.

(Aside: I’m wary of the double-edged nature of social media – in my experience, its advantages are often outweighed by online toxicity – so I don’t have active social media accounts in the usual sense. For a species that’s supposed to be social, we do and say terribly anti-social things to each other. The other day I was asking a friend why we still call it “social media”; sometimes it seems to me that the more appropriate label is “un-social media.”)

Many of the issues you mention – aversion to public displays of affection, pain, sweetness, or sensitivity; the emotional and physical abuse of boys and men who don’t conform to conventional standards of hyper-masculinity – I think about a lot. Similar examples, from here, are legion. Neither time nor space will permit me to exhaust them. I will however mention two incidents.

A few years ago, I decided to try to narrate a story through a male protagonist. I didn’t want to write a stereotypical male character; I tried to do as much research as I could do. Around that time, my book club had organized readings around masculinity, so that was very helpful. In the lead up to that month’s book club meeting, we decided, those of us who could, to send a short questionnaire to our male friends. I can’t recall all the questions now; but I remember three—one about the activities one typically associated with “legit” masculinity, what it’s like to be a man in contemporary Uganda, and what one would change about the manner in which society perceived and/or treated them.

Three responses struck me. The first included “shaving” and “hitting on chicks” as legitimately masculine activities. The second, about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary Uganda, was “I feel powerless.” And the third resented the ways in which “political correctness” had made it impossible for men to joke “safely” about violence (especially sexual violence): he wanted to return to the good old days when co-workers didn’t “catch feelings” about explicit jokes. 

Maybe around the same time, on a WhatsApp group, someone posted a photo of a popular Ugandan musician. This particular musician is what contemporary culture refers to as a metrosexual. I was talking about how attractive I thought he was, when one male member argued that that was no man: “Woman-man not real man!” Apparently, the musician attended to his physical appearance in a way that “a real man” shouldn’t; some male group members thought an “obsession” with one’s physical appearance was the surest marker of “unacceptable femininity” in a man.

Vincent: These anecdotes are incredible; thank you. The universality of gendered expectations never ceases to surprise me. The relationship you highlighted between physical appearance and perceived masculinity strikes me as another way stereotypical manhood is built on suppressing parts of self, on existing only within socially-mediated pre-configurations. (Sometimes, as in Ogbuefi, and lots of Nigerian households, this pre-configuration exacts a hierarchy between man and woman, between husband and wife, which is why Chibuike’s mother never gets in his father’s way). 

As a consequence,when making male friends, I’m immediately drawn to those who express their emotions without reserve and hug tightly and exist as they are. I recently ended a call with a male friend in Canada who said, “I love you, bro,” before hanging up. With our ongoing dialogue in mind, those typical four lines from him struck me as almost revolutionary now–which is quite saddening.

Social media is indeed often unsocial (in fact, one of my recent unpublished stories explores the height of its cruelty in great detail). I find that I can only exist online by aggressively filtering and curating my digital space, but of course the ugliness of the outside world still often intrudes, and there are days I contemplate if constant exposure to vitriol is truly worth its benefits. Its primary function lately has been connecting me to other writers, especially now that the world is so virtual. Have you found alternative avenues that let you interact with fellow writers consistently, and is that even a concern to begin with?

Also, one worthwhile note on how my reality interspersed with my fiction: the core details of the story’s ceremony are rooted in truth. My brothers and I all had to become Ogbuefis in my village, Amoli. 

Davina: I can’t wait to read that story, Vincent; and, yes, of course, a consistent connection with other writers is a concern. I regularly attend a readers’ collective here, and until recently I belonged to a robust writers’ group. 

I’m not good at instantly reasonable and sound opinions; I’m not gifted like that, unfortunately. I’m better with long emails over long periods, because they give me time to consider and re-consider and re-re-consider a question asked or a topic broached. 

Many of my close writer friends, who are made of hardier stuff, remain active on social media; through them, I remain connected to writers, writing, and writing spaces. They might say “you should read this short story” or “this is what African writers are beefing about today” or “what do you think about this book review?” Often, they will send links, and screenshots, too. So all I’ll have to do is follow the link or Google something. 

