Literatea is an interview series which brings together prominent and emerging voices in African writing, editing, publishing, translation, marketing, distribution, and retail to discuss the craft of bringing African storytelling to the continent and the rest of the world. From award-winning novelists and poets to literary agents and editors, from indie publishers and booksellers to prize juries—Literatea pours the first cup and stirs the conversation.
In this conversation the art of memoir writing, placing the reader at the centre of one’s work, learning to live with one’s life, the power of reflection, and leaving nuanced, literary footprints are explored in this conversation with Chiké Frankie Edozien, the award-winning author of The Lives of Great Men.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria Chiké Frankie Edozien learned to read from the newspapers before attending school. He is the author of the groundbreaking memoir Lives of Great Men: Living & Loving As An African Gay Man which won the Lambda Literary Award 2018 for biography and memoir. “Shea Prince”, a nonfiction piece, was a Gerald Kraak Finalist and part of the As You Like It’ anthology which also garnered a Lambda in 2019. His short story “Last Night In Asaba”, along with other incredible stories from around Africa, have been anthologized in The Heart of The Matter. Edozien lives in Accra, Ghana.
RÉMY NGAMIJE: I think a good point to start the conversation is here: what makes for “a life worth reading about”?
CHIKÉ FRANKIE EDOZIEN: Hmmmm.
We all have stories in us that resonate with others. We, as human beings, also love to see what is going on in other people’s lives. To judge them, to compare with ours, to inspire us, to make us feel better, for schadenfreude, for whatever. No matter how much people may try to not believe it, we make decisions based on the lives of others. That’s why some people are drawn to documentaries, others to the billion-dollar gossip industry, and many to hard news in print or broadcast.
But the truth is we are always looking, comparing, contrasting, and hoping to not be like, or to be more like. Stories from time immemorial, from the oral histories my mother and others told me as a child, to Western fairy tales, often have a human center. So all this means that lives in general are worth reading about.
And when it comes to memoir, whose memoir is worth reading? Whose life is worth examining? The answer to that for me, personally, is any life I can learn from. And if that life, or those lives, can entertain me too then that is great.
But the reality in today’s world is book publishing has a huge business side; there are probably thousands of memoirs that publishers have passed over because there is the concern that the work won’t make money. It is less about how interesting the life is, and more about who will pay for it? And are they enough to warrant the investment it takes to get a book to the market and then make that life worth reading.
RN: Which of the factors you highlight (a story with a human centre, a life one could learn from, and the business side of memoir publishing) were the most prominent hurdles in the conception of The Lives of Great Men?
CFE: That was easily the business side of publishing. Not too many who read the original proposal, a chronicle of contemporary experiences of incredible men and women I had met in my wanderings around African spaces worldwide who happened to be gay or lesbian, thought it would sell like hot cakes.
And many who thought it was a good proposal passed because they simply didn’t believe there was a viable market for it. As if the lives in it had no lessons to teach us all, wherever we are in the world.
As a trained journalist, my view was that I’m never the story, or if I am, it is in a peripheral way. I am not the main event in my work. But the late Binyavanga Wainaina—
RN: RIP to the GOAT!
CFE: —who witnessed my desire to get these stories out in book form told me one day to “kill the journalist in you.” Write about you, he said.
I thought to myself: who cares about me?
But maybe I should do this. No matter what my personal feelings were, I have to take the long view and ask myself: what do I need to accomplish?
I wanted a balanced, nuanced portrayal of us in all our messy glory. So I redid the idea and placed my stories front and center and proposed a memoir of living and loving when one is not in the majority. That got a better reception, but it still came up against folks asking if that would make anyone pick it up at the bookstores.
Ultimately the stories resonated with so many. Many gay men and women felt seen for the first time in contemporary literature. And many others saw their friends, brothers, and sisters in a new light. They saw their own people in ways they had not before. And that, for me, is enough. Whatever business success the book has had, the critical acclaim, the shortlists, the awards, they were icing on the cake.
RN: How did your journalistic background aid or hinder the writing of Lives?
CFE: My background as a journalist was helpful in writing this book. I approached it as a journalistic project initially, so I had to ensure that I captured a wide swath of voices, opinions, and experiences. That, in addition to my own, I know made the book a better one with gravitas. It was not only Chiké Frankie Edozien’s viewpoint, or messy mistakes. It was that of folks that our world has tried not to see step on for cheap political points.
