Long read

Identities guide us, they do not define us, and let this be known as a warning

The reason for hating Joni Mitchell was that I didn’t listen to classical or “white” music,’ said Smith. ‘Then I had an epiphany, and suddenly realised that her voice was beautiful. It’s a responsibility to be as open as you possibly can to the world as an aesthetic object.’

Should Bojack Horseman somehow discover that I have embarked on the journey of writing an essay inspired by his show that excludes him, or at least decentres him, he would not be very pleased. He would say, But I am the star, to which I would reply, Yes Bojack, you’re the star but this is about Todd, the ace freeloader in whom I saw myself more than once.

Todd is the ultimate freeloader and I cannot agree more with his sentiments about rent: rent wears your pockets out, which in turn wears you out. You don’t need more than a couch, a shared kitchen, a shared bathroom, and a friend with a nice house, no matter how cruel, to maximise potential, as long as you keep moving, and constantly engaging the force of your movement. It’s about making the curls of your body small enough to fit into a couch each night, and exercising your basic human right to take up as little space as possible.

I came out as ace (asexual) in November 2018, even though I would rather be nameless, and undefined, and have come to spurn all tags, I remember coming out, and being told by my friends, who had become blood of my blood, Afope, you’re not ace, don’t box yourself – one of the many ideas that had bound us together for so long: you belong to nothing, from nothing you came, to nothing you shall return, the freedom of existing as a nonentity. But I needed to be defined as ace, I needed the agency of being able to name myself something, and be allowed to bear it without the need for proofs and dissertations at every turn in my journey to discovering my sex, or lack of it.

People would ask me to explain what I meant by saying I was ace, at parties, at bookclub meets, when we hung around the poolside, eating suya, and sharing drags from the same joint we passed each other, and I would explain, because I thought I owed it to my community to be clear about what I meant, and by effect, who I was. The answer was simple: for me, sexual attraction was a remote thing. Todd was sex-averse, I wasn’t, but he helped me discover it was neither a weird thing nor a broken thing.

I had loved people and sometimes would not understand the barrier that stood between us, would constantly ask myself questions like, why am I unable to take this to the next level, where I would be eating them out of the back of my green Element. Why did I lose one of my best friends for a whole year because I wouldn’t be able to kiss him or hold him the way he wanted me to. Every time we tried, my body would contract like a spring in negative motion, turn to lead.

I needed the identity because the excitement of discovery of portions of self that had been hidden for so long had come to the fore and made things less confusing; it deserved to be named, and I named it to the last letter. I am asexual biromantic, I went around saying with as much excitement as though I’d just won something dear. You aren’t, some of my friends and lovers would say. They wondered why I would get so worked up and defensive about it but I felt as though they were projecting their own needs and values on me, as though they were trying to unname me. It seemed for them, the more definitions I acquired, the more walls were put up, and the less space they had to experience and discover unknown possibilities with me. Because if I called myself something, they felt, I would have to turn completely towards that thing, and perhaps, away from them. They were forgetting the incredible amount of complexity and nuance that can exist in the simple things we call ourselves – I was researching myself, calling my parts by rightful names, no matter how foreign they sounded.

Often, there are ways that different aspects of our lives, and the things we experience can concatenate into a singular theme if we’re observant enough. Like Akwaeke Emezi, who doesn’t identify as a woman, being nominated for the Women’s Prize in Fiction, and how I spent International Women’s Day observing eager people congratulate women for existing, and proclaiming how much power women had, as they celebrated the successes of women they knew and looked up to, how pleased women were to be celebrated on that day. I noticed that it was countries who abused their women the most that celebrated their women the loudest on International Women’s Day; only on International Women’s Day. I learned that I wasn’t a woman, or at least on International Women’s Day, as well as many other days, I don’t wake up feeling like a woman, and I know that some aspects of the woman fight would seek to assert that the woman struggles include making space for even those of us who, on some days, don’t wake up feeling like women. But even on such days, the term woman would just not describe who I am, everything I would be reaching for; on such days, I would veer acutely from everything woman is, from everything she has been known to be.

I wonder if it’s rebellion against my whole existence being summed up as a price for equality: I would not lay my life down for anything but myself, and my work; I would not lay my life down for a fight, therefore I am not it. When Akwaeke’s Freshwater was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, they celebrated and I celebrated with them, I talked about how truth was all that mattered, and how all human-made contraptions fumbled when confronted with the purity of truth. This nomination would lead to conversations like, first of all, how can someone be both nonbinary and transgender, and second of all, how could someone who insists that they are not a woman be nominated for a women’s prize in fiction … and celebrate?

The answer to me is simple: because they can. Because we can identify ourselves as the thing that reveals itself the most pressing to us and feels most fitting, and our obsession with the politics of identity is trifling at best. What matters the most are the work in question, and the truth, and the work often is the closest thing to truth, so naturally my proposition follows that anyone who contests the nomination should go and read Freshwater and tell me why the book should not be nominated for any motherfucking category that exists on this goddamn planet. When you have an answer to that, we may begin our conversation from there, though I fear that I may have moved past these things by then, I am thoroughly ever-changing, and what I require from the people who love me is that they make space for that. I want to be invited to speak at panels, and to show my work at shows, and read my poetry at readings, because the work is good, and because I am sound enough to see any conversation or debate honestly through until the last letter – and not because I am a woman.

I want to someday write a book that gets nominated for the Men’s Prize for Fiction, if those exist, and really, the question would be, why should those exist? Or perhaps, why shouldn’t they? Both valid questions whose answers depend on from which angle you look. You will find that the same disinterest I have in the outrage over when a man decides that he is a woman is the same disinterest I have in the outrage over when a white person decides that they are black; identities may remain exact, but experiences are not, therefore conversations would differ largely if we shifted our focus to the singular experience.

