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Review

Akwaeke Emezi’s revolutionary imagination

Back in 2004, as the ‘war on terror’ heralded a new age of fear and violence, Rebecca Solnit published Hope in the Dark, an argument against despair in the face of an unknowable future. The book, which went on to be hailed as a Guardian ‘best book of the 21st century’, insisted upon the world-shaping power of storytelling. ‘Stories trap us, stories free us, we live and die by stories,’ Solnit wrote. To her mind, ‘politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations. It means symbolic and cultural acts have real political power.’ In other words, ‘the change that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination.’

Eighteen years later, with the political stakes higher than ever, you’d be hard pressed to find a more potent revolutionary of our collective imagination than Akwaeke Emezi—a writer who conjures alternative worlds that centre Indigenous ontologies and cherish Black queer bodies. Following in the footsteps of Black visionaries like Toni Morrison and bell hooks, Emezi leans into the power of language and storytelling to widen the horizons of the possible. As they explained in a Time magazine ‘Next Generation Leader’ profile in 2021, ‘The first step to creating a better world is being able to imagine it.’ According to Emezi, ‘stories can create a bridge between what is possible and what we actually make happen.’

Aged thirty-five, Emezi has already made a lot happen. Born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and Sri Lankan mother, they migrated to US aged sixteen to attend college. After dropping out of veterinary school, Emezi enrolled in the MFA program at Syracuse. Since 2018, when their debut Freshwater was released, Emezi has published seven books and accumulated a swathe of literary honours, including being named a National Book Foundation ‘5 under 35’ honouree.

Freshwater is an autobiographical novel that introduced Western audiences to Igbo metaphysicsand documented Emezi’s life as an ogbanje—an Igbo trickster spirit born into a human body. (As an ogbanje, a being that has no gender, Emezi also calls themselves non-binary and trans.) Next, in 2019, Emezi published Pet, a speculative YA novel with a trans protagonist, followed in 2020 by the bestselling literary novel The Death of Vivek Oji. In 2021, Dear Senthuran marked Emezi’s foray into memoir. An epistolary text addressed to a range of loved ones, the memoir is a searing account of queerness, mental health, and the publishing industry.

Despite the stresses of recent years—the pandemic, disabling health problems, a very public clash with fellow Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—this year Emezi released no fewer than three new books: YA novel Bitter, poetry collection Content Warning: Everything and romance novel You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty. Screen rights for the latter have already been snapped up by Amazon Studios. A further two releases were slated for 2023, but they’ve been postponed so Emezi can enjoy a much-needed break. But next year will only be a pause in an otherwise relentless schedule. There are more books under contract, plus plans for another ten. Clearly, Emezi has taken to heart their favourite writing advice: ‘Make your work.’

As the above bibliography makes plain, Emezi is as wide-ranging as they are prolific. To date, their oeuvre encompasses memoir, literary fiction, YA fiction, poetry and romance, while planned future books include a fantasy series. Emezi is also a visual artist and interior designer. Just as their identity cannot be contained within familiar categories, so too does their creative practice refuse neat classification. In a world that insists one must be man or woman, literary novelist or commercial author, writer or artist, Emezi is neither, both, all of the above. Both in work and life, this ogbanje stays true to their trickster reputation, forever blurring boundaries and colouring outside the lines.

This promiscuous creativity is a gift to readers, but it’s also inhibited appreciation of Emezi’s body of work. Given the siloed nature of the publishing industry, their work tends to be promoted across platforms appropriate to each book’s genre. The Death of Vivek Oji is reviewed in the New Yorker; Pet is featured in Teen Vogue; Dear Senthuran profiled in queer publication Them. The commercial imperative to market each book to a genre-specific target audience means that their fast-growing oeuvre is rarely viewed as a whole. Instead the public is served up with multiple Emezis—the rebel queering YA, the lover of trashy romance, the trans icon—as though they were distinct selves who happened to publish under the same name.

In truth, however, Emezi’s body of work is exactly that: a body, a coherent organism, bound by common aesthetic and political preoccupations. Especially in the three books published in 2022, a distinctive Emezi vision of a better world can be discerned. Although each is a self-standing text, all reshape our imaginations in service of the same revolution: the liberation of Black peoples from the literal and mental chains of white colonial capitalism. It’s a revolution against violent white institutions—police, prisons, the patriarchal family—but, just as importantly, it’s an uprising against white ways of being. The revolution will be ontological or it will be bullshit.

