Arinze Ifeakandu was born in Kano and studied Literature in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was editor of The Muse No.44. He is a 2013 alumnus of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. His short stories have appeared in a Farafina Trust anthology and in A Public Space magazine where he was an Emerging Writer Fellow in 2015. He was shortlisted for the 2015 BN Poetry Award. He is on the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist.
In this interview which we had via email, we talked about his short story, God’s Children are Little Broken Things and the essence of writing and literature, in general.
Congratulations, Arinze. You’re only 22 and maybe the youngest writer to make the Caine Prize shortlist. How would you describe your feelings about it?
I’m not the youngest writer shortlisted for the prize. But it does feel good to accomplish this at what many consider a very young age. Personally, I feel like I don’t have time on my side, you know. I don’t feel young at all.
Ha ha. That’s interesting. I see then why you appear to have settled so well into the art. The Adichie workshop you attended in 2013. The writer fellowship you received in 2015. But I’m curious, at what age did writing become a thing for you and what are some of the things that have influenced or motivated you to keep it going?
I had been telling stories long before I could read and spell, but as soon as I could I quickly began scribbling things, devouring all the stories I could find, imitating the things I read. I do not have a very literary or academic background, so I read what I could find. Maltina had this comic series about a footballer, I don’t know if it’s still in circulation; I began to draw my own comics and distribute to my classmates. I cannot say where that drive came from to document and share stories, but it was there every moment of the day.
Homosexuality, infidelity, loss, “correctional rape”, perhaps even self-identity. Your shortlisted story, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things touches on so many heavy (for lack of a better word) issues. While writing it, did you consciously decide these are issues that need to be written about or addressed?
Not at all. I remember, just after I got the fellowship, a friend read the story and called me to say that the story felt burdened by so many ‘heavy issues’, and I was like, What the fuck? I don’t write that way at all. I have my characters with whom I am in constant communion, characters whose lives I am curious about and invested in. And then I have the language of the story to grapple with. While writing, I am thinking about colon and commas and the sound the wind makes at night, how to describe it. Whatever issues the story ‘grapples’ with are entirely gleaned by the reader. This is not to say that I do not have a subject matter, and subject matter is really a simple way of putting it. There is a subliminal awareness of what I am doing, and part of this awareness is that homosexuality is not a theme or an issue, not something to be explored.
There’s such an outpour of emotions, it doesn’t help that I was reading your story at the same time that I was reading Akwaeke Emezi’s Who is Like God. Beyond almost sharing the same title, I’m fascinated at the subtle way you two were able to connect God to queerness. Almost like saying ‘you can be Christian and queer or gay or trans’ contrary to what many proponents of religion preach. Did you at any point of writing this feel rebellious? What was it like, your thoughts and the process involved in writing the story?
I don’t think I felt rebellious writing this story. I’m not sure, it’s been so long. But yeah, there are gay people in our churches, they sing in our choirs and play our pianos and preach on the pulpit. They sit in our pews and every Sunday we rain down judgment on them, mindless and foolish in our self-righteousness, in our assurance of our own goodness. In writing this story, it felt natural that the characters would go to church and that one of them would play the organ.
We very rarely hear of men being raped by other men to ‘correct’ their orientation. Usually it’s hetero men raping lesbian women. I think it’s very interesting that you brought it in, especially with the question of whether that didn’t make the rapists gay. I found myself wishing you had explored it a little more. Is there a reason you didn’t?
Oh well, that would require an entire story of its own! I am not an expert on rape, but I don’t think rape, especially correctional rape, is about desire. Often it is an assertion of power, an act of aggression carried out to hurt and to humiliate.
The end of the story was a bit vague. I found myself wondering: did Kamsi die? Was it suicide? How did it happen and when? Was it a conscious thing, this leaving the reader dissatisfied? And if he did commit suicide, is it your own way of saying the society has failed in protecting its people?
Because this story comes alongside others in a book of stories, it was and is necessary that some things remain(ed) unclarified. However, thinking of the story in its own right, whatever happens to Kamsi does nothing in the narrative arch. It is good, sometimes, for readers’ minds to go in various directions. And if he does commit suicide, well, yeah, the society should be ashamed of itself!
It’s fascinating and important too, that (African) writers have become increasingly bold in telling queer stories. In a place like Nigeria where such is criminalised, I love how these stories reecho the humanity of queer characters by making them one with the reader. But then how far do you think queer literature can go in ensuring the safety of the queer people? Do you not think it even endangers them, and the authors?
Literature cannot ensure people’s safety; we have the police for that. I don’t know how queer writing endangers queer people, except of course, the authors themselves who might receive (and have received) backlash. I believe that literature empowers people, and if you have been a member of a community whose stories have been systematically under-told or mis-told, reading something true and heartfelt can have the effect of doors being thrown open.
I do agree with the last bit. I think it’s indeed necessary to tell stories as yours, and like Chimamanda Adichie would put it, to tell them sincerely. I also noticed how the whole story was written without the conventional dialogues/speech marks. Did you choose it to fit or dictate the rhythm of story: fast paced, irregularities, etc. Or do you often write that way?
I do not often write that way, but sometimes I play with that device, even in stories where I use the marks. It was fun to play with it while writing “God’s Children.” It does affect the rhythm of the story, yeah, but in writing it I was merely having fun.
Bearing the Caine Prize in mind, what are your plans for the future? A collection, perhaps?
I am working on a collection of short stories from which “God’s Children” is taken. Maybe we’ll get to see Kamsi again and know what happened to him.