The Writer as an Ally: A Dialogue with Obinna Obioma
Obinna Obioma is a ghost, liberal, Virgo, tutor, and literary gigolo. He has had his fair share of long-suffering getting his obsessions, fantasies and agitations into Writers Space Africa, Jacana, Lunaris Review, Afritondo, Love Africa Press, Brittle Paper, Akuko Magazine, and elsewhere. His recent works have been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Prize. He has myopia, wears unmedicated glasses to deceive his own bad sight and hopes that in tinkering with weird and wired ideas, he will propagate the gospel of gender equality, sexual freedom and racial inclusivity.
BY UCHENNA EMELIFE
This conversation took place between the States of Sokoto, Lagos and Anambra in Nigeria, via WhatsApp.
Uchenna: Thank you so much for granting this interview. Let’s dive into it, shall we?
Your story, ‘When God is a (Wo)man’ is a prize-winner. If I could only describe it in a word, I would choose brave. Brave because of how unique it is, yes, in the last decade, the African literary scene has witnessed an increase in queer narratives, which are mostly gay/bi stories, but trans narratives? There is very little of that. Brave again because of the execution of the story. The very interesting characters and events complement this bravery. There is so much I want us to talk about, but let’s begin with a background. Can you talk about writing ‘When God is a (Wo)man’?
Obinna: Thank you again, Uchenna, for reaching out. True to your words, trans narratives are a rarity, and always come out as unusual, especially when told by a cis-straight lips. However, I didn’t have to look very far for the story. The muse was as dear to me as my maternal home is dear to my heart. Keeke, my late grandmother – my mother told me – married a second wife for my late grandfather. I wasn’t there. But I was grown enough to see Nnụá, a grandaunt whose husband died in the early years of their marriage, marry a wife and have children (one of whom I know at present) to ensure her husband’s name didn’t die with him. It was a polygamous setting. I didn’t know what to call them, their children or the practice. I had questions; I grew with those questions. Each time, all I had for an answer, especially from the lips of my mother, was a reference to another such occurrence; perhaps distant but not entirely farfetched. Few years back, she told me of a certain colleague, an only surviving offspring of her parents, who married a wife so they could make children to propagate her father’s name. On the mouths of the elderly, it didn’t sound to me like an abhorrent practice.
Now, as a writer, coming to discover that there’s a highly patriarchal society that suddenly doesn’t smile kindly upon these deviations, probably because they lack definitions, are unusual, and are quite difficult to absorb, I thought it needed redress – not in such a way as to address it as an issue, but that in portraying the existences of these beings. I have affirmed that there were – and still are – such women who were brave enough to take up manly roles in marriage, who raised progeny for themselves in the face of familial extinction, and whose names, like the surnames of men, will surely live on. Call them what you may, create a divide or an intermediate and assign them to a gender class, they are people and are deserving of what sexual lives they want to pursue.
It is in human nature, by the actions of a majority, to push away or reject that which is devoid of our understanding. We term it abnormal, unnatural, and when it concerns gender identities and sexual inclinations, what has not been classified as norm is called transgression at worst. “When God is a (Wo)man“ is me embracing this transgression.
There is a similar case in my family. I have a grandaunt whose children bear her surname. I have always been curious to know why until last year, when my dad finally came clean that she never married out of the family. What she did was marry another woman into the family and both gave birth to the men and women who now call my father, cousin, and their birthing fathers remain unknown.
Cheluchi Onyemelukwe also samples it in her book, The Son of the House. In The Son of the House, Mama Nathan upon the death of her son, marries a pregnant Nwabulu to maintain her family name.
I think it’s an unhealthy romanticisation of the past that makes people question these so-called oddities now. They choose to forget and claim that today’s unconventional realities are baseless. Why do you think this happens? What about the past makes people think it was better? Isn’t that how we also treat classic films and literature?
Obinna: I want to say that most present day orientations are replete with preconceived notions which have been, dare I say, deliberately dissociated from the past where everything takes origin. It is called “history” so we can go back in time, to ascertain where and when the so-called unconventionalities took form and shape. I get highly irritated when people use the clause: “It is not in our custom … It is western acculturation” when they refer to most of today’s “odd” practices, especially when it concerns gender roles and sexuality.
