Poetry of Redemption and the Brief History of a Queer Body

June 12, 2024
17 mins read

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye Interviews Chibụìhè Obi-Achimbá


Friday, October 14, 2022.

The award-winning Nigerian poet and essayist, Chibụìhè Obi-Achimbá (main picture) is completing his MFA in Poetry at Brown University, United States. He is being published in reputable outlets including The New York Times, The Paris Review, Harvard Review, and Poet Lore,. He was awarded the 2021 St. Botolph Foundation grant and the 2021 Frontier Poetry Prize for New Poets. He is the Founding-Editor of Dgëku Magazine. Find Obi-Achimbá at his website: www.chibuihe.com.

In this interview, the literary conversationist and writer, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, engages Obi-Achimbá in a conversation about/around his poetry and sexual poetics.

Darlington: Chibụìhè, when I read your poems, I find myself returning to the depth of the human experience. The mellified voice of your art, which speaks of the personal and the collective in a medley of varied perspectives, awakens solitude in me against the chaos of daily living. Fickle and laborious may well illustrate the existential dilemma of the human condition, that rudderless journey from the beginning of all things to the summit of mortal transition, but perhaps one of human greatest challenges is our inability to name our feelings. It is thus by providing a detailed and objective portrait of the individual experience that your poetry transcends the transient memory.

To read your poems is to meet the self in its most defiant manifestation, to interact with private emotions that complement the pool of human aspirations. As a daring expression of queerness, your poetry reveals, with a startling visceral spontaneity, the intricacies of identity. It is hard not to acknowledge the embattled condition of the body that lives in your poetry. Yet, it is even harder to trivialize your commendable literary commitment so far. I think of your poetry as a profiling of your nonconforming self, a meditation on the history of your queer body. I do not know the length of that history, but I am sure it has a soul, that unyielding spirit that rouses you to your full potential. What does the body mean to you?

Chibụìhè: I am searching for a point of entry into this question, but at the risk of sounding bogus, I’ll start from the beginning: the body. As a queer body living and surviving Nigeria, this very body I carry with me has been criminalized. As a queer body who spent most of his formative years amongst a Christian fundamentalist sect, my body is despicable, ridden with sin and, therefore, condemned. This is the reality and yet it appears to be one of the very few things people fail to see. The queer body is always, always under persistent attack and pressure from every quarter; from childhood to adolescence to maturity, you are measured with a rigid yardstick that has been carved in accordance with specific gender binaries. There’s this sense of shame that the society drapes around the shoulders of those whose lives appear different, people who don’t fit in. They are ridiculed and “othered”, irrespective of the psychological and emotional implications. It’s safe to say that I picked myself, this body, from the debris of society’s relentless shaming and abuse.

I unshamed this body, resurrected this self. So, I’ll tell you what; the history of this body is long, complicated and fraught with abuse, anguish and pain. The history of this body is that of protest, resistance, and disobedience. At this stage of my consciousness, my body is the first country I pledge allegiance to. It accepted and loved me long before I garnered enough courage to accept and love it back. Often when I think of my relationship with my body, I am overwhelmed with shame. You need to see how long I have lived hiding from this body, denying this body. And there’s nothing worse than a man who lives in constant dissonance with his own body. It drove me nuts and nearly ruined my life, until I dug through the rubbles, found it and reclaimed it.

For like two years now I have been writing what I call body poems. A tribute of sort to this living queer body. I discovered the body is a landscape, a geography with its own myths and histories. Somehow, I want to translate the body into narratives, into stories. I want to exhume all the miracles and magic and horrors and unimaginable fuck ups this body carries with it. Doing that has helped me transcend religious, cultural and political roadblocks, thereby gaining access to a self. Because I have come to learn that your true self can only be found in solitude, in a state of absolute calm and bodily agreement. There’s a lot of din and chaos and arguments going on. The self cannot be found in the throes of identity politicking. Because the self is always evolving, always negotiating newer frontiers, transcending the old, sometimes in conflict with itself. Poetry has become for me a source of redemption. It has given me agency to rewrite and, in the process, reinvent a self which, before now, was brutalized, crushed and nearly non-existent. Poetry helps me to continuously be in conversation with this self.

