Humanising the Queer Experience: A Dialogue with Bryan Okwesili

HUMANISING THE QUEER EXPERIENCE

A DIALOGUE WITH BRYAN OKWESILI

Bryan Okwesili is a queer Nigerian poet and storyteller. His works explore the interiority and tensions of queerness in a heteronormative culture in which he imagines a world of inclusivity. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Tupelo Quarterly Open Fiction Prize. His works appear in CRAFT, SLICE, SmokeLong Quarterly, Isele Magazine, Foglifter, Tupelo Quarterly, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere. He is currently a student of law at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.

Uchenna Emelife

BY UCHENNA EMELIFE

This conversation took place between Sokoto, Nigeria; Lagos, Nigeria; Sharjah, UAE; and Calabar, Nigeria; via email.

Uchenna: The first time I read your work was in 2020. You had just published ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’, and what drew me to it was its title. It was intriguing and suggestive of a reimagination of Chimamanda’s masterpiece Half of a Yellow Sun. I love stories that reimagine conventions. I find them unusual and daring, so I approached your story with an expectation. When I came to the end of it, I was utterly satisfied. 

There are sadly not enough stories about the impact of the Biafran war, especially as it affected ‘ordinary’ people. With ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’, it wasn’t just telling this seldom talked about story, it was also telling another, one where boy meets boy and both fall in love. Ifem and Segun’s love wasn’t just damned because they were at opposite sides of the war, but also because their love itself was a common enemy to their societies. Ifem soulfully recounts at the end: “which is worse–loving a fellow boy or making love to the enemy, a Nigerian soldier?”

Soulful. A word I would come to associate with your writing. You manage to fill every word of your prose with emotion so that the more one reads, the further immersed they are, and you do this in a non-patronising way that almost passes as effortless. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim comes to mind; he said that he doesn’t make his characters but goes where they take him. Equally, Echezonachukwu Nduka said the same thing about his poetry; the poems lead him, and he is just a follower. I feel this is the same for you. You let your writing tell itself, thus enhancing the naturalness of the story. So, when the sentences come alive as one reads, it is because they were meant/asked to be there. I could go on and on talking about how your writing makes me feel, and oh, I will. But what I would like to know now is your writing process. How do ideas occur to you? Do they come fully made? Do you have to piece them? What’s the writing procedure like?

Bryan: On a starting note, I must say that you have an interesting take on ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’, and your appreciation of my art fills me with so much warmth. Daalu. Yes, ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’ is a reimagination of Chimamanda’s book Half of a Yellow Sun. I remember finishing her brilliant novel on a Friday night, my head unsteady with emotions. I remember crying. I remember laughing. I remember praying Kainene be but only fictional because how does one grieve over an empty coffin? I remember thinking how easily people could lose their humaneness during a war. I remembered Ugwu and my mild crush for his bulk build and charming extrospection. And an idea struck me— queering the narrative of war. So, I wrote ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’ intentional about creating a narrative of queerness during a war. It turned out to be a flash fiction wound in bleakness. I like that it is my most read work because I believe it is important we remember everything about the war, everything, because in remembering, we heal. 

Soulful is a beautiful way to define one’s art. I like to think it refers to the warmth a reader feels whilst reading or/and long after reading the story. Chimamanda’s masterpiece comes to mind here. Half of a Yellow Sun remains a favourite of mine and I am grateful she wrote it. My only wish is that she reads mine. I would swoon. (Laughs.)

Writing, like every other art, is an expression. And like with most expressions, the artist must succumb to intervals of control by the art itself. The artist does not always remain the master. My writing process is what I like to call ‘fragmentational’— first, an idea is conceived, then, the pieces that make up the plot light up, intermittently, in my head. I save these mini plots on my phone. This may take days, weeks. The writing, proper, is basically about putting these pieces together, ruling out what doesn’t work, altering a twist, writing and rewriting the ending. It takes more days. This approach to my work opens the story up to me. It helps answer the difficult questions like what am I missing? What am I trying to say here? Who should die? Who should be saved? How does this end? I am keen on the music of language. I believe sentences have rhythm and I try to find it. It means writing and rewriting is a major part of the process. I believe, in storytelling, that language is just as important as the plot. If a story is saying something but stuttering, the writing feels bumpy and lazy. A way to achieve fluidity of language is to let the story tell itself. During the process of creating a work, I stay away from my paragraphs for a day or two. That way, when I return to it, the story opens up to what it wants; that way, I get a close-to-fresh feel of my work; that way, while in a bus, scrubbing in the shower, standing in a queue, bits of ideas I may use for my story may light up. 

