Arinze Ifeakandu: An exploration of what it means to be gay in contemporary Nigeria

‘I do have a complicated relationship with Nigeria, but that complication is becoming less stifling as the days go by’

Congratulations on winning the Dylan Thomas Prize. What does this mean for you?

Thank you. It means that I will continue to write — and with more certainty about the future than before.

God’s Children Are Little Broken Things explores what it means to be gay in contemporary Nigeria. Is your relationship with your homeland complicated? How do you expect the book to be received there?

Yes, I do have a complicated relationship with Nigeria, but that complication is becoming less stifling as the days go by. I have come to accept what is, and to seek ways to be happy within the system, even as we push, ardently, for something better. Nigerian readers — especially queer Nigerians, since they are the people whose feelings I actually care about — have been waiting for my book since the title short story became popularised by the Caine Prize shortlist. I think, hope, that the reception would be astounding. I also think a lot of non-queer people would embrace the stories, as exemplified by my friends who in the beginning of my sharing all those years in Nsukka felt icky by the idea of same-sex love but who, by the end of each early draft, wanted more!


You’re an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How did that influence you? Has living in the US changed you? Compare the two countries.

Iowa is a cold place. Literally and affectively. The winters are brutal and depressing. The buses are quiet, too quiet, and a feeling of isolation pervades the land. I thought it was just me, black boy in a very white town, and there was some of that — but the bleakness was something everyone seemed to experience. Coming from Sabon Gari, Kano, where I craved silence, Iowa left me longing for a bit of drama. The Workshop itself gave me time to write, as well as a community to discuss writing with in a serious way, a community to party with — I had this in Nsukka, of course, but it was very informal. And yes, living in the US made me more guarded, less readily trusting.

The nine stories depict queer love in all its beauty, strength, and frailty — do you see your books as being in conversation with other writers?

I do. I see it in conversation with authors who created art out of the great adversity of their time, writers who were among the first to ask the pressing questions of their historical moments. I believe it is left to readers to figure out how and with whom to contextualize my work in the greater scheme of things.

You said that you started writing the book as a boy, and finished it as a man. How have you, your style and your approach evolved?

I still notice the things I do, still pay attention to the things I normally pay attention to. I was telling a friend that I feel like the same person from many years ago. I don’t know what my own evolution looks like, except that it is ever rolling. Whenever I go to my computer, there is something I want to say or say again, places I want to show, feelings I want to conjure, and so I reach into my creative toolbox for a tested and trusted implement and, when that fails — as it sometimes does, as a result of artistic dissatisfaction and hunger — I begin to seek new ones.

Dylan Thomas Prize judging chairwoman Di Speirs praised your longer stories as being “almost novels in themselves”. As a reader and a writer, what appeals to you about each form?

As a writer, stories give me the most satisfaction, as I can enter and withdraw from a fictional world within less time than is possible with a novel, creating vast universes and conflicts in a short span of time, and getting the psychological reward that comes from completion, before moving to a whole new world. As a reader, both forms intrigue me: all I need are good prose and memorable characters with conflicts that feel urgent to me.

“Long after you’re free of the bully, you must deal with his scar.” How have you learned to cope with homophobia?

I remind myself to be honest about my desires and to show myself grace in doing so. Most importantly, I stay only where love is fully given and give love in the same measure.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Attending Chinua Achebe’s funeral felt like a literary pilgrimage at the time.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“Trust that your readers are smart enough get it.”

Which public event affected you most?

Nigeria’s recent elections. The process was compromised, and it broke my heart to watch my younger sister and younger friends go through the emotions — of despair and disappointment — that Nigeria cemented in me years ago.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Binyavanga Wainaina — because he would be full of fun ideas, and we might get into some mischief. And because I miss his presence here with us.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The best thing: community, family. The worst thing: the fact that security seems elusive.

What is your favourite quotation?

The words of the Anglican Benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you … shine the light of his countenance and be merciful unto you …” It’s poetic and calming for stormy days.

  • God’s Children Are Little Broken Things is published by W&N
Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times