Darlington: Shame, I think, is a constant reminder of our humanity. Should I have said the recognition of our human frailty? But humanity is enough, for to be human is to be crucially imperfect, to possess that comforting sense of ever reaching and owning perfection. How elusive! The problem, as I see it, is that society, having got used to seeing things in some way, is unwilling to hear of other ways. Our impatience to listen to one another and our total refusal to look beyond familiar horizons are some of the factors that mar discourses of this nature. As for shame, it is sometimes impudent. Not just because it confronts, but because it also cajoles the self to become. And this is done without any regard for the being of the self.

The problem with becoming is that it often disembodies the self and ruins the delight of mental and spiritual connection. What could be crueler than this shuddering disharmony? There are many syllables of shame, so I can’t claim a complete knowledge over the experience of another, the complexity of it. But, wait, what glorious new life poetry has offered you. Isn’t it the arithmetic of assembling your fractured body, the science of chiseling it into poetry, the commerce of purchasing it back to yourself?

Chibụìhè: I personally think that shame has its social benefits. As long as people live in structured, organized societies, shame will always be a vital tool used to nudge people toward socially accepted behaviour. But then, just like the term morality, shame is relative. It is largely dependent on the norms and values of a particular society. For instance, you’d be shamed for being queer, or a single mother here, but in another society, like in the West, the intolerant homophobe, the irresponsible, absentee father gets the shame. So while I have no problem with shame, I am worried by the way—the illogical way—it is allocated. The very core of this society, which are the norms and values it cherishes and prizes above other things, is problematic. A society that aligns itself with the oppressor, that maligns the oppressed; a society with a warped sense of justice, is not a healthy society at all. And this is what we must change.

There are lots of things we need to reevaluate and rethink; worn-out cultural practices that benefit a section of the society should be done away with. Some people get agitated and scared when you mention culture and change in the same sentence. But I think this fear is both ridiculous and misguided, because it is evolution of thought that has brought humanity this far. As an Igbo man who is very much aware of his identity, I don’t have a servile relationship with culture, values or anything for that matter.

I come from a long line of people who discarded and banished deities that stopped serving the need for which they were set up. So, what is a worn-out culture? I say this to point out how pragmatic the Igbo thought system is. The truth is that Abrahamic religion came and disarmed most people, made them confused and mentally lazy, so their lives are perpetually haunted by fear. The rest of the world has moved away from fear-based religion. But Africa is still here, starving and shivering before their foreign gods, while begging for alms from countries that have taken charge of their own lives.

I have no shame, and by this I mean I have done nothing to be ashamed of. To be queer is to be free from any kind of limitation. In a world of boxes and borders, that privilege is priceless. Queer is a world of endless possibilities. To be queer is to transcend cultural, religious, ideological ghettos. Of all genres of writing, poetry is the queerest. Poetry, unlike prose, is fluid. Flowing water. It is not tyrannical. It lends itself easily to the eccentricities of the poet. It allows the writer to nurture and reshape it according to the gospels of their individual bodies. It allows the poet to expand both her knowledge and her field of vision. Nothing is as possible as a poem: the way it constructs hope and compassion stone by stone by stone, the way it wrecks borders and clichés.

A poem is always a moving target—unstoppable. Writing poems helps me to be in constant conversation with my body, it helps me access the deep recess of my psyche. Poetry took me in, reassured me, told me it’s okay to have a fractured identity. So I came to poetry with all my fractured selves. And anyone can see it, in the way I write my poems strictly in the lower case, in the way I interrogate the selves, in the way I let each poem break and heal. I harbour both the feminine and masculine forces in this body. It is my feminine self that writes poetry, and it prefers the soft symmetry of lower cases to the brash and sharp angles of the upper cases. Of all things poetry did for me, it is the courage to live out my varied lives, to hope and hope and hope again that I appreciate the most.

