Interview: Akwaeke Zara Emezi

Micro-Conversations: Akwaeke Zara Emezi

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine

Micro-Conversations is a new series where we select a writer we’ve previously published to answer a few questions. For December, we sat down with Akwaeke Zara Emezi, author of “How to Hide a Child,” which appeared in the October issue.

 

Rasheed

Can you tell me more about your background? I noticed that you are both Igbo and Tamil, were raised in Aba, and moved to the United States as a teen. I am interested in knowing more about these spatial shifts and your thoughts on identity labels and titles.

 

Emezi

I was born in Umuahia a few years after my parents moved from London to Nigeria. My family settled in Aba until we floated off one by one to other continents. My father still lives there, in a house that tastes a bit ghostly. I left when I was sixteen to start college in Virginia and that was one of the spatial shifts that changed everything.

Before then, I was ‘half-caste’- a term used back home that’s intended as descriptive rather than derogatory, one that came with privilege and also reminded me that I didn’t belong in the only place I knew. In the US, my nationality and age started to inform my identity in a way that hadn’t mattered before. I was Black but not, because listening to rock and techno was a disqualification. I was jailbait. There was a dash of tokenism as I was shepherded around in my first week by old white people who introduced me by my age and immigrant status combined with the apparently surprising fact that I “had read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy already!” Little Black girls in West Africa read, too.

I wasn’t Nigerian till I left Nigeria. When faced with this new title, my mother would correct it with a frown–“You’re mixed lah!” She asks why I say Tamil instead of Malaysian but I include it so I don’t erase her–how she taught me to make chapattis as a child, to tie a sari, that I grew in and also belong to her, that I’m part of that whole boisterous clan.

I’ve used labels to define and carve pieces of myself into existence. Some of them were stifling so I let them molt away but others have been affirming, giving me rights to my spaces, to my homes.

 

Rasheed

It seems that most writers have some form of ritual around their practice. What are your writing rituals and within that space, what motivates you to write? How do you work yourself out of a writer’s block?

 

Emezi

My first ritual is simply engaging with my computer, but in a pinch, I’ll make do with my phone. I’ve written on paper in workshops but typing allows me edit as I work and I can type much faster than I can write. It gives me a fighting chance at keeping up with my thoughts.

I’m motivated to write my stories–I adore them. They’re little seeds in me that won’t die. When I get writer’s block, I read or I wait till that blurred moment right before sleep and I start telling myself stories. It’s a remnant of a game I used to play with my sister  when we got too old for Barbies. We’d rush to bed early to build worlds together and sometimes my brother would barge into our room to tell his own stories–I think it seeped into our blood from my father.

 

Rasheed

What do you find most challenging about writing and (possibly) more importantly, what do you find the most rewarding?

 

Emezi

A challenge is finding the discipline to write when I don’t feel like it even though I’m always writing in my head, stories fluttering around each other. So far, I’ve been lucky because I do feel like writing most of the time and I enjoy that, but there’s that tricky little fraction of time when I should just sit and write anyway. The most rewarding thing has been watching the story seed grow and the subsequent pride of making a story plant child.

 

Rasheed

Congratulations on Somadina being selected as a finalist for the New Visions Award by Lee and Low Books. This is exciting. Can you share a more about this book and when we should expect to get our hands on it?

 

Emezi

Thank you! The award requirements asked for a YA novel written for children of color with certain guidelines, so I wrote about Somadina. She’s a young Igbo girl living in a community that I created by splicing two histories of my country together and dousing it with magic. Her setting is pre-colonial Igboland but it’s also post-civil war. I wanted to note the culture of silence that sprung up in the South/East after the Biafran War. In the story, one of the aftereffects is a magical fallout that leaves every survivor with powers. Somadina and her twin brother are due to develop theirs but then she kills a boy in her community, finds out she’s been claimed by the god Ala and everything escalates from there. I wanted to write about a protagonist who’s actively rejected by their family for who they are because that’s a reality for many teenagers. The manuscript is currently wandering around looking for a home, so you’ll be able to read it when it finds one. Inshallah.

 

Rasheed

Before Somandina, you were writing a book you penned when you were seven years old and is now available on Amazon. Who nurtured your writing interests as a child and what was your family’s reaction to The Jewel at Rovin House?

 

Emezi

I can’t think of a single influential adult in my childhood who didn’t nurture my writing interests.The principal of my school was a wonderful educator, Mrs. Zovannah Onumah, who gave me these blank jotters that I had to return to her with a new story in it. The Jewel at Rovin House is just one of those many jotter stories from almost two decades ago. My mother and brother published it as an ebook as a Christmas surprise for me because I had recently told them I wanted to ‘get serious’ with my writing.  It was such a sweet gesture.

 

Rasheed

As a life long writer, what themes do you see carried through your work since a young age? What themes do you see emerging as you navigated adolescence and adulthood?

 

Emezi

My early work (i.e. before I was ten) was based on what I read. I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, so I wrote mysteries. Somewhere around adolescence, the work started getting darker. It passed for typical teenage angst at first: dreadful poetry about my tortured soul and whatnot. Themes of feeling divided and having a malevolent shadow version of myself developed and stayed until they enveloped everything I made with a sweeping fragmentation. I was diagnosed with major depression a few years later and those themes have eased away as I recovered. I currently write about people and how they navigate their own humanity. There’s also a certain deviant theme that really bothers my mum.

 

Rasheed

What seems to be a welcomed theme in your work is this element of science fiction and the lives of marginal beings. Can you talk a bit about this? You mention your mom being hesitant about the “deviant” elements of your writing. I wanted to hear a little more about that too.

 

Emezi

I think she’s unnerved by the themes that are both sexual and dark. I have a piece up on Brittle Paper that’s about some psychosexual play between a kinky nonmonogamous Nigerian couple and then I had a parent mercifully killing their child in Specter’s October issue. My mother just wonders why I don’t write bright happy things.

I love reading and writing speculative fiction because there’s so much freedom to create and bend and twist the world as we know it into odd new shapes, or to create new worlds entirely. It’s a massive imaginative playground, really.

And I write about marginal beings because I live on quite a few margins and so it’s quite intimate and real to me.

 

Rasheed

What margins do you feel like you live in and what do you feel comes from bringing attention to those spaces?

 

Emezi

Well, representation is important, especially in cultural contexts where silencing happens, so bringing attention can make a difference to people who are looking for themselves in art and literature. I don’t always write about the spaces I personally inhabit but I’ve been exposed to a lot of different spaces and I use that to imagine characters that have a range that you may not often see shown.

 

Rasheed

Specter had the privilege of publishing, “How to Hide a Child” for the October issue. What was the inspiration behind this narrative?

 

Emezi

This piece explores a space that I’m fascinated by- the naturalness of what could be considered unnatural. The narrative contains elements that could be called aberrations- loving someone because of their clinical indifference to you, a lack of maternal instinct, a logic catalyzed by desperation. People place value judgements on certain acts or attitudes as if they’re intrinsically wrong or right as opposed to just intrinsically being. So that was the inspiration behind the piece, to show how what the character did made perfect sense.

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