39: Akwaeke Emezi
writer and video artist

photos by Elena Mudd

Akwaeke Emezi talks mutilation and gender-based violence, limitations of the queer community, pronouns, and girlhood as a genderless space.

Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist based in liminal spaces. Born and raised in Nigeria, she received her MPA from New York University and was awarded a 2015 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. She won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Her work has been published in various literary magazines, including GrantaFreshwater is her debut novel.

Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both  35mm and medium format, and with digital.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 14, 2018. Elena Mudd photographed Akwaeke in her Brooklyn apartment.

SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood, in whatever way you feel is appropriate.


AKWAEKE: My sister and I always describe our childhood as very fairytale-like, which is completely inaccurate.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


AKWAEKE: We read a lot of Enid Blyton books. We read a lot of books about fairies and pixies and brownies and we generally believed in them. There’s an Enid Blyton series called The Faraway Tree about a tree that these kids have; a new land appears at the top periodically, so they get to climb up and visit it. My sister and I had a tree in our backyard, and we would imagine that it was The Faraway Tree and there were magical lands at the top. We had a whole world constructed around Barbie dolls, called Barbie Land. [laughs] It was a very elaborate world. It had a heaven. It had a hell. It had a purgatory.


[both laugh]


AKWAEKE: The Fairy Godmother had a daughter with thigh-high boots, who would kick you out [of heaven]. That was her sole purpose. [laughs] So it goes like, really in depth. 

With the publication of Freshwater, I’ve been talking a lot about alternate realities, and I completely forgot about this aspect. That's why I'm really good at doing this! It's because I spent an entire childhood living in these worlds. We grew up in Nigeria in a town called Aba in the 90s. Nigeria was still under a military dictatorship; we didn't transition into democracy until '99, when I was twelve. I wrote about it in a piece called “Sometimes the Fire Is Not Fire.” It talks about a childhood in which we're living in this bubble that our parents are keeping us in very deliberately. On the outside, the mosque in our town is getting burned down. There's a statewide curfew. There are riots. My sister was in a terrible accident. I was molested. But because of these worlds that were created, my sister and I can look back on our childhoods, and say, “It was a fairytale.”

In girlhood, there’s a certain kind of neutrality that you’re allowed. Once you hit puberty, you lose that neutrality.

SOPHIA: In your recent piece for New York Magazine's The Cut, "Transition," you call the gender that you were raised with “inaccurate,” and explain that you retrospectively understood it through the lens of dysphoria. Can you talk about that?


AKWAEKE: A lot of it was just people believing, “You're a girl and you're supposed to wear these horrible little dresses,” that were just like...tulle and netting and itchy! They're all so itchy! [laughs] One thing I liked was that at least when I was at home, my sister and I just wore shorts and t-shirts. Now I don't hate dresses because they're functional and they're one piece and I'm lazy.


[both laugh]


AKWAEKE: I had really long hair growing up, and it got cut when I was ten and went to secondary school. That was upsetting because I really liked my hair, but once it was cut, people often mistook me for a boy. The recognition that I wasn’t a girl was a relief. We had a sports club that we would go swimming at every weekend, and women would stop me in changing rooms and ask me why I was wearing a girl's swimsuit simply because I had short hair. And it's not like short hair was an unusual thing. But I never minded, because they could tell I wasn’t a girl. So getting my hair cut was an interesting point of relief where the girlhood that I've been forced into kind of lifted off a bit.


SOPHIA: Did that affect the way that you moved through the world?


AKWAEKE: I did feel freer for a very short window of time. When I was a kid, I didn't like the things that girl-ness attached me to. But after puberty, I didn't mind it as much, because I realized that in girlhood, there’s a certain kind of neutrality that you're allowed. Once you hit puberty, you lose that neutrality. So it's weird, because I don't mind being referred to as a girl now. Or as a Black girl. I feel like “girl” means something very different than “woman." 

SOPHIA: Can you talk about that? And about going by both “she” and “they” despite not identifying as a woman?

AKWAEKE: It's not so much about the pronouns. The reason why I'm flexible with them is because I don't think they matter. I could put “he” there and it wouldn't matter for me, either. I do like “they” because a lot of Freshwater is about being a plural individual. “They” is a pronoun that has that flexibility to be plural and singular. But I've been “she” for my whole life. 

It also depends on the context. If someone were writing an article about me and called me a Black girl, I would ask, “What do you mean by that?” Because that's their way of saying that I'm a Black woman [and staking my position in that conversation]. So it's not just a thing that people can use freely. 