Hence, when I say in my narrative that, “perhaps, there’s a form of fornication culturally accepted which must be explored”, it is a call for everyone to delve back in time to get clarifications upon these trends.
I’m glad you mentioned classic literature. Let’s dwell on this lane for a minute.
On the lips of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, men have been called “agbala” in Igbo colloquialism. That word is a derogative to one having no titles. A dialectic transliteration is “woman”, which unforgivably (Achebe shades light) is synonymous to unproductivity, cowardice, laziness, as opposed to being a “man.” Achebe’s painting of this agbala is subtly elaborate. He associates this agbala of a father with the artfulness and feline grace of a woman.
Now, let’s tweak this narrative a bit, to an imagined point in time when Okonkwo’s father, Unọka — whom he despises and calls agbala — accepts this definition of him, decides to dress like the woman the community now addresses him as, takes up womanly roles, decides to marry a man because “(s)he” now genuinely sees “herself” as a woman. Now, how so odd, unconventional and uncomfortable does it get for everyone?
(Laughs). Now you see the problem won’t be with Unọka and such likes. The problem will be with a society of people that frowns in discomfiture when the Unọkas of this world accept, embrace and find happiness in their relegation.
Uchenna: I like to think that people who say things like “It’s not in our culture” or “we are not known for it” do so deliberately to comfort their biases. Because they know it’s a lie but have refused to accept it.
I remember in 2021 I had a conversation with Ukamaka Olisakwe when she recently published her novel, Ogadinma. She said, “we strip certain stories of their complexities and flatten entire histories into simplistic and/or romantic delusions, just to suit our bias,” and indeed. Ogadinma was a story of a woman in the 80s who decided she could not endure her marriage anymore and left. Society would argue that at the time women were servile and never left their marriages. Ogadinma, which Ukamaka said was a tribute to her aunties, proved that wrong. So, in our recalling of history, we choose those that favour us and decide to forget the rest and that’s hypocritical.
I like how you buttress your point using Things Fall Apart which I also consider to be one of the best-case studies to prove that contemporary orientations aren’t exactly disconnected from history. Take suicide for example. At the end of Things Fall Apart, a depressed Okonkwo takes his own life. Yet you would have people say that depression is unAfrican.
What you’ve been able to do with ‘When God Is a (Wo)man’ does not just represent these ‘oddities’, but your characters basked in their queerness, a shift from the usual sad stories that sum queer narratives. What I would like to know is if in telling these stories like this you fear rejection, criticism.
“…my allied voice merges with theirs whose realities we sing in chorus: a choir of one.“
Obinna: That! Right there! That “shift from the usual sad stories that sum queer narratives” no nails hit better; nothing explicates my intentions more than those words.
I have grown tired of the depressions and heartbreaks that have clichéd their way into almost every queer narrative I come across. I have argued this sometime ago with a queer friend. And his standpoint is, and I agree with him to some extent, that it’s their trial. We can’t deny the fact that they aren’t facing all of those things: getting ridiculed, bullied, betrayed, murdered, by even people they call friends. However, we can’t also deny the fact that a lot of them are finding love, living happily and gaining acceptance. When I analyse the second situation, the glaring truth is in their acceptance of themselves, in their coming out of their shadows, and having no longer to hide! This is what the gospel of my every writing is about: the positives.
It’s enough already that the world is a bitter place. There is little joy in rendering the threnodies of our tribulations. How about we recount and commemorate the happier times? Surely, there must have been those fun, loving, gay moments even if they didn’t last forever. Nothing lives forever, except good memories. And that’s what I’m all about, the happily ever afters. My days of Jacana Mentorship with Makhosazana Xaba made me understand this. She said to me, “Khel, write stories where someone wins.”
And trust me, every resolution I make, in writing and outside of it, always always ends in victory.
Now, coming to the other part, and I don’t want to mince words saying this. I have grown so accustomed to rejections I don’t even blink twice at the mails anymore. Of course, this is as it concerns manuscript submission to literary journals.