RN: Placing yourself front and centre cannot have been easy, can it? How did you get into that zone where you looked at your life and found the narrative thread running through it? In this I am thinking of the question authors seem to be asked the most: How much of this is autobiographical? Of course, in your case, all of it is autobiographical. But what I am really asking, I guess, is this: So your life happened, yeah, but how did you as the writer decide which aspects of your life were worthy of story? (Haha. How much of your life is “story”?)
CFE: When I was writing this book, I was already on the other side of forty. So I didn’t feel the pressure to make myself look good or delude myself that any mistakes I may have made in my life either in dating or relationships or with work were only the fault of others. I was already fully accepting of myself, so holding myself up to a mirror was the most appropriate and genuine way to do this memoir. I didn’t have to like or love what looked back at me but I had to be real. To be genuine. To be authentic. Honesty had to serve the story for it to resonate with the reader.
CFE: The goal was not to do any disservice to whoever was open to picking up my writing. It was an opportunity to try to give greater understanding of our world and I didnt have to be the shit to do it. I didn’t have to be perfect and I didn’t have to gloss over anything I didn’t particularly like because it would have felt like I was holding back. Readers can sense bullshit; they know when your work rings false. I have read memoirs where I felt like the writer gave tiny shrift to what mattered, but pontificated the whole time.
RN: Care to shade?
CFE: It would not be fair to those authors.
In my case, since I felt the lives of the people I was interacting with were more engaging in certain senses than mine, then there would be no reason to gloss over my things. So, yes, life happened but anything that had to do with the slice I was writing about, or giving context to, were fair game. The book, as a memoir, is a slice of life. It is not the end of the story, or even the entire story of my life, but it is a significant part. Anything that served me in giving a good story, I put in. If a reader is able to stay with me and learn something at the end, then it has been worth it. If a reader sees themself or their loved ones, then it has been worth it. And any loss of privacy or any thing I would not share in my daily life that I shared in the book is okay. The work has done the work it needed to, I’m just the vessel to make that happen.
RN: I am intrigued by the loss of privacy that comes from writing a memoir. I have been told they should be written when one is ready not to talk to friends and family ever again. Such, I have been told, is the fallout from such writing. But I presume that mostly happens with careless writing. How did you approach the loss of privacy while writing Lives? How did you decide which moments to focus on and which to leave out? Then, in that same line of thought, how did you, as a writer, gauge when a moment was over—when it had been written and its truth had been shared and it was time to move on?
CFE: Moments, arguments, and conversations can go on and on. They could even last months and weeks. But, for me, if the point had been made then there was no need to prolong the episode. Even in telling the truth I had no intention in harming or painting any of the folks as one-dimensional. If readers came away with a harsh impression of someone, then it would be because the person’s actions they were reading about allowed them to come to that conclusion.
Books remain personal, and reading is intimate. So if the book was to calmly get readers to ponder seriously the issues that I was delving in, then it could not read like I was dragging out a point or saying the same thing over and over again. I just believed that those moments in print must end when they don’t have the potential to bore. When they’ve made their point.
On the loss of privacy issue, I have been able to deal with it by not making too much of a big deal of it. Certainly these slices of my life that I shared were teachable moments for me, moments that helped me grow. On the other hand, I’ve met people who’ve read the work and feel they can mention things that are personal and intimate because I’ve shared them in the book, not withsanding that those episodes may not be my current situation. This can range from the salacious—one reader asking me indignantly for details and size of someone’s member (RN: Jesu!)— to the ludicrous and bizarre.
Some Lagosian, just today, texted a friend telling them that I am a “cursed being” and I would “wander around aimlessly until I die.”
RN: That’s a Mark-of-Cain, cloven hooves, Revelations kind of pronouncement.
CFE: And how have I wronged her? She read my book and believes that one of the characters in it is the father of her children.
RN: The plot, err—*cough cough*—thickens.
CFE: Mind you, I have never met this woman nor do I know for sure that any of the men in her life are folks I have had any dalliances with. But, hey, whatever gets her through the day.
In the end, I made an effort to be interesting, entertaining even, truthful but most importantly to treat those stories with great care.
RN: Wait, are you saying there are more ludicrous and bizarre messages than someone asking for details about someone’s member? Let me side-chat you, Chiké!
RN: You have mentioned writing with care and trying to present people in the memoir as more than one-dimensional. If we take the prelude—”Forgetting Lamido”—which opens with a hot, sweaty, mid-afternoon, post-sex pass-out, what does “taking care” in writing such a scene or passage mean? In the same prelude, what care did you need to take when writing about your teenage years? I found the prelude quite sweeping in scope but intensely intimate with detail, so I am curious about how you rendered that passage of time without it being too long, too reckless, too laden with blame, and, above all, not overly nostalgic.