So much about my gender hinges on the ability or lack thereof to reproduce. So for me, girlhood is a time when that ability is not there, because you haven't hit puberty. In the sense that girlhood is this pre-woman state, “girl” is actually gender neutral. It's ambiguous in a medical sense, because you have girls who hit puberty super early and are still girls. But for me, the texture of girlhood that I'm familiar with is pre-pubescent. That neutrality is what makes me comfortable with [the term “girl”] now.

There are also forms of expression like “Girl, yes!” Or “Sis!” Or “Bruh!” And these have all become gender neutral. People can use any of those terms when they speak to me, and I understand that they’re not misgendering me.


SOPHIA: When you first moved to Brooklyn, you wrote that you fell into a vibrant queer scene that showed you more ways to be than you’d ever known. Can you talk about what that was like, some of the things you witnessed, and how it changed the way you understood yourself?


AKWAEKE: Yeah. I got to see all these other ways that people were presenting, and was exposed to a wider range of how you could dress and move through the world. But people always think of these spaces as free, and that’s not true. Even within the queer community, people are still very married to categories and boxes —specifically a lack of horizontal mobility between them. 

In my case, I used to dress very femme. When I was seventeen moved to the United States, people had to teach me how I was supposed to be a woman. I had no idea, because I had never really had to be one. Growing up in Nigeria, other than having to go to church, I really wasn't forced to dress any particular way. If I wasn't dressing up for church, I was walking around in my dad's button-up shirts from the '70s and cargo pants. My gender expression got policed a lot more once I came to the States —primarily by Black women who cared a lot for me, and who had embraced me as part of the community. But they were like, “You little bear! You don't know how to dress! Your fashion is terrible!”


[both laugh]

AKWAEKE: So they made me over. It wasn't until I came to Brooklyn and saw a wider range of gender expression that I was like, “Oh, I don't have to dress like this. What do I actually want to dress like?” And I kept going back to how I dressed when I was a child. I just want t-shirts and shorts. The funny thing was that once I started dressing like that, people started seeing me differently. Like, "Oh, so you're a stud. You're masculine of center. You're the aggressive one in any romantic situation.” And I was so confused because I am none of those things! [laughs] I was like, “No, I just dress like a boy. But I'm very girly?” So it was weird to have to fit my experience into the language of the queer community. At the time I was binding because I hadn't had my top surgery, and I kept talking about how much I looked forward to having surgery so I could start wearing dresses. And everyone was extra confused about it, because they were like, “Wait, most people have surgery to get a smaller chest so they can wear boy’s clothes.” But I was like, “No, I want to do that so I can switch between [gender-expressions] more comfortably.” It's been a really weird thing because people meet me in different places, in different contexts, in different seasons! So people who meet me in the summer think that I'm super femme!


SOPHIA: [laughs]


AKWAEKE: I'm wearing things with deep v-necks and just as little clothing as possible. Then people who meet me in the fall or the winter are meeting me when I'm wearing buttoned up men's shirts. But what's comfortable to wear when it's cold are men's shirts and long pants and boots. So depending on when they meet me, they have these very interesting perceptions of who I am. People have been so completely wrong guessing things about me based on my clothes. And then they get really weird when I switch into something else. They're like, “What's up? Why do you have long nails now?” And I'm like, “Because I figured out how to stop them from breaking…"


[both laugh]


AKWAEKE: I feel like they make my hands look longer, and I feel more graceful with them. But friends who met me when I hadn't figured out how to stop my nails from breaking, they're like “You're becoming more femme!” And I'm like, “I’m not doing anything!


[both laugh]


AKWAEKE: Entering into the queer community was my first discovery of other ways of being, but even within that space, there are all these restrictions that felt uncomfortable for me at some points.

‘I’m in this relationship with a cishet man who wears nail polish. Omg we’re so queer.’

SOPHIA: Do you know Cathy Park Hong's essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”?




SOPHIA: She basically criticizes avant-garde poetics' trajectory towards some kind of non-identity, calling it the “luxurious opinion that anyone can be ‘post-identity’ and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.” 

But after reading your work which focuses on the plurality and slipperiness of metaphysical identity, what you’ve called “the kind of work you’d think only white writers get to make,” I feel like you might argue against that. Like, “I can be post-identity, too.” Or that you can kind of transcend that by prioritizing multiplicity. 