If it is as it concerns any religious community censoring my works because they think they go against doctrines, well, I stand to say that the only profession I make now is to my conscience. On Mazpa’s lips: God is not so unkind as to disrespect the sacraments of liberal beings.
If it is as it concerns my stance and queer views as a cis-straight writer, well, yes, I have gotten wind of some criticisms from within the same community I advocate. One recently said to me, “Well, you ain’t gay, so it’s not as if you know how I exactly feel.” Then another mentioned something in the line of, “you’re just writing queer stories because of the opportunity, popularity and recognition it’s recently offering.” One even tried to ascertain my level of “queer patriotism” by making advances at me. Funny, isn’t it? I tell you, it’s an uncomfortable position to be in, and yeah, I wasn’t oblivious to his disappointment when I told him straight up, “I’m straight.”
Truth is, my writings have always been evolutionary and at the same time revolutionary. If any writing must be ascribed any literary merit, it must have historical and/or contemporary relevance. How else can we recall, reevaluate and resolve such societal maladies which need redress if not through our writings? I didn’t wake up one morning to find that almost all the protagonists in my successful stories are either girls, women, deviants, eccentrics or queer. The efforts were conscious, systematic, and intentional.
I don’t need to be the enraged woman-turned-vigilante in ‘Temenos’, or the embattled rejects in ‘Òsú’, or the defiant happy sisters in ‘Hell Merry’, or the gigolo running a chalet in ‘32 Rooms’, or the grieving Khosi in ‘Forever Once More’, to write from a place of experience. It is enough to listen to others share their troubles and joys, their losses and wins, and write from a place of empathy – one that does not seek to patronise but encourage and uplift.
So, yeah, I am aware of these criticisms. My taking up the alias as the Literary Gigolo posits that ,like the Kanero of ‘Kisses Under the Udala Tree’, making love to her gigolo-turned-fiance under the Udala tree at the behest of familial rejection and death, I am in an amorous relationship with writing in whatever theme or form it is inspired.
Uchenna: I’m always of the opinion that in telling minority stories, both ways matter.
It’s such a sad and unfair world we live in, so of course, there should be stories of the sad reality, that would make readers realise just how damaged our society is and probably provoke change.
It is also important that there be happy stories, like yours, out there that build optimism and sustain hope for a better society, where smiling wouldn’t be forced.
This is why I do not agree with the poverty and tragedy porn criticism of African stories. Because this is sincerely our reality and why should writers who tell these stories as they are be judged for it?
But I think it becomes a problem when everyone is telling the same story over and over again. That feared ‘danger of a single story’ happens, and just like that, that becomes the single story birthing a half-truth.
So, I see where you’re coming from. We need more happy stories of queer people, especially Africans. Stories of African queer people basking in their queerness. Stories of them loving themselves and finding love. Stories of a love that flows uninterruptedly. Stories of them finding joy regardless, irrespective. Stories like ‘When God is a (Wo)man’.
It’s quite interesting how you deal with rejection and your response touches an aspect of your storytelling I would like us to explore further. Advocacy through representation is quite daunting, especially when you do not exactly relate with what you’re representing. Spivak’s fine essay on advocacy, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ comes to mind. Her essay argues that the abolition of the Hindu rite of sati in India by the British has been generally understood as a case of “White men saving brown women from brown men”. The white-saviour complex.
You say here that you’ve also been criticised by members within the same community you write about. What I would like to know is how as an ally you do not breach telling queer stories from a place of empathy to telling it from privilege?
Obinna: Riddle me this. How can you measure or evaluate the intentions of humans? Via words or visible resultant actions? Take it from me, both can be deceptive. Now, I’m caught in a web of trying to depict and defend through words the things I have not or cannot put into practice. Yeah, that’s to be expected in any form of advocacy. I mean, to want to speak up for a person or group of people until, perhaps, they’re ready to speak up for themselves, something must have instigated it and the exact same thing should be what spurs you on. For me it’s belief. I believe in humanity and in the liberty of conscience. This is the basis of my faith: in people, in inclusivity, in equality. As long as your actions do not cause any harm or infringe on anyone’s fundamental rights, I entirely support you, in understanding that where one’s right stops, another’s begins.
