Akwaeke Emezi’s poetry collection makes room for many selves
Hello Hello! Welcome to my column, Queer Naija Lit, where I will review some of my favorite queer Nigerian books.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER: ALL deserves its name. Between the first and the last page, my mind became a storm of questions. What is time? What to be? What is life? What is death to a god? Each poem presents an experience like a flash. Look: love. Here, the pain. See where they connect. At the center of the storm is stillness. There, clarity was born. If you’re feeling confused and a bit unsettled, congratulations, you’re ready to read Akwaeke Emezi.
What is time?
In the colonial reality, time is a wound. Colonial time is announced by the suppression of other times. It is the present, the absent. In Emezi’s work, time is repaired by stories that cross, penetrate, go beyond and precede the bifurcation of “this” time.
It’s common to think of time as linear, but Emezi’s poems tell a story that doesn’t go from point A to point B. Instead, he explores moments: freedom, peace, judgment, and pain. can be represented through time – by that I mean. live. In the Igbo culture, experience is at the center of a story and, by extension, of life (what is life if not a long story/experience?).
I grew up hearing stories from my family that were not centered in a particular era or region but in shared experience and understanding. Simultaneously, I was hearing a linear story about my country and its people that only made sense if I didn’t look beyond the past decades. I was – through colonial spiritual and academic institutions – conditioned to think of myself through a lens that denied my existence. When you have two ways of telling stories next to each other – as with most binaries – we are taught to pit them against each other. The “and” of the colonial spirit is actually a “against”.
Emezi acknowledges this cultural conflict in their narrative, but they step out of the narrative of oppression and into the truth. Binaries can show us where things go apart, but also where they connect – like a door hinge or the two sides of a coin.
When I look at time as an experience as Emezi writes and compare it to linear, measured time, what becomes clear to me is how they are connected, and that one way of perceiving – the linear way – is considered more real than another.
The consequences (and intent) of this are dire. Experiences and realities that can be validated by linear time thrive. Meanwhile, experiences and realities that cannot be translated into this metric are invisible and subjugated. Specifically, people and environments living in unprivileged realities are subjugated.
Not in Emezi’s book. CONTENT DISCLAIMER: ALL exists in the reality of the mind that wrote it. Emezi is what they are, an ogbanje and a godson. The book is an embodiment of their reality, which is also the Igbo reality.
What to be?
Colonization forced the majority of the world to consider being as one thing. There is a human (white), a reality (white), a self (white). This narrative is a modern descendant of Plato’s search for Ultimate Truth, which is fear and control. Colonization is an empire’s attempt to take all that is. I can’t imagine the size of the ego it takes for a person to believe they can know and be all that is, and yet the proof is in life right now. It’s in how we’re still conditioned to try to define everyone and how we’re restricted from defining ourselves. As Toni Morrison says, definitions belong to the definers.
Our ability to know and define stops with us – and even that is tenuous. Going beyond yourself and trying to define (control) all reality – and therefore the experiences of people who are not you – is violence.
When Emezi writes, it is from deep within themselves, made possible by their acceptance of their reality. The book is filled with individuals mirroring each other, asking tough questions. This mode of storytelling is rooted in our culture. Duality is an important concept in Igbo culture. Life is possible when two exist. Earth and sky, day and night. Time and being create life and death. While colonial reality seeks to suppress difference, Igbo culture recognizes that difference itself is life.
A book of poetry is a shiny fabric with which to weave reality. In physical form, each ending of the book serves as a container in which the selves of the poem are differentiated and reflected. The difference in the book serves a different purpose than the conflict and suppression that is the current dominant narrative. Instead of deletion, Emezi writes to connection and integration.
A poem, “Self Portrait As An Abuser” (one of many portrait poems in the book) breaks in two. We seek to live by taking. This self fears being alone, fears being unloved. The other self, at the other end of the page, is healed enough to tell the story as a warning. Between these stories, another narrative emerges.
I mean literally Between. When the stories are read across the space between them, a third narrative emerges. The wounded self tries to tell the spirit within it to live. It doesn’t stop there. I count at least ten stories in this one poem, and the whole book is like that, but no two poems are the same. It’s brilliant.
It is a book to read and reread, like all true stories. People are never just “one” thing. We grow, change, heal and suffer. That’s life. Stillness (which is not rest) belongs to the spirit, the inner consciousness. We dive into it from time to time, but permanent immobility is death.
It is important to place Emezi’s work in context. It makes sense that this is a book written by an ogbanje. An ogbanje is a trickster spirit, and what is colonization but trickery. Replace that, name this, redraw those lands, rename those people, destroy their artifacts. Weaving a web of fear over the world so that we pretend everything is fine, while people are hurt. Deception.
So of course it takes an ogbanje to see where the towers of the oppressors fail and transform old realities into new worlds.
Emezi is also the child of an alusi (deity), Ani. Mother earth. She holds life and death, harvest, marriage, community laws and spiritual practices. Ani is the ground on which everything is built, and she is where we return when we leave this realm. The python that swallows everything.
That Ani sends her child as ogbanje makes sense. Ani’s child must be everything, the reflection of his mother. For the Igbo right now, that means they have to be part of the ruse. They reflect the liminal space occupied by colonized culture – struggling for its own reality.
It matters that a god of my people showed his face and was fag. It matters how they continue to experience violence in this incarnation. It reflects colonial interactions with African liminality and how we experience the embodiment of spirit. Their stigmatization by cis-het Nigerians invested on some level in maintaining the colonial reality clearly shows what the weapons of oppression are orchestrating us to kill internally. Our own minds, our own people, our own gods.
I, and all of my people who know how to look, know what we see. What we feel in Emezi’s story. To tell a story is to survive it. To tell a story with all its faces present, as Emezi did, is to live. As a people, if our gods are alive, so are we.
The whole story matters, it always does. So, thank you Akwaeke, for giving us everything.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyses, contextualizes and celebrates Nigerian queer literature.