Bitter is the most explicitly political of Emezi’s three 2022 works. The YA novel is the prequel to 2019’s Pet, which followed teenage Jam through the fictional metropolis Lucille, a city free from monsters. Starring Pet’s parents, Bitter and Aloe, Bitter is set several decades earlier and tells the story of how Lucille conquered its monsters. Bitter is an orphaned artist living at Eucalyptus, an idyllic arts commune-cum-school for homeless teens. Outside on the streets, the youth protest organisation Assata fight evil billionaires and their goons—the ‘monsters’ who are tormenting ordinary citizens. Bitter is no fan of the monsters but shies away from protest; she just wants to stay inside and paint. But does that make her a coward?

As Bitter navigates her relationship with the nascent uprising, the book interrogates the big questions of revolutionary politics. What is activism—is it only fighting on the front lines, or can it take the form of creativity or care? Although Bitter at first regards art and activism as opposites, the line between the two begins to blur when one of her paintings comes to life as a righteous angel bent on vanquishing the monsters. It’s art-as-weapon made manifest, a parable about the power of the creative imagination to enact change. As another character, Eddie, says: ‘The revolution needs artists, just like it needs healers and storytellers, just like it needs the organisers and protestors. It’s all one big organism, working together.’ The appearance of Bitter’s murderous angel also provokes questions about justice. Can it involve vengeance and retribution, or does that tarnish the fight for a better world? As the story unfolds, Bitter goes deep into these thorny issues. It’s a treatise on revolution masquerading as a children’s book, shot through with allusions to BLM uprisings and the youth-led global climate movement.

At first blush, You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty could not be more different. Packaged as commercial fiction, the novel is easy to label as cookie-cutter romance, the kind of book you can swallow in a summer afternoon and forget by bedtime. The narrative follows Feyi, a twenty-nine-year-old Nigerian artist living in Brooklyn, who is just re-entering the dating world after the death of her husband five years earlier. Following a brief dalliance with Milan, Feyi accepts the more serious advances of Nasir, who invites her to his Caribbean island home to exhibit in a local art show. While on the island, Feyi falls under the spell of Nasir’s father Alim, a celebrity chef who lives a mountaintop mansion. The stage is set for a showdown: will Feyi end up with the father or the son? It’s a scandalous love triangle worthy of Oprah or Dr Phil.

Yet Fool of Death is in its own way no less radical than Bitter, primarily in its commitment to Black pleasure. In a world where Black people experience wildly disproportionate rates of violence, sickness and incarceration, Fool of Death creates an all-BIPOC universe oriented around sensuality and desire. The familiar cultural trope of the Black body as abject, in pain, is transfigured into Black bodies revelling in opulence. The characters eat sumptuous meals, luxuriate in designer bedrooms, sink into art and music, adorn themselves in fabulous outfits, watch the sunrise. There is seduction and sex—it’s a romance, of course—but the pleasure depicted is much more than just sexual: it’s a holistic celebration of all possible earthly delights, whether that’s ice-cream or orgasm or hair dye. Emezi’s writing is rich in sensory details; every outfit, every artwork, every meal is described at length (in fact, they even commissioned a chef to design the book’s meals). The result is a richly textured universe, a realist utopia that allows us to envisage a simple but depressingly radical proposition: what if Black people could focus on making art and savouring mango in the sun instead of being killed by cops? What if their safety and pleasure was valued as much as white peoples’?

Then there is Emezi’s radical re-envisaging of sex and gender. Across both Bitter and Fool of Death, they dramatise the possibilities of life outside the narrow bounds permitted by patriarchy and cisheteronormativity. In both books, queerness is mainstreamed, with barely a straight character in sight. The central romance of each narrative (Bitter and Aloe; Feyi and Alim) is a straight-passing affair, but all four characters are openly bisexual and discuss past same-sex relationships—a narrative device that provides much-needed bisexual representation and warns against the cultural tendency to assume heterosexuality. The books also subvert the norms of toxic masculinity. Contrary to the cultural script that teaches that big tough men get the girl, Emezi’s male heartthrobs are unabashed soft boys. Alim and Aloe are both gentle types, whose professional roles (chef and medic) are focused on the feminised labour of nurture and care. Alim wears make-up and loves to dance; Aloe is a ‘dreamer’ interested in ‘the healing properties of sound’. Yet these ‘effeminate’ qualities do not undermine their sexual currency. On the contrary, Alim and Aloe are cast as romantic heroes, desirable to beautiful women precisely because of their softness.