CFE: Lamido is a man whose impact on my life is not one that, try as I might, I could downplay, or who I could even forget. I may not have remained close to him but for years our interaction and relationship proved to me that real love and a real connection didn’t have to be fleeting, or a fantasy. It was enormously satisfying and enormously disappointing at the same time but that is life. And because of him, I learned the lesson early.
So how could I show how meaningful and impactful a roll in the hay was and could be? It didn’t have to be tawdry and I think people got it that two people who didnt “belong” to each other anymore but should had come together and realized that no matter the magnetism, the great sex, the understanding without words, that they coould never belong to each other. The moment had long passed.
Care had to be taken in depicting, honestly, that touchstone. That the reader, for a moment, holds off the judgement and sees these two people for what they were: tragically trapped by societal expectations, one accepting and one trying to break out.
How they got to that point was where the complexity of a life as a late bloomer teen comes in. And only those touchtone moments needed to make it into the chapter. Focusing on love allowed me to prune stories of a long period that didn’t make an impact on the issues that would be laid out in depth for the rest of the work. It was not a period to wax nostalgic about because the young do grow and reality does bite. But it is what is done with that reality that fascinated me.
How does a Lamido choose to cope in today’s world? How does a tailor, a miner, or a businessman with the ability to travel the world cope as an African who is non-heterosexual?
That is what was so remarkable about the people I had come across. They were the heroes. They found ways to cope, and in some cases to thrive. In celebrating that, I had little room for the tragedies that often are the only things written about these lives. Some of us are unicorns in plain sight.
RN: Coping is such a hard thing to do, especially when everything around you mentions “living your best life.” But we know that mantra is not true for everyone, especially for people in the LGBTQ community. I think that was one of the things I most enjoyed about the memoir. It showed the ways people try to cope without diminishing their dignity, and it also showed how people thrive, as you put it. That balance was quite enjoyable.
The Lives of Great Men has its title pulled from “A Psalm For Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
In titling your memoir after that line in the eighth stanza, was this your deliberate attempt at bringing the unicorns into plain sight?
It feels even harder in 2021 to thrive than in 2015 and 2016 when I was actively talking to so many about their lives and marveling at how they made life joyous in spite of having everyone against them. Those men and women had real courage and they deserved in my mind to be acknowledged and celebrated. I have lived in Ghana throughout the period of the great pandemic, a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe that has pushed many people to do better, to live better, and to embrace each other even more because life is fleeting. But in Ghana, a cluster of politicians spurred on by American hate groups have unleashed violence on their LGBTQ population by introducing the most draconian anti-gay legislative proposal possible.
The bill criminalizes gay people and their allies, promotes conversion (torture), and makes it a criminal offence to advocate or even talk about it in media platforms. The existence of this proposal has seen people perceived to be queer beaten on the streets, tortured by mobs, and videoed for sport. All of this is shameful and un-African, but the defenders will say it is a defence of Ghana’s culture. But even a casual observer will see that it is a power grab by some politicians willing to stomp on what they believe to be low-hanging fruit—a community that can’t adequately defend itself—for popularity and a chance to steal power from those who have it now.
They managed to get church leaders to vociferously support them. And then you find out that the head of the Methodist Church in Ghana, even after public condemnation of Ghana’s non-heterosexual folk, had not even bothered to read the proposal in its entirety. And yet he’s sure that jail term for gays and torture conversion for them is what is right for Ghana.
Amidst all this carnage, I noticed on social media one of the bright young men I had interviewed for Lives—one ruggedly handsome man who told me he would never be forced in a heterosexual marriage—had dived into full-on conformity. He’s gotten married: a church wedding with all the bells and whistles. I stared at his wedding photo and he and his new wife beamed back at me. I reached out to him to, errr, congratulate him and he accepted my warm wishes, promising me that we would talk about his “second marriage”. The first one, ostensibly, being to my friend who he was dating for years.
We have not been able to have that talk yet but it does make me wonder: Has he swung the pendulum of his sexuality from gay to straight? Is he bisexual perhaps?
Who knows what the answer is.
As it was then, it is now: to be an out queer person, or even someone sure of who they are, and are making efforts to withstand the brutality and onslaught of abuse from your society is incredible. Making that decision to thrive, and deciding that your country is yours, and that there is nowhere on the African continent that you don’t belong makes you a fucking unicorn.
And so, yes, they will leave their footprints on the sands of time.
And they are great indeed.
