Eyimofe Emiko looked forward to being a mother-in-law to the bride of her only son but expectations were terminated when Femi asked a boy to his senior prom.
Before their first child went to pick up his prom king, she overheard her husband giving him the talk.
“Delay having sex for now,” Mr Jaiyeoba said. “Find your passion and fall in love with it. You will only find the right man after finding yourself. But have fun tonight and ask yourself during temptations: what would Jesus do?” and Femi laughed out of the house.
Eyimofe couldn’t believe her ears. She believed her grandfather’s company had been unfairly bullied out of the Enugu aero-car industry after the 2066 Biafra Independence Referendum and she thought she had convinced her husband to discourage Femi from dating the Biafran boy, but clearly Mr Jaiyeoba thought otherwise.
However, she felt vindicated when Femi broke up with the boy for insisting on pre-marital sex.
“Don’t mind him,” Eyimofe consoled her son. “I’ll find you a proper Yoruba boy with good home training in this Abeokuta.”
Along came Dapo of royal repute. His mum was president of the Abeokuta Stock Exchange and his dad chaired the largest Nigerian Space Estate Agency in Southeast Kepler. After the traditional betrothal was announced, space tabloids began publishing stories about her future son-in-law: only his back remained a virgin, his front has visited every willing crevice in the Goldilocks Zone; during the last winter holidays, he punched his ex-boyfriend at a resort in Kepler 438b. She became uneasy when his family insisted on having a Blood Oath Service at Sango’s Shrine as part of the wedding ceremony. The engagement broke down irretrievably when Femi tongue-kissed his Scottish-Nigerian mechanic during a live broadcast of the Warri Inter-Galaxy Grand Prix.
Yet Eyimofe forbade Femi from marrying Jeremy. She preferred “the Biafran bastard to this bloody British immigrant without naira in his veins.”
I was staying in the Dolphin estate, a slightly run-down but very pleasant, gated part of Lagos Island. Amatesiro came to be interviewed in my flat there. He came across as a calm, rather jolly person, laughing a lot even though some of his memories evidently gave him pain. We started by talking about his story “Love and Prejudice.”
Amatesiro: “I was talking to a friend of late, that all I had to do the last eight years after graduation was to become Amatesiro Dore. I had to be that person. I believe as writers that we are first human beings. Every other thing is just secondary.
“I studied law in school. So am I the guy who studied law? Or the editor? Or the writer? I had to become Amatesiro, I had to know him. I didn’t know myself for a very long time. (Chuckles)
“I was in the closet for all my life. Fanatical Christianity. The nature of the Christian faith makes you deny your identity. You are all meant to be Christ-like. That’s what it means to be Christian. So you’re no longer Amatesiro Dore. You can’t then discover him. You have to be who God says you are. So I famously used to say, ‘I’m not gay, but I’m the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Chuckles)
“‘Love and Prejudice’ was one of the first stories I wrote as Amatesiro Dore. The writer who had found himself, who had become. I like where the story took me. It helped me recreate my world. I spoke about homosexuality and homophobia as though it doesn’t exist. It was just this bubble.
(The story is set in a future in which Nigeria has split after a referendum on Biafran Independence.) “It’s almost a prophecy of a good ending. Everything will turn out right. I might be in a minority but in the long run we are going to win.”
GR: “Billy Kahora talks about how utopias seem to be automatically pan-African. Your story is quite the reverse. Your utopia is about Nigeria falling apart into smaller pieces.”
Amatesiro: “Africa as a continent does not exist. It’s like Europe and Asia, but the Europeans decided they were different though the continents meld together. But for Africa I’m first and foremost an Itsekiri. The old concept of being African is foreign to who I am.
“It’s the arrogance of the majority. To be Itsekiri means you are from Warri. I am one of the few people who can actually say I am Itsekiri because I am from Warri. That’s my consciousness. I reason in Pidgin English. That’s the formative language of my thoughts.”
GR: ”Write a novel in Pidgin, please. My favourite African novel is Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa.”
Amatesiro: “He’s a minority voice. So he’s one of my biggest influences. What Ken did was not write for the Western world but particularly for indigenes of the Niger Delta. He told our stories. He put us on the map. We are not Igbo, we are not Hausas, we are not Yoruba. We are Itsekiri.
“But, having said that, I met a situation where these groups of people have come together to form a country without a referendum. We’re here now. It’s sixty years of independence. I am the grandchild of independence. And the dreams of the grandchildren of independence are different from the colonialists, or those students from the '70s or '80s.