My writing process takes time. I believe all art does. The artist is never fully satisfied and, with each stroke of ink, attempts at perfection, albeit aware of its elusiveness. 

Uchenna: I utterly agree with you on the importance of language in storytelling. Language contributes to building a story’s effect in readers. So, a story could be really powerful, but if the delivery doesn’t match that strength, it loses its effects. As Nigerian writer Chukwuebuka said in a conversation, “a story should impress”.

Can we talk about the short story as a genre? I’m currently carrying out a study on the African short story and I’ve been privileged to be exposed to a number of scholarly opinions on the short story. One interesting study is that by Sally Ann Murray who observed that as a genre, the short story is already unconventional, or as she interestingly posits, “the short story is in itself queer” due to its brevity, easier accessibility and non-conformity to traditional prose rules, and as a result of this, it is the perfect genre in telling difficult stories, in highlighting less-talked about issues that affect the writer or the society. 

Another study by Catherine Jonet agreed with Murray’s. Jonet further opines, “for some authors, the short story is the place to openly confront difficult subjects that powerfully affect marginalised groups within a culture”. 

This was eye-opening and interesting to learn. You are a writer who tells stories about queer people and queerness using mostly the short story form. What I would like to know is if you agree with this and if it is a reflection of your usage of the genre. 

Queer narratives do not seek to reject societal norms but to expand its boundaries in ways that embrace the diversities of reality, highlighting the incompleteness of social relations and the false consciousness of differential hate.

Bryan: Sally Ann’s view is quite interesting. To say that the short story is in itself queer, owning its own form and style distinct from proper storytelling, is a brilliant observation. However, to say that it is the perfect genre in telling difficult stories doesn’t sit well with me. The short story as a genre is largely restrictive. It easily streamlines a writer’s thought into a single plot. This poses a threat to telling difficult stories because stories, by their very nature, demand a notion of openness, and that the writer tells everything to make them whole. This is not to say that the short story as a genre lacks completeness, but that the concept of truth in storytelling is not often entirely captured in the short story form due to its brevity. I like to think a novel does better at telling difficult stories because it opens itself to possibilities, to forms that are malleable. I also like to think novels are expanded versions of short stories because they tell more, albeit with angles inching close to wholeness. And that is how to tell a difficult story— tell the story in its truth, in its wholeness, and it unburdens itself.

I am drawn to short stories for their instant urgency and satisfaction. Here, a writer tells only what should be told, attentive to a beginning that grips, a climax that punches, and an ending that lingers like an aftertaste. There is no room for redundant angles to the story, everything stays on course to the end. 

I write stories of queer persons using flash fiction and short stories. I have no particular reason for doing so. It just depends on the story idea and its form. Is it a long piece? Can the characters live into a novel? Can I hold the interest of the reader for long? Do I have to tell more or less? I have not come around to writing a novel on queerness because I haven’t gotten a good idea worth exploring in the novel form.

I also do not think that stories about queerness are particularly difficult stories. I should think they are just unconventional, and this is not because there are less writings on queerness out there but because of a lack of readership. People do not read queer stories. People do not talk about queer stories. People do not feel queer stories matter. I have come to learn that, on the average, people who read queer stories are mostly queer persons. People read stories that malign queer persons and not so much stories that humanise them. 

Recently, I read a queer short story, ‘Perfect Little Angels’, by Vincent Anioke, which clinched first place in a literary prize. I was blown away by its brilliance and rare honesty. Sadly, nobody in my not-so-small circle of heterosexual, literary friends have read it, and upon recommendation, have given feedback.

When Sally submits that the short story is the perfect genre in highlighting less-talked about issues that affect the writer or the society, I disagree. I believe stories of queerness, as other marginalized stories, deserve more page time— a novella, a novel, a trilogy— and that these genres are just as capable of highlighting these issues, perfectly, if anything, in lengthier depths. 

I so much desire to write a novel on queerness. I am working on it. Amen.

Uchenna: Right after reading your response, I had a chat with Nigerian writer Stephen Buoro, and our conversation somehow extended to the short story-novel comparison. Like you, he opined that the short story is restrictive, unlike the novel that lets you tell multiple stories at once. While I get your points, I do not entirely agree with this restrictiveness both of you mentioned. You have to agree with me that there is a certain freedom that comes with writing/publishing a short story. It is more personal in that it is whatever you wish that goes into it. So, that autonomy helps you tell your story in that wholeness you envision. However, in traditional publishing, your novel has to bend  to the whims of the publishers and the market. So, while its length could make it pass as experimental, the stories told may not be fit for the publisher, which makes you fall into the risk of telling it differently, further ostracising you from your work. 