RN: This was such a generous response. One that already anticipated my next question: the anti-LGBTQI bill and proposed legislation in Ghana. I wanted to know if the background of this legislation has triggered a revisiting of the certain chapters of Lives. I ask because great writing, which I consider yours to be, is not timeless in the sense that time does not affect it but, rather, that it is timely, in that it always speaks to particular moments of human life when they most need to be spoken about. Of course, as you say, the people who you write about will leave their footprints in the sand. But did you expect the sand and time to materialise this quickly? And is this shocking reality a discouragement in any way with regards to the struggle for freedom and dignity that you are writing for and pursuing?
CFE: No. This hardline development, while shocking and wildly dispiriting, is not discouraging. It only goes to show that work like Lives is more pressing and should have been done a long time ago, and more like it should be encouraged, produced, and widely disseminated.
When I finished editing the book and turning it over one final time to the publishers, there was hardly any mainstream defense of the rights of minorities in Ghana, Nigeria, or many other African countries. Which is not to say there weren’t allies; there were, and there always have been. But the loud voices who claim to represent everyone suck up all the bandwidth with their hateful conflation of issues. And the few who were allies, may not have had their voices heard, if they could even speak up at all publicly. Today as Ghana navigates this hateful bill and the atrocious conduct of a small group of lawmakers popped up by radical hatemongers in America, the universal support they expected from citizens has not materialized.
Indeed they got a coalition of Abrahamic religious leaders to tell Ghanaians it wasn’t their culture, and the expected mass mobilization of citizens rallying against the gays and lesbians didn’t quite work out. Instead, intellectuals, respected citizens, heavyweights in the academic, legal, and cultural spheres of Ghana are pushing back with vigour. Indeed, when people can’t win an intellectual argument they resort to personal attacks and even death threats. But everytime these zealots have gone on television or on radio spouting untruths and trying to criminalize fellow Ghanaians, their specious arguments are rebuffed by pillars in the society who have stripped their arguments and exposed the empty suits for what they are to anyone paying attention, embarrassing them for not knowing what the definitions of things in their own bills are, or not even knowing exactly what the contents of their vile proposals are.
The intellectual dishonesty has been staggering and having straight allies point that out has been incredible to watch. But I dare say mainstreaming all our stories has been a part of that. The more of our nuanced, complex narratives are out there, the more we can truly see each other and not cave in to junk phrases like “It’s not part of our culture”.
How does a contemporary African young person know what their culture is if all they read and have easy access to are religious texts as well as worn books to pass exams with?
This is why, in my own time, I work hard at promoting and creating spaces to discuss the work of contemporary African literature. We will need all of us to be comfortable defending and holding up an inclusive African continent, not just those big deals among us who have had the opportunity to travel and read a lot in their careers.
RN: You wrote quite extensively about Amadou Diallo’s shooting in Lives. That chapter does not become easier even after multiple re-reads. I guess it is because the conditions in which Diallo was shot continue to exist throughout the world—the lives of great men and women of colour are in peril everywhere. Diallo’s murder added to the numerous silences (of self and of lifestyle) that abound in the book. This month has been filled with headlines of convictions and acquittals for wielders of violence in the US. As someone who reported on the Diallo murder, what do you see missing from reportage of such incidences?
CFE: Sadly things haven’t changed for us on a massive global scale. Our lives matter and it’s still too hard for many in the media to see us as people first. There’s often a justification for our murder.
If only he had stopped—
If only he had complied—
If only he didn’t have on a hoodie—
If only he spoke English—
And on and on.
Has the world learned any lessons?
It’s painful and sad to see this vicious cycle of us being cut down in our prime hasn’t ended. But more of us today don’t accept this.
RN: Speaking broadly, what do you think about the state of nonfiction writing on the continent? And then, if you can comment, what do you think about nonfiction writing from the LGBTQ community? Do you think it is making considerable inroads into continental publishing?
CFE: I think it’s good. I think there are great narratives out there for us to sink our teeth into. Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country is a standout. (RN: Properly so!) Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime was revelatory. Even though he lives in the US now, much of what he wrote about were things that happened at home. I am eagerly awaiting Emmanuel Iduma’s new work titled I Am Still With You, a book that will deal with the aftermath of what transpired in my part of Nigeria after the civil war. How great would it be to see it from the eyes of another generation? Zukiswa Wanner’s tales of travelling around our fair continent in Hardly Working is a spectacular piece of writing. (RN: You’re really name-dropping all the faves!) And, also, Mark Gevisser’s work, whether writing about the continent alone or the continent and other parts of the world in A Pink Line demonstrates great nonfiction can and is being produced all around us.
