There is a raging showdown between two literary Amazons, both of whom have played a crucial role in shaping contemporary African literature and helped expand its global appeal. Am losing quite a bit of sleep. My initial approach was to let time sought things out as prior experience had shown. On a second thought however, I decided it’s better to summon the two erring sisters to a court where chiefs with red caps festooned with feathers wield the big knife. At least, this should serve as a cautionary tale as well offer a teachable moment for those who would rather wash our dirty linen in full glare of the public and dare Amadioha in his face. Tufiakwa!
You know that you are inching closer to the twilight zone when all of a sudden you start to feel like the moral arch of the universe rests upon your shoulder. It comes with that feeling of a weighty responsibility to wade into every crisis and intervene even between those that have zero idea about your existence. May God help.
Akwaeke Emezi. Gosh! how I love that soul. Even her name alone is awe-inspiring and in Igbo anthroponymy, it translates to a Unicorn. I know! Funny enough, before now I had only chanced upon some of her writings, mostly as short stories in the Brittle Papers, an African literature platform. It’s just recently that I learnt of the body of work that clearly defines her as a multi-talented video artist and accomplished writer who had been nominated in many literary categories and has gone on to win multiple awards.
Emezi currently signed a two-book deal with Riverhead Books. The first of the two, a New York Times best seller called “The Death of Vivek Oji” was released in August 2020 and the second one is titled “Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir.”
Her debut novel, “Freshwater” which explored the Igbo concept of gender and spirituality vis-a-vis western culture, was named a New Yorker Best Book of the Year and received glowing reviews from reputable organizations like the New York Times, Los Angeles Time and even the Guardian. In 2019, Freshwater was nominated for the Women’s Prize for fiction which was historic in the sense of being the first of its kind by a transgender author.
Talking about gender, Emezi identifies as a non-binary. She is a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community, champions transgender rights and draws inspiration from Binyavanga Wainaina. It’s not totally surprising therefore, that gender identity and the politics of it is at the front and center of her public spat with a former mentor and world-famous author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
With the serendipitous discovery of Emezi’s treasure trove of literary work, I arrived at two conclusions. First is that the feud came with its own silver lining for those of us late to Emezi’s party. The second is that if her wish as the underdog in this fight is to gain more visibility and claim a greater market share in the literary space, she may have achieved that beyond her wildest dreams. But truth be told, there is a different dimension to this issue that is beyond the literati which is why the New York Times, Guardian, NPR and even the Daily Mail picked up the story and ran with it.
Problem started when Chimamanda granted an interview to UK’s Channel 4TV in March 2017 in which she stated that a trans woman is a trans woman. By that, she was attempting to draw the distinction between the experience of women born female as opposed to those of trans women. Chikena.
Following that interview, she was excoriated and roundly condemned by a section of the LGBTQ community as being transphobic. Even the series of subsequent media statements and Facebook posts in an attempt to douse the fire and showcase her long track record of support for LGBTQ right were not enough to stop her trolls. Emezi was particularly disappointed and deeply incensed, feeling that such statement was emblematic of the culture of transphobia that exists in the larger society. She called Adichie’s statement not just a serious betrayal by a friend, mentor and a role model but also a denial of her existence as a transwoman. And she made that known publicly. Oh dear!
Of course, we may never know all that transpired in a long-term relationship between two friends gone awry but certain inference could be made sorting through their correspondence. It appears that Emezi later realized her mistakes of lashing out in public, wrote an apology letter and hoped to warm her way back into Chimamanda’s world. The later, very angry and feeling betrayed by someone she went out of her way to help, played the defense and rebuffed all overtures. Having tried repeatedly without success, Emezi got frustrated, called Chimamanda’s bluff and went full scale on the offensive. She called her a” murderer” and from what we heard, launched a scorched-earth social media campaign to discredit her. Not only that, she went on a mission to permanently damage her brand. Mba nu!
People often say that all is fair in love and war but that is not necessarily true. Or why do we have the international court sitting in Hague that tries war criminals? Believe it or not, it is expected that even in war situations, rules of engagement still need to be upheld. It’s human nature to be angry and act out but the response should also be commensurate with the perceived wrong. In this fight, Ms. Emezi took no prisoners.
To describe someone as transphobic and call her a murderer for simply refusing to commingle feminism with transgender activism is to miss the whole premise of the LGBTQ campaign which is about respecting individual choices and differences even when they don’t align with yours. Cyber bullying and reverse discrimination are also not behaviors to be encouraged.
Hopefully this one issue may offer a window of opportunity into discussing the relationship between the Transgender and Cisgender, Heterosexual and LGBTQ in general, in order to define expectations on each side. As the campaign to educate more and more heterosexual people about LGBTQ rights and the push for increased sensitivity to gender fluidity is being ramped up, it’s important to educate the other side as well. The crucial need to support LGBTQ rights and interact with the community in a respectful and non-threatening way is something that a whole lot of people are still struggling with and remains a work in progress.
Though it’s not yet uhuru and a lot more need be done to protect such a vulnerable population, we should also acknowledge that tremendous progress has been made in these past few years. With increasing public enlightenment and awareness, many are now evolving from an initial hardline position to that of showing willingness to listen and learn. More effort should be channeled however, in that direction. Even though one can sense the impatience in opting for such a slow and time-consuming process, the alternative is to adopt a fire brigade approach meant to blackmail or beat every questioning voice to shape. Such method is unlikely to help in the long run and would only amount to conversion without conviction.
Like all art aficionados, one is deeply burdened by the ugly ramifications of this fight, given its tendency to polarize people and force the family of African writers to take sides. But this is not the first. There is a long history of feuds between writers and am convinced that the two will settle scores, knock themselves over a couple of times, but in the end, each will get up and be just fine. What is more worrisome, however, is the unintended consequences when two Elephants fight. The problem is the grass being trampled upon in this case takes the form of all forgone alternatives. Not in the least is the squandered opportunity to beam a searchlight on the human carnage that has since become an everyday Nigerian story.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com