I interviewed Akpa Arinzechukwu, Nigerian writer photographer and social activist for queer rights. Akpa’s book of poems, City Dwellers, explores the intersections of religion, culture and sexuality in Nigeria. Akpa’s writing has appeared in Sou’wester, London Grip Poetry, Eastlit, ITCH, New Contrast. and reached the final of the Sophiamay Poetry Contest as well as the longlist of the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction.
Leslie: Your twitter handle is called ‘the outsider formerly known as akpa arinzechukwu’. What’s the story behind this unusual title, please?
Akpa: People have come to know me as ‘Akpa Arinzechukwu‘, or so I see when I come online & being this means I have to be chatty & thoughtful, whereas am just a kid by the block who doesn’t know what way a wind blows unless I am caught in it. I don’t really fit anywhere, so am telling everyone I am not what they might have thought.
Leslie: I believe you use ‘they/them’ as your pronoun. You also describe yourself as ‘queer’ and ‘pansexual’. Can you describe what all or any of those terms mean for you and how that identity of yours began/developed?
Akpa: I used ‘them/they’ long before anything because in Igbo language we don’t really have gender adjectives or determiners. Though my recent associations to these pronouns are more political than linguistic; I am reclaiming myself in a world that doesn’t want me to.
You know, growing up, people would really yell ‘queer’ to my face, maybe in the hope I feel bad, but the feeling was just for a while because I suddenly realised this is my identity; whom I truly am. I write love letters to the moon, isn’t that queer? Lol.
Leslie: Can you tell us about your poetry collection, please? How did your interest in poetry begin, and how has it changed your life?
Akpa: City Dwellers is a child forked from depression. Lots of things were happening & happening fast. Attempted suicide, anti-depressants, scary news about gay men attacked in the streets, etc. I was scared, it was just a way to calm my nerves. So when Dylan Emerick-Brown approached me, the fear, the depression, everything became a book. No matter, poetry, as I remember it came to me as another means of expressing myself in secondary school, I was a boarder.
It is the only thing I run to outside pills to discover what am yet to know which is happening in my life or environment.
& when he didn’t get enough sex
He caught me by the neck
So that my eyes were leaving their sockets
& my mouth raised in supplications
Stopped mid-amen stuttering
That the Dragon heard me instead
Thinking I was begging for more (3x) Akpa Arinzechukwu
Leslie: Tell us about your creative fiction, please, and your compositional methods when writing it. If your process is different for writing poetry, could you explain the difference, please?
Akpa: To be honest, my creative fiction comes off as a result of restlessness. There are things that can’t be said even profoundly in few words, so, the need is to elaborate, more like a parable.
The process doesn’t differ from poetry; they all begin with a line, that’s all I need to get started. The one line tells me whether to arrange it against another or to bring a phrase or a whole paragraph in. I sit it out between falling asleep & dreaming.
Leslie: You’re also a photographer. What would you say are your typical subjects – why them? I Would you like to comment on the work of Samuel Fosso?
Akpa: Depending on what I am staring at the moment or what I am thinking. I don’t go round expecting to turn out something as if am making a dress. Mundane, sacred, anything could be a subject. Smiling always does it for me when photographing people. About Samuel Fosso, he’s my kindred spirit. Apart from the fact the Igbo blood flows in our veins, In his self-portraits I see more I could be.
Leslie: Who are your heroes/guiding lights – why them?
Akpa: Audre Lorde, Jericho Brown, Wole Soyinka, Sam Smith, etcetera. I could go on & on but I only have the space to say why them. Something about all of them: fearlessness, courage… So that when Audre drawing closer death says, “Dear sisters..” I know there’s more to do. In their voices I feel at home.
Leslie: Can you describe the part religion/faith has played in your upbringing and creative work?
Akpa: Surely the Christian religion has become a menace I don’t want to be part of anymore that still doesn’t want to let me be. I think that’s how crisis begins… The influence is so strong that sometimes I think am a preacher or a fallen psalmist.
Leslie: Would you like to expand on your phrase ‘In this body, everything already looks like death’?
Akpa: After the anti-gay bill was passed into law in Nigeria, bloodthirsty scavengers began hunting; there was no safe haven, so as queer living in this country, you are made aware of the graveyard you carry around. Without trying we die nonetheless. What do I make out of the pain remains a question unanswered till now? Why so much hate?
IN THIS BODY, EVERYTHING ALREADY LOOKS LIKE DEATH by Akpa Arinzechukwu
Where did it begin, the pain, the images that haunt me? — La Prieta, Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Tyler Clementi was eighteen in 2010.