AKWAEKE: I don't think so. I think I kind of agree with her. I think it's about points of privilege. For me, it's layered. There's an outer layer of how I present to the world. It's not a flexible layer. In that layer, I am Black. In that layer, I am Nigerian. In that layer, I am trans. And these things affect my life. I don't get to drop those identities or shift around them because it doesn't matter. I could be like “I'm not Black,” and it means nothing, because everyone's still going to treat me like I am. So there isn't that flexibility in the outer layer. 

But for me, the internal layer is completely separate from the outer one. And that’s why it’s difficult when you’re asked questions like, “Do you consider yourself an African writer.” You’re put into a box, and people rightfully don’t want to be restricted to that box. But then you also have people who are African and who are writers who don’t consider themselves African writers. I understand why people try to move away from labels, and how people choose to deal with them is a personal decision.

But there are people who have the privilege to play with their outer layer, and usually they are people who occupy a more privileged point of view. So you have like, heterosexual cisgendered people who are like, “I'm ‘queering’ this.” And that's where it's problematic, because you can go and play in that, and be like, “I'm in this relationship with a cishet man who wears nail polish. Omg we're so queer.” You're slumming it for a little bit in a marginalized space, but you still get to go back. 

It's a complicated thing to think on, because you never know if someone is being genuine. You can't tell someone's gender at all from looking at them. So it's hard to comment on it because you don't want to sound like you're policing someone's gender, but it's also disingenuous to act like there aren't people who take advantage of that uncertainty to get access to marginalized spaces, and resources which should go to marginalized people. I understand myself within the labels the world has fixed on me, but I also understand myself as separate from them.

Ok, I’m abnormal. And then what? What happens now? What if I’m a mutilated thing? Fine. I’m ok with that.

SOPHIA: People have had really strong reactions to Freshwater, where they haven’t anticipated its sort of…visceral severity, and find it to be very traumatic or violent. And you’ve responded to that, very emphatically, that situations of sexual assault, violence, or mutilation are not the primary site of trauma; the primary site of trauma is being embodied in the first place. 

In “Transition,” you wrote that you've come to think of mutilation as a shift from “wrongness to alignment.” By saying this, it seems very easy to be accused of collapsing the distinction between mutilation and gender-based violence in a dangerous way. I was wondering if you could talk about those things in conjunction, and what they mean to you. 


AKWAEKE: People have really strong reactions to me talking about mutilation. It was a surprise to me. I did get that reaction specifically around gender-based violence. Someone brought up FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), and women tortured in conflict. And I was like, “That's not what I'm talking about. That's a different category.” 

When people react like that, it seems like they’re really saying, “You don't have the right to reclaim the word ‘mutilation’ because people are being mutilated.” As a trans person, I am completely aware of the history between the word “mutilation” and gender confirmation surgeries. I’ve heard the hate in people’s voices when they yell that the thing I did to my body to save my life is mutilation. I don't really feel like anyone's qualified to say that you can't reclaim that word. 

It's a thing that happens with language over history. People use to slurs that are meant to hurt you, reject your normalcy, and declare that there's something wrong with you. What you're doing is unnatural. Like with “queer” or the N-word, some people have chosen to say, “What I am doing is natural.” But there’s different kinds of realities, right? In one reality you know you’re normal, you’re baseline, you’re ok. However, you still have the outside world, which does consider you deviant and will treat you as deviant and you will face the consequences of being deviant. So in that sense, you can be deviant and not deviant at the exact same time!

For me, it's the same thing with mutilation. People will try to get caught up in the dictionary definition of the word, and I'm like, “No, do you understand what being trans means? Do you understand how people view gender-confirmation surgeries? Do you understand that there are still millions of people who see this as mutilation, and who will approach me and treat me like I've mutilated my body?” So why not lean into that wrongness? Ok, I'm abnormal. And then what? What happens now? What if I'm a mutilated thing? Fine. I'm ok with that. 

With the issue of applying this to violence against women…most of the time, people are not thinking of trans women when they invoke that category, when trans women are the women who receive the most violence for being women. Especially if you are a Black trans woman! Three of them have been killed this year alone! So that is gender-based violence. [View and support Unerased, Mic's database of transgender homicides from 2010 on.] So these borders that people are trying to impose on language and gender categories are way more porous than we allow them to be, I think.

SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?


AKWAEKE: I am very wary of prescriptive talk.


[both laugh]


AKWAEKE: Off the top of my head, protect Black trans women.

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bodies, race, politicsSophia Richards