Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba, Nigeria and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His proposal for a novel was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. His short story, “You Sing of a Longing,” was shortlisted for the 2016 Gerald Kraak Award. His first published story, “A Tenderer Blessing,” appears in Transition magazine and was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. His second story, “Mulumba,” appears in The Threepenny Review and has been translated into the German. His essays appear in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and Brittle Paper where he is Submissions Editor. He is the editor of the Art Naija series, a sequence of anthologies of writing and visual art which document aspects of Nigerian life. The first anthology, Enter Naija: The Book of Places, explores cities and marked Nigeria’s 56th Independence anniversary. The second anthology, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations, explores professions and is forthcoming in June 2017. Otosirieze teaches English in a Nigerian University. When bored, he blogs popular culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.
This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a serene university town in Nigeria by Email.
Gaamangwe: Otosirieze, Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. What did it mean for you to shortlisted for this award?
Otosirieze: Thank you, Gaamangwe. I think of this shortlisting in December of last year, the judges’ choice of “You Sing of a Longing,” as the moment my belief in my artistic instincts became unwavering. Of the three submissions I made, this was the one I felt the least confident about. I suspected I had taken things too far. But I couldn’t bring myself to change a story that came to me the way it did. I wrote it in August, 2016. I had received a beautiful rejection from The Missouri Review, I think, the sort of rejection email that half-reads like a blurb. I’d gotten countless rejections at that point but that one destabilized me. I shared it with my friends, we joked about it. Before that rejection, I assumed I had completed my collection of stories, something I began in November, 2012 and which had tasked me emotionally. But after that rejection I felt something desperate. I wanted to convince myself that I can still write something satisfying at will, that I can wake up and get my laptop and write a story I would be proud of. It was frustration and I wanted to be artistically unhindered. “You Sing of a Longing” took me seven days to write. I renamed my collection after it. Still, I felt my other submissions were stronger. I laugh now to think I only chose it as filler because it captures human rights better than the rest, not because I was convinced it was as strong. So when it was shortlisted, I was breathless. Even amidst the excitement, I asked myself, but why not the other story? I sat down to think and realised that this story is one of the best things I’d done, that this shortlisting might have freed in me something I didn’t know was tame in me: the willingness to dare. I’m not merely grateful that I was shortlisted, a bulk of my gratitude comes from their choice of this story—and what they said about it.
Gaamangwe: This is wonderful. I am happy that this shortlist came to you as it did. And now, knowing the backstory, I must saying there was an urgency in “You Sing of a Longing” that goes beyond the character. I am thinking about this now, about our longings as human beings, and what it takes to fulfill them. Our longings can be as simple as the willingness to be true to oneself. What was important for you to articulate in “You Sing of a Longing”? What longings did you discover about your characters and you, their creator, in the writing of “You Sing of a Longing”?
Otosirieze: All my life I have needed something else. For some things to be and for some others to never exist at all. The word “longing” is a prism through which I see, and have proceeded to explain to myself, a lot of the world around me. A lot of existence is cosmetic, a lot goes into becoming those versions of ourselves we want the world to see. I wanted to articulate my frustration with personal relationships, the power and unreliability and even rarity of love, how its offer or withdrawal can make or break. I wanted to articulate what it means for something to be unfinished: affection, purpose. I wanted to articulate what it means to be broken, to have a void in you while performing for the world. I wanted to get inside what it means to be queer.
To survive as a queer person in Nigeria, one needs to be rich, powerful or influential, or to be a damn good performer of heteronormativity. Naturally, fewer people belong to the first group so most queer people perform to acceptability. But even in the first group are the ones whose power limits rather than frees them. Rather than be themselves in their secure places, their fears intensify and becomes helplessness. The singer in the story, Zukora, belongs here.
It was important to me to identify how, in pop culture as in politics, power is safety. The most influential Nigerians are entertainers, not politicians. Politicians have power but entertainers command astonishing influence here. One need only look at the loud response to Tu Face’s announcement months ago that he would lead a protest to understand how a beloved entertainer can impact a national discussion. And this is where part of my frustration arises from: a seeming reluctance by most to use this influence to push for positivity.
I am not making the simplistic suggestion that queer entertainers should come out as queer simply because they occupy this special place in our culture—coming out, after all, is a personal decision—but it is so easy to see how, if this ever happened, it could help humanize and normalize queerness in the mind of the average Nigerian. Depending on their level of popularity, such an entertainer might not face the sort of backlash meted out to lesser known people. A considerable number of people would continue to love them, but most importantly, an even greater number would understand that their hatred for queerness is something they were taught, that it can be unlearned. Most would understand that they only hate queer people because they do not know any queer person close to their heart. Love, acquaintance, familiarity: these, in different ways, can destabilize hate. I long for this to happen.
