Chiké Frankie Edozien’s writing is dazzling, and his book Lives of Great Men, which was recently published to critical acclaim, has been acknowledged as the first gay Nigerian memoir, heralding a new era in the country’s literary tradition. With characteristic warmth and charm, Edozien recently sat down with us to discuss the roots of his groundbreaking non-fiction, his love of lively novels, his ambitions for the future, and the advice he would give to his thirteen-year-old self.
What was the moment that made you think ‘I’ve got to write this memoir’?
One wet morning as I was making my way to work in Accra, I, as is my custom, stopped to get the newspapers. In Ghana for me that means the Daily Graphic plus either the Daily Guide or the Crusading Guide. It was in June so it was rainy season, and I remember that that there was one big fear-mongering story about ‘the gays’ doing something terrible or other by their very existence. I remember thinking the reporting was so sensational and the voices of the men and women in the story were absent. I ended up doing a feature story for Colorlines but it was clear to me that I needed to tell the story of these extraordinary men and women who are African and queer. I began to collect these narratives. Several years ago, when I was ready to shop a proposal and bits of a manuscript, my agent Sharon Bowers asked why I hadn’t included my own story, especially since many of the people I was writing about were people I was involved with in some fashion or other. It had never occurred to me to do that. As a journalist my training has been that I am never the story; I’m merely the storyteller and it is never about me. Her point was seconded by a writer friend of mine who is also a good memoirist, who told me to ‘kill the journalist’ for a moment and write about me AND these wonderful people. So I did and I think the work is better for it.
What was the research and editing process like?
I tried to be as meticulous as possible. Going back four decades to retrace my steps was daunting and exhilarating at the same time. For instance, I fell in love again with the music of my youth, and gained a deeper appreciation for the lyrics of songs like Prince Nico Mbarga’s ‘Sweet Mother’, Fela’s ‘Lady’, Bobby Benson’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Mandy Brown Ojugbana’s remake of it. Poring over old family photos and asking family members about events and things I remembered provided me with some very interesting perspectives and lively discussions. With the people I was mentioning I tried to have multiple interviews and pushed them to clearly tell me their stories and history even though I knew them. It was important to me that this history come out of their mouths and not only my memories. My editor at Team Angelica, John Gordon, is simply superb. And every draft I sent to him came back with questions and pointers that made the story flow better. While he’s exacting, I suspect he might have found me stubborn at times in my desire that this story be told in a certain way and not be tailored for any particular audience but be true to itself. I know we are both thrilled with the final result.
Who were the writers you admired the most as a young man?
As a kid I enjoyed the late Chinua Achebe even when I didn’t fully comprehend Things Fall Apart. But as a young man one book that made an impact on the way I live my life today is A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson. The way Anne Rice wrote about vampires in New Orleans was quite exciting. Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t like Mine was a standout, as were the stories of Terry McMillan in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. James Earl Hardy’s B-Boy Blues was particularly delightful.
One of the things I thought whilst reading this book was the sense of a life lived. Did you feel that way when you were putting the book together, that you had essentially lived a full life?
No, I’m still living! And I hope to live bigger and continue to take every day recognizing that it is a gift. A gift I don’t take lightly, so why waste time not living fully. And for me that means a life of learning, service, and joy. I’m old enough now to realize that I have to surround myself with people and situations that only give me joy. Anything less than that would feel like I’m squandering this gift of life. One day, hopefully decades from now, I can look back and say ‘yes I have lived a very full life’.
You are, of course, the author of the first gay Nigerian memoir. There is a pioneering spirit to the book. Do you feel that many other gay Nigerian writers witnessing your success will now come forward and share their stories too?
Yes. Narratives are powerful but many of the gatekeepers of those narratives in the publishing industry appear to mainly be concerned about their bottom line. And often they get away with excluding our stories because they say it has little commercial appeal. The fact that this work is published and purchasable worldwide via Amazon is a real success. Its existence I believe will remind writers with non-mainstream stories that getting their work done is an attainable goal. And if we sell like hot cakes that will simply be icing on a very tasty cake. But icing other writers can point to when a gatekeeper tells them that their nonfiction won’t find an audience and isn’t commercially viable or any other excuse to keep out stories they don’t fully appreciate.
What are you working on at the moment?
Earlier this year Jalada/Transitions magazine published my short fiction ‘Last Night in Asaba’ which is a sort of scary coming of age by duress story. I’m working on expanding that into a short story collection.
Finally, if you could travel back in time and revisit your thirteen-year-old self, what advice would you give?
Dude. Take chances. Live Bigger! Keep your integrity but remember that it is okay to take a chance and fail. It only gets better!
Chiké Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men (Team Angelica Press) is available now.
Image by JIMBE CARROL and DIRIYE OSMAN.
One of CHIKÉ FRANKIE EDOZIEN'S favourite songs : 'Lady' by FELA KUTI