The Weight Of Exile In A Body: A Dialogue With Romeo Oriogun
BY PETER AKINLABI
This interview happened between the city of Ilorin, Nigeria and the town of Iowa, United States of America via email.
Peter Akinlabi: Your first book-length collection of poems Sacrament of Bodies is due out in March 2020, congratulations! Could you speak about the book in terms of the ideas and experiences that informed the poems?
Romeo: Thanks! The book began in February 2016 at Ikare-Akoko. I was a Road Marshal on duty when we heard on the radio about a lynching. Olumide Akinnifesi, a gay man, was “caught” having sex with another man. He was lynched to death at Ondo town, barely two hours drive away from me. What struck me immediately and still terrorizes me was the validation of his death by colleagues, friends and people around me. It seemed that because of his sexual orientation, his life was no longer his, it became a public property to be discarded. There was no protest about his death, his family made no noise, he was buried quietly. Even in death, there was shame around his lifeless body. I went home disturbed and in great pain. It dawned on me that with a few changes in circumstances it could be me, it could be any queer person. I had never been shaken the way I was on that day. My bisexual body was fully awakened to the terror waiting outside my door, for it was the day I realized that even when in hiding, there is no safe space for queer bodies of the lower class. The night of his death, I wrote the first poem of the manuscript, and over time I became interested in how class works in queer spaces, how it determines whose body is closer to death than the others. I had discovered, just like most people have done in the past, that poor queer people are disposable, their bodies are not worthy of outrage in a society where class politics is supreme, even in the struggle for freedom. I had to write about it. I couldn’t keep quiet. The poems kept coming and they eventually became a book.
Peter: This, perhaps, is what gives your poetry such passionate poise, the burns of identification, the anguish of a witness-sufferer, transformed through the facility of language into a realm where at least small actions, like speech, could be possible as you put it so poignantly:
“Can’t you see the birds are burning
and there’s no one to gather their bones?
Now, this book—those poems—is important more than ever. Not only to the social outlooks in Africa where matters of love and desire are often subjected to ill-digested cultural and religious creeds, but also to quest for thematic inclusion in Nigerian poetry where focuses on “real world issues” often occlude “taboo” subjects like same-sex relationship. Of course, that canon is shifting; I am thinking of Jude Dibia‘s work, your poetry, and many more queer writing from Nigeria that will now find legitimacy of precedent. The wish is that, perhaps, if more people talk and write about these subjects, we can begin to overcome such elemental hate, such normative fear that you talk about, which broaches neither refinements nor humanity, and which mark people out for danger and violation because they are considered to be outside of some putative norms.
Romeo: There is no political without the personal. I have read poems written by the first generation of Nigerian poets. The poems they wrote were considered taboo and disruptive to a colonial way of life; Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” was disruptive. I think the world is organized on hierarchy and phases of struggles. It shouldn’t be so but what we wish for and what is the reality are two different things. Time moves slowly from one struggle to another. While it is long overdue, this is the time for queer people to disrupt Nigerian literature.
I think why it seems as if we are not centered in “real world issues” is because those at the center of things decide what are “real world issues.” In this case, spaces dominated by heterosexual writers have rejected and pushed queer voices into the dark. There is a desperate need to silence queer voices or writers interrogating queerness, to silence that part of their art. Jude Dibia, Unoma Azuah, Chinelo Okparanta, Frankie Edozien and Akwaeke Emezi have written books that have contributed to the queering of Nigerian literature. But to look at the beginning is to look at Amos Tutuola’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, yet people don’t talk about that. At an ANA conference in 2018, Obinna Udenwe wrote that Prof Nwachukwu Agbada who was a judge for the 2012 NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature said this about books interrogating sexuality at a time when this boon in queer voices was not yet here, “In 2012, a book that was going to win the NLNG Prize and in fact ended up winning the prize had many instances of sex. I advised that such book should not be given the prize, that doing so would set a precedence for future judges to start awarding the prize to books on sexuality.” We have been scarred by the fears of heterosexual writers and gatekeepers, who having been reluctant to deal with their homophobia turned their anger on us. Even at a time when we were still in the dark, they turned their anger on our future. But we have been here, in their faces, all the time.
