What does Ake Festival 2019 theme ‘Black Bodies, Grey Matter’ mean to you?
I am thinking of a celebration and interrogation of Black creativity and thought, mental health and awareness—the Black mind, and the (gorgeous, heavily politicised) bodies in which it lives.
Which African or Diasporan novel do you think best explores the Black Body?
There’s a lot of excellent work, really, but I particularly love Akwaeke Emezi’s writing of the body in ‘Freshwater.’ It is a distinctly (un)gendered vessel for a nonhuman African spirit; a Black body surgically modified to accommodate what it hosts. That’s important and amazing to me.
You are asked to write an African femme fatale as an alien. What physical attributes would she have?
Eyes that glow bright red, and rose-gold braids that go down to her knees. She is very tall, and wears waist beads. Very dark, topless, and she has a retractable tail.
What book would you give to a dark-skinned young woman who has expressed an intent to buy bleaching cream?
I think Adichie’s latest novel, ‘Americanah’ would be a good one.
Does the African writer have a specific role to play in the current world order?
I always believe the African writer should feel free to do what they want, but should never forget that wherever we may be, we are representing the Black race.
Which person do you think best represents an African perspective in the ongoing discourse on gender?
For me, as a non-binary person, Emezi’s visibility, success, and pride in their identity is quite inspiring. It reassures me that people like me, Africans who fall outside of the gender binary, can be seen, be respected, and have a seat at the table.
You’re giving a talk at a symposium on mental health, which African novels will you reference?
Akwaeke Emezi’s ‘Freshwater’, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s ‘My Sister the Serial Killer’ – and even though it’s not a novel – Betty Irabor’s memoir on depression, ‘Dust to Dew’.
Name a character from an African novel that you could rewrite as a different gender, and why.
I would rewrite Chinelo Okparanta’s ‘Under The Udala Trees’ with a male or genderqueer protagonist, only because I haven’t seen a gay male protagonist in Nigerian fiction so far, particularly in a coming-of-age novel like Okparanta’s. I also think a female Palm-Wine Drinkard could be quite cool.
What two things should every teenager understand about mental health?
No problem lasts forever; we often grow out of difficult times. But if they are too much for you, please talk to someone who is professionally trained, or at least emotionally intelligent.
What is your vision for the Black Body?
Freedom. Beauty. Transcendence.