Gerald Kraak Award Shortlist: A Dialogue with Amatesiro Dore

Amatesiro Dore is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop, Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency and Regional Managing Editor (Nigeria) of The Theatre Times. He recently participated in the British Council/International Association of Theatre Critics “Young Critics Programme”, was awarded the Saraba Manuscript (Non-Fiction) Prize, the Reimagined Folktale Contest and is currently shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award.

This conversation took place in the green bedroom in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana, and Madrid, a smoky room with a mainland view, on the third floor of a Lagos hotel, in Yaba, via Email.

Gaamangwe: Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. What does being shortlisted for this award mean to you?

Amatesiro: Redemption: the first sign of victory, a befitting crown over the phobias and conditions that subdued the advancement of my published works, the reward of my literary labours and the celebration of my creative talents.

“For Men Who Care” is a tale of refusal, the audacity to say no and disagree with anything that questions the humanity of minorities like me. It’s an intellectual Fuck You to those who challenge, maim and dehumanise the natural urges and stimuli of people who can feel beyond their own majority capacity. I was tired of the timid, sexually-bland and pity-tales about souls like me. So I decided to write narratives of individual power, mental tenacity and fearful courage of people like me.

Getting shortlisted means more people will learn and understand that our days as a timid minority are over. And nothing will stand on our way to unconditional freedom, mutual respect and a seat on every table.

Gaamangwe: I absolutely love this intellectual Fuck You! It’s about time. Yes, “For Men Who Care” is a tale of refusal, but also so much more. The characters of your tale have a lot to say about what it means to care. To care about being true to oneself, and to care for others truly and sincerely. But also in that caring, they all dared to break all the walls that tried to close them off from their humanity and human rights. What walls were important for you to explore in your tale?

Amatesiro: Once, I was in a room with someone I cared about and I could hear the voice of my father through the walls. However I felt no shame, unlike Adam after eating the forbidden fruit. The walls surrounding my heart was beginning to crumble after that day. Yet, it wasn’t until I started documenting my queer experiences and imagination that I began to find courage to walk out of the cage of my upbringing.

During my teenage years, at the arrival of the internet in Nigeria, I would sneak to cyber cafes, sit at the last hidden corner, to read nifty.org stories, the only platform I knew that showcased my type of love. At that time, I was a “born again Christian” yet very curious about the workings of my heart. The only problem with nifty stories is that they never prepared anyone for life as Africans like myself. Most of the narratives promoted toxic homosexuality, low self-esteem and didn’t aid my craft as a writer. I wish they were better written, properly edited and intended to be mentally stimulating and not just to jerk off.

I’m writing the sort of queer narratives I love to read, without walls, not even around the bedroom. Though my characters formulate their own opinions, I simply document their words.

Gaamangwe: The characters in “For Men Who Care” are very courage, but the most courageous of them is you, their writer. It takes so much to allow the voices inside writers to come out as clearly as they are, especially in this very homophobic world. What is the source of your courage? The courage that allowed you to document your queer experiences and imaginations.

Amatesiro: Courage is overrated, doesn’t put food on the table; just a natural reaction of a person without hope, without any care for the world or regard for the consequences of their defiance. How do you qualify the courage of an innocent man on death row, who refuses to shed tears or beg the judge, but simply tells his story as he surrenders himself to the firing squad.

Courage is a political word, a label for “activists”; to honour a man for being courageous is medicine after death. But in the real world, courage is your mother confronting twenty assailants, without faith in your testimony, just her innate desire to keep you alive, to keep evil at bay, until morning comes.

Courage is my mother’s high blood pressure, the grey hairs that does not represent her age and the firm belief that her “useless” son will make something of his life. Courage is when the chief witness of your accusers testify in your favour, says the truth about your character and continues to love you during your persecution. Let’s not talk about courage. It’s a bad word in a scary world.

