Akwaeke Emezi’s Poetry Collection Makes Space For Many Selves

Akwaeke Emezi

Hello, Hello! Welcome to my column, Queer Naija Lit, where I’ll be reviewing some of my favourite queer Nigerian books.

CONTENT WARNING: EVERYTHING deserves its name. Between the first and last pages, my mind became a thunderstorm of questions. What is time? What is being? What is life? What is death, to a god? Each poem presents an experience like lightning. Look: love. Here, pain. See where they connect. At the center of the thunderstorm is stillness. There, clarity is born. If you feel confused and a little unsteady then, congratulations, you’re ready to read Akwaeke Emezi.

What is time?

In colonial reality, time is a wound. Colonial time announces itself by the suppression of other times. It is the present, absent. In Emezi’s work, time is mended by stories that reach across, into, beyond, and before the bifurcation of “this” time.

It’s common to think of time as linear, but Emezi’s poems convey a story that doesn’t go from point A to B. Rather, it explores moments: freedom, peace, reckoning, and hurt can be represented through time — by which I mean experience. In Igbo culture, experience is the focus of a story and, by extension, life (what is life, if not one long story/experience?).

I grew up hearing stories from my family that didn’t hold their center in a particular time or region but in experience and shared understanding. Simultaneously, I was hearing a linear story about my country and people that only made sense if I didn’t look beyond the last few decades. I was — through spiritual and academic colonial institutions — conditioned to think of myself through a lens that denied my existence. When you have two means of storytelling next to each other — like with most binaries — we’re taught to pit them against each other. The “and” of the colonial mind is really a “versus.”

Emezi recognizes this cultural conflict in their narrative, but they step out of the narrative of oppression and into truth. Binaries can show us where things separate, but also where they connect — like a door hinge, or the two faces of a coin.

When I look at time as an experience the way Emezi writes it and compare it to linear, measured time, what becomes obvious to me is the way they are connected, and that one way of perceiving — the linear way — is deemed more real than another.

The consequences (and intent) of this are dire. Experiences and realities that can be validated through linear time thrive. Meanwhile, experiences and realities that can’t be translated into this metric are invisibilized and subjugated. Specifically, the people and environments living in non-privileged realities are subjugated.

Not in Emezi’s book. CONTENT WARNING: EVERYTHING exists in the reality of the spirit that wrote it. Emezi is who they are, an ogbanje and a god-child. The book is an embodiment of their reality, which is also Igbo reality.

What is being?

Colonization forced a majority of the world to think of beingness as one thing. There’s one (white) human, one (white) reality, one (white) self. 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 necessary 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 the ways we’re still conditioned to try to define everyone else and the ways we’re prevented from defining ourselves. Like Toni Morrison says, definitions belong to the definers.

Our ability to know and define stops at us — and even that is tenuous. To reach beyond the self and attempt to define (control) all reality — and therefore the experiences of people that aren’t you — is violence.

When Emezi writes, it is from deep within themself, made possible by their acceptance of their reality. The book is filled with selves mirroring each other, asking hard questions. This mode of storytelling is grounded in our culture. Duality is an important concept in Igbo culture. Life is possible when two exist. The earth and the 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 poetry book is brilliant fabric to weave reality with. In physical form, each end of the book serves as a container that the selves in the poem differentiate and reflect within. The difference in the book serves a different purpose from the conflict and suppression that is the current dominant narrative. Instead of suppression, Emezi writes towards connection and integration.

One poem, “Self Portrait As An Abuser” (one of many portraiture poems in the book) fractures the selves in two. One self seeks to live by taking. This self fears being alone, fears being unloved. The other self, on the other end of the page, is healed enough to tell the story as a warning. Between these stories, another narrative emerges.

I literally mean Between. When the stories are read through the space that separates them, a third narrative emerges. The hurting self tries to tell the spirit inside it to live. It doesn’t end there. I count at least ten narratives in this poem alone, and the entire book is like that, yet no two poems are the same. It’s brilliant.

This is a book to be read and re-read, like all true stories. People aren’t ever just “one” thing. We grow, change, heal, and hurt. That’s life. Stillness (which is not rest) belongs to spirit, the internal consciousness. We dip into it from time to time, but permanent stillness is death.

It’s important to place Emezi’s work in context. It makes sense that this was a book written by an ogbanje. An ogbanje is a trickster spirit, and what is colonization if not trickery. Substitute that, unname this, redraw these lands, rename these people, destroy their artifacts. Weave a web of fear over the world so we pretend all is well, as people are hurt. Trickery.

So of course, it takes an ogbanje to see where the oppressors’ tricks fail and spin old realities into new worlds.

Emezi is also the child of an alusi (deity) , Ani. The earth mother. She holds life and death, the harvest, marriage, communal laws, and spiritual practices. Ani is the ground everything is built on, and she is where we return when we leave this realm. The python that swallows everything.

That Ani sends her child as an ogbanje makes sense. The child of Ani has to be everything, a reflection of their mother. For Igbo people right now, that means they have to be part trickery. They are a reflection of the liminal space that the colonized culture — fighting for its own reality — occupies.

It matters that a god of my people showed their face and is queer. It matters the way they continue to experience violence in this embodiment. This mirrors colonial interactions with African liminality and the ways we experience the embodiment of spirit. Their stigmatization by cis-het Nigerians invested on some level in the upholding of colonial reality makes it clear what the arms of oppression are orchestrating us to kill internally. Our own spirits, our own people, our own gods.

I, and any of my people who know to look, know what we see. What we feel in Emezi’s telling. To tell a story is to survive it. To tell a story with all your faces present, as Emezi has done, 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.