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Every Storyteller Needs a Story Listener: Meet MR Book Club Author Akwaeke Emezi

Book Club: Author Interview

The Man Repeller Book Club is an experiment in connection, in relationships, in bridging the gap between internet friends and real-life, care-package-sending, yall-know-my-middle-name, how’s-your-mama-doin, kind of community. (Really, hit me in the comments, how is yalls mamas doin for real?) We read novels like Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji not only because these works of literature are brilliant and lush, but because I believe that if they are read actively, deeply, creatively, then they can teach us new ways to be in relationship with one another.

On the first page of the book, we learn that the market burned the day Vivek, a queer boy coming of age in the political upheaval of Nigeria in the 1990s, died. This is a cold fact, a still life of a life gone to ash, a closed door. Then, on the very next page, time is winded back for us and the door swings opens: “If this story was a stack of photographs– the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country— it would start with Vivek’s father, Chika.” This image is the invitation over the threshold and into the world of the novel.

The choice to shape the doorway of the story this way does not feel like a rhetorical device so much as a setting of terms. Emezi says “The beginning image, the album and the coffee table, that’s something that to me means family history. That’s something that I grew up with. So we had that coffee table with the glass top and the family albums underneath it, and every time we went to visit another family, quite often the first thing would be, “Here, look at some albums.” We understand immediately that this is a story about and in the shape of intimate history, about kin and the blue distance between any family attempting to see and be seen by one another. We understand also that we, the readers, are visitors who can look but not own, who can stay for dinner as long as we wash our own dishes. In our conversation, Emezi and I discuss the ways that this novel tests us and asks us to come to the table, with a spicy tangent on tortured desire because you didn’t think I would be on the phone with the author of Vivek’s hot-ass sex scenes and not get a little PG-13.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and to spare you most of my fawning fan girl, chaotic big crush energy.)


Sarah:
It seems to me that this story’s relationship to the reader is more complex than a simple transmission of information. The reader can’t just walk in and receive the story—the reader has to give up some of themselves.

Akwaeke Emezi:
Yes. I definitely think that, and I think also, it’s an engagement, right? It’s an active thing. It’s not just like, “Oh, here’s the story handed to you,” and you passively take it in. I feel like it’s more active, and I feel like there are things in this book that in order for the reader to engage with them, you have to ask some questions about yourself.

Sarah:
Oh, yes, absolutely. Can you say more about that?

Akwaeke Emezi:
One of the things is, for example, how little Vivek speaks relatively to other narratives in the book. It’s a little test, of sorts. It wasn’t designed as a test, but it does challenge the reader, I think, to ask who they are actually listening to. Are they listening to Vivek, or are they listening to everyone around Vivek and those people’s fears and those people’s perceptions of Vivek? Or are they paying attention to Vivek’s perception of himself?

Are we actually listening to them, or are we listening to all the noise around them?

These are two very different things, and I think it’s relevant because it affects so much of how we engage young queer people and young trans people. Are we actually listening to them, or are we listening to all the noise around them? People’s fears, people’s assumptions, and often these fears will be louder than the person’s voice, just because of the power dynamics in our society, but I want the reader to pay attention to who they’re paying attention to, because if you’re paying attention to Vivek, you come away with a completely different reading of the book than if you’re paying attention to everyone around Vivek. You come away with different ideas of what Vivek’s life is like. Different ideas around the expression and freedom.

Sarah:
Right. I think that that’s one of the reasons for me that this book felt just perfect for the book club because with the book club, I want us to become aware of how the experience of reading the book transforms us. I want us to think like, “I’m making choices within my own reading of what this story means and what it means for me.” The test, then, of this book is to look through all these different eyes at Vivek and then analyze and come to an understanding of why I trusted who I trusted or believed what I believed.

Akwaeke Emezi:
Exactly.

Sarah:
And, as you said, in many ways this mirrors the experience of queer and trans people, especially the youth. Did you consider the possibility of voyeurism in a story that is revealed primarily through the reader gazing on or at Vivek, with very little of Vivek’s own voice narrating his life? It seems like it would have been an easy trap to fall into, but I think you absolutely avoided it.

Akwaeke Emezi:
I actually did not, but I’m really glad that I ended up avoiding it. Because, it’s like, when you’re writing a queer character who is dead from the beginning of the book, there’s a way to do it that felt right, and I feel like voyeurism would’ve been a way to do it that would’ve felt wrong.

Sarah:
Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s because the looking we do in this world is a unique and active experience. Through reading this book, we’re training ourselves in a way of looking at another’s experience, and yet being consistently placed outside of the dynamic of voyeurism.

Akwaeke Emezi:
I’m so glad to hear that. That makes my day.

Sarah:
You know, I find it really challenging to conduct this interview as an interview, because I just have so many things I want to clap for you about in this book.

Akwaeke Emezi:
I read your book club guide on the website, and I was like, “This is the most thoughtful, tender approach to reading a book that I have ever seen in my life.”

Sarah:
Oh my gosh—

Akwaeke Emezi:
I promptly sent it to a bunch of my friends. One of them texted back, and she was like, “A meditation! Time travel!” and I was like, “Yes. I know, right?”

Sarah:
Well, I think the telling of this story feels so embodied, so generous with its weight! I just felt like it’s not a reciprocal reading for us to not move that same generosity into our own practice of reading the book.

