Akpa Arinzechukwu is a Nigerian writer, photographer, and social activist for queer rights. His new book of poems, City Dwellers, which explores the intersections of religion, culture, and sexuality in Nigeria, is currently available for purchase from Splash of Red Press. This interview was conducted in conjunction with Howl.
Q: What are your thoughts on faith?
A: Faith is a personal thing. Either God made men or men made God; it is personal. One needs something to believe in, something to restore one's hopes. But you see religion? It is fraud! And it is the very reason a gay man would be given a hundred strokes of the cane in the northern part of Nigeria, and sent to the prison immediately, and if the gay person is married, sentenced to death by stoning.
I incorporate elements of Christianity in my writing, because it is the religion I was first introduced to, and the Bible serves as the constitution, I am always judged based on it.
Like I already said, if people saw this in a different light, no one would have to stand judgment in a fellow's eyes. So, my faith is based on love. I am a believer.
Q: What gave you the courage to express yourself as openly pansexual and serve as an activist for the LGBTQIA community?
A: I remember past events, and I really want to laugh. Death gave me the courage. If I'm going to die someday, in the hands of the police or street urchins, let me raise my voice above the mountains and sing: fresh air for us all.
According to the Ugandan anti-gay bill drafted by MP David Bahati, if one knew Akpa Arinzechukwu is gay and didn't say, one is subject to a prison term. Many people fought the bill to be modified; it seemed to make everyone a victim. Sorry to say this, people don't actually rise up to something until it starts affecting them too.
This bad story has already included me in the narrative, isn't it my duty to write myself out, and possibly, the people yet to come?
That is why and what gave me the courage.
Q: What steps can readers across the world take to support the LGBTQIA community in Nigeria?
A: What steps? I think the greatest support that can be given to any human is “love.” If I am truly loved, I'd live my life, solving problems that would stop all of us from drowning, but if I am in constant fear of losing my life, I'd live my life developing survival tactics. So, readers can support the LGBTQIA community in Nigeria by loving and campaigning for their rights to live. If this is done, the topic changes, and one step at a time, we build the country or world we live. "Acceptance" isn't defeat. It means "I respect you enough to leave you to be who you truly are." I think that's the message we've been trying to pass. Silence isn't golden in most situations, that's why readers across the world have to raise their voices to make here a better place.
Q: You’ve said before that you were drawn to poetry because you needed something to hide behind. To you, what does it mean to hide yourself in a poem?
A: Yeah. You know that hiding behind something doesn't necessarily mean “cowering”? It could mean “I am hiding behind this to reinforce and attack.” Thus, poetry has provided me with that avenue to hide, reinforce and attack. And this is essential to me.
Q: What was your process for writing your new book of poetry City Dwellers?
A: I wrote City Dwellers in my moment of grief. There were many poems screened out from the original manuscript, the ones not speaking to the general theme. I had just been attacked a few days after a Facebook post, and I called this friend (who is also an LGBTQIA advocate), told him what happened, and the next week he was abducted. I was thrown into a panic state. His abductors were dishing out threats to his friends using the friend's Facebook account. They said they were coming for us.
I think "death" or "fear of dying young" was the reason I started writing. Meanwhile, I had a long run with depression. Even when writing the manuscript, I was constantly reminded by the voice in my head that I might be the next dead man on the street. It was a tumultuous moment. So, each time I had a panic attack, and after relaxing, I'd grab any sheet of paper in sight and, snap, something's made.
Q: What do you do when you feel that a piece of writing has not turned out well?
A: Well, to be honest, I don't really do much when a piece isn't working out well. I write longhand, so when I am changing medium, I take a long look at the supposed piece, read it aloud, recite it again, and while doing this, I look out for loopholes. This is the stage where I find out what is working and what is not. So, if a body of work isn't still working after going through this stage, I toss it out.
Q: Do you write consciously or subconsciously?
A: Subconsciously. Because that's when the true words appear. In that moment, people around you scream: that dude is possessed!
Q: You’ve spoken of your anger as a child. What role does anger play in your writing?
A: Aye. You see if my poetry is a vehicle, anger fuels it. It is hard for me to write something when I'm extremely happy. It is very hard. People tell me they write well when they are happy, I tell them, that must be very boring.
Maybe, this will change in time, but now, anger is vital to my writing. People take you seriously when you are angry, they stop playing and listen to what you have to say. Though, we now live in a time when anger does so little for you, in terms of activism. In Nigeria, when the people protest something because they are angry, the executive comes down on them really hard. The same thing is happening in the US. And many other countries. It seems the angrier people are, the more resistance there is.
Q: What prompted your decision in college to switch from being a student medical laboratory technician to studying English language and literature?
A: I can't say exactly what caused my switch. I was seen as this smartass dude, so, when I left, mum was shocked (and still is). She was like: 'you were doing good, weren't you? What do I tell people?' But I remember that one day, a lecturer walked into the class to teach us 'Use of English Language', a general study course, it was believed that science students in Nigeria had a hard time using the English language appropriately.
So, after his lecture, he gave an assignment and that involved figures of speech, the meaning and the usage. I was like 'wow', so, one can actually say this while meaning another thing? I fell in love properly, and soon, I was already getting distracted in the class, because I spent time with my gadget in the lecture hall, reading poems and short stories, when I should be taking notes on the body chemistry [laughs]. I narrowly escaped failure that semester. When the opportunity presented itself, I left.
Q: What’s an image that’s captured you recently (if possible, please attach a jpeg)?
A: The Image that captured me lately is a picture from Chris Ofili's recent Paradise Lost exhibition in New York (September 14 - October 21, 2017). There's a cage or cell, or fence, harbouring four large pictures with a large 'V' inscription, which also display pictures of aliens? Souls? Or mystical figures? This, in my interpretation, is spiritualism. A soul is trapped in a body, people only see the body for what it displays, and aside from these people, they are other creatures, like in Ofili's art, watching. These creatures may be gods, good spirits, demons, or any other spirit creature; they are just there watching man fight his wars, while they drink, dance, and eat; watching with bewilderment --- we are the gladiators and they are the spectators, cheering, and at the end of the day, we go back to pray to them. Must appear VERY ludicrous to them [laughs].
Editor's note: This interview was conducted in conjunction with Howl. It has been edited for content.