BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This interview is a compilation of WhatsApp chats sent between Lagos and Abuja.
Aisha: Hello, Chidera; good afternoon.
Dera: Good afternoon, Aisha. I hope you are well.
Aisha: I’m doing well. How are you?
Dera: I’m okay.
Aisha: The first thing that hits you when you start to read this story is the imagery—the way it appeals to all your senses. The reader is transported to Aba market and can smell the rotten fruit. How were you able to achieve this?
Dera: You see, I grew up in Aba, so the city, while not towering like Lagos and Abuja, holds a special place in my heart. Even though I now live in far-off Lagos, it was easy to conjure Aba when writing ‘Something Happened Here’. All I had to do was pay attention to the memory of my daily commutes as a child. These commutes were rich with the chaos of chipped asphalt, bickering drivers, and the roiling of flooded gutters.
Aisha: The ability to reach for a place in your memory and write it is amazing. Did you ever worry that you would make mistakes in the details since you haven’t been there in a while?
Dera: Well, I make it a priority to visit Eastern Nigeria at least once a year, and during my visits, I make time to call on some old friends in Aba. Hence, my description, to my thinking, was apt at the time of writing ‘Something Happened Here’.
Aisha: Alright then, since you visit once in a while, it wouldn’t be difficult to describe specific details in the story. Now moving on from the story’s setting, I think it’s fair to say that I fell in love with Tobe. He seems like such a gentle little boy whose spirit would be appreciated if he wasn’t so misunderstood. Did you want us to fall in love with him?
Dera: No, not really. I wanted people to see and be accepting of him but not necessarily fall in love with him or the many Tobes in our society. I believe love demands devotion from us and that is not what Tobe craves. It also isn’t what I expect the world to feel for Tobe. However, we can live in a world where we are all accepting and tolerant of differences. That’s what Tobe is about—our differences and how they shouldn’t be the basis of oppression.
Aisha: That’s very true. Still, I have a soft spot for children, especially ones I believe are misunderstood, which could have promoted my feelings towards the character. Tobe’s nature certainly demands that we accept and tolerate differences. Why do you think we are so intolerant of the behaviours Tobe displayed? What about a young boy exploring or pushing the boundaries of gender norms that makes us so uncomfortable, especially as Nigerians?
Dera: I think it’s a fundamental human trait to be averse to differences. We are wired to be scared of or even attack things that aren’t usual to us. Given our colonial history, replete with religious indoctrination, we’ve imbibed the bigotry which, to my thinking, has become the touchstone of Abrahamic faiths. Much of the hostility people who deviate from gender norms are met with draws heavily on religious teachings. This hostility has also been exacerbated by the silence of people who know better and should speak up but do not, for fear of eliciting scorn and ostracism. There’s also the possibility that people are generally opposed to overhauling existing norms and would instead use anything available as a counterargument to the rights of people like Tobe. I think Aunty Nkechi’s actions are motivated partly by the Nigerian phenomenon called “busy-body” and society’s desire to hurt those they don’t understand so that they are beaten into the shape they deem “normal”.
Aisha: Busy-body is the right word for it. Do you think Tobe would be alive if Aunty Nkechi didn’t do the things she did?
“There’s so much work to do when it comes to illuminating the truth about gender for people in these parts. At the forefront of that is storytelling. I believe in the power of stories to reach where statistics and facts will never reach.“
Dera: To be honest, that’s rather moot. There’s no telling whether Tobe would not have encountered greater evils than Aunty Nkechi. While she plays a significant role in triggering the events that led to his death, she represents the sheer extent of oppression that awaits people like Tobe as they come of age and even for the rest of their lives.
Aisha: It’s pretty sad. Something I noticed about Aunty Nkechi’s actions is how they affect Tobe’s mother and provoke her own actions. I feel like on her own, Tobe’s mother wouldn’t be so bothered by her son’s behaviour to the extent she would incite Dede to strike him. However, she constantly listens to Aunty Nkechi, who tells her that her son is acting like a homosexual. Do you agree?
Dera: Yes, I agree. Yet, we shouldn’t also ignore the truth that Tobe’s demeanour was grating on his mother’s nerves way before Aunty Nkechi came into their lives. While Aunty Nkechi is a catalyst for the events that unfold before Tobe’s death, the truth remains that whether she had come into the picture or not, he would still have battled other forms of hate had he continued to live.
Aisha: You mentioned that before, and I agree he would. If not from his family, then from friends or acquaintances. Can we talk about Dede’s actions due to the brainwashing that happens to young boys? What he did to Tobe reminds me of a clip I saw of children in a refugee camp stoning a journalist who wasn’t wearing a hijab and calling her an infidel.
Dera: Children and young adults are an impressionable lot. Bigots prey on this, weaponize their malleability, and use them to fashion a future for their (often ill-informed) ideals. There’s also the fact that younger people haven’t mastered self-restraint. This plays into the level of violence they are willing to wreak once sufficiently galvanised.
Aisha: Right, and we saw that with Dede. I initially thought he killed him with that attack. Do you think he would have killed his younger brother?
Dera: Well, I’m not sure he set out to kill him. It is one impulsive moment precipitated by his mother’s complaint. Still, although not directly, Dede kills his brother in a way with that attack. The beating is the final straw in the toxicity meted out to Tobe. His fragile heart can no longer take more, hence the suicide.