In February 2019, one of my dreams came true when I received a mail that said I’d been awarded a scholarship to Hedgebrook, for Vortext. I was on the bus from Groenlo to Enschede when I received it and I gulped down air and stared into empty space, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry or to squeal. Hedgebrook had been a dream almost as far back as any writerly ambition began to exist in my head, any form of Hedgebrook was enough. I’d seen Helen Oyeyemi, one of my favourite writers in the world, thank Hedgebrook for giving her time and space to complete her work, I think it was a Boy, Bird, Snow, as well as many other writers who held my metaphorical hand, or whose metaphorical hands I have held. Legends had walked the green fields of Hedgebrook, I deserved to walk it too, and sometimes God would be so dear and my focus would be so sharp, that I almost don’t remember a time where I did not get the things I wanted.

Hedgebrook is acres of island somewhere in Seattle, Washington, dedicated to women writers of all sorts of genres, and backgrounds, sworn to providing them a space to create, to amplify voices that would usually need to squabble for remainders of lifeforce before they can be given even a semblance of a listening ear, or a seeing eye – oh, to be seen! How we all long to be seen! I doff my cap to Hedgebrook for existing, and for the important work they’ve done as a legacy. This legacy, I longed to be familiar with, and I told them just as much in my application. I posed a rhetorical question to them positing that I saw myself as belonging to them, and not just because they belonged to women, and when they asked if I was a person of colour, I ticked yes, and when they asked if I was queer, I began to think of identity again, yet those were the smaller questions, and they deserved the smaller answers.

The bigger question was the one I posited to them by applying and saying that I saw myself as belonging to their legacy, and did they see me, too? And I guess identity (the smaller questions) is the way to make space to see the people who are often clearly hidden in plain sight: black people, queer people etc. But it’s also a way to tuck them further down into oblivion. Later, I would go to the embassy in Amsterdam after spending the Friday of the week before carefully printing out documents for my US visa appointment and placing them carefully into an envelope. The white man behind the desk would not ask to see any of the documents I brought along. He would ask me where I worked, and I would tell him; he would ask how much I earned and I would tell him, proudly; then, as he printed out the document of my denial, he would say, I would not be granting you the visa because you don’t meet certain criteria, this document would tell you why, this decision cannot be appealed but you can apply again.

I know it’s because I have a green Nigerian passport that I am not allowed to have a fair trial (and why should I even have to be tried so thoroughly before I can enter into another country). I know the decision has already been decided before I showed up with my white envelope and my yellow polka-dot dress, before I gave them my 144 Euro, they already knew the answer: the curse of identity, and so, I would not go to Hedgebrook, not yet. But before I let my heart break in inconceivable places, I would remind myself that sometimes the obstacle becomes the way, that’s how my friend put it when I told him, Look, I just have to finish this book I am writing.

In Game of Thrones, there was Varys who was born a slave, and later called ‘Lord’ by everyone, a name given to him by virtue of his position, and who he was. As a child, he’d been made a eunuch by a worshipper of the Lord of Light, and thrown into the flames. When Oberyn asked him if he’d liked boys before his mutilation, he said no. Girls then? He said no, still. He’d seen what desire had done to both men and women, and wanted nothing to do with it. And Perhaps Varys was ace; another option is that he was celibate, but I prefer ace, because he said he liked neither men nor women, or because I am reaching to find familiar things in popular shows so that I can collect them into my cavern of familiar things and go back to them then when the world feels difficult and unmoving, as it often does.

This was not my first time watching Game of Thrones, but what Lord Varys said hit different this time, because I had expanded my range to accommodate the other, the things that seemed to neither fit here nor there. Lord Varys had become that way, either by choice, or by circumstance, or by something lodging itself in the back of his spine and not budging until he confronted it. We can choose to dissect him and confront him about what he said he is, we can choose to put him on coal seat, and make him defend himself until we either believe him or not, so that we can with our own judgement decide that he is or true or false, and from there accept him or write him off as a liar or a seeker of attention. But I believe, what would be kinder, what would be gentler, and make him feel safer, is if we just accepted him for who he said he is, because we trust that he is discovering self, as all of us should, and that it is okay if he decided that he had felt this way about who he had been, about who he was becoming.

I have nothing against inquiry, but if your intent is to unname then it is spiteful. We examine ourselves and find that often our natural response to someone proclaiming that they are an other is to be defensive, we are defending the things we know, the things we want to know, the things we are, it is to say, what’s this one talking about, to want to prove to them that they are not what they think are, it’s both envy and admiration: where did this one get the balls? Maybe our only task in life is to unlearn this defensiveness, maybe this is all love is, to regard the world as an aesthetic thing.

In a Guardian series, Teju Cole asked Zadie Smith about her strength in seeking through things and finding opinions for herself, she answered, I don’t think of myself as a contrarian. I’m useless at confrontation. But I also can’t stand dogma, lazy ideas, catchphrases, group-think, illogic, pathos disguised as logos, shoutiness, ad hominem attacks, bombast, liberal piety, conservative pomposity, ideologues, essentialists, technocrats, preachers, fanatics, cheerleaders or bullies. Like everybody, I am often guilty of some version of all of the above, but I do think the job of writing is to at least try and minimise that sort of thing as much as you can.



Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Afopefoluwa is a writer, and software engineer who lives in Lagos and the Netherlands..

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  1. Omg Fope!!!! This is one of the most brilliant things I have read in a while and I just had to say that. I was digging into this topic last week and honestly you have given me clarity.

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