Hear what Macheso, another critic, says in line of this, “The short story as an unconventional or an outsider genre mostly eludes multiple forms of censorship by finding easy ways to publication and distribution through different channels, such as personal blogs and e-magazines, that operate outside the capitalistic confines of traditional publishing”. 

The writer spends lesser time putting it out, and the reader spends lesser time consuming it. Prompt communication is achieved.

Don’t you think this ease of access and publication, especially with the increase in online journals and magazines, makes a case for Sally’s submission?

Bryan: Absolutely. I believe it does. In this age of a vibrant internet pervasion, I agree that the short story is the most easily accessible, also the most easily published. There is a wave of new literary platforms eager to accept and publish our many stories. This development, albeit benign, is strikingly overwhelming for readers and writers. 

Publication houses or platforms serve as the middleman between the writer and the reader. They complete the process of literary engagement; linking the writer to the reader, and I think this is just as important as the creation of the art itself because, sometimes, art is created to be felt through another person– a kind of human empathy.

I have read too many short stories, but not too many novels, and this is not to say that novels aren’t accessible at my end as much as the short stories are but that the quick flow to the end, a thrilling scoop of satisfaction, is so easily reached. With novels, a world of crisscrossing uncertainty grips the reader, one that engages more wholly, more beautifully, albeit lingeringly. 

Uchenna: I agree with you. There is more accessibility of the short story, but there is something about the long form that has a way of drawing you in and holding you spellbound to the very end. 

This lingering quality of the long form is another feature that further endears it to both the reader and writer.

In an earlier response, you talked about queer representation in fiction as being unconventional due to poor readership. I imagine you mean poor readership in Africa. Besides the reasons you highlighted, do you also think this stems from homophobia?

Bryan: I believe homophobia is just as general as language, it could be evident, anywhere. In Africa, it is largely hypocritical, a kind of violent hate steeped in the denial of reality. This is evident in our social relations, religious beliefs, legislative enactments, cultural undertakings, and even our literature. 

I like to think literature and culture are representatives of each other, that they mirror the people’s belief in artful projections. In Nigeria, our literature is so much about the many stories, we believe, should be told, in a certain way, and in a certain context. This orthodoxical approach to storytelling in Nigeria limits our perspectives in the face of life’s unconventional realities. There are very few works on queer literature in Nigeria, most of them written by queer Nigerians, most of them read by queer Nigerians. The works of queer Nigerians I have read underlies an intentional keenness to humanise the queer experience aimed at societal change towards sexual minorities. 

This effort hasn’t had much effect in society because queer works aren’t read by Nigerians who form the major sexuality. 

However, in contemporary times, as much as the western world becomes less homophobic, there has been an acknowledgement from them of the importance and beauty of queer narratives in Africa. Queer stories and poems and art have gone on to clinch international awards and recognition to the disappointment and disapproval of many Nigerians, including Nigerian writers. The Nigerian literary space has seen a rise, although slow, in the output of queer literature, many written by queer persons, and so little read by the major sexuality. 

Shortly after I had published ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’, I got a text on Facebook from an Igbo, Nigerian writer asserting how everything did not have to have a queer perspective. To him, writing about the war in the same paragraph with a queer experience was a shameful disrespect to the experiences of Biafrans during the war. I did not reply. I was merely stunned that he read it, that heterosexual Nigerian men were beginning to read queer literature. I felt it was a step, and I am keen on making many more steps. Change is just as similar to justice; it embraces the consciousness in reality. 

Bryan Okwesili
Bryan Okwesili

Uchenna: Literature should’ve been that one space void of this bigotry. The basic definition of literature is mimesis, imitation of life. So if indeed life is being imitated through literature, why should our stories completely erase a whole people and their experiences? By saying that not everything needs a queer perspective, it suggests that queerness is alien and confirms this delusion that there are no queer people or experiences in Nigeria. And there are. Anyone disagreeing has chosen to be blind and blindness is what these self-acclaimed gatekeepers of Nigerian literature have. It is a deliberate refusal to evolve, and thus demand that our stories must be according to convention.