Folklore has always found a place for queer people and our stories...Perhaps, what was lost at the Makerere Convention of 1962 was not just the blossoming of literature written in indigenous languages, but also the loss of the impending shift of queerness in Folklore to literature written in English. Perhaps, to center African literature in English was to force it to walk through the path English literature walked through, which means to walk through its pretentious Victorian age of censoring queer voices. I think this is the danger of the desire to exist in a white literary tradition while decolonizing African literature. Queer voices know that to decolonize is to turn towards the past, for if we walk just beyond the British colonial laws, we will find ourselves, queer and flourishing in a lot of precolonial societies. Maybe the past is lost to us, but we can learn from it while we figure out what a post-decolonized African society will look like. I think this is why I am devoted to the archive, for I believe that we are remapping queerness with new languages. Humans have always had desires, people have always left records of their desires. The fact that there are now pioneering queer voices in different genres of Nigerian literature testifies not to our geniuses but to the power of homophobia in Nigeria and its literary spaces, for if it is this powerful, then there might be books, poems, letters written by queer Nigerians waiting to be discovered. I found the poems of Abayomi Animashaun during one of such researches. There are some of his poems published in 2014 that interrogates with a visceral honesty the lives of bisexual men in Lagos, or in a city that resembles Lagos.
There is no universal concept of queerness. Queerness in Nigeria is unique and different from one society in Nigeria to another. We have always been present, and we’ve been talked about. I agree that we need more voices to protest. I also agree that setting a precedent can provide succor and legitimacy to other queer voices coming behind us, but I think the discourse around queerness is not new. It has become normal even if people still fear what they don’t understand. For that, we don’t only have to thank colonial laws, but we also have to thank Islam, Christianity and politicians who have no idea how to run a state other than through corrupt and inefficient practices and who are always looking to blame queer people for everything, including their incompetence.
We have established, by simply living our lives, that we belong to the Nigerian society as much as anyone. We don’t have to write ourselves into being seen and the fact that there is a need to do such is a shame to our society. Our aesthetics are used in the alte scene, in fashion, in art, what remains is for the law against our bodies to be repealed and for society to see beyond their fear which is rooted in the way Nigeria was colonized. It is the law we need to bring down. Queer people have a very fundamental need to see a working and fair Nigerian society. In every society homophobia is present; it is the law that guards us. It is what we need in Nigeria. I am less concerned with what heterosexuals think about queer people as it is a distraction from the main struggle. It will not go away now or in years to come. Years after Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation”, racism is still with us but there are now laws that protect black people and other people of color, even if those laws sometimes are slow, they are there, a reassurance that the lives of people matter. Evil will always be with us, what we can change is the law, and that’s my concern.
“I think this is why I am devoted to the archive, for I believe that we are remapping queerness with new languages. Humans have always had desires, people have always left records of their desires. The fact that there are now pioneering queer voices in different genres of Nigerian literature testifies not to our geniuses but to the power of homophobia in Nigeria and its literary spaces, for if it is this powerful, then there might be books, poems, letters written by queer Nigerians waiting to be discovered.“
Peter: It is interesting that you use the word “sacrament” to describe this body of poems. I noticed, reading some of the poems, that you have interpreted the idea of “sacrament” in multiple ways, just as you have the idea of the “body”. It seems to me that there are ritualized intelligences at play connecting both concepts, but in a most dialectical sense, a sense in which the grace of the body is always in danger of arbitrary social definition. Often the experiential solidities of love and home are subject to the resolution of a need (or desire) for flight. Danger at many levels, its awareness, dampens even moments of devotion and defiance. What I am saying is that it is much like the invocation of sacredness—of consecration—of the body is constantly ruptured by inescapable acts of desecration.
Romeo: The body is a ritual; I believe this to be true. While growing up in Benin City, my mother used to say, may your legs lead you home. With time, I had thought of that saying as prayer not just for safety but literally to the legs, to a part of the body. We can only pray for safety; we can only hope but the truth is that for queer people from the lower-class, there is nothing that protects them. I was one and I still feel like one, even if my current living situation has changed how I experience danger. I believe that if the body is a ritual, then in sex, in loving, in giving yourself to someone, the body becomes a sacrament eaten by two or more people. For the queer body, love is an act of rebellion, home is a myth, it is a place where even in the most blatant moment of protest there is always danger lurking. In such a place, the queer body will always be aware of routes of escape.
There is no romantic idea to exile for us, for to leave is to lose home. In Ghana, I met a boy who had to leave Nigeria because he was outed, and his picture was on the television. Around the world, there are lots of people like that, there are others who still live in hiding in Nigeria. We are a people who know that a successful act of climax in a ‘face me – I face you’ room is a celebration of victory. Often, this celebration is short-lived. Maybe flight would not be necessary if there wasn’t a law that the mob or the police don’t even care about its interpretation before they arrest or lynch queer people. Maybe flight wouldn’t be necessary if a law didn’t make our bodies for extermination with its opaque language. In my interrogation of queer male lives in these poems, I was concerned about those who are under the feet of society whose social class won’t offer them protection.
There are lots of rich queer people in Nigeria. They have their own battles, but I am not from that class. I have no idea how they survive. I wanted to write poems that the queer people on my street or streets like mine would understand. My hope is that it gets to them. I don’t know how and this is my current dilemma. Hopefully, one day, a queer young boy will pick it up in a bookshop or from a roadside vendor and see that he is not alone, just the way I picked Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill on a roadside book pile opposite the University of Ibadan and discovered for the first time that there is a language already crafted by black gay poets to give my queer body comfort.