In the time I spent thinking about Zukora, I found myself empowered to walk around my fears. I think of my characters as human beings, as people I might be aware of in real life. I am unsure, if he existed, whether I would be friends with Zukora—and I would like to. But I know that I would intensely admire him.
Gaamangwe: As I would too. Because I understood and deeply sympathies with Zukora’s personal reality. I think about his helplessness in the face of all of his longings. I relate, as any human would, to the paralyzing essence of helplessness. And how our longings seem so daunting and unreachable when you are at the starting point. And I think how sometimes, freedom is also scary. Who am I without my performing, public persona? Our performing personas are intoxicating, enough to make us think these are the best versions of ourselves.
Because, the world seems to be sustained by so many mis-truths. The world doesn’t want to know alternative truths. So the single story thrives. I am playing devil’s advocate here, and saying celebrities are complacent with using their powers to impact the world positively, because of helplessness. Also, hatred is searing to the human spirit, and so we ran away from it as much as we can. We all want to be loved and accepted. It’s the cowardly way, but also the human way.
I have to say, Zukora is very brave. And we need more Zukora’s in the world. Because yes, brave people empower us to walk with our fears. I wonder though, what fears did you walk around with? What did you confront and learn/relearn/unlearn about queer experiences? Also humor me here, what makes you unsure about a friendship with Zukora?
Otosirieze: We do need more Zukoras, even if their helplessness comes from an inadequate evaluation of their possibilities. However, because Zukora and celebrities like him come from lower class backgrounds, a lot can also be said about how grappling with new privilege contributes to theirs.
The first fear I walked with, as a child and until my later teenage years, might have been an inability to speak up. It terrified me. Why couldn’t I say things? There was shyness; there was—and I shudder to think I went through this—a fear of acceptance, of recognition, of being seen. I wanted it but I feared it. I was too quiet, always silent, when in fact I had too much to say. It was not until a few years ago that I defeated this and seemingly became an opposite of my former self.
Whether or not Zukora and I could be friends if he existed is something I might have made simplistic but which isn’t. He—with his reluctance to speak up—is that person I escaped. He—with his need for love and the validation that comes with love—is that person I have spent my life running from. I doubt I would want in my present something I spent my past disowning. I wanted him to be as different from the present me as possible, as different from any other character I’ve written. He isn’t a talker, he isn’t profound, but he acts for the things he believes in, even when knowing they could be flawed. In this sense, I also hoped for him to reflect what impatient critics of Nigerian pop culture might call “the average Nigerian celebrity”—the one who without his success, with only his person, would appear ordinary; the one who is likely to have nothing profound to offer outside their work. The one whose music is just good beats, whose lyrics are shallow.
I hoped for Zukora to exemplify what happens when unconquerable truths are canned tightly inside us: sometimes they erupt. But this only happens because he summons the bravery to follow his heart. And for all his lack, this is what matters the most.
And his experience has helped me interrogate mine. Because it breathes mostly in secrecy, love isn’t cheap for a queer person in Nigeria. I have realised that it isn’t at all free for a gay man, for example, because he is at the bottom of the acceptability chain and the likeliest to be visited with physical violence. Nigerian homophobia has tiers of discrimination. Bisexual woman, lesbian, bisexual man, homosexual man: in order of acceptability. And with the rising visibility of male cross-dressers, one is led to wonder whether transgender people would be placed above or below the lesbian. Needless to say, the heterosexual male reigns, followed by the heterosexual woman. I have learned how this “hierarchy” has to do with Nigerian men being more homophobic than women.
With the average, unprivileged gay man loving only in secret, every love he receives signifies something different, so that its loss is devastating—and this is even more so in the case of young people. Zukora, for example, never recovers from Dr Uzodinma’s desertion of him, Dr Uzodinma who he looks up to, and this heartbreaking betrayal eventually shapes the man he becomes. He retreats from that identity. He never comes out to his manager, Chuka, and then wishes he had when Chuka dies. He learns to not expect genuine romantic affection, he turns down an offer at a club, and when he finally becomes interested in another man, Priye, he is quick to discard him. This is what mostly happens in Nigeria: a reluctance to indulge love.