We are grateful that in the last few years, amidst the backlash and death threats, there have been notable actions taken to correct that. The 2020 #EndSARS and most recently, the protests led by Nigerian writer, Kayode. And our contemporary literatures continue to do a great deal with representation of queerness. Writers like Romeo Oriogun, Akwaeke Amezi, Ugochukwu Damian, Chinelo Okparanta, yourself and others, have helped in at least rubbing it in the faces of Nigerians that queer lives matter and their stories are just as human as the heteronormative stories out there. So I want to be optimistic and say there is huge promise, but this problem of readership you highlighted is getting me to think twice. When these stories are read by the same audience writing it, what real change can it bring? 

Oriogun in a 2019 interview argued that while the representation in art has done a great deal, it is the homophobic laws that need to be brought down, and I agree with this. There would always be homophobia just as there are always sexism and racism, and there would be readers who would wish queer literatures never existed as there are others who share similar hatred for speculative fiction. The only difference is that while the Nigerian speculative fiction writer only fears poor readership, the Nigerian writer of queer stories also fears for their life. Why? The law. It needs to go.

Bryan: I have read the works of Oriogun, Damian, and Emezi, and it is interesting how their works are full of so much heart. I love that they know their voice need not be the loudest in the literary hall; it just needs to be theirs. I also think it is important these stories are told now. We live in very strange times, and amidst the tensions of political, economic, religious, and social uncertainties, what must prevail is the truth; the honest telling and retelling of our experiences. 

As a student of law, I am just as keen on the annihilation of the many homophobic laws that criminalize queer persons in Nigeria. Every day, it is disappointing how these homophobic laws abet attacks on queer persons. There is lynching, murder, discrimination, arrest, public disgrace, and other violations incited by the law. Most of these stories are not covered by the media because the full humanity of queer persons is not acknowledged. So, we turn to storytelling (fiction and nonfiction) and poetry and art to tell these stories, even if so few would read, even if so many would disregard.

Queer narratives do not seek to reject societal norms but to expand its boundaries in ways that embrace the diversities of reality, highlighting the incompleteness of social relations and the false consciousness of differential hate. 

The queer literary scene is, indeed, a promising one. I am hopeful of its prospects– a redefinition of normative ideals and encouragement of inclusive relations. 

Uchenna: Elsewhere, you talked about writing ‘The Other Half of a Yellow Sun’ and how you’ve always wanted to tell the Biafran story.  You also mentioned the need to tell it with an ‘eccentric queerness’, as you put it. Writing about the Biafran war, a topic many people shy away from, must have been difficult. Did you feel this pressure to tell it right? Especially considering how unpopular the truth of the war sadly remains, albeit the carnage wrecked?

Bryan: I think to write about something so sensitive as a civil war that still haunts Nigeria to this day, one has to be in one’s feelings to at some point come undone. I wanted to write the Biafran story beginning with the war itself, but I was apprehensive, partly because I was unsure of telling it well, and partly because I am really sensitive; I may write a paragraph about bloodied boots and lifeless babies and I would come undone. It was easier to begin at the end of the war. But the actuality of the characters being true victims made the writing difficult.

I believe all human stories are difficult, and the ones that remind us of loss are the most difficult to write.

All stories have truth. Not all stories are truth. As much as writing the story was difficult, I didn’t feel the pressure to tell it right. I knew it was a right story when I conceived the idea of telling it with an eccentric queerness. What I was rather skeptical about was my ability to hone the idea into a story that owned its emotions. I like to think I tried at that. (Laughs.) 

Uchenna: There is so much wrong going on today; therefore,  telling realist stories comes with some level of difficulty. It is like staring into a mirror, and the truth can bite. I imagine telling ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’ must have even been more difficult because it isn’t just a human story but one where two marginalised stories are daringly told: the story of a war many would rather remain unspoken and the story of a boy loving another boy. 

Ifem laments, “which is worse–loving a fellow boy or making love to the enemy, a Nigerian soldier?” He himself realises his doom. It’s as though it’s in response to Ifem’s ponderings, the feedback you shared with me about not every story deserving a queer perspective. So, here, this reader acknowledges the need for a Biafran story but finds the queerness a problem. I don’t know if you follow the puzzle I’m piecing here.

Recently, with many problems bedeviling our society, we’ve realised that people do not actually hate oppression, they just hate to be oppressed and wouldn’t hesitate to oppress another. 

Take Nigeria for example, due to one’s tribal or religious inclination, they endure various levels of discrimination. Yet some of these people, even while screaming injustice, do not hesitate to mete out the same on others who are different from them, in, say, gender or sexuality (which are mostly the cases). This is how I consider this feedback you got, and I wonder how you feel about this sort of reception.