Having said that, I want to bring to mind that the LGBTQI+ community is growing stronger because of this straight-gay alliance. We have seen the trends go from, “woah, are there such guys?”, to frequent bullying and lynching of gays, to homophobic jokes and ridicules, to media attacks, call-outs, to “so, this is really a thing”, which gave way to debates which sought to define these set of “odd” individuals. Now, the world is at a place where people are coming to the orientation like, : “wow, these guys are bent on doing this for real. Well, not like they’re hurting me. Why don’t we let them be? Not like they’re going about causing wars and world hunger. We’ve got real political and economic issues to deliberate. And ah! There are the climate change advocates reeling out their green expectations too!”
See? Funny, but yeah. That’s where we’re at on this. That place of compromise, of not entirely accepting to shift all grounds, but not denying them space either. This was made possible because we liberals gave our voices too. It’s been a slow process, trust me. But the “trick” which I surmised made all of this effective was in talking about it. Talk about it and bore the world with your “nonsense” ideologies and philosophies.
I mean, look at the just-concluded Kopano event in Cape Town, the awareness which is bound to shake the foundations of that region in South Africa. Look at the rainbow-feed month of June, people celebrating queer happiness and being left alone. That’s what this should be about: to live and let live.
In my deductions, only an empathetic mindset can pull this off. Not one focused on what it stands to gain. It’s already a privilege to have met and made queer friends, some of whom I tell you once lived in denial of themselves, in depression, because of their cravings for love lives. I remember telling one, “hey, it’s difficult for everyone, heteros and homos alike, to find the right companions. But, you won’t find that awesome moment you crave for sitting at home in seclusion. Go out. Love is outside.” He did. And he’s happy he did.
My circle of social media friends is quite small, probably because of my INFJ personality traits. But, I’m happy with the mix. During one of those long phone calls, one said amidst the animated conversation, “Khel, I’m going to snatch you from your girl.” I gave my (ex) girlfriend the phone and they had a friendly fight. It was a total joy to listen to. I encourage the advances. Tell me, then listen to me turn you down in the most amiable way. “You know I don’t swing that way, right?” Even straight lovers get jilted too. The breakfast dey go round normally.
That said, it’s the positivity and sweet radiance they give off each time I bump into their timelines that’s the rare privilege. It’s more rewarding than monetary sums. And talking about reward, I want to conclude on this by saying: it is good writing that wins. Every story gets their deserved spot and thus their appraisals. A poorly written queer story would kiss the same trashcan as any shabby straight story.
Uchenna: I agree with you when you say that the premise is belief. Because that’s what truly shows why you are writing. Are you writing about something because you feel the need to? Or you are writing about it simply because every other person is and you want to profit off it? But the web intensifies when the question becomes ‘are you speaking for and alongside the people you are writing about or are you speaking over and instead of them?’ That’s where this privilege I speak of in my earlier question comes in. Because you may be good-intentioned and still fall into this web.
Take the Soro Soke book written by a white woman and in my opinion, the much deserved outrage it sparked. No matter her intention, that wasn’t her speaking alongside, that was her speaking over and instead of. So I want to hear from you. How do you check yourself in your representation of queerness as a non queer person yourself? How do you stay within that line, if you agree that there is a line?
Obinna: I agree. There is a line, albeit thin. We’re prone to lose sight of it, especially in advocacy, and in so doing take up authoritative positions -writing in the stead of those whose story we are telling. Understanding that no story is ever so completely told, no one can ever know enough what the “experienced” has been through.
I now believe, (and trust me when I say now because it’s a most recent resolution), queerness, like conforming sexual/gender inclination, is not a thing to be poked at, probed, defined or theorised. However, it is a difficult agenda to pursue: to desist from the examination of the queer. It is in human nature to want to render explanations to everything, particularly when it’s seemingly unnatural or non-conforming.
In my early studies of queerness and their attributes, sometime around 2019, I found there’s a field of critical theory called the “Queer Theory” dating back to the 90s where certain interpretations are devoted to queer readings of texts. I battled with this dilemma as a budding writer wanting to take the literary world in giant strides; a quest at defining the queer life. “When God is a (Wo)man” is an outcome of that provocative inquest amidst other things needing resolution. So, it’s no surprise to have a Kwesili battling with the same quandary, and eventually accepting who they have become.