Before he ever became eighteen, he was a toddler. He was a kid with exceptional abilities, and he was known to have taught himself how to play the violin, accompanying it with his love for both bicycles and unicycles. He performed in numerous orchestras and was awarded for his contribution as well.
He was in the third grade when he began playing the violin. Exactly the time I was doing nothing with my life. He must have descended from Jupiter.
The summer after his high school graduation, Tyler disclosed to family and close friends he was gay. He had wanted them to know, not like he needed anyone’s permission to be who he was. He had hoped to let everyone around him embrace him for who he was.
That same period in my house, I could still not say the word “sex,” because God was always patrolling with whips waiting to pound anyone who ever said rotten things. We never saw him, but he was everywhere. Even in Tyler’s home, because after he disclosed his sexuality, as he confided in a friend, his mother “basically completely rejected” him.
Jane Clementi, who attended a different church from my mum’s—Evangelical Church, learned the same thing my mum learned: homosexuality is sin. And that’s fine, maybe, because all the religions of this world administer pain as a necessity to making paradise. A life full of peace has to come from being heartbroken and rejected by folks.
Tyler became one of the two freshmen who made it into the graduate orchestra of Rutgers University. That was August; same time I had my first boy crush who would later always end up on my lips.
In September, God decided to give me a break. He was headed for New Brunswick, New Jersey. He took over Ravi, Tyler’s roommate. And Ravi set up a cam to spy on his new roommate, who he barely ever spoke with, the content of which he later broadcasted online. “Found out my roommate is gay,” Dharun Ravi tweeted.
It was just for him to do this because straight people are God’s children and privacy is a faux illusion. How can we ever respect that?
He promised a season two on Twitter, because God had shown him in his dream to be a filmmaker. He was going to be popular. Opportunities to prove your worth in Hollywood rarely come.
Tyler saw what happened—a movie in which he was the man cuddling, kissing, and undressing another boy, his boyfriend.
As an actor, you’ll have to learn that it is difficult to claim your life once it gets out there. The boys expelled from my school for homosexual acts could never get theirs back. The ones the junior students caught having sex in the classrooms never got their lives back. The news had gone round the school. People could drop notes with “HOMO” inscribed on them, just to taunt them.
I am praying the contents of these bottles don’t kill me for in this body, everything already looks like death.
Tell me, what do you do when your extremes have been reached, and you can’t expand anymore?
* * *
“Seriously I’ve heard about people like that but never met any.” She stops talking, perchance trying hard to remember what else to add to make her not look dumb. She bites her lips and searches for a million words in your eyes.
The air is arid and ghostly. And even though the sound of silence has grown stronger now, the wind still rumbles in your eardrum. Your head goes blank. And that is also the time she grabs your hands in hers. She exhales and holds you to a stop that your faces appear as if you two would start kissing any moment from now. You are nervous.
“Tell me, can a man really fall in love with a fellow?”
You smile, saying nothing.
“You mean to tell me that with the big boobs and butts, one can still choose to desire…”
“Yes. Desire the fine, fine lips, accent, body, soul, and footsteps,” you say already tired of the conversation. You don’t care if she understands but you don’t fail acknowledging her cold hands.
“You are really gay?”
You smile again because that is the only thing you know how to do best. You smile because you are an axolotl. No one hides pain better than you. Some minutes ago you defined what pansexual is to her. She nodded and you thought she understood. A win for you, you thought. The atmosphere is uncertain.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil in What Wonder Can Do writes: this salamander (axolotl) has the best little smile of all the smiley animals with no bones.
You are broken but you are still smiling.
* * *
The first girl I told about this nervousness I felt whenever a cute guy came around or sat close to me, stopped talking to me. We were in our sophomore year in the university, and she was the only person I ever told the truth about the T in my official name. If she saw me coming her way, she’d take another route. She always avoided eye contact, and even when I called her on the phone, she gave her friends the phone to tell me she wasn’t available. I was scared—frightened to death that she must have told another person. Or maybe, went on Twitter or Facebook to write a different version of Ravi’s tweet on 20 September 2010.
“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
I was afraid. I was always afraid of public spaces; I would wait to be the last person to enter the class, and the first to leave. Who knew who else she might have told?
* * *
There’s a popular misconception that only the medical personnel can quantify the amount of pain a patient feels, but according to Watson’s Clinical Nursing and Related Sciences (sixth edition), “the person with pain is the only authority about the existence and nature of the pain, since the sensation of pain can be felt only by the person who has it.”
On the seventeenth of December 2017, I am driving a nail into wood. I am changing the net at my doorpost. It is old and torn and mosquitoes have taken advantage of it to feast on me every night. They deflower me every night.