Realising these hasn’t been a happy experience. And it isn’t even a uniform experience across the country. Like the Brunel Prize winning poet Romeo Oriogun pointed out, privilege is what decides how free you can be with your identity. I grew up in Aba, a commercial nerve center of Eastern Nigeria, a city notorious for its frequent resort to violence, and a poor gay man living there just doesn’t have the same life as a not-poor gay man in Victoria Island, Lagos, or a rich gay in Abuja. Class, I have always been aware, makes oppression worse, but I have been surprised to find how wide the gulf is between privileged and unprivileged queer people in Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: I feel like the more I get to understand Zukora from your perspective, the more I admire him. I appreciate what he represents; what he speaks of and who he speaks for.
I grapple a lot with the gulfs among different group of people, and how their placement—depending on what boxes one can tick off—determines their experiences in life. Why are we more understanding to people with fame, power and physical attraction? Why is it that the question of freedom and who is deserving changes the more one has likability factors in their favor? And how are we suppose to navigate this as a world? What does that say about homophobia; what is the exact thing that people actually fear about homosexuality? I ask because I am slowly realizing how homophobia is far more complex and deeply entrenched into other factors that have nothing to do with sexuality and what “religion” and “nature” says about it.
Otosirieze: I think that our being more understanding with famous people comes mainly from two connected emotional places: our fear of separation from the symbol they have become, and our need for the reassurance their visibility provides. We are likelier to understand them because we fear losing them, because every misunderstanding is a step away from the safety they represent, away from that aspect of their humanity that we reflect ourselves in, and so we make compromises, we judge them less frequently, less harshly, because to do otherwise, to unlove them, would be to lose. This is also often true with attractive people we like.
The other reason has to do with the dynamics of our ability to change at all. We are lenient with famous people because—given what they represent, given that we project desired versions of ourselves on them—we need them to continue existing. Their existence, the obvious visibility of it, is a tangible reassurance of the validity of our beliefs. Our continued identification with them means we are also relevant.
I’m led to think that, for a considerable number of people, to unlove a particular celebrity would be to disassociate themselves from a particular way through which the world already sees them—and this isn’t at all an inferiority complex or anything detrimental. An example is a lot of black women and Beyonce. A lot of queer people and Lady Gaga.(And I think, also, that this “relevance” can work the other way round, i.e. enable us to hate them).
Because celebrities have high visibility, because we already locate ourselves in their relevance, we find ourselves engaging whatever they represent—willingly or unwillingly. Because we don’t always judge them, our deference also extends to that thing they represent. In this way, they are able to influence us, change or reinforce our beliefs. And because of this reluctance to judge on our part, they also get away with things that the average person would not.
It is the same with people we like, the reason we are likelier to listen to people we love even when they are saying the same things others already said but that we ignored. The reason we are likelier to forgive people if we loved them. Because our world is at the mercy of people with power, influence, fame, our best bet would be hope. Hope that they always side with our humanity, that they would always project what would build rather than destroy us.
So if a Megastar-by-Nigerian-Standards were to call out homophobia—a Tu Face or P-Square or D’banj or WizKid or Davido—there are people who would become willing to reconsider their stand simply because it came from those particular celebrities. Because the said celebrity’s support for the LGBTIQ cause will have made visible and normal what that person has been led to see as unusual and therefore abnormal. Homosexuality is difference and people fear difference, especially when such difference is yet to receive conventional acceptance. A famous person can accelerate acceptance by making such a difference visible, because with visibility comes that all-important normalisation.
People who could be so influenced are similarly likely to have a rethink if someone they loved came out to them as queer. Because their homophobia is fuelled by non-familiarity: the presumption that queer is the sort of thing that other people are, a thing that their loved ones cannot be, and so shouldn’t be something they have to engage without following the norm.
When I engage curious homophobic people in person, the ones who genuinely want to know what queerness is, I explain to them the premise for the conversation. Two questions that saying yes to would confirm their willingness to discuss truthfully.
- Do you believe that nobody knows everything?
- Do you believe that no one can adequately and truthfully talk about something they haven’t experienced?
If they say yes to those, then I would present three more questions because it is important that their words come from a place of genuine involvement. I ask them:
- Are you queer?
- Do you have a parent, sibling, close relative, close friend who is queer?
- Have you ever had a heart-to-heart discussion with a queer person about their queerness?
If they say no to all, I then explain to them how knowledge of facts—the things they must have read about gays—is simply unequal to an experience of a truth. I tell them they cannot truly understand what queerness is if they have had no personal, non-sexual experience of it. Then I ask their pre-convictions. And I table mine.
