For this years Writivism festival in Uganda, highly-acclaimed author of Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi will be chairing the judging panel for the Koffi Addo prize 2018. On a Twitter chat, she/they speaks about legacy, transparency and her/their new book deal.
Writivism, Uganda's premier literary festival, is one of the most anticipated annual festivals in the African literary community. It also comes with two prestigious awards — The Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and The Writivism Short Story Prize. Writivism 2018, the sixth edition, takes place in Uganda, from August 17-19, at The National Theatre and The Square Place. This year's Writivism is themed 'Legacies' and features notable key speakers, including the Freshwater author, popularly known as The Opulent Ogbanje.
Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and video artist based in liminal spaces. Her debut novel Freshwater (Grove Atlantic, 2018) has been listed as a most anticipated book by Esquire, The Rumpus, Elle, Bustle, and Book Riot, among others. Her short story 'Who is like God' won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her forthcoming book, The Death of Vivek Oji has been acquired by Riverhead Books in a two-book deal.
Akwaeke's novel, Freshwater, has received praise from many authors alike, including Taiye Selasi:
"...I cannot heap enough praise upon Freshwater, a daring, sexy debut. Raw and lyrical, Akwaeke Emezi’s semi-autobiographical narrative takes on sexuality, spirituality, family and more — all with a clarity that belies her 30 years."
In preparation for the festival, the Writivism team, and some other interested Twitter users, spoke to Akwaeke in a very tell-all Twitter chat.
While writing FRESHWATER, how did you balance self care and the creating/ creative process; immersing yourself in the character, Ada?
Since it's autobiographical, the immersion part wasn't a factor, but i can't lie, writing it was a gut-wrenching process. I was very isolated at the time and had several breakdowns along the way — I'm honestly not sure i balanced self care at all.
What advice do you have for people like me on the margins and speculative fiction? (visual art and writing)
I'm a bit wary of giving advice because often it's not the fix-all that people want, but the only thing I've leaned on is to always write you can't help getting better the more you practise and read.
What does legacy mean to you in a general and literary context?
Legacy, i don't think about it much, if at all. I'm not really interested in the effect of my work after I'm dead because, well, I'll be dead. I'm interested in the part I'm actually here for. Confession: legacy feels like a very human/flesh thing to me sometimes. I chalk it up to the way ogbanje are interlopers in the human/spirit/ancestor/reincarnation loop thing i.e. not very concerned with what was before or what will be after.
You're really transparent about the sort of behind the scenes factors of being a writer (things like money, financial instability and the discipline/practice of writing and writing well) How, if at all, has this impacted you as a professional writer?
WHEW. This might be a long answer! Okay, so I've been writing online for a long time and there are many readers who knew my work before i even thought of writing a book. People crowdfunded twice to send me to Nigeria for literary opportunities. I didn't want to be a writer who just 'came out of nowhere' because i felt it would be disingenuous and i remember the frustration of being a new writer, not knowing HOW on earth professional writers had gotten to where they were. So, i decided to be transparent. I've definitely been terrified about if it would have a negative impact on my career, but I've always been really open online, and shutting down out of fear didn't sit well with me, so here we are.
More importantly and in flesh terms, an out queer, trans black/African/Nigerian author writing about marginalised realities, about queer and trans people, and thriving while making this work is significant. I am the representation I always wanted.
To answer properly, the impact so far has been positive! When i made my most recent announcement (about her two-book deal), my publishers knew i was going to talk about the money for these above reasons and were very supportive of it. Creating possibility for other writers matters.
Was FRESHWATER picked up by a publishing house straight away or do you have one of those I was rejected n times before getting a deal?
It went out on submission in late 2015 and we got rejections from everyone except Grove Atlantic, who acquired it mid-2016. I don't know the exact number of rejections but I'll find out if/when it wins a prize so i can use that line LOL.
What do you wish more humans understood about the nonhuman realities you inhabit and are trying to convey?
To be very blunt? That's not my concern. I don't need to be understood, that's both futile and a set-up LOL. My work is more of a signal to those who need the possibility of other realities opened or confirmed so that *they* can find room to exist.
Is there an interplay between the visual art you create and your writing?
My recent visual art is around the whole being nonhuman thing, so that links very strongly to FRESHWATER but not to my other books.
Congratulations on your two-book deal with Riverhead Books! Will readers hear echoes of FRESHWATER in The Death of Vivek Oji or will it be a departure from your first novel?
Thank you!! I think it’s very much a departure in a lot of ways — the narrative structure is more conventional and it’s not set inside someone’s head. To be honest, I can’t wait for readers to meet Vivek!
Knowing Akwaeke, we have a feeling The Death of Vivek Oji might not be anywhere near conventional at all.