I miss the nail, but the hammer doesn’t miss my left thumb. I drop the hammer at the speed of light, jump to my feet, locate a seat, slump in, and want to enjoy my cry in peace, but my nephews and nieces are at my side sympathising with me. I always feel better after drowning in my tears. I just want to let the tears flow and cry to my satisfaction till I can’t feel anything anymore.
Circumstances determine your response to pain—to withhold or show the brokenness right away. Just not to be labelled cowards or babies, we can go to the extremes.
I force a smile to my face. Tell them I am alright, while making sure the already swollen thumb is out of sight. The pain is immeasurable. I know am crying but not openly. Smiley faces are conceit.
Eula Biss writes in The Pain Scale, “the sensations of my own body may be the only subject on which I am qualified to claim expertise. Sad and terrible…”
Mother who wasn’t around when this happened, takes my hand in hers, examines it the way every Nigerian mother does, carefully, and maybe lovingly, and with a feeling of I-wish-I-can-take-this-pain-away. “Good this is not much, it is a small stuff,” she says, and I think I don’t understand what she means. Does she mean the size of injury determines the amount of pain to be felt?
“You’ll be fine. Take a hot water therapy, you’ll get better. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt much.” I want to say something concerning the last statement but don’t.
“Don’t be a woman,” she finishes.
Researchers are yet to agree on which of the genders feel pain the most. It is believed that pain is perceived differently by individuals. And if that is the truth, pain doesn’t know sex or age. Thus, WCNRS affirms: “there is therefore no research evidence to support a consistent pattern of pain appreciation related to sex.”
* * *
Darling you are not yourself when you look into the mirror. You are faceless. You know this, you can feel this. This person in the mirror, looking back is not you.
On the evening of September twenty-second, Tyler Clementi updated his Facebook status: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
* * *
Four weeks after she stopped talking to me. Four weeks of avoiding me, she ran into me at the hallway leading to the faculty’s library. She was wearing a smile. I have to confess. Smiling makes one younger and more beautiful. She looked like she had just come out from a plastic surgery. Her complexion had brightened, and I wondered if she had started patronising Dove™.
“I’m sorry for not calling all these days,” she said.
“Pas de probleme,” I responded wishing to bring the discussion to an end.
“We have a program at the church. I am inviting you.” Her face beamed, “My pastor can help you.”
“The word of God. He can cast the demons away.”
Talking about the axolotl, Aimee continues: “the axolotl’s mouth is pulled naturally into what we humans would call a smile.”
“You can cut the limbs at any level—the wrist, elbows, upper arm—and it will make another.”
No one can say all physical injuries cause pain. According to research, as reported by the Independent, “about one in a million people are thought to be born without a sense of pain…”
This condition is known as Congenital Insensitivity to pain.
For people with this disorder, pain is nothing. While Ashlyn Blocker, a girl with this disorder admitted feeling pressure, she never felt pain.
Wikipedia states that “indifference to pain means that the patient can perceive the stimuli but lacks an appropriate response. They do not flinch or withdraw when exposed to pain.”
Tyler’s response when he found his roommate was a bully, was to request for a room change, but he wasn’t taken seriously.
Axolotls, though they regenerate every cut limb, elbow, arm, etc., are labelled CRITICALLY ENDANGERED. This is as a result of the urbanisation of Mexico City, where they are mainly found. And maybe because they are known to always regenerate, no one paid attention to them, till they started drifting into nonexistence.
On twenty-ninth of September, Tyler’s body was found in the Hudson River, north of the George Washington Bridge. Autopsy stated “drowning” as the cause of death.
And many years later in June of 2017, in a gathering of queer people, someone termed us “the endangered species.” Everyone laughed, though taking that to heart because it is a lived reality in Nigeria. Endangered because the law is against every queer body; endangered because the people are against queer bodies; endangered because queer bodies exist only in small vacuums created for them; endangered because bullies are always scouting for perfect preys to ambush.
In this [queer] body, everything already looks like death.
Do broken bodies stop laughing?
“I am trying to be that good friend,” my friend says. “Let me help you with this abnormality.”
I am smiling again as if assuring myself of my safety; still wondering how many other people have heard this thing we discussed. And as if reading my mind she quickly adds, “I haven’t told anyone else.”
* * *
In Australia in 2016, New York Post reported the death of Tyrone Unsworth, a thirteen-year-old gay boy. He committed suicide because he believed everyone in his class wanted him dead. His friend, Gypsie-Lee Edwards Kennard revealed that other students did call him nasty names like: faggot…
He felt like no one wanted him and he really didn’t belong anywhere.
Sometimes the pain in your head pushes you off the cliff of yourself and you feel you can’t hold on anymore. No one feels this but you.