Bryan: Oppression is an objective reality. In our society, oppression is armed with wealth, power, religion, physical strength, or number. These factors determine who stays at the end of the oppressor or the end of the oppressed. It is quite easy to push for a change when the oppressed are the majority. An example being the staggering EndSARS protests that shook Nigeria last two years, enraged youths filling the streets and demanding to be heard, to be safe in their country. It was powerful. But in the spaces of the vibrant movement were the sexual minorities, carrying placards, ‘End Homophobia In Nigeria’ boldly written on them, chanting, their voices not the loudest, but theirs anyway, and it was disgusting how the crowd demanding the end of an oppressive institution would turn around to hurt the sexual minorities, to hush them, to tell them the moment wasn’t theirs to seize— an implied notion that their oppression, affecting a minor group, was not worthy of major alliance.

Truth is, oppression to a single person is oppression. To invalidate it because of the number of persons it affects is to dehumanise the very victims of that oppression. Does empathy have anything to do with numbers?

In the wake of religious extremism in Nigeria, the death of Deborah, lynched and burnt, sadly portrays how we, as Nigerians, have named our love after our individual selves, only. Christians all over Nigeria have condemned the inhumane act. But I also read a tweet accusing the Christians of not hesitating to kill a queer person if they have the chance. “There have been at least three incidents of lynching of queer persons, this year, in Southern Nigeria, alone. The killers were not Muslim”— the tweet asserted. Do you see – a coin, two faces? 

Early this year, I lost a Facebook friend to homophobia. He was murdered in his home. His corpse was found the next day, his properties stolen. The murderer still roams. The LGBTQ+ community was distraught. Nigeria was silent. Living here as a queer person, what oppression does to you is this: you become aware of how easily, how quickly, you are synonymous to zilch. Today, you think you are thriving amidst the pain, the hurt, and tomorrow, you are still, beneath a tyre, bleeding, hearing a voice calling for fuel and a matchstick. You burst into burning flesh.

When I write queer fiction, I do not care about feedback as much as I care about my intention. What am I saying? How am I saying it? Why am I saying it? Is it as honest as I want it to be? An artist creates art of a side, and people are enraged. He creates another art, of another side, and people are pleased. What matters is that he has said what he wants to say, in its truth. Some writers and readers believe that to tell the queer perspective in a story is to steer the society towards decadence. But morality, like culture, is what we say it is. If the humanisation of same-sex relations is not morally right, then we must make it morally right. What is not morally right is differential hate, but sadly it has been normalized in Nigeria, even amongst little children. A child of seven sees an effeminate adult on the street and yells from his balcony, ‘homo!’ His older siblings laugh in mocking agreement. He is doing something ‘morally right’. 

Uchenna: It’s sad and really unfair. Reminds me of your poem, ‘Tears are How I Say, ‘It Hurts’. You write:

“how do you love a country and hate its people?

leave my eggs here and watch them morph into

I. desires twisted into a wreath

II. pain. more pain.

III. a news headline of a lonely boy who

knew how to hide his scars and look like

a loved child.”

Again in ‘I have a story in my head’, where your persona leads with requesting for a tale about unhappiness, a subject he is familiar with.

“I can only hear my voice

 breaking” he finalises.

This love-hate relationship towards Nigeria in Tears are How I Say, ‘It Hurts’’ is also referenced in your flash fiction ‘The Other Half Of A Yellow Sun’. Is this how you feel about Nigeria? How are you able to still love Nigeria amidst the hostility?

Bryan: I think it is easy to like Nigeria, easier to hate her. 

As a citizen, you want Nigeria to embrace you as much as you embrace her. It is a kind of mutual patriotism that enables progress. Nigeria is beautiful. The landscapes in Benue and Enugu are rows of lush green vegetation. In Kano and Kaduna, the people know what to do with cows and goats and wild cereals. Bayelsa is a vastness of aquatic life. Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abuja are cities rolling into the visions of the structures in Dubai. Onitsha and Aba are commercial hives. Calabar means you have come to relax. You see, it is easy to love Nigeria because you know what Nigeria is— a balance of diversities. But the people are another story: a mix of so many things that lean towards chaos. 