Heterosexual male Nigerian homophobes are quick to announce that they don’t want another man taking interest in them; and they actually fear this happening, which I’ve come to realize is psychological. To become the object of another man’s affection would be, in their minds, to place them where over the years they have placed women: in a subordinate position where their bodies represent sexual fulfilment and the actualisation of domination. So their first instinct is to fight. They summon violence.
I am yet to see a heterosexual male Nigerian whose homophobia doesn’t soften when asked about lesbian sex. Why? Because lesbian sex would feed his male gaze. I once heard about lesbians who were forced to continue having sex after being caught, while the men watched and taped them. The men, the story went, were annoyed to find that girls who had turned them down have been fucking each other. And their rage was uncontrollable.
So there’s an underlying hypocrisy to the homophobia of a Nigerian heterosexual male. I know of several instances. I talk only of male heterosexuals because they hold the power, and because a homosexual man’s homophobia has become heartbreakingly dangerous that any adequate discussion of it would demand a book.
Gaamangwe: And so sex is not only a weapon of power, domination and wars, it’s a tool that maintains patriarchy. I think of how the very act of it—from courtship to orgasm—are all the powers that are held and maintained by men. So how dare one rejects or negate those powers! How dare you insinuate that we are equal or God forbid inferior to the image we hold men to be? This comes in the way that homosexual males are thought to be less than a man. The “don’t be a sissy”: meaning don’t be weak like a woman, don’t be inferior like a woman and don’t be sub-human like a woman.
Because if we have men who are like women, then everything that holds the patriarchal systems crumples. Society cannot afford to have and accept the reality that; yes men are soft, yes men are vulnerable, yes men can love other men, because after all those are women things, and those are the exact women things that show that women are weak and that justify why we need a system that is sorely run by men. How do we then respond/shift/remove homophobia when its too deeply entrenched in deeply rooted ideologies of patriarchy?
Otosirieze: I do not think that an oppression like homophobia, deriving strength as it does from ubiquitous patriarchy, can be dismantled in isolation. I believe that central to systems of oppressions, in ways we might not have identified, is gender, because gender exists in that most conventional of binaries—masculinity vs femininity. Correct gender, acknowledge and ensure the accordance of equal rights and privileges to women, and we will have weakened a lot of things: homophobia, transphobia, biphobia.
Homophobia overlaps with misogyny. Heterosexual homophobes hate homosexuals because they disrupt their system of power, they assume positions not meant for them. The purportedly “dominant” lesbian often assumes masculinity, the purportedly “subordinate” gay often assumes femininity. The success of misogyny lies in ensuring that the dominating people are male and the subordinated people female. Which is why, like you pointed out, male weakness is immediately connected to femininity; all unconventional, softer masculinities are portrayed as feminine. And this equation of femaleness with weakness, this deliberate resort to misogyny in an issue that should exclusively be “male,” is a defence mechanism that aims to reassert the primacy of a structure that had, to the male chauvinist homophobe, been temporarily challenged. In Things Fall Apart, for example, this structure roars back through Okonkwo who insists on masculinizing his son, Nwoye, and keeping the world the way it should. But unlike Nwoye who can be bent to this oppressive masculinity, LBGTIQ relationships upend this structure in irreversible ways: they disorganize things and make roles unclear, and by so doing make oppression more difficult, and so they draw resentment, they generate the kind of frustration remediable only through, homophobes believe, hate.
If patriarchy did not adopt misogyny as its primary weapon, if there was no misogyny at all, then I do not think that homophobia would exist in the difficult way that it does. Because there would be no unprovoked fear by homophobes of being subjected to things they subject women to. Because there would not at all exist a system in which one gender is oppressed. Which in turn would make a masculine woman who loves a fellow woman or a feminine man who loves a fellow man or a man who transitions into a woman something normal. But then patriarchy already exists, armed with misogyny, and so homophobia, I suspect, can efficiently be shifted or disarmed with shifts in our gender relations.
Still, this is only one way of taking out homophobia, a root way that might prove tough in the long run due to the way issues proliferate in our world. All of this, though, is not to suggest that the LGBTIQ rights movement, as a full struggle of its own, would not be successful without tackling gender issues.