* * *
Sometimes, our attitudes toward pain manifest differently depending on what is involved, like someone searching for the eternal “light” subjects themselves to all forms of pain, and still feel nothing about it because of the greater goal—the thing to be benefitted—which is redemption, a pass into the spiritual realm.
I want to wake in the morning feeling better and never scared someone is trailing me. I want to look myself in the mirror and see how amazing my face is. I want to feel no pain. I am tired of smiling, regenerating my broken self every time.
I want to stop seeing dead bodies in my dream. I want to stop dying in my dreams. The train is moving fast.
There’s a clear difference between the pain one subjects oneself to and the one others subject one to. They hurt differently. What do I stand to gain if someone sets my body on fire?
It is well argued that relief for pain comes with age. Pain management comes with a number of grey hairs on one’s head. This means that if two people who are ten years older and younger and of the same sexual orientation are kept in a room, the chances of the younger one harming themselves after being bullied, molested, and harassed are higher than that of the older who has seen it all in life.
This argument comes from the saying that adults should always face their shit.
But that’s not true—it is baseless. Sometimes adults recoil and when they can’t take it anymore, they explode.
* * *
The second person I told about my sexuality laughed. I liked that they laughed. I liked they didn’t believe me. They laughed some more, stopped, gazed upon me, swallowed their saliva, and told me better to hang myself than bed a fellow man.
“I mean, this is unthinkable. How can a girl bed a fellow, not to even think of a man penetrating a fellow man?” They hissed. “Man, better suicide than this. God will understand.”
I am dirty. I smell.
* * *
On page 140 of Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hᴓeg, Smilla Jasperson notes: “nothing in life should simply be a passage from one place to another. Each walk should be taken as if it is the only thing you have left.”
I have no life left—not even my strength, not the desire to continue living. I have lied to a lot of people to stay afloat. In this stream of constant rejections, I am drowning.
And when in 2015 I woke in the hospital bed, someone said they found me writhing in pain, holding my chest and breathing fire like I was going to die. I was found in my room. I had taken cards of paracetamol, piritone, amoxil, and artesunate. I had overdosed, but I didn’t say.
My saviour, the someone who was also my neighbour where I lived, thought as usual I had had cardiac arrest.
* * *
You have lied about many things, but never the numbness you feel. Neither the pain nor how you see other humans coming closer to you as predators.
In an English class mocking the eighteenth century England, the clean shaven lecturer asked what could be done to keep one’s dignity untainted.
Death, you said, but only in your head.
There’s a popular European myth that the white stoat, alias ermine because of its winter coat, would kill itself when being pursued, rather than soiling itself.
A week later, you returned to the hospital. In the news, another gay boy shot himself.
This body feels so strange. In this body, everything already feels like death.
* * *
In 1971, Melzack and Torgerson developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It consists of seventy-eight adjectives arranged into groups. Patients select a word from each group that best capture their pains. This questionnaire was developed in an attempt to help medical doctors understand what their patients feel, better.
1. Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
2. Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
3. Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
4. Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
5. Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
6. Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
7. Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
8. Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
9. Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
10. Tender, Taut (Tight), Rasping, Splitting
11. Tiring, Exhausting
12. Sickening, Suffocating
13. Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
14. Punishing, Gruelling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
15. Wretched, Blinding
16. Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
17. Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
18. Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
19. Cool, Cold, Freezing
20. Nagging, Nauseating, Agonising, Dreadful, Torturing
And even though this questionnaire after completion would allow seven words that best describe your pain, I feel all. I still feel all. I am always feeling all.
To test the weight of the adjectives against each other, I consult the dictionary and play with them, even if it means repeating same words several times. For what is pain if you still pay attention to structure and meaning?
I am not interested of course in the measurement of pain, for even after it is quantified, what else? Does it go? What do I do to make it go?
In this body, everything already looks like death.
* * *
People who are inflicting pain on you usually think they’re doing you good, like the man flogging a child or the girlfriend suggesting conversion therapy.
Your phone beeps. It is your friend from previous night, and she texted to let you know Jesus loves you. You smile, say amen, and delete the message. In your head you are shouting: of course he loves me, why won’t he? Does he have an option?
That’s when you call home, telling your mother you have something very important to tell her. You may never say this, but she says she is ready whenever you want. You say it again making sure you heard yourself, and you keep saying this in your head, not because you actually want to, but to repair the injury before it spreads to the other parts of the body.
“Mum, I think am queer… yes, yes, I don’t mean your dead dog. Hello, hello, are you there, ma?”
Next week I interview author and art blogger Katy Whim about M.E., art, surrealism, anthropology, Dada, magical realism, spirituality, politics, environmentalism and her writing.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
- Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.