Peter: There is a strong and exciting handling of identity in your work. You begin with the portrayal of the body-in-danger defined against the horrors of precarious communication. Then we arrive, with the poems, at the place where that body finds and loses love, witnessing the peace, betrayal and anguish of forbidden intimacies. And then the flashes of struggles, including the bivalent enthrallment with self and others. These logics of conflict will later lead us to oedipal instantiations in poems like “Prelude to Freedom” and “On the 23rd Death Anniversary of my Father”. These collocations map the multiple identities of the speaker’s body which are being revealed to us in small pragmatic degrees. How do you grid such dappled spaces and moments into such coherent narrative?
Romeo: I believe that in every state of war, in every trauma, there are tender moments. The body was not made to withstand violence for a long time. If it does, then it will breakdown and will require help or where that fails, it will require a miracle to lead it back to joy. Everyone finds those tender moments; we are all creatures of small wonders. Every struggle is also not instantaneous, there is always a path, a pattern that unfolds until it becomes a raging fire. I wanted to map out those patterns, to follow it and show how the queer body finds tender moments as it survives, as it grapples with humanity and existence the way all bodies do. I also wanted to show that queerness is not just about our genital, even if it becomes the body in a homophobic society like Nigeria. Every queer person knows we are much more. I tried to weave these struggles within the desire to exist in the fullness and the need to survive in a society where sex is the only thing people see about queer people, and to be honest if this fixation with the sexual lives of queer people didn’t come with violence, I wouldn’t be bothered. Sex starved people have to find a way to enter fantasies of those free of sexual bondage. Thanks for your words, I was scared that I didn’t succeed, maybe I should relax now that the book is about to go into the world and watch how people relate and interrogate it.
Peter: One of my favorite poems in this collection is “What Didn’t See the Light”. I am always interested in the role of the mother in the development of the mind. The father-son connections have been well represented in literature world over, not so much mother-son intimacies. I know yours are defined by loss and grief caught in some moving lines like
“I was searching for my mother
in the painting on the wall” –
But there is always a sense of solidity somewhere, sense of assurance of her presence in the scheme of things:
“I could walk into forests with just a book & find my way
back to my mother’s chest”
“Here my mother is alive, she’s my city
and I hold her close “–
What are your thoughts about this?
Romeo: My mother was my best friend, she meant everything to me, and I miss her every day. I didn’t set out to write poems about her. I think I was trying to do something else but the mind always goes back to its intimate wish and pain. For me, I always think about what my mother would say about lots of things. In a way, I belong to a space that is in the past, a memory of a dead woman. I think in these poems, in those lines, I was trying to bridge her memory to the present because I believe the dead are with us. That belief is what has kept me alive in the past.
I cannot say why there are not lots of poems about mother-son relationship, maybe there is something people are afraid to say or to confront, I do not know, but my mother is dead, the only way I can keep her with me is to speak to her and that’s what I have tried to do.
Peter: To shift a little to the question of aesthetics and influence, in September this year, you started a conversation on twitter about the current language of contemporary poetry of Nigeria. You spoke about the recession of “the poetics of nature” and the influence of “ecopoetics of the European nature poetry” among younger poets. Can you elaborate on this? How much has this cosmopolitanist language constructed your own ideas of aesthetic transcendence, for instance?
Romeo: I think what I was saying, or trying to track is the shift in language, theme and structure in the poetry of the new generation of Nigerian writers, which I belong to. The poet is first a custodian of language, then a witness. This is how it has been; this is why the poems of Amarachi Attamah and other writers writing in indigenous languages have so much power. When we write in English, despite its beauty, there is so much we throw away. So many writers have grappled with this but there are some of us who can’t write in indigenous languages. I can’t write in Yoruba and there were no poetry books about queer lives of Nigerian men that was available in bookstores. My poems lean toward a Queer Black American tradition, but I recognize what was lost and what was gained in writing these poems. This has led me to look back, to interrogate language, to interrogate how it mingles with other foreign languages and poetry, especially those in America because most young poets publish or aspire to publish poems in American journals.
I think I started tracking this shift when someone said to me in Portland that the poetry submitted to his journal by Nigerian poets were preoccupied with war. While I think it is necessary that we document events, I also wonder at what point does this preoccupation becomes voyeuristic, an attempt to get poems published rather than a work of witness. If a poet is immersed in a poem, in a war he has no intimate idea about, that he has not lived, is the poem a work of truth? Can’t poets witness from the sidelines and write about war from that point of view?