Gaamangwe: I am here thinking about what came first here; misogyny before patriarchy or the other way around? Was it that somewhere a “rupture” happened where suddenly the feminine energy was seen to be a danger to the masculine energy, enough and deep that the fear morphed into hate, and ultimately inspired the bearer of the “more” masculine energy to, in a gesture to “defend” themselves from feminine energy, create a society that will easily direct and control feminine energy?
I want to believe that there must have been a point in time where we all understood and appreciated the differences and necessity of feminine and masculinity energies. Where the status quo was polarities can co-exists and serve humanity differently but in an equal manner. What changed? And most importantly how do we get back there? How do we now correct our current understanding, treatment and experience of gender?
Otosirieze: There are huge implications in your pondering of misogyny and patriarchy. History has never been kind, generally, and one wonders how much more brutality it would reveal if unwritten from the male vantage and rewritten from a neutral perspective. I’m not sure I know what to say or how to say it, but I suspect patriarchy came first.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across any social history that deals with this exactly, so I would refer to the Bible. With the way the book of Genesis is both written and taught, we are expected to blame Eve for Adam’s failure. I find it interesting that the man—who we are told is the de jure leader and from whose rib the woman was formed—absolves himself of primary responsibility for his disobedience. Why does he push the blame to the woman when he is the older being?
This story—the idea that Eve came from Adam’s rib—is obviously the inauguration of patriarchy. Someone had to be the first and—because God is supposedly a man—he made a man first and so the man became the leader of the woman, animals, plants, all creation. Given that Eve receives primary blame from Adam for Adam’s own weakness, it is only logical to see this as the moment of “rupture” that you pointed out. The moment that feminine and masculine energies began to be seen not as complementary but as—for lack of a better word—rivals. The feminine was the usurper. I think this might have been sexual as well: Man must have been frustrated by his attraction to Woman, his seeming inability to exist without her, but because he cannot resist it, he resents her for having this power over him, despite that this power is mutual. This Biblical tale, I’m convinced, is the inauguration of misogyny. And, over the years, men have intensified this belief that, if they were to exist at their best, women had to be subjugated. If women had sexual power over them, they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to have other things that they, the men, had. And so began the reality you capture so well as “a society that will easily direct and control feminine energy.”
How to destroy patriarchy and misogyny? I don’t know. The immensity of it makes me want to cry.
I have an essay forthcoming in Praxis magazine in which I have laid down a few of my convictions about gender. I think of the importance of so many things, the importance of plurality in our efforts. Patriarchy cannot be defeated in one way because it does not frustrate us in only one way. We need many, many loud voices.
The world needs a Beyonce whose marriage is important to her as much as it needs that feminist for whom men hold no charm. We need a Rihanna who wears a see-through dress because it’s her body as much as we need a Taylor Swift who doesn’t buy into nudity because, again, it’s her body. And as difficult as it sounds, we very much need the character Isabelle Huppert plays in the film Elle, a woman who is raped but refuses to be a victim—and I know, being a man, that saying this is risky. But then we also need honesty.
Patriarchy is detailed; resistance to it must also be detailed. I think of the detailed power of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s suggestions in Dear Ijeawele as a starting social point. I think, too, of the system that allowed Rwanda to have the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world as a starting political point.
I’m worried on a professional level. The lead characters in my fiction are mostly gay men and so it bothers me that one day I might misjudge a female’s story and let it be told by a man. It hasn’t happened but I fear its possibility. Irrespective of how feminist a man is, he should never forget where he belongs: in a group that oppresses and continues to oppress women. With this, one sees how any #NotAllMenAreScum position is the dismissive gender equivalent of the intensely dishonest #AllLivesMatter.
Cultural production in Africa is no longer dominated by heterosexual men, not as it used to be. Literature, for example, is now run by women, and they are using it so well to fight back, to write their sex and gender back into history. The next generation of writers, the ones who began to blossom last year and would peak in five years’ time, is dominated by people who are either queer or female and who have already begun to revolt against the normalized absence of their kind in literature. The coming decade, the 2020s, promises so much. But even if so much changes by that time, it would take considerable time for it to reach the grassroots which is where it should really worry us all. Because, soon, it might all come down to class differences. I am worried that cultural progress in Africa—generally and as regards LGBTIQ and gender rights—is proving very difficult partly due to the slow progress in our political cultures.
Gaamangwe: You have given me so much to think about. I am shifted. Thank you so much for this dialogue. There is a lot of work to do here, but yes we will get there. We are exactly where we need to be, and we are doing far much better than we realize. The idea is to keep at it, for ourselves, for the next generation.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for The Gerald Kraak Award 2017 Shortlists.