Until you mentioned it, and correctly so too, I can see sketches of “writing in the stead of and over” in this dear story of mine.
Few years into the present, however, it’s a different ball game, having come to the realisation that queer characters in African literature are as normal as they are existent and dwell amongst us. There should be no explaining why a certain female character is lesbian or a guy finds pleasure in masculine bodies, the same way we don’t probe the inclinations of heterosexual characters. This stance can be seen in my recent and forthcoming publications.
Thank you again for calling this to mind.
Uchenna: This is quite expository and adds more layers to my earlier thought. Thank you for sharing.
Let’s talk about the POV. Your story is told from the second person POV and adds to its unusualness. I have my theories but I would like to hear from you why you chose to tell it using this technique and what effect you targeted at.
Obinna: For me, every inspired story comes with its own element of style, a narrative voice I can’t put off no matter how much I try. As at the time the story was conceived, the “you” POV was not as popular in short stories as the first and third person counterparts. It was quite experimental. However, as the story progressed, the deeper implications of sticking to that very perspective were revealed.
Firstly, that “unusual” narrative style which directly puts the reader on the scene was a leeway out of the hitches I’d have faced with pronoun usage while Kwesili was yet in transition. I could go back and forth in time without having to define the gender identity of Kwesili.
Secondly, I can’t possibly build around a gender non-conforming life and use the third person pronoun (he/she). Once I analysed that would be incongruous to Kwesili’s existence, I found more reasons to cling to the narrative style. I decided against the first person POV because it’s a reservation I kept and still keep for queer writers who write from places of “factual experience” (especially in CNF) and not from “actual observations.”
Let me also add here that Otosirieze Obi-Young was also of great help during the editorial revisions on strengthening the plot style.
Lastly, as with Mazpa and “their” continuous correction of the school principal’s perception of their identity, as with everything else, the POV is an important tool of suspense until clarity and enlightenment take effect. And at that point when the gender position of “you” — of anyone— has (finally) been stated, it behooves every human to respect that definitive perception others have for themselves.
As a side note, Ọga Sabinus still keeps calling Bobrisky “senior man” on the social media. We are not oblivious to the provocation he’s causing. It’s immature and not funny at all, especially for one who’s won a major award with a media house whose opinions about queerness I can’t really say.
Even though queer inclusivity is a thing we’re yet to see (legally, unbanned, unstereotyped) in Nollywood and African movie casts, however (and perhaps unwittingly), trans-characterization and cross-dressing is almost a “normal” in Nigerian comedy skits. Yet, I wish to paraphrase femme character Kambili’s point of view in Wapah Ezeigwe’s queer short movie, Country Love: “You can’t accept [queerness] and accept only the part that is conducive for you.”
Uchenna: I loved that you stuck to the second person. It complemented the narration quite nicely.
And oh my God, the Sabinus’ comment is such an eyesore and his insistence is unbecoming, but then, like always, he would get away with it and even be applauded. A reflection of the homophobic state of the Nigerian entertainment space. Queer people are either outrightly rejected or are accepted as clowns. I personally feel that even the crossdressers themselves who have for some reason been taken as the poster-people of the Nigerian LGBTQ+ community, take part of the blame. Their unseriousness and refusal to leverage their influence in tackling real queer issues have made them clownish, and when Nigerians hate you, they hate you less when you at least make them laugh.
Don’t you agree?
Obinna: You’re 100 percent on point. Queer personality traits have somehow been seen, classified and acted as clownish. It’s an unhealthy stereotype, and these naive comedians have buttressed those exaggerated concepts, perhaps, unknowingly. It’s a mentality that must be corrected, and none else will do that save for the actual persons whose personality images are being lampooned.
You don’t go on screen and call yourself the “Princess of Afri-cow” or such ridiculous names, unless you’re merely living a falsified version of yourself, probably for entertainment and money.
There are lots of homophobic issues, things boding on the community, that need redressing, especially on our own dark soil. I am particularly interested in Country Love which I earlier mentioned. Reading about the making of the movie on Minority Africa, it didn’t come across as a surprise to find that the lead actor for Kambili was non femme-queer, and he was instructed to act “as femme as possible.” However, the question is, “where are the real queer artists?”