Gaamangwe: I don’t know, the poet in me thinks that courage is pretty bad ass. I think its a Godly thing. And a love thing that goes far beyond reasoning. We can think of it on the other side, but maybe we must insist on thinking of it, for all the ordinary people. I think that we must think of things far beyond their inspirations or sources, but also what the actions of those things mean and create for us. And if we must, we should render new meanings to words. Because we must find a way to survive this scary world. We must find the significance of ourselves in every single act, whether against or for us. But Amatesiro, what do you call what sustains you? What inspires you to keep documenting your experiences, and what makes you care?

Amatesiro: I loved reading as a child and never respected writing as career because my kind stepfather and beloved husband of my mother is a pioneer Nollywood scriptwriter, Itsekiri poet, accomplished playwright, seasoned journalist, respected film and documentary director whose multiple talents and creative hustles didn’t provide the luxurious lifestyle my mother deserved.

Secondly, I discovered to my chagrin, during my second year studying law, that the Nigerian legal system wasn’t designed to protect the poor, empower the weak and promote justice. As a result, I stopped reading John Grisham and his legal “fantasies”. I schooled and dined with the children of the custodians of our legal system. In fact, our entire educational system was designed to favour my classmates, kids from privileged families like my biological father and his associates.

So, as a child from parents habiting different economic spectrum, I enjoyed the luxuries of being my father’s son with a car of my own at sixteen, before the legal driving age of eighteen, while my hardworking stepfather could not afford to buy a car of his own.

I’m overly sensitive, one of my many personal weaknesses that favours my art. I would read a story or see something and absorb the pains therein like a sponge. And I enjoyed living in my head, questioning what doesn’t concern me and generally unable to mind my own business.

Somehow, my mother made me very aware of hardship as she shared her frustrations with me during my formative years. Every poor woman became my mother and I would always juxtapose her experiences with the peaceful existence of the spouse of my father, mothers of my rich classmates and better marital benefits enjoyed by her sisters.

If I was wiser, at that time, I would have practiced law like my colleagues, utilised the business connections of my father or would have found ways to commercialise my advantage as an early-user of social media in Nigeria. Instead of being a profitable son of my mother, I decided to “follow my dreams” of being a writer, deactivated my social media accounts for five years in order to concentrate on my craft and failed to realise how much my mother needed me to make my own money for myself.

Nowadays, I just want to make my mother happy after all the stress she undergoes as a result of my selfish decision to become a writer.

In Africa, only the privileged can document their experiences. Who wants to read a book when they haven’t eaten. So I document my experiences because I’ve come too far to turn back and my mother finally supported my writing ambitions, last year, after almost seven years of quarrels and disagreements.

Finally, I won at home and she said: “I’ll get anything I want”. She’s my motivation. I need to prove to her that I made the right decision to abandon my legal career. I believe my writing will be more beneficial to her plight and other financially disadvantaged Nigerians than any bloody legal career will ever do. After all, I schooled with the next generation of Nigerian judges and senior advocates and I can’t seem to hear their voices when we need them to speak to power, to challenge their parents and make Nigeria a better place for my mother.

Gaamangwe: Your mother is a lucky woman to have a son who cares as you do. However I do not think “following one’s dreams” of becoming a writer, should be thought of as selfish. An uncommon path? yes, a difficult path? absolutely. But a purposeful path? Yes, absolutely.

I think we all have roles that we ought and have to play for the bigger, collective purpose of humanity. I am thinking of it this simply. Infact, I sensed that this perspective of looking at the world as; this world belongs to all of us, and we have the right to live it anyhow we want, is what the stories of all of your charactersAdey, Emeka and Aliyuhighlighted. They were saying; unlearn self-sacrifice. This is your life, and it belongs to you. Do you.

But of course unlearning is no easy task. What do you think will make it easy to unlearn self-sacrifice, particularly for queer individuals? In reflection; do you personally grapple with self-sacrifice? And self-forgiveness, for the parts of you that others struggle to easily accept?

Amatesiro: I grew up needing Jesus, the lord of self-sacrifice. I needed Jesus to help me stop sucking my thump, my grandparents hated that beloved habit of mine and did everything to make me stop sucking my bandaged, incised and peppered best friend.