“I have come to recognize Nigeria. Yes, it is not original; it is not true per se; but it works. I am no more just an Itsekiri. I have siblings from other tribes. Now we have to make those partnerships work based on mutual consensus. How are we going to share our wealth? Do we have a true federalism and monetary system? We need to fight for that space. The minority voices need to be heard and registered and given room to express themselves within that Nigerian identity.
“I’m Nigerian, I’m African, based on colonialisation. But my blood is Itsekiri.”
GR: “It’s interesting that your language is Pidgin. What happened to Itsekiri?”
Amatesiro: “I spent the first four years of my life in Warri. Itsekiri was always a language of secrets. That’s what my parents spoke when they didn’t want us to hear what they were talking about. (Chuckles) So I learnt it from the gossip table. It wasn’t a social currency then. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (a champion of literary use of minority languages) wasn’t dominant in my parents’ bedroom then.
“If I knew what I know now, I would write in Itsekiri. Some of my best pieces are Itsekiri-based. ‘Love and Prejudice’ is a very Itsekiri story. The characters are, the social consciousness is. So is ‘Sweet Play,’ one of the winners for re-imagined folk tale.
Amatesiro. “I had this privileged upbringing. My parents are not married to each other. They were from different spectrums of life. My mother I would say was quite unlucky in marriage. Great guy, wonderful, one of the founding fathers of Nollywood, the movie industry in Nigeria. But he didn’t come with cash. There was no money. There was hardly money to survive. There was no mad money like my biological father.
“I live on both sides of Lagos: on the island and on the mainland. Whenever I was on the mainland, I couldn’t communicate. I spoke English. (Laughs) I spoke literary English. It existed on this plane. It wasn’t the language of the streets.
“Then I went to a suburb in Ago, where Mother still lives, and I befriended the street. I assimilated. That’s the gift my mother gave to me. Poverty made me ... you know?
“My step-siblings were not aware that we were steps until way into high school. (Laughs). When they went to one of my former high schools and claimed to be my brothers, but we bore different surnames. (Laughs).
“Like I said, I grew up in this family of secrets. The language was really powerful; things were shaded. If we were talking about my biological father we called him by his first name, Roland, and we spoke about him in Itsekiri.
“Coming down to Ago, the English we use there is very different. I tried to adapt that in a story of mine, ‘Love by the Talking Drum.’ It affects everything. It’s not Pidgin. It’s a kind of Lagos English, a lot of street slang, and the syntax—it’s beautiful! It gets lost in translation. So I could adapt it in a way. But it exists in its own world.
“Our language is just as powerful as American English, but we haven’t invested in our structures. What we speak in Nigeria is very like ... (long pause) over the years I’ve sent my stories to African editors for one reason only.
“For example: my story ‘Bad Bel-Le’ published in the Ake Review (the official publication of the Ake Festival for 2016). The editor was Molara Wood, one of the best African editors in Africa. It was a piece about jealousy.
“But the language and the spelling of the title. It’s not a bad belly though it means the same thing. To describe a good heart, a good man, in Igbo they will say ‘he has a clean heart. Obiocha.’
“In the Niger Delta where we are more food-inclined, a good man has ‘a clean stomach.’ (Chuckles) So if you have a bad stomach, you are a bad person and so we say ‘bad be-le.’
“The direct English translation for ‘bad be-le’ is ‘green-eyed monster’, jealousy. But for the English it’s more of an external thing but for us jealousy is innate. It’s not how you manage it. It comes from within. The piece is in Nigerian English, Nigerian syntax, and our way of life.
“But for me the power of stories is dependent on the editor. So you can’t have original voices if you don’t have African editors. You’re going to get into the slush pile of The New Yorker trying to get published by somebody else who doesn’t get it. To edit a story is to make it better. And how can you make it better when you don’t know the story?”
Like many African authors—A. Igoni Barrett, Akwaeke Emezi, Ben Okri, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o—Amatesiro writes many different kinds of fiction and nonfiction. He is not a genre loyalist.
“I do speculative fiction because I read everything as a child. I read everything. Every book, and I read what I was meant to read at that stage of my life.
“I did not jump from Enid Blyton. I graduated over the years. I had my romance period where I read everything romance. I had my John Grisham period, then Stephen King. It was during my university days that I started reading literary fiction.
