AiW Guests: Fisayo Amodu, Dora Houghton & Bryony Gooch.
Romeo Oriogun is an award-winning poet from Nigeria. His previous work includes the chapbooks Burnt Men, The Origin of Butterflies and Museum of Silence. He was also awarded the 2017 Brunel international African Poetry Prize and has attained fellowships from institutions such as Harvard University, the IIE-Artist Protection Fund and the Oregon Institute for Creative Research.
We spoke to Romeo Oriogun about his latest publication Sacrament of Bodies (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) — a moving poetry collection that explores masculinity and what it means to be a queer man in Nigeria.
Fisayo Amodu, Dora Houghton and Bryony Gooch for AiW: As a writer, what does the poetic form’s characteristic distillation of emotions bring to issues of oppression, the queer experience and trauma — all things your work explores?
Romeo Oriogun: A big question but a good one. I was raised by my mom and grandmom. Language, storytelling and oral poetry was a large part of my upbringing. There was a run-down library on the street I grew up on in Benin city, and I would read there with my older sister whilst my mom went to work. Reading Homer’s The Iliad practically changed language for me. A teacher in secondary school introduced me to poetry. According to her, poetry was the only thing that could tame a stubborn man. The answer to your question is ongoing, and one day I’ll look back and be able to give a firm answer. I think at a young age I was open to the idea of what language could do, and that no language is intrinsically innocent. Growing up I would see for example how language is used in the case of queer people in Nigeria. Homophobia is not limited to the violence it can inflict on the body; there’s also the violence that exists in language and how that language can be used for prejudice. So, for me, poetry was just the natural method of writing back. Firstly, it’s very distilled. I cannot sustain a narrative longer than ten pages so there’s no way I could be a novelist. Poetry is the language of care, the language of love and revolution and I feel people are drawn to it because it allows people to really speak.
Looking further into the imagery in Sacrament of Bodies, water and fire are recurring motifs. It felt as though water represented freedom, cleansing and relief from emotional and physical suffering while fire represented religious oppression and the lynching of queer Nigerians. For example, in ‘Elegy for a Burnt Friend’ the poetic voice wishes to ‘wash [their bodies] in water and become free’ and ‘pour water over their burning skin’. What makes fire and water important to you, especially considering your reference to the water associated Yoruba orisha Yemoja in “Elegua”?
For me, fire is very literal. One of the earliest acts of violence I witnessed was on my way back from secondary school and seeing a man being lynched in front of the carpentry shade outside by school. From my understanding, that type of violence was reserved for thieves. Although it’s still wrong to inflict violence on anybody in that way, it was generally understood that stealing resulted in ‘necklacing’ which involves a tire being placed around a person’s neck. I thought that was the situation until somebody said “he’s a homo” — a derogatory term for queer people. Then somebody placed a tire around his neck, set him on fire and that was it. There was no sense of justice; this man’s life and history were practically washed away which is why fire represents a mode of erasure. Violence erases people from their own narrative. When I started writing I unconsciously associated queer violence with bodies being set on fire. It was only when someone read my work and asked, “why are there so many images of fire?” that I realised.
As for water, growing up my mom was very spiritual. She worshipped Olokun, as did her grandmom and great grandmom. So, many women in my lineage have seen water as a traditional mode of worship that cleanses the body, brings freedom and protects. It became a recurring image in my life. Also, I personally love the sea. I pay attention to its cultural significance whether that’s as a tool of oppression in the case of transatlantic slavery, or a tool for escape. I feel like the sea has its own language, so when I was writing I was thinking of it not only as a symbol of freedom but also how it can be written into violence. Water and fire are two big images for me; in my new project I’m trying to go in a different direction but it’s definitely very important to Sacrament of Bodies.
Thinking about the title Sacrament of Bodies, you said in a 2019 interview that ‘the body is a ritual’. In the collection you write the body as it undergoes different ‘rituals’: sexual intimacy in “Cathedral of a Broken Body”, the body masking one’s truth in “Saddest Night Alive”, and also violence being done to the body by the state and self in “The Birthday”. By writing the body with such vulnerability, your poetry can be seen as a sacrament as it imparts grace on the queer body by educating people on queer experiences they may not have understood before, and also showing queer people their experiences are valid. However, to you, what is the meaning behind the title Sacrament of Bodies?
The collection’s title was paying homage to Chris Abani’s Sanctificum, a beautiful poetry book that inspired me and my work. I grew up in conditions where to survive you had to be tough — there was no room for weakness, a word that had a concrete meaning growing up but now I no longer know what it really means. Chris Abani was the first Nigerian male poet whose language showed vulnerability and let me know it was okay to be tender as a man. So when I was writing Sacrament of Bodies, I wanted that idea to come across in my poems and the collection as a whole. I’m fascinated by this idea of imparting grace to a body. It’s complicated because for me violence is still so close. I left Nigeria only four years ago and I still have friends struggling back home. The word ‘grace’ is hard to understand when writing the Nigerian queer experience because grace suggests saving and that currently isn’t happening for us. All we have is escapism, some leave the country and those belonging to the upper class are sheltered — something that used to anger me but doesn’t anymore because I understand everyone deserves escape.