Of course, I do not downplay the effort and input of the actor in the said movie. But then queerness, in all of its diverse forms is not a thing to be acted. It’s an identity, a selfhood, and I’d really appreciate that the presentation of it is done by those who not only hold the opinion but are personifications of the opinion.
Uchenna: Speaking of Country Love, in your earlier response, you talk about what Kambili says about selective acceptance and it reminds me of Mazpa’s words to the principal when they invited them over the alleged rape, “how about the boys sneaking out of classes to have porn-inspired masturbation, as I can see no female students around here. Do they meet with this same punishment?”
This thing society does that they tend to crucify queer people for actions they would normally excuse heteros or cis people, is an aspect of homophobia and transphobia we don’t talk about much. Queerness doesn’t confer sainthood, yet you see even the people that claim to be allies pick up guns at the first queer offender for actions they excuse heteros and cis people for.
Some even go on to make it about the entire community rather than the individual. Quite laughable if it wasn’t dangerous. Because how does a single person’s action translate to the identity of a community?
Take the Texas school shooting for example. Some malicious twitter user tried to make it seem like the shooter was trans. He took photos of a random trans person on the net, merged it with photos of the shooter and you need to have seen how the outrage thickened and people in that thread began to make it more about sexuality than the actual crime. The photos looked nothing alike, yet they bought it and saw it as a field day for their transphobia.
Among the many wrong things people do to queer people, this needs to be acknowledged and addressed as well, don’t you think?
Obinna: Absolutely, yes. Selective acceptance is one of the many wrongs done to the queer community by homophobes. In a cis-patriarchal-heterosexual society’s association with queerness, there is a theoretical order of preference: female bisexuals, lesbians, transmen, male bisexuals, gays, femme men and transwomen. It would seem that as the identity and orientation drifts away from the sexual interests of the masculine gender, the antipathy increases.
There is also a rarely spoken of apathy within the queer community, a dichotomy between gays and femme men. The animosity cuts across all borders.
Uchenna: Sighs. This just goes to show humans will be humans irrespective.
Obinna: It’s a sad situation.
But the fire of awareness is already burning bright. It is my desire that through literary art, the existence and equality of the LGBTQI+ community is propagated to all. It is happening: the coming out, the becoming.
Just a few days ago, a young writer friend of mine declared his queerness. It was an awakening. It probably might have taken writing a short CNF – which got into a major Western press – to voice his introspections. I could feel his excitement and anxiety when he waltzed into my chatbox to say, “my work got accepted. It’s a personal essay about my sexuality and acceptance. I’m scared of people who will read it.”
Gratefully, he said his parents don’t have any problems with the development. His worry is gaining acceptance with his peers, school colleagues, and the society at large. I hope he comes across this part of the dialogue where I reaffirm my solidarity, “it is you who accepts the world, not the other way round.”
It is time to show the world that beautiful things like rainbows are an emanation of the scattering of goodness and light by tiny droplets of rain as a metaphor for the tears of the socially relegated.
Uchenna: I really wish your friend well and I hope everything turns out fine. Meanwhile, look at us here, hoping that someone will be allowed to exercise their most basic human right; to live freely. One would think that it was much more on the table, but all thanks to society, simply getting accepted is considered a privilege for queer people. That’s so messed up.
Obinna: Honestly, I don’t appreciate the fact queer sexuality is a thing to be brought to table, to be discussed. Under the scopes of liberty, it makes us all slaves; either enslaved by people’s opinions of our lives or enslaved by our preconceived notions of others.
Uchenna: You talk about how literary art is helping to amplify the voice of the community and I agree with you. Added to that, contemporary literary collectives and magazines and journals are pushing the boundaries of African literature. Through these platforms, the scope of African literature has been broadened and diverse stories are accommodated, including those that used to suffer censorship in traditional publishing platforms. What I’m most excited about now is that it can only get better and this makes me optimistic about the future of African literature. Do you share in this excitement?