“The beautiful thing about genre fiction is that it’s like a gateway drug. That’s what sucks in readers. It invites them into the world. Weirdly enough the people on the street prefer speculative fiction. That’s what I discovered. They do not want to read about their own realities. It’s too real. Nigeria is hard enough.
“Growing up I never dreamt of being a writer. I did not write any piece until 2009. The first piece I wrote for eyes other than mine got me into the Farafina Writing Workshop hosted by Chimimanda (Ngozie Adichie). It was called ‘Bad,’ and it’s very very bad. (Chuckles.) It was terrible. I don’t know what she saw. Maybe she was intoxicated. But she saw something.
“I was the one of the best twenty writers who applied. So if someone else thinks you are good at something, why not explore how good it is? I was never going to be one of the best twenty lawyers in the world. But writing seemed to open up a door. You could be the best if you put in the work.
“My first published piece after the Farafina workshop was in Kwani for a competition that was won by Mehul Gohil. That was my generation. There were many of us at the time. What’s the name of the Somali writer? Diriye Osman (author of Fairytales for Lost Children 2014). That was in Kwani 06. My story was called ‘Seven Yellow Brassieres for Fried Eggs.’ (Chuckles)
After the workshop, Amatesiro wrote blog posts for the publisher Kachifo/Farafina.
“I was working at Kachifo, blogging for them and editing. It was a job that was organized by Chimananda. It was to subsidize my writing so I could write and earn at the same time. I wrote a post called ‘Life on the Mainland.’ This was my passport, the first original validation, ‘Oh, this guy has something.’ It appeared on the Farafina blog called FlashFriday, in 2013.
“I had moved to my mom’s place in Ago in 2012. But I still used to hang out with friends on the island, and my beer fund for the night could fuel my car for two weeks. But when I went to live on the mainland I hung out with those same set of friends and the bill would came back ₦3900—and we’d spent six hours drinking and had finished almost a crate. So things were so much cheaper on the mainland. I wrote this piece for those friends.”
He then recites the opening from memory.
This is how I know I’m on the mainland: the sound of the muezzin at five a.m. from a nearby mosque, the noise from the flight route above the roof, the price of Star (about a hundred naira above pump price).
On the Island of the affluent in Lagos, I rarely hear aircraft's buzzing in the sky, except the posh helicopters of the busy rich. The airport and flight noise doesn't affect the airspace, it devalues the land.
(Star beer is a popular brand, but it’s more expensive than the fuel at lsland prices.)
He also worked as an editor for the company.
Amatesiro: “It made me a better writer. To edit is to be a slow reader. You have to see things with the person’s eyes. It helped me to see stories, structure, pacing.
“There was this piece ‘The Death of the Last Publishing House in Nigeria.’ It was about piracy and problems affecting publishing in Nigeria at that time, which are still relevant now, painfully enough.”
Amatesiro has a unique writing process.
Amatesiro: “About 2011, I had these five ideas. I wrote them out and they were not very good. The ideas were good, but I didn’t have the craft to pull them off. So every year I rewrote them. Every year. (Laughs.) Until the tail end of last year.
“Over the years what I have developed is a process. I have a very rigid process. It’s a personal process because life has taught it to me. I acquired patience. I had a career switch from law into literature. I was starting from scratch. You can’t jump the gun. It was like beginning all over again—syntax, punctuation, and stuff like that. I found out the way my body works personally.
“A title might come and I jot it down. And maybe three weeks down the line there’s a theme that suits the title. It’s there. It takes me a while to connect the dots. So I work on twenty-five stories at the same time. Whatever dot is connected I sit down and I work on it.
“So I’m always writing. I’m walking down the road, I’m borrowing materials from everywhere. Does this fit into that piece? How can I use this? How can I turn it into fiction?
“My writing is very architectural. If I do not have a plan when I sit down in front of the laptop, it will be a disaster; it will just be piling up beautiful paragraphs. There has to be a structure that is pre-established ...
“I still give myself freedom. I go with the flow. There’s order in the chaos. And there are times when I don’t write. I could do two paragraphs or do three hundred words. Even if it’s still coming, I let it take a rest. Take a nap. Sleep. That’s my process.
“Last year (2015) was a very bad year. I was homeless for six months because my Mom was like, ‘Oh, you’re getting older, and you have a degree, go support yourself.’ So I stayed with friends. I applied for a lot of residencies. I applied for a lot of things that did not click.