I needed Jesus in order to make friends. I attended four different primary schools and five distinct secondary schools across three Nigerian states, shuttling between my parents during their endless custody battles. On Facebook, everybody is my classmate. In reality, I never lived long enough in one home to build friendships to fortify my soul. In primary three, I knelt in the toilet of a new school and asked Jesus to send me a friend. And he sent Dayo, an effeminate friendly bully who protected my stay at Debo Nursery and Primary School.

Then I needed Jesus in order to stop bedwetting. My disgraceful enuresis kept me pious and faithful. After all, only Jesus could take away the shame of bed-wetting in senior secondary school. Miraculously, after almost fourteen years of wetting every bed I slept on, Jesus began to wake me up on dry beds.

A few months before my final secondary school examinations, I broke down and spent the next six months in and out of the most expensive hospitals in Lagos. To the shame of my mother’s enemies, I graduated with my classmates and got admitted into the most expensive private university in the country, at that time, when my fifteen year old mates were running errands for their parents.

However, my Christian upbringing said I shouldn’t masturbate and I wasn’t permitted to crush on the sexy guys loved by all the girls. Actually, by virtue of paternal wealth and maternal genes, I was one of the finest boys in every class I ever attended. As a Jesus boy, I wasn’t permitted to fornicate. I wasn’t permitted to openly fall in love with the kind of people I actually loved.

I was the undergraduate who “sowed” his car. As in, I gave one of the cars my father bought for me to Jesus, to his church and for his Pastor to convert into cash for the promotion of the Christian gospel. Brothers and sisters, I was contributing all my money to Jesus when my mother could barely afford to survive, when my siblings from her womb were sent out of school for failing to pay tuition as at when due.

In Nigeria, Jesus can never be satisfied. You keep paying and servicing your relationship with him so that your father doesn’t die suddenly like some of the parents of your classmates. I was in a very abusive relationship with Christ which ended abruptly when his church refused to give me my car papers, permit me to graduate with my peers and enjoy some form of social activities during my final year in university.

The break up was scandalous, widely-discussed and life changing. Suddenly, all the girls I used to preach to began to fall in love with me. And the boys, oh the boys, the things boys can do and say for love. I couldn’t believe guys were capable of such expressions. Here is this cold-hearted modafucker, sexier than the devil, having slept with all the girls, holding your hands in the dark and sharing his deepest fears with you. It was the most emotional shit in the world. It wasn’t love but there was a deep connection. Like David and Jonathan.

After Christ, I discovered that my heart was capable of such endless stream of affections, unbridled capabilities and I could perform wonders on the human body. The miracles I performed on the bed left many calling back but I wasn’t interested in building a life with them, Jesus said no, my friends would be disgusted and the comments of society: blood of Jesus!

I grew into my awesomeness. I danced in and out of love with Christ, trying to find a balance and negotiate our terms of engagement. After a while, I discovered Jesus wasn’t working for me. So I moved on and lived as I pleased.

Recently, based on the state of my heart and the works of my hands, my conversations with Christ has become respectful, humane and considerate. I refuse to apologise for the genuine affections of my heart. In fact, I take offence at any doctrine that belittles my existence or the way I love. So, let’s just say I have become my first priority. I have died and resurrected to live life on my own terms.

Nowadays, my conversations with God are very personal, without any middleman and I will never listen to anything that disagrees with my personal convictions. I am righteousness. I am holy. And I am the word of God unto myself.

Gaamangwe: This is so powerful Amatesiro. I am for this deep understanding and appraisal of the validity of all of our own experiences. I have always struggled with modern religion for this very fact, that it insists that there is only one way of life, and one right truth. It leaves far too little for the majority of humans to truly live their lives without shame and crippling fear. Much of homophobia is deeply steeped in religious beliefs that insists on invalidating people’s humanity. I do wonder, coming from such an intense religious beliefs, how have you integrated what you hold to be your spirituality into the experience of your sexuality?