Obinna: Of course, of course. It’s like a revolution bringing light to an otherwise dark continent, and I can’t be more proud of what contemporary queer writers have been able to accomplish in the literary sphere. Mentioning names here with appraisals might be supernumerary. However, their recognition and support have been massive, and I’m grateful for the various indigenous platforms that are making it possible.
This is not about western magazines where most queer writers seem to run for succor. No. This is about African journals recognizing the beauty and own voices these non-conforming individuals are bringing to the shelf. Afritondo, Isele, Lolwe, Dgeku, Doek!, Brittle Paper, Akuko Magazine, Caine Prize, Gerald Kraak through Jacana Media and every other contest and literary award-offering body. Their liberal promotions have greatly improved the readership of queer African literature.
I’ve had the opportunity of making it into certain award shortlists, and a greater percentage of the stories that emerge as winners are queer. Now, when I read these stories, I do not sense – as most enraged few would envisage – sentiments, patronage or preference. What I read are writings culled from deep, soul-touching places. You cannot read them and not love both the writers and the characters they brought to life. And when these characters are personifications of the writers themselves, you cannot help but appreciate the fact that they were able to narrate such complexities of life with the simplicity of words.
So yeah, I’m happy with the trend and can’t be any more glad that my allied voice merges with theirs whose realities we sing in chorus: a choir of one.
Uchenna: Speaking of revolution, let’s talk about your writings in general.
In an earlier response you talk about how your going by Literary Gigolo is a reflection of your writing which you describe as both evolutionary and revolutionary. What informed this decision to tell these defiant stories? Is there anything in particular you can credit this decision to that you don’t mind sharing?
Obinna: Heartbreak. That’s the exact word that first set my fingers in motion as a writer during the ember months of 2018. A jilted lover, socially introverted, needing to vent, there was nothing else to turn to in those times that happened to be my dimmest days. I’m one for keeping track of every event that affects me. I don’t forget. I don’t want to forget. I didn’t wager I wouldn’t forget. So I decided an eighty leaves exercise book was good enough a place to stash the memories of happiness and heartache with said girl(s). One manuscript became three, reminiscence morphed into approximately 65,000 words. I couldn’t stop spilling. It was supposed to be fiction, but it had all of me therein that the protagonist couldn’t bear but answer “Khel”. Why not? It was this writer’s story, a memoir he couldn’t claim, because it held everything that gave up on him.
Thinking about it now, that very manuscript – which by the way got a publishing deal, but which, “I’m sorry, dear Editor,” I won’t proceed with revising; re: revisiting my pains- was my induction into a writer’s life. I find it therapeutic that through my own narration I was able to discover and define my personality, frailty, and eccentricity as an insatiable romantic. In fact, I have come to believe no one can ever love me enough. So, yeah, it became about painting the kind of love lives I imagine for myself: with goddesses, older women, transactional trysts, threesomes, gigolo – this one became an obsession that a search for the words “Gigolo Obinna” online and something of mine would spring up- any romantic oddity you can imagine.
Perhaps, my early days of reading Nora Roberts helped to hone those imaginations. I found I could write romance scenes so well because every time, each time, in my head, it was me and some fantastical person of interest, and when I started these explorations, there was no holding back until all came to rest.
So, you can see, with the sexual freedom I give my characters, it is not at all odd for me to have two male or female characters making out in my story, in any story. So, when I found it was a raging controversy, well, ain’t this new me in for some vawulence? I decided to engage without warning and recourse.
On another note, until I wrote ‘Kisses Under the Udala Tree’ , I never knew about Chinelo Okparanta. I want to confess I’m not as voracious a reader as I am a writer. When my editor decided on the said title, I had to Google her. It was then I discovered that both narratives, hers a novel and mine a short story, had almost an uncanny semblance in setting but maybe not in thematic structure. I was so wowed I took to my Facebook to make a comparative review of both our works. It feels exhilarating to find that some persons have taken the giant revolutionary stride at bringing up issues you dearly want to address. Okparanta’s lesbian bildungsroman inspired my later queer publications, ‘32 Rooms’ inclusive, which I by the way 90% wrote in a beer parlour close to an actual brothel. Her work gave me the audacity to go ahead and splatter everything I had out there and more so, to put out ‘When God is a (Wo)man’ for the Gerald Kraak Award. This was almost a year and half after it had been written in 2020.