When I was talking about Ecopoetics, I was thinking about the western definition of the term, one that implies a form of responsibility. Forest Gander wrote in his essay, What Is Eco-Poetry, “I, myself, am less interested in “nature poetry” – where nature features as a theme – than in poetry, sometimes called eco-poetry, which investigates – both thematically and formally – the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.” If this is the preoccupation of eco-poetry, then African poets have been doing this. The poetry written on the continent have always interrogated nature, maybe it is because every generation of African poets know that you cannot separate humans from nature. When my grandmother kills a chicken, digs the ground and lets blood run into the hole, while praying, this blood returning to the ground is with gratitude, or in leaving the land to fallow for years, or during New Yam Festivals when the Yam becomes sacred and must be celebrated with joy and rituals before it is eaten, we are recognizing the role of the earth. Sometimes, I think of the poems of Lenrie Peters, Tade Ipadeola, Niyi Osundare and yours, what always comes to my mind is whoever owns knowledge production determines where it leans to. For us, the earth has always been sacred, we have always seen it that way, most of the oriki or ewi among the Yoruba people ties the human to the earth, to the animals; even our stories are filled with veneration of animals and the earth. I cannot say eco-poetry is new to me because we have always seen the earth as being sacred.
Africans are also city people. When the Portuguese came to Benin, they were surprised by how clean the city was. Empires have risen and fallen, still we realized the role of the earth in our survival. Colonialization changed the way cities operate, we are now asked to be a part of this new definition of poetry that thinks about the earth, when we have always thought about it before our ways of life was changed with guns, betrayals and religion. So, when I see young African poets trying to write eco-poetry from the western perspective, I try to understand the need to approach nature from the perspective of the global north because there is a lot of nature and knowledge in African poetry to think through, to write through.
I am not a cosmopolitan, cities intimidate me. I have always loved the solitude of small towns. In Nigeria, I lived in Omu-Ijebu, Ikare-Akoko, Ijebu-Ode and Udi before leaving.This is why I love the idyllic life of Iowa. In terms of language, I have found one at the intersection of my queerness and my devotion to Olokun. Most of my poems think about queerness or survival through water; it is deliberate. As a devotee, I believe the river, the sea is sacred, therefore it must not be desecrated. One must be clean to face the world, to face Olokun. In this devotion, I have found a way to walk into a language of ritual, one that is without gender, one that looks at the earth as a being to be revered. I am still learning, still praying to own this language in its fullness. Maybe it will never be possible. Language is only complete in the silence of death, but I am trying, and until I die I will keep trying to own this language of being and worship that comes from the sea, the home of my goddess.
Peter: Yes, I notice the water imagery in your poetry, and I remember you mentioned what psychological comfort water….a stream….had provided for you at a particular critical time in an earlier interview with Gaamangwe Mogami. So, I see the relationship you draw with the goddess, Olokun. Seeing she’s the essence of purity, fertility and so on, how does Olokun influence your perception of creativity? I mean is it in terms of being a vital force…in the sense of demiurgic energy as Ogun is to Soyinka…or as a guiding, aesthetic principle, the way Okigbo deploys Idoto? I ask this, of course, with reference to the issue of African changing ecopoetics in contemporary poetry.
Romeo: Olokun worship is both ritual and liturgical. I am a late bloomer, although I come from a long line of women who have always walked toward water to offer sacrifices and ritual. I didn’t come into the sanctity of Olokun until recently. For years, I have walked, blind in my worship, living blindly. I was happy when, Chris Abani, during difa said that my Orisa is Olokun, which is the Orisa of my mother and all my mothers before her. I am learning how this worship is impacting my life; every day is an opportunity. There are principles guiding me as I approach poetry and life, iwa pele is what I long for in every phase of my life. So, Olokun’s force is one that guides me in how I see the world. I am just a devotee, what I know is simple, worship and ritual. The devotee is also a poet, for to offer praise to who the sea sings to, we must first master language. That is what guides me as a poet. I think when you come into Ifa, there is a kind of peace that it gives to you, a kind of peace that runs through your life, a resignation that allows to move through life with ease. I think that peace has entered my poetry. I am no longer angry with the world. I believe what will be will be and my ori knows best; if peace and prosperity is what calls my name, then I am ready for every blessing. But if trouble is what I have come to inherit on earth, then the dust of my life will testify to the beauty I created out of it.
Peter: It is really a pleasure talking to you, Romeo. I wish you the blessings and peace of Olokun.
Romeo: Ase, this has been a journey.
Peter Akinlabi earned his BA from the University of Ibadan and his MA and PhD from University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Akinlabi is the author of A Pagan Place, issued as part of the APBF Chapbook Box Set: Eight New-Generation African Poets 2015 and published by Akashic Books, and a collection of poems, Iconography, which was long-listed for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2017. He lives in Ilorin, North-central Nigeria.