Importantly, this softness extends to matters of sex. Across both Bitter and Fool of Death, Emezi models sexual encounters characterised by enthusiastic consent. Given our cultural diet of pornified sex oriented around urgent phallic release, it’s startling to encounter characters who move slowly and carefully—who do something as simple as say ‘Is it okay if I kiss you?’ or ‘Tell me if you want me to stop.’ Open dialogue between sexual partners is a rarity in our culture landscape. We’re bad at understanding and teaching consent at least in part because it’s so infrequently modelled to us on the page or on screen. The virtue of Emezi’s work is that they give us a roadmap for how to be better, showing us that sex is no less sexy when desire is not just assumed but actually communicated in words. This is just one of many fronts in which Emezi gestures at the possibility of living differently, of rejecting violence in favour of kindness and care. Dominance and cruelty are not inevitable, they remind us: those are just stories about humanity we’ve been sold. Other stories are possible—essential, even. Other stories can pave the way for new realities.

Yet Emezi’s revolutionary imagination is not just occupied by humans. Why would it be, given they’re avowedly not-human themselves? Instead, they conjure a landscape of gods, monsters and angels, a rambunctious spirit world informed by Igbo metaphysics and the Catholic faith of Emezi’s maternal family. It’s a refusal of Western secular materialism and an insistence of the validity of Indigenous ontologies. As first flagged in Freshwater, Emezi themselves is a self-described god, the child of Igbo deity Ala. (Ala takes the form of a python, and the name ‘Akwaeke’ means ‘python’s egg’.) As Ala’s offspring, Emezi has inherited their divinity.

This is the central idea explored in Content Warning: Everything, an electric poetry collection that imagines Emezi as god-kin to Jesus. In a series of speculative poems with titles like ‘What if Jesus was my big brother’ and ‘What if my mother met Mary’, Emezi writes themselves into the Jesus story. The pair are two ‘little gods’ hanging out—walking on water, eating bottomless tins of sardines, upsetting their mothers, cavorting with Magdalene. ‘[M]ary auntie’ visits Emezi in hospital, calls on their birthday. Just one big family, doing normal god stuff. It’s a literary device that pokes fun at the pretensions of Christian doctrine to represent the entirety of the metaphysical world. Jesus might be the child of god, but he’s hardly the only one. When Indigenous worldviews are afforded the same legitimacy as Christian faith, it becomes apparent that gods and their children are a dime a dozen. These little gods are everywhere—including in New Orleans, where Emezi lives and writes in a gold-painted dwelling called Shiny the Godhouse.

In the prose poem ‘Disclosure’, Emezi chronicles their many ‘coming outs’: From first claiming the label ‘bi’, they eventually ‘remembered how to be a god’. That was not the end though. Instead, ‘when i last came out i called myself free’. Freedom was the destination of their personal evolution and it’s also the gift they’re offering to readers—Black and Indigenous readers, especially. Freedom to imagine justice and pleasure, but also freedom from assimilation into a white-dominated culture. Freedom to exist in ways obscured by colonial land grabs and the logic of the market; freedom to reclaim other forms of being and knowing.

‘My books come with more questions than answers,’ Emezi said in a 2022 interview. ‘I don’t really have solutions.’ But maybe that humble, questioning posture is exactly what our world needs. Human arrogance has been a hallmark of the modern West, and look what that has wrought: humanity facing an unliveable planet and possible extinction. Emezi’s imagination is a doorway into living otherwise. It opens up possibilities without dictating a prescribed path. Each reader stands on the threshold, free to decide which way to turn.

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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Dr Yves Rees is a historian at La Trobe University, the co-host of Archive Fever podcast, the author of All About Yves: Notes from a Transition (Allen & Unwin, 2021) and co-editor of Nothing to Hide: Voices of Trans and Gender Diverse Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2022). 

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