Akwaeke Emezi:
That’s beautiful. I love that… because, look, I think a story isn’t complete until someone receives it. In order for you to be a storyteller, there has to be a story listener. Otherwise, the circle is not really complete, and I’m so appreciative of the chance to engage and talk about the work because I learn so much about the story from people who are reading it.

There’s a gazillion things that I wouldn’t have thought of as I was writing that readers can discern and pull out… It becomes a thing of intersection and reflection for me as well, like your whole comment about voyeurism. I’m just like, “Oh wow.” Absolutely. Especially when it’s like a queer character living in Nigeria. I knew that when I wrote this book that there was a strong chance that people were going to read it because of that voyeurism thing of like, “Oh, let me see how terrible it is for queer people in Africa and how violent it is, and how brutal it is.”

It was a struggle to balance the book in a way where I’m not pretending that it doesn’t suck, but at the same time, I wanted to hold space for the love and the care.

Akwaeke Emezi:
It was a struggle to balance the book in a way where I’m not pretending that it doesn’t suck, but at the same time, I wanted to hold space for the love and the care. It sometimes surprises me when people, what they pick up from the book is like, “Oh, Vivek’s parents fear that he was going to end up as a burned and butchered body,” and I’m like, “Really? Out of everything? That was in the book? That one part was the part?”

And it makes me think about the voyeurs. It makes me think of that specific gaze that wants to look at queer African people and be like, “Oh, poor you, living in a place that’s so intolerant and violent.” I didn’t want to feed that gaze.

Sarah:
These characters are rendered so tenderly that I wondered, do you fall in love with your characters?

Akwaeke Emezi:
I definitely do fall in love with my characters. I’m just like, “Oh, look at my little babies out there in the world. Poor buddies, having such a hard time! I really have a soft spot for Osita.

Sarah:
God, same! Poor li’l guy!

Akwaeke Emezi:
He’s just having a hard time, little buddy! There’s so much tortured desire in him, which is my favorite thing in the world.

Sarah:
Oh hell yeah, tortured desire. So relatable.

Akwaeke Emezi:
So relatable! Like why have simple desire when it can be tortured and stuff?

Sarah:
Exactly.

Akwaeke Emezi:
And he has so much of that in him. He has all these volatile emotions, and really this probably speaks to the folly of my dating choices in the past, that I’m just like, “Yes. Are you angry and guilty, and just not at peace with yourself? I’m into that.”

Sarah:
Oh I totally get that, like, yes you tumultuous dark spirit! You are so troubled and I’m… kind of turned on by that?

It’s kind of hot, to be quite honest, and I think that there’s this idea of tortured desire and fighting against succumbing to it

Akwaeke Emezi:
It’s like, ugh, you’re so not okay. It’s kind of hot, to be quite honest, and I think that there’s this idea of tortured desire and fighting against succumbing to it. This idea of like, “Oh you’re resisting, you’re resisting, and then you surrender, and that moment of surrender is like a victory.” It’s just like, “Yes, you have crumbled at my feet, fantastic!” This is why I really enjoy the scenes with Osita where he does that, where he’s fighting and he’s fighting and then he breaks. I’m like, “Yes, shatter. Shatter into many glorious pieces.”

Sarah:
I know that I absolutely shattered. I’m shattered just thinking about the steamy surrenders in this book. And, now, in a change of subject that has nothing to do with the heat gathering in my cheeks, Let’s end by talking about another “test” in the book.

When we’re thinking about the fugues and the sickness that Vivek experiences. This is another opportunity to have totally different readings. Is the wasting away that he experiences part of some malady related to the sin of his queerness like some of the characters seem to believe, or from repressing his queerness by not living in his “authentic identity” as some readers might suggest, or is there another more complex, spiritual cause?

Akwaeke Emezi:
Yeah, and I think that’s absolutely part of the test we were talking about as well—like, what is the reader bringing to this book? Because as far as I’m concerned, there’s actually no reason to assume that his sickness is because of his gender identity. So then I want the reader to ask themselves, “Why are you assuming that? Is it because queerness is pathologized in your society, and so you think, ‘Well, if someone is young, queer, and suffering, then they must be suffering they’re queer?'”

I’m like, that’s not something that came from the book. That’s something that came from you, because if you actually look at the book and if you actually look at Vivek, like yes, he’s figuring out himself like any other teenager would be, like any other young person would be, any person in their early twenties. It’s a typical coming-of-age thing, but when I hear people say things like, “Oh, Vivek was living an inauthentic life,” who decided that? If anything, he’s expressing himself freely and he’s exploring, and I generally do not understand what’s inauthentic about that because he’s not hiding any part of himself. He looks at himself courageously.

Akwaeke Emezi:
If you want an example of someone who does not look at himself courageously, you could find that in Osita. He’s actually the character who is having trouble expressing himself, who’s pressing himself down, who’s suffering because of that, but no one’s flagging his suffering. I’m just like, “Why?”

These are questions that have to do with the reader, not specifically with the work. That’s one of the ways in which I want the reader to reflect and think about the assumptions they’re making, and why they’re making those assumptions, and who told them those stories that led to those assumptions because the story didn’t come from this book. The story came from somewhere else.

Sarah Barnes

Sarah Panlibuton Barnes

Sarah Panlibuton Barnes is the internet version of your eccentric neighborhood recluse and Senior Editor at Repeller.

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