“So at the end of last year I had officially failed. By December last year (2015) I stopped trying to impress anybody. I stopped writing for prizes. I just gave no consideration to them anymore because it was official: I was no good.
“From January this year I began to write for myself. When I rewrote the stories there was no pressure. Binyavanga (Wainaina) or Chimimanda (Ngozie Adichie) were not hanging over my shoulders. (Laughs.) I just tried to write for Amatesiro.
“I came out in August. I did the ‘queer poetry’ called ‘Joy’ 2015 which was published in Brittle Paper, and that was my outlet. I’d become Amatesiro Dore. The writing just worked better.
“The first acceptance letter this year was from Munyori Literary Journal for ‘Love by the Talking Drum.’ It was a validation. Half of the story was written in Pidgin English. And he (Emmanuel Sigauke, the editor) got it! He got what I was trying to do. And his edits were beautiful. The story was way longer than what was published so he was like, ‘Oh, ‘Tesiro, this story ends here.’ And I totally agreed with him.
“I got the acceptance letter. That was like ‘Yes!’ That formula I’d been working on for years, a story that appeals to a literary professor and that would appeal to my mother. I’d finally written it. In that same spirit I did the rest of a short story collection both for my mother and the nonexistent professor.
“The story was written in local English. After decades of marital celebrations, Femi the character decides to marry another wife. He wants to marry someone else. He does not want a second wife because he does not believe in polygamy. But the wife refuses to let go, so she consults African juju how to get him back. And she gets him back. (Laughs).
“‘Talking Drum’ was an answer to ‘Who Will Greet You at Home?’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah. (Joint winner of the first Nommo Award for Speculative Short Story.) It was this amazing story. Feminist. There was no male character and it was politically correct.
“But if I was going to talk about feminism, it would be from a chauvinistic point of view. I intended to sell feminism to chauvinists and misogynists, so I wrote it in their language, from their own point of view, whilst pushing my feminist agenda. There are a lot of guys who were turned off by ‘Who Will Greet You at Home?’, which is a brilliant story but they wouldn’t go beyond the third paragraph. ‘Love by the Talking Drum’ said the same thing, but gave them what they want.” (Chuckles).
I say it seems to me that life for LGBTI people in Nigeria is getting easier.
Amatesiro: “This is my theory of what happened. It was an American change. You suddenly had shows like Empire. There was a lot of positive representation of gay people on television though we didn’t have a lot of local content. But we are all hooked on foreign shows. So they show the humanity. ‘Oh, they’re just another set of human beings with human problems. And if you want to get married, welcome to marital problems also.’ (Laughs)
“What our culture had done is to say, ‘We do not have twins in Calabar because we kill our twins. Twins are not natural.’ So we camouflage our gay society, assimilate our homosexuals into sterile sexual lives. They are rendered ineffectual. There are no gay people in Nigeria because we have made it appear so.
“But now there is a consciousness. Oh, you have a gay cousin, a gay father, a gay aunt. A gay friend. It has been humanized. You have people who have never left the country who are gay, people in small communities. A lot of things have changed.
“I have a piece coming out soon called ‘Friends in a Ship’ (in the online journal Africa Is a Country), about how I met this young man in my mom’s neighbourhood who was non-conformist, not atheist but post-god. He understands religion and how it works.
“We became friends about a week before I completed my memoir, so it was the first person around me after the memoir was done and I had this craving to share, so I read pieces to him and he was like, ‘Oh my god.’ That was how he found out I was gay. He never knew.
“The friendship continued. And we’re very close now as in mutual respect. It changed a lot for me. I found out that the kind of battles I want to fight are not the Western type. We’re not a country of protest. We don’t carry placards. There is a Nigerian way to protest. Which is just lead the life. They need to see gay people. You need to come out of the closet. That’s the only way to win. Not really putting up a Facebook post, or like fighting the government. Those are the Western concepts of protest.”
He says that frankly, at times being a writer in Nigeria has been enough of a struggle.
Amatesiro: “There are rules of engagement, things you have to do—get a job, shelter, feeding, and all those basics of a human being. I got carried away with the dream. It was a good thing with a lot of bad side effects. (Chuckles). Because it helped me concentrate on the work. All I cared about was the next piece. Like ‘How do I finish this piece?’
“Then years had gone by and I had no income structure, which began to affect the writing. So everything I’m saying is now in retrospect. If I’d known better, I would have kept on with my legal practice and then written on the side.
