Ucheoma Onwutuebe (UO): You were shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2017, when you were in your early twenties. How did that early success affect you? What has changed for you since then?
Arinze Ifeakandu (AI): Around the time the Caine Prize shortlist came out, I also got an Emerging Writers Fellowship from A Public Space. In many ways, that early success made me push myself more and pressure myself into making my stories better. I asked myself, Now that I have been shortlisted for the Caine Prize, what’s next? I guess my new stories will have to be better. My focus has always been on the work itself. Institutions like the Caine Prize are there to help me and to give me the opportunity to showcase my work, but at every point, even right now, when my book is about to come out, I feel like I am in that space where I am asking, What next? What’s the new thing I need to discover about my writing?
UO: Your shortlisted story, “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things,” became the title story of your new collection. How did the collection come together?
AI: The initial idea was to write a collection of stories to teach myself how to eventually write a novel, which is just one of those wild ideas one has as a very young writer. I had written an earlier version of “Where the Heart Sleeps,” one of the stories in the collection (but with a different title) even before “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things,” and I sent it to A Public Space. The editor wrote back to me and said it was a beautiful story but not quite there. I was in Nsukka then—I remember being with my friends in the corridor of the Faculty of Arts—and it was really inspiring to receive that feedback. After that, I wrote “God’s Children Are Little Broken Things” and the collection grew steadily.
UO: What writers have influenced you? Who inspires you?
AI: At the top of my mind is Buchi Emecheta, for The Joys of Motherhood. I was around thirteen years old when I first read that book, and it opened my eyes. Her fiction felt so real to me. In that book, Lagos, a city I had never visited, was alive to me, as were Nnu Ego and the other characters, and I recognized the women around me in those pages. The book opened my mind to societal ills, especially when it comes to the way our society has historically treated women.
Prior to that I had read Achebe, who expanded my consciousness of colonialism and its human consequences. Another writer is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was in secondary school when Purple Hibiscus was published, and I recall the excitement my classmates and I felt. Adichie was the writer who wrote for our generation. She was the writer you looked to and who made you say to yourself, I can do this too.
UO: What did the passing of Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA) in 2014 mean to you?
AI: I remember where I was when that bill was passed. I was in the hostel, in my first year at university, and I remember taking a walk to the stadium after the news broke and just being by myself and letting myself cry. It felt unreal, and my tears felt dramatic to me. I was like, Why are you crying? Did anyone slap or beat you? But something real was happening. There weren’t many people to talk to about it honestly. I was the course rep, and when I went back to the hostel, my class Whatsapp group was having these arguments about the bill. I remember announcing, “If anybody in this group says anything homophobic, I am going to remove that person.” Emotionally, it meant something, even though I didn’t register it at the time. The bill sparked a widespread conversation, and people were writing blogs about it, having these conversations about it online.
UO: Like most queer writers from Nigeria, did you leave the country to create freely? What is your current relationship with home?
AI: Long before I left Nigeria, I created freely. I used to write short stories and novels in my notebooks in secondary school, and I’d hand them to my uncle and my mom to read. However, the moment I began to write about gay characters—it was around the end of secondary school—I stopped giving them my writing. Nothing happened, I just stopped. Because I knew that, even though they were family, this was an issue they might not react nicely to, and I really wanted to write those stories for my own fun. I felt like I was doing something bad, so I only shared it with my friends and people within my age group. So that was my way of taking my freedom.
My relationship with home is kind of complicated. I visited Naija last year—everyone should go home once a year, if they can—and to be honest, traveling home was good for my mind. I had been in Iowa for three years. Going back home for the first time in a long while was needed. I was able to put my head on the pillow and sleep straightaway. But after a while, I began to think, Oh my God, I need to go see a doctor and actually talk. So I guess with Naija, there’s always that complicated feeling of, This is where most of the people I love are, lots of my best friends live here. Some are making the move to the States, but most are still there. I have my family there, my little siblings who I love so much, but I also think of the practical things. So far, it’s a matter of finding a balance.
UO: In homophobic places like Nigeria, gay love can become an act of protest. This is true for certain characters in your book: Binyelum and Somadina, Auwal and Chief Emeka and Idris. How do you confront and challenge that as you write?
AI: Homophobia is everywhere. I didn’t realize I would grapple with it upon leaving Nigeria—I thought I was going to live my best gay life abroad. I mean, there’s the best gay life here in America, and freedom—I am using freedom in a very loose sense now, but there are things protected by law, which is vital. At the same time, a lot of people were in the closet in Iowa, dealing with homophobia, which manifests in many ways. So when looking at characters navigating homophobia, whether in Nigeria or America, it’s just one thing among so many others that make up the society. You live in society, and therefore you react to society and are affected by it.
UO: How did your MFA experience affect you as a writer?
AI: I’m definitely pro-MFA. It gave me the resources I needed. What I’d say is, Go to an MFA where they don’t cheat you too much. When it comes to the craft itself and the stories I create, Nsukka was the place that made me. However, Iowa gave me a certain exposure, which contributed to the person I am. Every experience is relative. Admittedly, when you come to a new country, you will see shege, you will have a hard time, but I had teachers and colleagues who were wonderful and supportive. Still, when it comes to the very core of the writer I am, it was Nsukka that made me.
UO: What are you working on now?
AI: Right now, I am working mostly on essays, but not a collection of them. As for the next large project, I don’t like to talk about it.
Arinze Ifeakandu was born in Kano, Nigeria, and currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida. An AKO Caine Prize for African Writing finalist and A Public Space Writing Fellow, he is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in A Public Space, Guernica, the Kenyon Review, One Story, and Redemption Song and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2018. God’s Children Are Little Broken Things is his first book.