Given this violence that is experienced by the Nigerian queer community, we wanted to ask you a little bit about questions of visibility and the process of publishing your poetry. When you wrote Burnt Men and it was first published in Praxis magazine how comfortable were you with associating your identity with your work?
I was naïve. Burnt Men was written immediately after Olumide, a gay man, was lynched to death. I thought I would show my own hand and say: ‘we’re human beings’. That there would be an understanding between who I am and who queer people are, that we exist in Nigeria and it’s not a strange thing: the country belongs to us too. What I found was that Praxis itself did a lot to shield me. It was not until 2017 that Laura Kaminski, editor of the project told me they received death threats when the book came out. I received a few but not in the overwhelming way they did. And so, I just felt ‘it is what it is’.
The fascinating thing is that Burnt Men was practically written on Facebook. I belong to this generation of poets who people call Facebook poets, as a kind of derogatory slang. A lot of us had nowhere to publish, not a lot of magazines allowed you to publish until you were famous or developed as a poet. KIS, a Nigerian poet, developed this Facebook school of poetry; all of us started writing there, started getting an audience there, and people started noticing our work. What Praxis did was reach out to me and say we want to collect all this work on Facebook and publish it. I didn’t know that publishing this book and having a wider audience would become a serious problem; that’s the naivety when you’re in a limited space. I had to navigate all of that. It was scary to be honest. I think in retrospect I’d have used a pseudonym but sometimes it’s only the things you know in the future when you can’t change the past.
How has the community of writers that you are in dialogue with and that support your work shifted and evolved since winning the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and working with African Poetry Book Fund on Sacrament of Bodies?
It’s very strange, I find myself wanting to be in dialogue with a larger global community of black poets, and I strive to be in dialogue with the poetry of Kamau Brathwaite, Kei Miller, Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton and other Black poets. I want to be in dialogue with them because all the subsets of the black experience fully belong to that experience whether it’s gender, sexuality, city, or whatever it’s the same experience, it’s a full flowing stream. I think for me after Burnt Men I knew what I was entering. I have African writers who have said very mean things to me. Then there were others who were very silent, who saw what was happening online and even that I was attacked physically and just went into silent mode. Two years down the line they say to me: “I read your work and I love it”. I don’t think silence means that you are complicit, but silence in these circumstances is violence.
I grew up in a town where you keep quiet when things happen to you. When I was little I saw women on the streets who my friends and I heard getting raped in the market at night and people just walk by because they don’t want the men who were doing this act to turn on them. I always considered from childhood that kind of indifference to be very, very violent. I like my racism to be in my face, so I know that you are my enemy. In the same way, I like my homophobia to also be in my face; I want to know if you’re a homophobic person so we can move past that and you can go your way and I can go my way. When that silence comes in it makes me mad because I ask myself ‘what do you want me to do with this?’ I think support is strange sometimes; we just have life and that’s the only we have, and it just keeps going.
On Wednesday you tweeted about the manuscript of your new poetry collection Nomad being completed, Can you tell us a bit more about this new collection and your decision to publish it with Griots Lounge?
I started writing Nomad the very moment I left Nigeria. I was fascinated by ideas of borders, in terms of how people interact with the city, its present state and in terms of history. I was trying to interrogate that weird dynamic: a city in itself is always moving towards the future but is always stuck in the past. You have statues, you have riversides, spots where certain things have happened. In the case of Ouidah for example, that was like a gateway for Africans to the new world where Africans were sold not just by white people but by black people. I was curious about this weird friction between the past and the present and where the city is heading. I feel we sometimes forget our past and want the future to be rosy, but the past always shows up and you have to deal with it. And so, I think that the book started from there and ended in America; I was thinking about my “fortune” to practically leave home and continue my career as a poet in Iowa. When I write about the foundation of my poetry it’s my childhood, my street, my city. So what does it mean to take that source and turn it into poetry that builds memory? The book wonders about those things, and different forms of migration.
I’ve always loved Griots Lounge for their covers, I’m a fan of covers. I think a poet belongs to his people, it’s a very strong belief of mine; a poet belongs to his community, to his people, to his country. My first duty is to my city. I still buy my books and send them to queer people back home because some bookshops will not carry the book. It’s sad. So, when I was writing this book, I wanted it to be published firstly in Nigeria before anywhere else, and I hope that my next book will follow this pattern. The publishing world is very Western, and I ask myself ‘what’s my role in that?’, ‘How can I work against that?’ The revolution is not just theory based, ‘what are you willing to sacrifice?’ I think as anglophone writers and anglophone poets we tend to forget there are different parts of the continent that speak French, Arabic, Portuguese, and I think the pan-African experience has to be conscious it doesn’t just mean the English experience. The things I try to consider when I talk about publishing is what this book means to me. I hope it does that and if it doesn’t then I’ve tried, and that’s all we can do, we can just try.
I really resonated with the last bit where you said “all we can really do is try”. How do you feel poetry and publishing engage with the idea of protest?