“But this art doesn’t share. That’s the truth about it. ‘Be a doctor by day, writer by night.’ Who are you kidding? You are one thing in the true sense of it. To get to a very good level, you need to be consistent. It’s the practice, it’s the doing that makes you the writer, not the dreams. I needed to put in the time.
“But what happened was I learned to live within my writing dreams. First step I did, I left the island. My dad is rich and influential. But his wealth suffocated my art. I was still lazy. I wasn’t hungry enough. There is a hunger required for this. There was not enough stick for me. I had to consciously live off writing. That means I am applying for grants, looking out for residencies; you are taking the craft more seriously. There’s more at stake. It helps you get better. Because it’s life and death for you.
“It’s cost me a lot financially. I’ve been broke for most of my life, but I feel if I’m a carpenter doing my apprenticeship, I’m going to be suffering some inadequacies at whatever level. Whatever I have to undergo to pass a level, I should. I see it as paying my dues.”
GR: “How do you eat?”
Amatesiro: “Modestly? It provides once-a-day meals, which I’m very grateful for. I’ve learnt to live with less. At my own pace.
“I used to bed-wet up until I was thirteen, I was already in SSI, that’s senior high school, and it made my boarding experience in school terrible. That’s what made me born again. I found God very early in life because I needed a miracle. That’s what got me into church. I had a reason to pray.”
GR: “But it worked?”
Amatesiro: “Um. I actually thought I was miraculously healed. I’d taken my faith very seriously. After a month, I noticed that I had not bed-wet.
“I could do it three times in a single night. You just finish cleaning up. And in rainy season the floor never dries. I was suicidal. I was suicidal. It gave me hope because I said to myself, ‘One day I’m going to laugh about this.’ So to actually laugh about it was, wow, very therapeutic.”
GR: “When did you laugh about it?”
Amatesiro: “Uh. Post graduation. When I began to take stock of my life. When I stopped bedwetting the pain was with me for years, a very long time. It was after graduation when the writing life was difficult, so I was like ‘Don’t worry. You used to bed-wet. One day you will laugh about this phase.’ (Laughs).
“I’ve just found out I’m shortlisted for an award. The story is ‘For Men Who Care.’ It’s been shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. Just found out two days ago, but hold on until it’s publicised.
“The story will appear in their gender-and-human-rights anthology. (Pride and Prejudice: The Gerald Kraak Anthology of African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality ) It’s for my audience. I’m very happy they liked it. It’s an award for writers, filmmakers, graphic designers—anyone producing a work that advances theories of gender, sexuality, or human rights in Africa. Gerald Kraak was a white journalist in South Africa.”
Since then, he has won the Reimagined Africa award for his modern folktale ‘Sweet Play.’ In January 2016, he found out that his manuscript ‘Life on a Blackboard; Vignettes of a Queer Nigerian’ was one of five winning proposals for the Saraba Manuscript Projects awards.
Amatesiro: “Something interesting with the Saraba Prize happened. I was having problems at home. The Prize saved my life. I had six months to get my life together. They were going to announce the shortlist on May 31. So on the Friday, the last Friday in May. I was with my friends, and I was like, ‘Man, it didn’t work out. I should have got an email today. But they didn’t send me an email. I think the story’s really good ...’
“So I was really on my own. On Tuesday, June 6, I got a call from a friend. ‘Hey, congratulations, you’re on the list.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you serious? They didn’t even send me an email.’
“It occurred to me that he was one of the three people I would have called to say I was on the shortlist. What my years in literature did was, I lost my friends. I was meant to be a lawyer. Now I went into literature. I’m no more on the island. I’m on the mainland. My mates are all married. People have moved on in life. I’m still trying to figure out the next sentence. So I didn’t have people to share that success with, and it was very painful. The people I called, all three I had known less than a year. It was a very isolated victory.
“So that’s why this Prophet (to whom he read the memoir ‘Friends in a Ship’), this new friendship is very important to me. When this news came I had somebody to share it with. Someone who was waiting with, ‘I think this is going to work out.’ I had stopped believing. I was just writing.
“So that’s it. I stopped believing.”
Amatesiro, who had been laughing all through the interview, suddenly looks and sounds very unhappy. I say, It’s OK. “You didn’t have to stop believing.”
And he laughs.
As we were going to press, we learned that Binyavanga Wainaina had passed. Amatesiro immediately attached this tribute, which follows this interview.
Chapter fifteen will talk with writers in Accra and Kumasi, Ghana.