Prior to my queer writings, I had other contemporary issues that needed resolution. Now, amongst all my subscriptions of sex, rapists and paedophiles are bad eggs. Them no suppose dey breathe. Them don dey collect for my hand since. In fact, when I got wind of a certain incident that involved girl-child sexual abuse, I was so enraged I wrote the novella ‘Temenos’ which got into Love Africa Press, sometime in 2020. The previous year ‘Òsú’ had been shortlisted for the maiden edition of the K and L Short Story Prize. It was a narrative that was inspired by something that transpired a long time ago in my church community when I was younger and professing the Christian faith. A man had been advised by an elder in the church not to marry a certain woman because she was osu. In Igbo etymology, that would mean second-rate, a cultural reject. It was one of those ethnic ideologies I abhorred. The discussion had popped up later when I was older, and I set my mind on breaking that bias. The outcome was the aforementioned story in the Histories of Yesterday anthology.
The ‘Weird and the Wired’, longlisted in the maiden edition of Afritondo Prize 2020, also bore sketches of me and a stretched love life with some older lady. And recently, ‘Hell Merry’, for the queerly religious, another longlistee story soon-to-be on Afritondo.
And on and on the muse leads where the controversies go.
Summarily, everything that pertains to my writings is either me unapologetically taking a stand or hiding away in the body of a fictional character to live a fantasy life.
Uchenna: I love how you converted this to a drive to tell the daring stories you tell, to challenge convention because what convention does is box you and define limitations. An artist should have no limitations and you body that. It is like your protagonist in “When God is a (Wo)man” for example, as young as he is, he realises that it is his life to live and irrespective of how accepting his parents were and their shared identity, he still needed to be himself and live for himself. So when he has a glimpse of happiness in a love so forbidden, he finds a way out of it and chooses his happiness no matter the cost. That was such a fine twist I didn’t see coming.
Obinna: Thank you, Uchenna. We don’t see the end of life coming- the saddest twist there can ever be. So, it’s important we live beautifully, gorgeously, for ourselves, as long as life lasts. Thank you again for the compliments.
Uchenna: This has been lovely, Obinna.
I make it a point of duty to seek recommendations from writers I engage. If I loved your works, I would definitely love your reading list. So can you recommend books you love? And what are you currently reading?
Obinna: Oh no, you won’t love this! I’m not as avid a reader as one might think. In fact, when I’m working on any script, and I’m always working on something, I refuse to dwell on any book for long. That is the case now. I’m a hopeless hoarder. I have a cache of books I dig into, skimming for style, language or diction.
If I revel in my younger days considering African literature, Achebe, Soyinka, Femi Osofisan and Elechi Amadi did it for me. The Jero Plays remain unforgettable.
I have been a fiction lover since childhood, and sadly too, the best ones are western. My last reads were Demon Copperhead, Beggars In Spain, The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang, When Graveyards Yawn, and The Samurai Strategy. I’m not good with author’s names because in these cases I was reading to get entertained and usually didn’t pay attention to anything that’d yield critical assimilation.
Comparatively, whenever I pick up African lit-fics, I’m always looking for something other than entertainment. It’s not really reading for me. It’s almost like an analytical process which may not last to the end of the novel. For example, I’ve read Half of A Yellow Sun and I liked it, but I won’t read Americannah because, well, I don’t expect anymore in style and language from Adichie. When I picked up Nnedi’s Zara the Windseeker, I found what I was looking for and that was that her Young Adult Speculative fiction is really not for me. Someone on my Facebook friend’s list said Akwaeke’s The Death of Vivek Oji was badly written. Now, I’m going to find it and “read” it. That would decide if I’d ever read the Dear Senthuran.
Presently though, I’m “studying” every short story that has won a literary prize. Major interests on everything that made it into the Gerald Kraak Anthology – I couldn’t stop screaming while reading Ukamaka’s ‘Grasscutter’s Curse’ and ‘O2 Arena’ whose link I saved somewhere.
And oh, if you’re looking for the uncouth, unapologetic, and unconventional, try Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review.