As a nation of staggering populace, our ideologies, our principles, and our morals are shaped by so many factors that conflict, top of such factors being religion. Religion here connotes the dictation of what we believe in, what we should believe in, and what we should not believe in. This has shaped how we act, how we as a society form our ideals. A young graduate is sent away from a job interview because his hair is an arrangement of carefully wound dreads. At a prayer house is a gathering of women chorusing that the Lord should direct their steps to their prospective husbands’ houses. A man calls his mother a witch and throws her out into the street because a prophet told him so. A man presents a bill before the legislative floor to criminalize those the priest at his church says are seedlings of Sodom. It is passed into law and queer persons wake up the next morning as criminals yet to be arrested. 

The above is not to say that religion has deprived the people of conscious sensibility, entirely, or that the people of Nigeria are just completely bad. No. Of course there are good people here, kind people, that keep the darkness at bay. However, the problem of being a minority is that society responds to you in a way that makes you always conscious of your identity, and the ensuing consequence. In writing this, I am reminded of the words of Ocean Vuong in his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. He writes, The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes, you are erased before you are given a choice of stating who you are.’What this represents, I think, is how the definition of another human is synonymous to the use of power. Say queer persons are humans who just love differently, and that is what they are. Say queer persons are humans possessed by the devil to lead us back to the days of Sodom, and that is what they are. Nigerians chose the latter. So, as a sexual minority, with the hostility attached to their choice, how can you not hate them? 

I cannot say I love Nigeria amidst the hostility. That would be untrue. I very much desire the happiness and warmth and security of elsewhere. What I can say, rather, is that, here, there is very little that gives one hope. I believe the brightest is the community we have carved for ourselves as minorities, a connection of teachers, farmers, storytellers, tailors, models, actors, musicians, academics, poets, drivers, nurses, and so on, strung in a close knit web of acknowledged difference, and a kind of bond is formed— we are seen amongst ourselves, not just as minorities but as people with shared experiences, albeit sad. 

Uchenna: It is quite sad indeed. Every day, what is supposed to be home continues to find new ways of keeping us away from it. Our beds have turned into morgues, resting places for restless people, because how does one find rest when you’re always on the run until your breath is seized by the people sworn to protect it? 

In a 2018 satirical essay, I finalised that the problem is being Nigerian. It’s like you have submitted to doom by just being one. 

Yet, it is this same Nigeria you set your queer stories in. I find it daring how you maintain a queer background in each of your writings and still manage to not make it the entirety of the story. Yes, it is a queer narrative, but it is more than just queerness. As we find in the stories society labels ‘conventional’ (read as heteronormative), your characters deal with more than just their sexuality. And I think that’s something about queerness many people in our society get wrong. They tend to sum queer people into just their sexuality and sometimes even their sex lives. That is why the average Nigerian would see a gay couple and firstly think of how they have sex but wouldn’t think same if it were a straight couple.

In your stories, however, your characters explore beyond their sexuality. For example, in ‘May It Dawn’, we are introduced to two women who in the midst of their individual chaos, connect and find a spark. One of the women is struck by grief and has refused to accept that her son was dead. The other, a victim of domestic abuse, is also struggling to accept herself. Both meet and their shared tragedies ignite a fire that they equally want to be engulfed in. So, here, we have grief, mental illness, and domestic abuse as issues the story discusses, but these are experienced by queer characters.

Can you talk about writing ‘May It Dawn’? It is such an interesting story. As well, talk about this consciousness (if it is one) with which you approach your storytelling.

Bryan: ‘May It Dawn’ was actually my attempt at playing with storytelling. I had just read about the K & L Short Story Prize with the theme of madness. I wanted to enter for the prize but I could not think of a story. So, I decided to play. Now, each time I read the first few sentences of the story, I am amused at my attempt at play.

Also, it was my first attempt at writing about queer females. I was thinking so much about telling it right, whilst playing with the plot in ways that denoted madness.

Starting the story, I did not know what it would become, but I knew the characters would be queer, had to be queer. I think I was a little carried away with the play that the story stretched into the borders of domestic abuse and grief. When the story got longlisted for the K & L Prize and was a finalist for Tupelo Quarterly fiction prize, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh well, you really did play.’

Because the stories I have decided to tell are queer stories, the consciousness with which I approach my storytelling is one of honesty. In telling queer stories, I think there is this desire to create characters as near perfect as possible, flawless, in order for them to be agreeable. But to tell the queer narrative is to tell a story of difference and not holiness. A queer person could just be as good as a hetero, also could be as bad as a hetero. This is to highlight that the tendency of being good or bad is a human trait and not a sexual one. So, I think what is important is that in telling this story of differential experience, honesty should be at its heart. 