Amatesiro: I first began to explore this idea, in print, during an anonymous interview with Saratu Abiola, the journalist and celebrity daughter of the late MKO Abiola, Nigerian billionaire and winner of the annulled June 12, 1993 Nigerian Presidential Election. This virile Yoruba business magnate, liberal Muslim and husband of intellectual and ambitious women would have been our first cosmopolitan Head of State. He was a man who navigated his own destiny, from an impoverished background to academic excellence at home and abroad, performing white collar jobs alongside running a multi-faceted business empire, courting the military and political class to the point of performing his own personal political ambitions. He was a man who metamorphosed with the times, navigating his personal faith to satiate his natural urges for women, challenging the status quo at home and abroad. Here is a man who demanded reparation from the West in 1992. Imagine his amazing audacity. It’s amazing the things we can learn from men who are different from us, of a different persuasion and orientation.

Back to the point: I discussed with Saratu as though I was talking to MKO Abiola. He seemed like my kind of person, an accommodating Yoruba man who will not allow religion blind his eyes. No wonder Yorubas make amazing Muslims. Islam is a religion for the intelligent. Christianity permits a believer to leave his brain outside the church. However, the most dangerous man in the world is a dumb Muslim. Ignorance and Islam is like oil on water. The fanatics will set all of us on fire. But a dumb Christian can only harm himself. In fact, Christianity encourages stupidity, the most successful churches are congregations of sheep following one man, their Pastor, who embodies Christ or whatever he believes to be the truth.

Christianity gives room for multiple interpretations depending on the Preacher, the school of thought or the dominant narrative. So if a bunch of homophobes gather together to compile several Christian writings and call it the Bible…that’s what it is to all those who believe and agree with them. Hence the fervent need for evangelism and “soul winning” in Christianity. There’s a need to convince people to accept and join their own school of thought. That is why there can never and will never be a universal Church. That’s too much power for one man, the Pope of the Catholics, majority of which were Italians in recent past. Not forgetting the defiant Russian Orthodox Church. And the events that led to the “heretical” founding of the German Lutheran Church and the English Anglican Communion.

However, there’s just one Islam and different levels of intelligent practitioners. Aside from the political, regional and tribal sects…like why would you think the heirs of the great Persians intellectuals of the past and the arrogant children of the up-and-coming Arabs will agree on the same version of Islam. The disagreements in Islam are intellectual and political. The variants in Christianity are based on the moods and spirits of the worshipers.

Of all the Nigerian cultures, the Yorubas are the most spiritually fluid set of people. True Igbo culture has no room for foreign ideas. Igbo metaphysics is set on unshakable principles of spiritual democracy, personal gods and communal superstitions. The Hausas were some of the most liberal societies in this part of the world before the Fulani-led Islamic jihad. Independent Hausa-city states, some were led by women and hosted queer communities, just like in Arabia before the great Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Unto His Name, conquered Medina and environs, and stripped the desert of sin and convinced his followers to flush barrels of indigenous Alcohol down the streets of Arabia like the blood of their unbelievers.

Jesus was the son of a Carpenter, a humble man of royal stock with power to perform miracles and bestow on you his rights and privileges in heaven. The Prophet, Peace Be Unto His Name, was an ambitious, intelligent and gifted orphan who interacted with God in the mountains and returned with a book, despite never having received any form of formal Arabic education like other intellectuals of his time. The Prophet documented his thoughts in precepts, hadiths and laws at a time when formal education had taken root in the world, when the Catholic Church was already a full-fledged spiritual and political enterprise. Imagine Scientology taking over the minds and souls of half the world population in a thousand years. The rise of the Prophet occurred when the record keeping system of the world had gone beyond oral transmission. Imagine starting a brand-new religion during an age of Twitter and Facebook about a thousand years ago.

As a result, Islam only functions best in the mind of intelligent people. It was written and transmitted by reading and reciting. To be a Christian, the heart only needs to believe while the mouth confesses the son-ship and God-ship of Christ. You don’t necessarily have to read the Bible to be a Christian but you must read and recite the Quran to be a true Muslim. Hence the prayers, five times a day. The best Christians are the dumb ones, the ones who know very little about the history of the Church and the Bible, just looking up to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith.

