Brunel International African Poetry Prize 2017 Winner: A Dialogue With Romeo Oriogun
Romeo Oriogun lives and writes in Udi, a little town in Eastern Nigeria. His poems, which mostly deal with what it means to live as a queer man in Nigeria, have been featured in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Expound, Praxis, and others. He is the author of Burnt Men, an electronic chapbook published by Praxis Magazine Online. He is the Brunel International African Poetry Prize Winner 2017.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly, little town of Udi, Nigeria via phone call, a week before Romeo Oriogun was announced the winner.
Gaamangwe: Romeo, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?
Romeo: I started writing three years ago, so being shortlisted for the prize is a gift. I am still trying to understand what it means. I’ve went through some turbulent times and I don’t expect good things to come, so I don’t know how to respond when something good comes to me.
Gaamangwe: The speakers in your poetry also exists in turbulent time, where the continuum for love is very much weaved with a lot of darkness. Who do your speakers speak for and why is it important for you and for them to speak about these spaces where love meets violence and death?
Romeo: One thing I tried to do while writing these poems is; I want them to take a voice of their own. Some of those poems I wrote them without even knowing the next line. With that being said, the history of queer people in Nigeria has lot of violence in it. I think with the advance of social media it has escalated, because you have people saying they are protecting their spaces from western influence without knowing that homosexuality has always been a part of African culture and that there are already queer people in Africa. So you have these speakers who try to say; we have been here and this is who we are. Some of the poems have the speaker who tries to run away because the environment makes life difficult, and love is not enough to conquer it. These dark places happen around me, especially because you have the law that has criminalized queer people, and so you have people who are hiding to express and show love.
I think the speakers in my poems are trying to express how best they can navigate this dangerous time, so you have some of them running and some of them staying even with all this danger. But the most beautiful thing about love is that in the end it always wins, it might be difficult and very hard but at the end of the day, love wins. Whether they are running, staying or dying, you have people saying; “This is us, this is what we are, this is what we feel and you can’t beat it out of us, you can’t steal it out of us and you can’t kill it out of us. We are queer people, we are here and we are beautiful.”
Gaamangwe: I am really disheartened by what queer people go through. How do you approach, think and validate the love experience when it can possibly lead to end of life?
Romeo: The beautiful thing about love is that there isn’t a box that can hold love. It is something that is powerful and boundless, it can’t be changed and can be expressed in different ways. Religion has contributed to some people killing queer people. They say this is not our culture, but what they are trying to say is that queer people cannot be found in a religious context, and that queer people are forbidden in a religious setting. You find them being hunted, lynched and killed. What this basically means is that queer people must learn to navigate this hate.
It’s a burden because you have an individual learning how to navigate hate and love at the same time. There is very little room for queer people, even in the literary world, because they are still frowned upon and pushed aside. We are fighting, writing and documenting but I feel that this is a battle that might not be won in my lifetime. We have to navigate so much and our lives are held in the balance depending on how we navigate these space every day. The thing is we can’t pigeonhole people, we have to allow people to express themselves, talk about how they feel and express love in the way they want to. We are going to find out one day that love is something that is diverse, and that life itself is diverse, and this diversity is what makes everything beautiful.
Gaamangwe: What is the one thing that you would want to remove in society that would make the queer experience much safer and free?
Romeo: The truth is, the problems facing queer people is not just one thing. It is diverse, but at the moment if you were to ask me I would tell you it is the hatred. If it can be removed and people can look at others with love, and see that these people are human beings and their experiences are valid, then maybe slowly there will be a little bit of a safe space for queer people in Africa.
I wrote into a chapbook called Burnt Man after a queer man was lynched and beaten to death in Nigeria. Afterwards, I had different people attacking me, it was a very traumatizing time for me because it was the first time I was writing about the queer experience and I had never realized the level of hatred towards queer people.
Queer men are looked at as wicked people and not ‘men enough’ culturally. Africans claim to be religious, we have Islam and Christianity dictating the way we ought to behave and live, and it is in these religions that queer people are frowned upon. The most surprising and amazing thing is that the white man brought this religion to us, yet the white man is more tolerant towards queer people. At least in many western countries, queer people are safe. I think it has to do with culture, religion and upbringing. I hope that the coming generation will make things easier but for my generation, our upbringing was very different, to the point where queer people hate themselves. They don’t perceive themselves as beautiful and natural. That’s adds another difficulty to this.
Gaamangwe: I wish people experienced religion mostly as life maps or efficient guidelines on how to navigate on life. Not as the one and only truth. Maybe that way we can understand that they are many ways to cross the forest of life. I can’t imagine how one navigates this betrayal from society, to the point of rejecting oneself.
Romeo: I think for me because I don’t expect much from society, I am no longer disappointed. Immediately after the Brunel Prize shortlist was out, a very good friend of mine said that I support perversion, I am a pervert and I should not reply him again. All this was very painful because even if I do not expect much from society, it still hurts. You expect at least educated people to be a little bit hospitable to us but you find that the hatred and rejection is more from them.
When my chapbook came out, a boy from Minna (a northern state in Nigeria dominated by Muslims) sent me a message and told me his father is a pastor and every night he cleanses his body and prays that he stops what he is feeling. He asked if I am a queer person, when I asked why, he told me he wanted to include me in his prayers because whatever I am feeling is a bad thing. He says he is praying against his body every day and is scared of his father knowing he is a queer person. I tried telling him about how beautiful and natural his body was but I knew this was not enough. This is someone who has rejected his body totally because he believes his body is full of sin. He doesn’t know that because the sun shines everywhere, everybody has a space in the world.
Queer people rejecting their bodies is the most painful thing to me when it comes to the whole queer experience in Africa. People hate themselves and some commit suicide. It is very pitiful and sad because people are going against their bodies and rejecting what they feel.. The good thing right now is that we have some people who look at queer people as people and their experiences as valid. Every journey takes time, so if we take a step here and there, we will get there.
Gaamangwe: I applaud you for writing about these experiences no matter how heavy and sad and terrifying it is. The very fact that you are doing this, that is the light. On lighter things, I have noticed that water in its various forms and states, (rainfall, oceans, rivers) comes up a lot in your poetry. What does water symbolize for you?
Romeo: Water for me is something special and it has to do with my childhood. As I child, I lost my dad and I had to live with an uncle. It was a very intense time because my mother was not allowed to take us – there was this battle between my dad’s people and my mum’s people for the custody. During that period, the only place where I could find peace was at a small body of water, a kind of stream. Along the road, you would find peace, birds singing and butterflies flying.
When I began writing I realised that it had taken a very significant place in my life and my writing. Water signifies peace and death and so many other things. It all depends on what I am writing about or the voice I am writing in. If I am writing in a very happy voice, it becomes a happy place and if I am writing in a sad voice, it becomes a place of escape – which is what water is to me. When the sea is crushing and the waves are going up and down, I feel detached from the world and I am entirely alone and there is beauty in that.
Gaamangwe: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.
Congratulations to Romeo Oriogun for winning the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and the powerful and important work on Queer experiences. The world is better place because of his poetry. – Gaamangwe Joy Mogami.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for this prize.
Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist