Defying Genre and Striving for Overarching Themes: A Dialogue with Ani Kayode Somtochukwu

DEFYING GENRE AND STRIVING FOR OVERARCHING THEMES

A DIALOGUE WITH ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU

Ani Kayode Somtochukwu is a Biologist, writer, and Queer Liberation Activist who lives in Enugu, Nigeria. His work interrogates themes of queer identity, resistance and liberation and has appeared in The Enkare Review, The Rustin Times, Gertrude, Bakwa, and Plenitude Magazine, among others.

He has been shortlisted for the Erbacce Poetry Prize, the ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, and the Toyin Falola Prize. He was a finalist for the 2020 Prize for Difference and Diversity and was the recipient of the 2019 SOGIESC Rights Activist of the Year Award, presented by the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs).

He is the host of Rainbow Marxism, a YouTube channel that focuses on queer liberation in Africa, and the founder of the Queer Union for Economic and Social Transformation (QUEST9ja), a radical queer group organizing towards queer liberation in Nigeria.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Enugu and Kampala via email.

Ani’s manuscript, ‘And Then He Sang A Lullaby’, is literary fiction that chronicles the lives, families, and dreams of two queer men, August and Segun, as they navigate Nigeria. August grows up in Enugu surrounded by his sisters, and an overbearing guilt for the death of his mother who died giving birth to him, while Segun grows up in Lagos, the only son of poor parents. The two meet in Nsukka, where their budding intimacy is complicated by other people’s reactions to their friendship and their own reactions to the signing of the SSMPA (Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act) into law.

Ani discusses his difficulties with answering questions about what his work is about, the influence that our childhoods have on who we become as adults, writing what seems real rather than what he thinks will be most comfortable, why the idea of atomizing politics vexes him, writing a character that was very personal to him, and how QUEST9ja is organizing towards queer liberation. 

 

Davina: For a long time, as a high school student, I didn’t know that literary fiction was what I’d been assigned to read in my lit classes while genre fiction was what I read outside lit classes. (I would learn the difference only after I started writing.)

We didn’t choose what to read in lit class; we could only read what was ‘set’ by the national curriculum development centre. Still, to be in a class where one read passages aloud to others, and often did nothing else but talk about how what they’d read had made them feel? Well, that was something.

Ani: That’s an interesting dynamic. I did not take art classes in secondary school so I can’t say I relate. But I did take Literature GCEs, which I studied for on my own. I remember thinking that some of the books in the curriculum were boring or tedious in language, with subject matter that wasn’t interesting to most young people.

Davina: It’s interesting that you should say that, Ani. And Then He Sang A Lullaby strikes me as a book that both young and old adults would enjoy. Was this something you had in mind?—the telling of a story that transcended the usual age categories?—or is this purely about how I’ve read it?

Ani: I think that’s just because it’s a novel that spends significant time on the childhoods of its protagonists. Our childhoods have so much influence on who we turn into as adults. The things we desire, the types of aspirations and goals we internalize, how we interact with society and oppressive structures. 

It is genre-defying in that way. Because it is very political and very romantic and it is a coming-of-age novel in its way, etc. This, by the way, is part of the reason why it’s so hard to say what it’s about. Because it’s about so many things, you know.

Davina: Yes, I know. And I like this. This being about many things; religious beliefs, social stratification, aggression, the dissimulations of formal schooling, crime, the burdensomeness of patriarchy, penance, transience, and so on, while also remaining intensely focused.

I’ve always been the writer whose sentences are given to jumping up and running away from her (much of the self-editing I do is to rein them in). So I always admire what I like to think of as ‘disciplined sentences.’ Sentences that say what needs to be said, and never less or more than that. And, although I’m a recovering hopeless romantic, it’s still mostly very hard for me to write about romance without romanticizing relationships. Do you have any pointers for me?

Ani: I don’t know that I write disciplined sentences. I am mostly not thinking of any of this consciously. It is just a story in my heart and I am telling it. I don’t own a laptop and when I wrote And Then He Sang A Lullaby, I did not have access to any computer. I wrote it in an 80-leaves notebook. And what happens when I am writing is that the story quite literally flows into the page. 

During revisions—which for And Then He Sang A Lullaby, I did on my phone—I try to ‘discipline’ my sentences. Some sound cringe-worthy, some sound beautiful, some need help. 

As for romance, I would say my secret is that I try to go for what seems real to me instead of going for what I think will be most comfortable. But, then again, my work is more ‘romance-themed’ than it is ‘romance’ because, more likely than not, there will be no happy ending.

Davina: Are there questions about writing that leave you stumped?

Ani: Definitely. I would say asking me what my book is about is probably on the top of the list. Because where do I start, you know? It’s a whole novel. Even a summary is a long story, so how exactly do I begin to answer? It always stumps me.

The best I can do is try for overarching themes even though those answers are never satisfactory, especially because my work isn’t the type you can summarize by describing the protagonist and their goals. It’s just an impossible question.

Davina: I know what you mean. I always find myself unequal to the task of identifying what my stories are ‘about’; perhaps this explains why I have such a hard time writing synopses and summaries. 

Might fairer, less impossible questions be about intention? Is there a particular sense or meaning that you intended to express or convey? Was it with the same intentions that you wrote, throughout, or did your intentions change at some point? That sort of thing?

Ani: I think even the question of intention is hard because explaining intention can be just as hard as explaining what the story is about. For And Then He Sang A Lullaby, while the intention stayed the same, its scope expanded. 

I always wanted to explore how things like class and gender expression affected how homophobia is experienced. The character of Segun, and the subversive political tone it brings to the book, is just the direction that that intention expanded into.

Davina: In Yes, The Reinforcement of Homophobia Does Have a Socioeconomic Basis, you write about how people prefer that you divorce your advocacy from your “cRaZy economic lunacy.” You also make the connection between elitism, religious fundamentalism, and socio-economic realities, a connection that’s also explored in God and the Queer Question:

Even as organized religion has evolved, it has done so along the planes of facilitating wealth accumulation and a world order where the capitalist ruling class keep the masses in ‘their place’.

The claim that queerness is incompatible with religious faith is one that concedes the nature of God himself to the dictates of cisheteronormativity.

Jarred Thompson also explores religious faith in Fluidity and Immersion in Prose; he speaks of questioning his beliefs, and what he’d been taught, as a student in a foreign country:

In fact, there was one point in my four years there where I declared I was a humanist atheist, essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because I couldn’t see myself as part of a religious institution that asked me as a queer man ‘to not act on my queerness’. This is a ridiculous thing to ask of someone and it would not be asked of heterosexual people.

Heterosexuality has for so long stooped itself in ‘righteousness and morality’ on the basis that it is ‘life-giving’ because the union of man and woman produces children.

But then again having children in and of itself doesn’t always offer relief from cruelty. And you explore this, too, Ani, through the pressure that’s put on August’s mother to provide an heir; you remind us that there are always qualifications. For example, in her context, unless the child she’s produced is a boy who will carry her husband’s name and heritage, there’s still a way in which she’s falling short of ‘righteousness.’

There will always be a way in which we fall short. I think this is why the idea of atomizing politics vexes me, because it is not useful. What it leaves us with is a framework where we are competing to satisfy conditions that are oppressive and unachievable.

Ani: Exactly. And I think it is important to understand that it is designed that way. It is a system under which we cannot win, as poor people, as women, as queer people. It is not a fluke; it is by design. 

There will always be a way in which we fall short. I think this is why the idea of atomizing politics vexes me, because it is not useful. What it leaves us with is a framework where we are competing to satisfy conditions that are oppressive and unachievable. 

And this competition then creates a justification or rationalization of the system. Because of this, I think every liberatory praxis must be one that takes a holistic approach, instead of focusing on only problem A while ignoring all the other structures that reinforce and complement problem A. 

Davina: Maybe it’s because of the circumstances surrounding his birth—how his mum has to give up her life to grant him a place in this world—or the inability of his dad to show him love, but I feel extremely protective of August. He’s actually my favourite character.

When asked whether some of his characters are based on real people, and which character was most difficult for him to imagine, Abdulrazak Gurnah says that while no character was based on a real person, there’s a sense in which they might as well be:

A fragment of a person is added to a fragment of another or an imagined person to create the figure I have in mind. Because I live with these figures for so many months or years in the process of writing, they acquire a solidity or reality which is self-sustaining. Once underway they construct themselves, in a manner of speaking.

How long did you live with August while you wrote him? Did you ever find yourself playing favourites with your characters? Was there a character that was easier than others to imagine into realness?

Ani: It’s interesting because I conceptualized August as a character while working as a medical laboratory assistant in Port Harcourt. The rest kind of formed around him as a central character. He was the easiest to write for me. There is so much complexity that comes from having the life that August has. I think I incorporate some part of me and people I know in all my characters, some more obviously than others. 

In terms of favorites, I do have them. Segun and Trevor were some of my favorites. I loved writing them and their relationship. Segun’s mother, too. She is someone I think I would want to meet and be friends with in real life and perhaps I incorporated too much of my own mother into her.

Davina: I tend to do it the other way round: imagine context A and then think characters C and D into it. I shall experiment with the reverse, soon, and see how that pans out.

It is interesting that the more complex character was the one that was the easiest for you to write. It seems to me that complex fictional characters tend to exhibit a certain threshold of self-contradictory behaviour, and are often the last people to catch on to this. So, in a way, their naïveté, whether intentional or otherwise, then adds another layer to their complexity.  

I’m thinking of how Segun has to first call August out on his association with homophobes, as well as his blindness to the privileges and protections that his dad’s wealth grants him, before it occurs to him that, OK, there’s a connection here.

Ani: Yes, we humans have huge egos in front of our faces most of the time. We tend to always think that the world is exactly how we see and experience it without realizing how different it is for other people who are not like us.

And sometimes this is deliberate because if we stop pretending that the world is about us, then we’ll have to deal with the ways in which we’re cozying up to oppressors to protect our own position on the social ladder. 

Davina: And as for Segun’s mother, I agree that she’s a star. Her unshakeable belief in her son is touching. And she’s attentive enough to know when Segun is suffering, despite his best efforts to hide this. Although she and Segun’s father don’t have much money, they do whatever is within their power to transfer him from the school where he’s being bullied.

But do you know that I’ve just realised that I don’t know what she looks like? I know she’s quick-tempered and speaks frequently of blood but there isn’t a detailed physical description of her.

Generally, physical descriptions of your characters are sparse. (For example, mention is made of August being yellow when he was born, of his ‘tragic beauty,’ but not much else.) Is there a particular reason for this?

Ani: There is no particular reason. I find that my prose tends to be very narrative-focused. I do give more detailed descriptions of August but it is much later in the book. 

The descriptions of my character’s physical features tend to be scattered throughout the length of the work instead of concentrated in one paragraph. The thing about this is that while readers might have a good idea of what the character looks like by the end of the novel, there is no conscious note of where exactly in the book they got that picture from. 

Davina: One of the things that really stood out for me is how in this novel you’re telling a story that’s in a way about the importance of storytelling in finding one’s own personhood. For a good part of August’s childhood, his sense of self is based on the stories his sisters tell him about his birth. Although not all the stories they tell him are true, they are nevertheless so powerful that, for instance, they create within him tangible memories of a mother he never met and never knew.

From where I sat, reading, those stories prefigure later [mis]understandings that August has of himself and his place, but of course you could have envisioned a completely different purpose for them.

Ani: Those stories give August a context within which to frame his life. For his sisters they are a way to share their mother with him, and a way to connect him with her so that he knows her as a person, and not just as the idea of mother. And for him, it is information to the way he views himself. 

It is possible that not all the stories are true, and that he misremembers some but as a whole I think they serve as an important defining feature of who August grows to be as a person. They shape his hopes and desires and sense of obligation to his family. So, yes, I would say that you are correct.

Davina: When I read the bit where Tanko kisses Segun for the first time, behind the quadrangle – because of the way you write that scene; the link you make between the huge risk they are taking and the honesty of that moment – it was as if a light bulb went on in my head. It made me think back to a recent conversation I had with a friend about the risks of other people becoming privy to private (because intimate) moments. I thought, Maybe this is it. Maybe the truth, the fidelity, the veracity, of an intimate moment is what makes its exposure worth the risk.

But then I remember that Tanko is supposed to be aloof and emotionally manipulative, and then I become a bit heartbroken.

Ani: I think the reason that moment is special is because of how vulnerable it is. But at the same time, vulnerability is not always truth. Tanko was not always aloof. There was a time when he was attentive, when he was present, when he was loving. But that was before they got together.

I think the thing really was that Tanko took advantage of Segun and Segun was too young and inexperienced to realize that in the beginning. And love is like that many times. Sometimes it takes a postmortem of the relationship to realize everything that was wrong with it.

Davina: ‘At the same time, vulnerability is not always truth.’ Indeed. It is easy to be misled by the appearance of vulnerability; and, yes, I completely agree that, often, we won’t be able to tell the difference until we’ve gained some distance, and hindsight.

I wonder: can the same thing be said about invulnerability? I’m thinking now of August’s dad, who seems impervious to everything August-related. 

Ani: I think it’s more accurate to say ‘impervious to everything’ because it is not about August, per se. It is about losing such a huge part of your life that life itself loses meaning, as much as you still want to be present for others who need you. 

And I don’t think that is invulnerability. Because August’s father wants to love his children, and perhaps he does. But he blames himself for his wife’s death, just the way August does. 

I would say his emotional distance is actually a form of vulnerability, just towards his wife. His whole life had been built with her as a base so that when she died the way she did, he never really recovered from it. 