But for LGBTQ narratives, I think it’s still a tough, tough road. Institutional and widespread homophobia exists in many countries around us so even when the state is not trying to jail you, publishers are not seeing nonfiction narrative as a viable commercial project. So then the hard slog gets even harder because even if one finds a publisher how much support would it get? Would there be the belief that if you give it to bookstores and added a publicity push that people would buy it? I believe there are many stories out there that are excellent, in need of a good editor, and a good publisher to see the vision. And then make it happen.
RN: You are an award-winning author and I am curious to know what winning the LAMBDA Literary Award for Gay Memoir in 2018 meant to and for you in terms of your writing career and, perhaps, your ego as a writer. Did you notice a difference between the pre- and post-Lambda Chikés?
CFE: Hmmmm. I think in my case I do the work as an offering and then whatever happens is extra. It was not easy to get many publishers to see the vision, the dream that could be real, the idea that our stories could resonate with many reading audiences and then be bought all over the place to reward the investment.
I’m grateful, so very grateful for Team Angelica, the original publishers before others came on board. The reality was that it was such a hard sell, even to publishers who said they loved the premise. Many could not simply go the extra step to back it, and one or two who wanted it were tepid and thought, perhaps it was worth fighting for with their colleagues who didn’t see the vision.
So ultimately when it was published, it was a big deal for me. When it was shortlisted for the Randy Shilts Award for Nonfiction I was over the moon. These kinds of shortlists help you get attention for your work and allow some bookstores to stock the book. But most importantly, it validates all the hard work and the effort. The other books shortlisted were very strong work and I was happy to be in such strong company. I didn’t expect to win even though I thought I could. And once the ceremony was over and someone gave me a hug and said they really wanted my book to win but were outvoted (turned out they were one of the judges) I responded that I had already won by virtue of making the shortlist in a year of very good books. I was thrilled, as were my agent and my publishers.
The same thing happened months later with the Lambdas. The shortlist gets you in bookstores, doing readings, and all this extra attention that may not be easy to pull off on one’s own. I enjoyed it. Except this time I didn’t even think winning was possible. I was just happy to have made the shortlist and to be in the room with literary heavyweights. It’s such a prestigious award and, honestly, I think at the time I only knew one person personally who had gotten a Lammy or two, the exquisite writer, Chinelo Okparanta.
Shock cannot be enough to describe the feelings we had when our book was announced. What winning the Lambda did was not just add validation for past struggles, it strengthened my belief that even if doors kept closing, somehow, someone somewhere would maybe open a window.
But the work would have to be as excellent as I could make it.
RN: You spend your time between the US and Ghana. I am curious to know how moving between these two countries, and on and off the continent, help to shape your writing. In which country do you find yourself most able to write?
CFE: The great benefit for me is the opportunity to observe. My worldview has a West African tilt and I see things and find things amusing that maybe others don’t. But it serves me well. Living in the US is interesting and wonderful and an easier place for me to write because everything works. But I can’t observe all I need to about our people without being among them, so living in Ghana fills me up in a different way. And, in a sense, South Africa is also a place I’m rooted to. Pre-pandemic I spent a lot of time there and wrote a huge chunk of Lives there. While I enjoy it when working on my manuscripts in SA I have to write wherever I find myself. I don’t have the luxury of choice.
RN: My spies tell me you are working on a novel. Alternative fact or nah?
CFE: I’ve been lucky to have done short fiction intermittently in between my journalism and nonfiction. But lately a few characters remained in my head and demanded attention. So there is a novel that I hope will see the light of day sometime.
But it’s like everything else I’m interested in, certain lives and ways of living that are often hidden in our world.
So the hard work continues of trying to get it just right.
RN: All of us who follow you on Instagram know you churn out daily ten-mile runs quicker than some writers spit out short story drafts. (*There is shade there for whoever the shoe fits*). Are there any lessons from the road beneath your feet that you’ve been able to transplant to the page? Can we expect a “What We Talk About When We Talk About Running While Being Chiké” anytime soon?
These days, for me, the answer is running. The question is irrelevant. I began running to deal with unimaginable pain. A loss like no other, followed by a string of other losses. Running has allowed me to mourn without suffocating, to get clear-eyed after bleary times, to know that all I need to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. Forward.
I don’t need to be fast, I don’t need to be slow, I just have to keep moving. Now I breathe better, and I keep moving. And this discipline has found its way into the rest of my life. I breathe and I keep moving.
I keep at it. Whatever it is.