Aisha: From his grief after Tobe’s death, I think it’ll be fair to say he didn’t mean to do that. This leads me to talk about grief. Although not at once, Dede lost his father, brother and mother and I can imagine the emptiness was a lot to handle. Is Dede grieving when he returns to his childhood home? Was it difficult trying to capture his grief? I understand that capturing solid emotions can be complicated.
Dera: Yes, he was; and yes, it’s complicated to capture emotions, no doubt. I guess I never thought about how complex his grief was when writing the story. I let the story lead me. Stories have a way of directing the words of a writer.
Aisha: Was there a time that the story didn’t lead you, with regards to Dede’s grief?
Dera: Yes. There were many times when the story shut me out, and I had to wait until it let me in again.
Aisha: How do you follow a story? I’ve heard this a lot from many writers. They say they followed the story. How would you explain this to someone who doesn’t write?
Dera: It’s something instinctive. It’s like there’s a small voice in your head telling you where the story wants to go.
Aisha: Seeing as you put a lot of effort into writing this story, what was going through your mind when you found out you were on the shortlist?
Dera: Being shortlisted made my efforts worthwhile. You see, writing feels like one is yelling at the top of their voice, and no one is listening. Learning that I was shortlisted made me feel heard and seen.
Aisha: I agree with this as a writer. It feels like you’re screaming into an abyss sometimes. Congratulations on making it to the shortlist. Did getting shortlisted validate your work?
Dera: Definitely. It was one of those moments when I was certain that writing is a call of duty for me.
Aisha: Coming back to the story, can we talk about Dede and Tobe’s mother? It must not have been easy to have a child who acted differently.
Dera: We live in a country where little is known about people that have been ‘othered’. I’m sure their mother must have been as confused as most Nigerians are about sexual minorities or individuals who do not conform to gender. Often, this confusion manifests as hate directed at people who fall in these groups, and much of this hate isn’t hate per se; it’s ignorance.
Aisha: In Tobe’s case, can we say he was more gender non-conforming than gay? I think that’s a thing that’s mixed up in Nigeria. When a man or woman is non-binary, people assume they are homosexual.
Dera: Unfortunately, Tobe doesn’t live long enough for us to know his sexuality. However, I second the postulate that Nigerians often refuse to engage with the concept that people may be gender non-conforming.
Aisha: How do we deal with this ignorance? It has caused a great deal of the problems that queer and gender non-conforming people face. Currently, a cross-dressing bill is in the works to be passed into law.
Dera: There’s so much work to do when it comes to illuminating the truth about gender for people in these parts. At the forefront of that is storytelling. I believe in the power of stories to reach where statistics and facts will never reach. I think this is why my generation of writers telegraph this commitment to telling the human story in its fullness without erasing any demographic. Hopefully, someone will chance on the stories we tell and introspect.
Aisha: Do you intentionally write about queer and non-binary people? Also, outside your writing, do you get involved with causes or campaigns to support LGBTQIA+ communities in Nigeria?
Dera: Unfortunately, I have not officially or publicly joined any campaign against the oppression of LGBTQIA+ individuals in Nigeria. Maybe because activism has always felt lofty in the actionable sense of the word. I hope that someday when I have a bigger platform, I can speak up for all marginalised groups. For now, I only pitch in with stories.
Aisha: I’ve also noticed this. It feels performative and can sometimes be far from the spirit of charity and selflessness. Do you consider your stories a form of activism?
Dera: More as a form of honesty. The world could use more honest stories. We’ve bought into and perpetuated lies for far too long.
Aisha: This is true. Apart from LGBTQIA+ issues, do you think honest stories can fix other societal problems, and how?
Dera: People generally can only empathise with a person if they connect with that person in some way. Stories give us insight into our shared humanity. When we read the stories of those we have “othered,” we learn how not so different from us they are, and this can be the basis for empathy.
Aisha: Do you believe empathy is powerful enough to change things like laws and policies?
Dera: Yes. I believe empathy brings about compassion, and compassion is often the source of propulsion for positive change.
Aisha: Did you learn anything while writing this story?
Dera: If I learned anything, it’s how powerful stories can be. When rereading the story during the editing phase, there were times when my commitment to do something to better the experiences of marginalised groups was reinforced.
Aisha: Do you intend to write more stories like this in the future?
Dera: Even though stories are tricky, I hope to. Sometimes the stories you intend to write do not want you authoring them.
Aisha: That’s great to hear. Thank you for speaking with me, Chidera. It was very insightful.
Dera: Thank you so much for your incisive questions.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Tealee A. Brown.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a Law student, poet and freelance writer and journalist from Kaduna State, Nigeria. Her poems, essays and curated interviews have been published in Document Women, Africa in Dialogue, Agbowó, Muslim Girl, Aster Lit and others. In 2019 she won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. In 2020, she was one of the judges for the same award. When she isn’t studying and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats, watering plants, reading about Sufism and working to spread mental health awareness as Head of Administration at the FAM Initiative. Aisha currently writes for Document Women’s Arewa Voices column. She hosts two podcasts, namely the Poet Box Series and Story ER.