That’s an interesting question. It’s something I’ve been thinking actively about. In the US we have feminist book publishers and queer book publishers. We have these radical forms of publishing which have become a radical form of protest and disruption itself in the publishing world. But I don’t know if we are there yet in Nigeria. It’s not something we have to leave for the publishers alone, it’s also about what my own role is as a writer who loves literature. You also see in the US, writers from different radical publishing houses have to counter certain narratives – for example that publishing is very capitalist, which of course it is. Sometimes I feel very helpless that what validates your voice of protest is also a system that oppresses it. In Sacrament of Bodies I feel blessed because African Poetry Book Fund was founded by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and Bernardine Evaristo and all those people who all use African Poetry Book Fund to bring African voices into the global space. So I was lucky to have that. It’s a sacrifice. When you publish you are part of the system but also you give voice and speak to other people outside the system. But would you rather be outside the system and be there for a while, and start looking for other ways to publish? That might take years. These are the things I struggle with – even individual poems are published in journals owned by corporations. How do you navigate that? I don’t shy away from my complicity in that. Even in my helplessness, there is a part of me that realises I am part of the system. Everyday I wake up and ask myself: how do you move out of that system?
One way you might look at it is – as you said in an interview with Akinlabi: “this is the time for queer people to disrupt Nigerian literature.” Do you think poetry and literature are the key to a more progressive Africa?
I was thinking about this last night. I think literature is useless in itself when one think about it in connection to progress in Africa at the moment. I only say this because it is a tool of the middle class — how it is consumed and who has access to the spaces. What is progressive might be something that changes the law, but who does it change the law for? Who does the law work for? It doesn’t work for poor people. The poor person who is under this law has no protection of the law. So if the law says queer people can walk around in Nigeria, and then someone who lives in the village is queer living among homophobic people, is the law going to protect that person? The police themselves are homophobic. For whom is the law even made for? If literature influences this, who does it cover? Growing up I never had access to Nigerian books, apart from Things Fall Apart. It shouldn’t be like that. When we are fighting for justice, which we have to do because even people from other classes deserve tenderness and freedom, in my heart I know it’s a losing battle. That is where the uselessness comes in for me. I look to South Africa, for example, where queer people have been free but you see a lot of queer women especially who have been killed or oppressed and have to go through this trauma. This is a country with very queer-friendly law. And you ask why the law is not working for these people? It’s because the law is meant to oppress certain people. It’s a very sad dilemma. You keep fighting but you understand you are fighting a losing battle.
That’s really interesting. Especially when you consider the past few years in Nigeria where there have been a lot of discussions around LGBTQ+ rights. For example queer activism was brought into the #EndSARS campaign with Matthew Blaise. What are your thoughts on queer visibility and engagement in the #EndSARS campaign considering how LGBTQ+ people have been targeted by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad?
I’ve always shied when talking about #EndSARS from a queer perspective because I was not there. Sometimes you understand something is happening to your country and you are a stranger to what’s happening. I guess that is what exile does – it makes you a stranger to yourself and your country. I think queer people have always been visible in Nigeria. I just think society has refused to look at us. I consider my family where we dwell in this weird silence. It’s still the violence of not wanting to look and see you and say: you are a queer person, and you deserve the same rights as me. In terms of #EndSARS, I was scared and proud. This was a moment in Nigeria’s history – in my generation’s history – where we said not just the police, but the country itself, is corrupt and designed to kill us. When Matthew Blaise said “queer lives matter” in my head I was like: yeah, this is the right slogan. It should not be “EndSARS for queer people” it should be “queer lives matter for queer people in an EndSARS space”. Because you are caught between two opposing forces: the youth you are a part of, with whom you are protesting with because the police are actively against them too. But these people are also part of the oppressive system; we saw the protest degenerated into this thing where queer people were attacked. We understand what we are fighting for will never fight for us. We have to force ourselves into spaces and say we exist. On one hand it is beautiful, on the other hand it is a very sad thing. I don’t think anyone wants to keep saying every day “I exist”. I find it tiresome – I’ve always said “I exist, I exist, I exist”. We can talk about the law, but right now we are struggling to say “look at me”. Queer people said: we’re interested in this. We aren’t scared to walk down the street and declare who we are, irrespective of the conditions that were made to oppress and kill us. It’s a beautiful thing to see from afar.
Fisayo Amodu is a final year student at the University of Exeter, studying English Literature. Her areas of academic interest are West African literature, African Feminism and Diaspora studies. Her writing has been published in Exeposé. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing as well as copywriting after completing her degree, and wishes to soon be a published author.
Dora Houghton is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, studying English. Her key areas of study are Ecology, Capitalism, and West African narratives. She publishes her pieces of writing on her blog: The D Word and is hoping to pursue a career in publishing once she has graduated.
Bryony Gooch is a final year English student at the University of Exeter. Her academic interests range from Medieval to Modern through decolonial methodologies. Outside of her degree, Bryony has written and edited for award-winning student newspaper Exeposé, and Men’s Health UK. She hopes to further pursue journalism and writing after her degree.