Again, in telling these stories, I am also conscious of grief, of sadness, of loneliness. I do not know too many happy queer persons. I am currently working on a story about a happy queer couple in Nigeria and I am fighting a lot of things. I want honesty and heart in it. Here is not a place for bouncy queer hearts and it is saddening. Queer people here are sad. And lonely. 

Uchenna: Speaking of honest representation in fiction, I’m reminded of an argument I had with a colleague.

The most common definition of literature is that it is a mirror of society. So, if literature does mirror society, it should be told honestly. 

My friend argues that literature should more than mirror society, it should also suggest an ideal one. He leans more toward Plato’s and More’s philosophical and literary argument of utopia, creation of a perfect society. I argue that it is not the responsibility of writers to fix the society, and so they shouldn’t be burdened with suggesting solutions. 

His retort gave me something to think about. He said if facts and fictions are honest, doesn’t that take away the escape literature is known to give?

I would like to hear your thoughts on these in the line of honesty in queer narratives. 

Bryan: As much as literature mirrors society, it also predicts and recounts. To say that literature should suggest a utopian society is, I think, flawed. As long as humans are capable of freewill, an ideal society is not realizable. What literature does is to recount experiences, highlight the present, and predict the future. May I say that there is something quite troubling about the take on utopian society. I am worried it conceives an idea of a heteronomative society; a conservative construct excluding difference. With everything happening right now, all over the world, it is easy to believe that the idea of utopia is one that does not embrace inclusivity in diversity, and this is worrisome. 

Also, as much as it isn’t the writer’s responsibility to fix the society, suggesting solutions isn’t also redundant. In times like this, where literature has become really conscious of society, I believe it is important that we, as writers, using words as strength, should proffer solutions to society’s many ills. To mirror, isn’t it to call out in a sense? And to call out, isn’t the intent for change? 

There are different reasons people write and people read literature. Some say an escape. But that is not all literature offers. The only escape literature offers, I think, is fantasy. And fantasy is fleeting. The reader and writer are quickly pulled into the real world once the story is done. Then you read realist literature with the intent to escape, only to quickly realize that it is no escape; you are only invited into the life of other persons, in which the similarities and nuances remind you that escape isn’t really what literature offers but the telling and retelling of our many stories– a direction to empathy. 

If anything, if facts and fiction are honest, they create a truer escape, one that is steeped in empathy, and what empathy does is that you become aware of how human conditions are universally experienced.  

Bryan Okwesili
Bryan Okwesili

Uchenna: This is a brilliant take. Empathy is freeing. Empathy makes you realise that there is more to life than what you know.  It also teaches you to understand that it’s okay to be different and for others to be as well.

Let’s talk about ‘Coming Home To Myself’. In an earlier response, you talk about being conscious of grief, sadness, loneliness when writing queer stories, and I think of ‘Coming Home To Myself’ and how it bodies these. In it, we meet a lonely and sad male mortician who finds comfort from the corpses he takes care of. Through his stream of consciousness, we learn that he had earlier come out to his parents, and rather than a hug, he was met with a decision to make: love or family. 

He shares: “When people ask how it feels to work with the dead, their faces grimaced into a what-the-fuck, I say cool. Other times—when I am filled with too much beer and my fingers begin to feel numb—I say it reminds me of coming home to myself, of the silence in my room at night when I ask God, through my tears, why I can’t be loved. I say, at least, when working with the dead, I know I am surrounded by people who can’t love me back.”

This excerpt broke me and I wonder how writing such a heartbreaking story made you feel. How do you tell these stories without being pulled right into it? Do you detach yourself from the stories you tell? If you do not, how do you find shore with such depth?

Bryan: As a realist writer, I am very much aware of society – what shapes it and why. I love writing and reading about real people, real context. Human relations are so complex you find stories everywhere and anywhere. 

In Nigeria, because living with grief, sadness, and loneliness are the realities of most queer persons, these themes form the crux of my stories, sometimes swallowing it. In ‘Coming Home to Myself’, I tried to tell the story of an irregular part of society: the morgue; the mortician’s territory. I have never been to a morgue, so I imagined everything. At first, I wanted to write a story a mortician (queer or otherwise) would read and go, “Oh well, a story about me.” But it quickly turned dark and solemn, and I realised that was what it ought to be, that was how it had to be told. I scratched for light. Zilch.

I like to think ‘Coming Home to Myself’ is the saddest story I have written. When I read it, I am reminded of how the life of the mortician is partly mine, except I am not a mortician, except I am not grieving. Lonely? Sad? Well, there is no sweetness here for people like me, except family and a sprinkle of friends. Also, I have come to realize  that, as I write, parts of my life are lost to my stories. I think it is something I must be wary of – not to carelessly, easily guide my story into an autobiography. 