Vincent: Yes, I’m much the same way in terms of requiring gestation periods to relay my ideas in their strongest form. That makes, for instance, our ongoing interview feel more thoughtful and in-depth than it might have otherwise been. 

I’m glad that you’re able to be fully plugged into a writing collective without needing to pay the taxing toll social media sometimes demands. I took a few creative writing classes as electives in university, and my professor then recently reached out to introduce me to a few of her most promising students. We’ve formed a biweekly virtual writing group, and it’s done wonders for my sense of connectedness in a way that being online has failed to. 

Davina: That’s lovely! More connections are occurring online these days because, given the pandemic that’s afoot, it is the safer alternative. 

You said writing stories is important because so many of the world’s vices are rooted in fear – fear of the unknown; fear of the other – and that stories decimate fear by bringing together different perspectives. 

What have you read recently that has done that incredible work – of decimating fear, and of making known the unknown – for you?

Vincent: I read Malliga Homes in Granta Magazine recently, and it touched on a topic I’ve been fearful to confront—how to handle our parents’ aging. I’ve often refused to acknowledge my mom and dad’s mortality. Logically, abstractly, sure, I know they will die. But on a concrete emotional level, it’s been unimaginable. 

Malliga Homes explores the near-death musings of an elderly mother in an Indian retirement home. It does this so carefully that I found myself for hours afterward finally contemplating—with a sickness in my stomach—what it would mean when my mother was no longer around. I also understood how she might be approaching this issue. 

The darkness I’d refused to even glance at suddenly flared in the light. It might sound like this heightened, rather than decimated, my fear of their fragility, but it is my belief that one slowly leads to the other. 

Have any stories or poems similarly affected you?

Davina: I think I know what you mean; it’s always easier to acknowledge one’s own mortality than it is to acknowledge the mortality of a loved one. What you say about how, sometimes, the illumination is either within the darkness itself, or will soon follow closely behind — that makes a lot of sense to me, too.  

I often re-read my favourite R. S. Thomas poems. For many years, my great unknown has been: Is anyone else thinking this? Does anyone else have similar questions? The answers aren’t always what I’m looking for; the important thing, to me, has always been (and remains) to be able to ask the questions, and to know that other people have asked or are asking similar questions. 

Through Thomas’ poems, I’ve come to learn that, you know what?, it’s OK, someone else has thought this. Someone else has felt this. Someone else has asked similar questions.

Questions about God, about faith, all the things we do to each other in the name of God and of faith, are generally disallowed. On some days, I think about the aggression, the rage, the savagery, that we have proved ourselves capable of inflicting on those who disbelieve, or who don’t believe what we believe; how we do hateful things to each other while simultaneously claiming to have been led to do them by a God that’s full of love. 

On days like that, when I’m feeling terribly disheartened and hopeless, re-reading Thomas’ The White Tiger will make me feel a bit better. Not because I’ve found an answer, necessarily, but because I sense that someone else struggled with similar questions.

Vincent: The questions you grapple with recall a paradox I faced early in adolescence. I grew up in a Catholic home and believed in an all-powerful, loving God. Yet, I had to reckon with the weaponization of this God’s doctrine against subsets of people who merely existed. 

People have been oppressed, often killed, for their sexualities or other immutable aspects of their existence. This led to an internal fracturing of my beliefs, pushing me toward agnosticism. It’s a battle that’s unsettled till this day. Here and now, I already find comfort in knowing that similar themes have weighed on you.

The White Tiger is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. “God breathes within the confines of our definition of him” is so poignant to me, because it points to this contradictory internal adoption of a loving higher power, for whom we enact untold violence. You’re right that this doesn’t propose any answers — perhaps, such knowledge is perpetually beyond us — but its strength comes from the questions it asks. That is ultimately a major superpower writing bestows, one I’m continually trying to tap into–why is the world, as I perceive it, like this? And are there others who see this too?

Davina: Why is the world the way it is? And who else sees what I see? Those are two questions, Vincent, that I constantly ask, and which I hope to explore in more challenging ways through what I read and write. Thank you so much for speaking to Africa in Dialogue about your story. Best wishes for the regional winner announcements.  

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her. 

She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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