Davina: Conversations about suicide are difficult in the real world. I’m assuming it was just as difficult for you to write about Segun’s suicide.

Ani: It was so difficult to write the final days of Segun’s life. I kept having to stop because the tears kept making it hard for me to even see what I was writing. Segun is a character that was very personal to me. I did not have emotional separation from him; it felt at times like I was writing myself, or perhaps what I wanted to be. 

I initially did not plan that he would die. The story just went there and I followed it because, in my experience, when I don’t, the end product comes out forced and unreal, at least to me. And I think it’s an experience that requires exploration and conversation. It is an uncomfortable reality for us queer people. 

I have lost queer people who were really close to me and many within this community have been touched by suicide in some way. But I did not want to moralize it. I wanted it to be about Segun and about his own journey.

There are parts or outcomes I did not plan for from the beginning, but the story leads so smoothly to them that by the time I’m there it is not a surprise. Like I said, before, I did not intend for Segun’s story to end the way it did. I was rooting for him. I was rooting for his mother. 

I was rooting for his relationship with August even if it wasn’t perfect. But the circumstances that led there kind of made it so that I was not surprised when it actually came time to write it.

Davina: I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your loved ones, and I hope that writing about Segun and his own journey offered some catharsis. I’m encouraged by the commitment of your poetry, non-fiction, and fiction to the broaching and exploration of difficult conversations. 

2020 in Retrospect: From #EndHomophobiaInNigeria to #EndSARS and More is about the ways in which 2020 was “such a long and catastrophic year.” But you also write of the ways in which a bit of light filtered through – of holding people accountable, and of an explosion of media representation of queer people:

It was a sustained social media campaign that broke down the barricades around queer pain in mainstream social media spaces. Queer Nigerians utilized the hashtag to talk about the violence they have faced in their own lives because of their sexual and/or gender identity and to remember all the other queer people who died as a result of this violence. They also used the hashtag to call for the repeal of discriminatory laws that exist against queer people in Nigeria.

[…]

Conversations like these seem so common now but only because we have refused to hold on to silence. It used to be that queerphobia from mainstream spaces got so little pushback that the peddlers of these violent narratives did not see it necessary to interrogate their position, let alone change it. Queer Nigerians have really utilized social media to challenge the demonization of queer identities, despite the social and legal costs that normally come with openly challenging queerphobia in Nigeria.

What has 2021 been like, so far, Ani? Has social media continued to be an important site for conversations about accountability, activism for queer liberation, and/or resistance to queerphobia? 

Ani: 2021 has not been an easy year. There has been an intensification of the crack down on queer people. There is a more concerted effort to legislate queer people to death. Mass arrests have been carried out against queer people, not just in Nigeria but all over Africa. 

In Nigeria, the ban on Twitter has also complicated organizing by making Twitter less accessible. It feels like such a chore now that you need to set up a VPN to use it and this has affected the way information and resources are addressed and shared online. But our commitment to organizing has only been strengthened by these attacks. We don’t have a choice but to fight.

Davina: QUEST9ja is one of many ways through which you continue to fight. What kind of organizing, towards the breaking down of even more barricades around queer pain, do you do?

Ani: QUEST9ja is an abolitionist, anti-imperialist and Pan-Africanist queer collective organizing towards queer liberation. Queer Nigerians are everyday subjected to varied forms of violence. This includes criminalization, lack of access to gender-affirming healthcare, lack of access to education, to housing, to employment, and to social life, due to violence from the state, the church, and our own families.

So we’re working to find ways to counter this violence. This includes but is not limited to fundraising to fund and support safe housing for vulnerable queer people, education, trans-affirming healthcare, as well as support for queer activists protesting state violence. 

We are also advocating for a socialist model as we believe this is necessary for the realization of queer liberation. Currently, we are running a healthcare initiative that’s helping trans people afford hormone replacement therapy.

Davina: And what will you do with the prize money, Ani?

Ani: If I win the prize, I will rest. (Laughs.) There is a lot of stress that comes with having to be on the verge of running out of money constantly! Or even taking a loan from a friend till the next gig pays, and so winning that money will just allow me to rest. 

I think I do my best work when I am not worrying about money. With this money, I could get a secure place and just have a while where I’m not so much on edge and worrying, you know. I know I definitely need it, to have that stress taken off my shoulders for a while, and see what that does for my writing.

Davina: More rest to you, Ani, and all the best!

 

 

This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature. Congratulations to Ani Kayode Somtochukwu.

 

Photo credit for featured image of Ani Kayode Somtochukwu: Tochukwu Ukeje.

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her. 

She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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