To write a queer story, I don’t think there is escape from loneliness. It is so rare. The late Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina once said, “Queer people are special. Still are. Since coming out I have met many, many queer. One thing that stands out is the horror of being alone.” I read it in our many stories. I agree.

So, do I detach myself from the stories I tell? No. I let parts of me slip in. I like to think the closer I am to my story, the more honest it is. It is shattering, yes. Sometimes, I do not get over the hurt, but that is the truth of storytelling; to write and feel a kind of way; to read and feel a kind of way.

Uchenna: This has been a lovely conversation, Bryan.

Are there recommendations you can offer that would make the African literary scene more accommodating of both queer narratives and writers?

Bryan: Absolutely a pleasure to be doing this with you. 

I think first we must question why the African literary scene isn’t more accommodating of queer writers and queer narratives. There is something disgustingly dishonest about that. 

Some time ago, I read about a queer Nigerian poet who won an international prize for his queer poems and how the African literary scene imploded, questioning his merit, questioning the poems’ merits, questioning his person. Some said he was awarded out of pity. Some congratulated him. Others threatened.

I would largely recommend honesty. At the beginning of this interview, we talked about how literature mirrors the society, so if we must tell our stories, then we must tell all our stories, in truth, in difference, something the Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, calls a ‘balance of stories’. To be honest is to acknowledge the existence of the experiences of persons who are different from us, for to disregard their stories, their person, as unworthy of universal engagement, is to dehumanise them. 

The African literary scene is gradually becoming accommodating of queer narratives and queer writers. Prominent amongst them are Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Dgeku, Brittle Paper, and Doek!. Isele Magazine has recently closed calls for their quarterly publication, this time themed ‘Queer Joy’. I am most excited for this project and I can’t wait to read works from different queer persons on the continent. These magazines remind me of hope, of the possibility of change, of a fairer world. 

Honesty also means that in relation to publishing queer works, they do not have to be particularly exceptional to be accepted for publication. Like other works that get published, they just have to be good enough. There are Nigerian writers I have read who write brilliant queer narratives and I cannot be more appreciative of their art. I pray they get more publications, more strength.

Uchenna: I agree with you, Brian. We need more honesty in this space, and the gatekeeping has to cease. Writers must be allowed to tell the stories they wish to tell.

I like to conclude my conversations with writers I love by requesting for recommendations. I assume that whoever or whatever you’re recommending would be as good as you. That said, can you mention fellow young African writers who are doing commendable work representing queerness in their works and who everyone should check out?

Can you also share what book(s) you are currently reading and books you think everyone should definitely read?

Bryan: I would recommend the following persons for their consciousness and heart and amazing talent: Roy Udeh-Ubaka, Arinze Ifekandu, Ugochukwu Damian, Romeo Oriogun, Achimba Chibuihe, Eloghosa Osunde, Caleb Okereke, Akawaeke Emezi, Olaposi Halim, and Vincent Anioke. 

I am currently reading Time is A Mother by Ocean Vuong, alongside Vagabonds by Eloghosa Osunde. Ocean is stunning and his novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, still remains one of my favorites. I am enjoying the language and style of Osunde. 

I think everyone should read everything written by Chimamanda Adichie, especially Half of a Yellow Sun. Her works are full of so much heart, her essays, witfull and enlightening. 

I adore Binyavanga Wainaina for his audacity and style. I would recommend One Day I Will Write About This Place and all his essays. Binj held literature like it was malleable, and he did make it bend. He was a talent. May he rest well.

Jennifer Makumbi and Nneka Arimah are also favourites. One for her simplicity and elegance, the other for her daring construct. I recommend Manchester Happened and What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.

Remy Ngamije and Jowhor Ile also write beautifully. I would recommend The Eternal Audience of One and And After Many Days.

I am most anticipating the new titles by Arinze Ifekandu and Troy Onyango: God’s Children Are Little Broken Things and For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings. These writers have shown brilliance in their works over the years, and with the release of their books, I am most excited to read. 

 

This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.

Uchenna Emelife

Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, and a bookseller. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’Clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. In 2022, he was selected to attend the maiden Sharjah International Booksellers Conference in UAE and was shortlisted for the Ashoka Africa Changemaker Prize. He curates conversations for Africa in Dialogue, Isele Magazine and Book O’Clock Review. 

UCHENNA EMELIFE

CONTRIBUTING INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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