This is what I believe: that religion is one of the colours of life, a secondary colour of human existence, like some men are White and some men are Black. Art is a colour. Spirits are the highest colours. I believe in the spirit of a man. The greatest artists are men who have learnt how to mix colours. If you mix the spirit of a man and art it begets religion. If you mix spirits and science it begets magic, the big bang, shit actually happens. Magic is communal. Religion is personal. Magic requires consent. It is similar to miracles which are just the sparks generated from the clashes of your spirit and the circumstances of life.

For example: this has been my life after Christ, after I stopped praying to the Jesus in the Pastor, but to myself, my recreated human spirit that I have fashioned after my own thought processes, beliefs and the boundaries of my imaginations. As an artist, I have learnt to mix the colours of life to suit my taste and personal journey. A true Igbo man will not consult my chi if he decides to embark on a journey. He will consult his own chi. A Yoruba man will flow with the river. The real Hausa man will congregate together, according to mutual tastes and emotions, while also encouraging differences as a celebration of life.

Purposely, the three major characters in “For Men Who Care” originated from the three dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria: a gay Yoruba Demon, a self-made Igbo man seeking to settle down, and a fluid Hausa person.

We must question every shade of life. The injustices of every religion must fade away. Just a few centuries ago, White Christianity celebrated and propagated slavery. Then it evolved into colonialism. Now it’s just plain American-Christian imperialism. At least, Islam has moved beyond the Jihad and very soon terrorism will fade away.

As a man of faith, I believe Nigeria will evolve, that the inhuman portions of our religions will pass away. Homophobia is a failure of imagination. That a man can love and accept to be with another man is beyond the mental capability of some ignorant folks. And the custodians of current global religions are simply unwilling, unmotivated and uneducated about the beautiful lives of individual minorities. We must not all be White or Black, some of us can love a man and we have been loving men before the advent of your religion, irrespective of the creation story propagated by your holy books.

The history of the Bible is approximately five thousand years or thereabout. While the world has existed for millions of years. The Bible and the Quran are products of the personal history and cultures of the heirs of Abraham, a middle-eastern folklore hero. How does that affect the spiritual histories of Africans and non-middle-eastern believers. I don’t understand why the world is almost divided into supporters of the Muslim middle-east and their Judeo-Christian neighbours.

When my Itsekiri people and our Ijaw neighbours were killing each other over Warri, our battles remained in Warri. The Jerusalem wars and arguments should remain in Jerusalem. The world is not divided into Muslims and Christians. Some of us, no matter how few, have and must be free to practice our own private beliefs.

Thanks to my spirit and private faith, I love myself and I accept the validity of my love and affections. Any other opinion is inconsequential to my existence.

You must find ways to navigate your faith, art, self, spirit and sexuality. Nobody has the right to define the private activities of a private body even in a public space. Religion must give way to humanity. The lesser must remain within the control of the greater. My humanity trumps your spirituality and religious practices. If your Bible or Quran challenges my humanity, that’s your own bucket of paint, you should not affect me. Your private colours should not affect or compromise the colours of my life. The rainbow flag represents our beautiful and diverse human conditions and imaginations, our freedom to shine as equals and fellow humans.

Everyone must find their own colours and mix it with the right spirits and the result is your own personal religion.

I demand consent as a prerogative for religious beliefs. Irrespective of the religious beliefs of their parents, everyone must be given the right to question, challenge and transform their religious beliefs.

I worship myself. I’m the God of myself, fashioned after my private tastes and idiosyncrasies. I refuse to live by a two thousand year old doctrine formulated by a man who didn’t have a Facebook account neither was Twitter invented during his time. I’m the one here and I’ll live according to the religious rules that suits my soul.

Last-last, every man must find their own religion.

Gaamangwe: Oh what an education! What a truth, what a validity and what a way of life that is purely based on individual value fulfillment. I am in awe of your spirit and your truth. Thank you so much for this insightful dialogue, and for the work you have created for this anthology. Stay well, stay free.

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa’s leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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