Darlington: What is left of culture when it has become one of the reasons people give in defence of brazen inhumanity? I have had the necessary misfortune of meeting people who claim absolute knowledge of the African culture, and this is really disturbing because their understanding of culture is parochial, insensitive to the individual strivings and ignorant of our shared humanity. They betray the essence of tradition with their perception of culture that is as savage as the colonial ideology that assaulted the original African culture and as cancerous as the implications of neocolonialism, especially its attempt at ensuring the continuation of the cultural dislocation orchestrated by colonial conquest. I have noted in the past that the gravest tragedy of colonial intrusion is not the physical destruction done to the colony or the callous theft of the mineral resources in the colony, but the mental castration and the psychological mutilation of the colonized, achieved through a carefully supervised Eurocentric cesarean process. It is saddening that most Africans are no longer able to see beyond the blinding sparkle of their foreign fixity.

The Igbo culture that you speak of is always in dialogue with itself. It is presently undergoing its most unprecedented and honest soul-searching experience. The thing with the search for our true identity is that it is often purgatorial; but is it not through the flame of such shameless and unfettered courage that we locate our original self and wear it as an unapologetic identity? I am drawn to these words in your poem “resurrection body”: “when the sun sinks, the world rises on my tongue / into this fleshy earth–my origin” and, yes, I feel that the body is the quietest place to be, the only home available to the self. What does it mean to resurrect?

Chibụìhè: I agree with you: the journey to self discovery is purifying. One moment, you are struggling to hear the music of your own instinct, and suddenly, quite suddenly, you realize how acutely aware you’ve become. How, by unfurling your antennas, you can pick up signals from the other side of things. How you can weave your heartbeat into a song that knows you. You know what: poetry sometimes vaults you into a different realm. It lets you take these small leaps into the void. The poem “resurrection body” is part of my body poems. Like I explained above, I am always trying to exhume all that has been buried in this body, the language, the metaphors, the experiences. Even things inherited. In that poem, I was thinking of resurrection as an awakening of sort. A sudden or gradual realization. At a point I was obsessed with my childhood, that world of sand and sunshine and dust. There were never enough words to name most of the moments and feelings and dreams that we came across. Language, the much that was at our disposal at that stage, was so inadequate to capture what was happening in our imagination, so we saved them as though our brains were film rolls. Now, we are grown and our vocabulary has increased. We have language, but memory fails us.

So, what happens to the body when it is deprived of the joy of recollection? How does the body cope and survive when it has been denied connection to its former self? To resurrect is to assist the body through its many layers of memory. To resurrect is to believe in history, and also hold it accountable for all the injuries it has done. To resurrect is not to seek vengeance, as some people would have us believe. Be it body history or national history, the aim of resurrection is to help the mind come to terms with its former self. To resurrect is to insist on accountability. To resurrect is to reflect and recognize errors and make restitutions.

Darlington: You speak of childhood and I think of a half-naked boy, legs buried in a heap of sand, building castles he did not live in, dreaming of growing up. In “Making Salt out of an Ordinary Man”, your personal essay longlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize, I met your father, a daddy who doubles as a stranger. I do not know yet how to react to the close alienation of your voice in that essay, but it is the opening sentence that engages me most: “My father’s name is ash; to speak is to risk stains.” Could this be your protest against the imposition of silence? I reread the word ash and took a moment to weigh its metaphor. Ash here, as always, is a symbol of human mortality, of fading away.

My curiosity made higher demands as I followed your words down, through this journey of endless mutations. “Time validated all my doubts”, you wrote further, “his love was indeed a farce. It died the day our visit ended. He had promised to come with us to see my siblings, sort out things with Mariya and bring us home finally. As a child, this was all I wanted.

My dreams were hinged on the prospect of going home to my father at last. I wanted to be like other kids who enjoyed the security of a close-knit and complete family. But as the taxi that came to pick us swerved out of the compound, it was just Mariya, myself and our luggage inside it, and my grandmother waving to us through the window. My father had absconded; he had disappeared with all his candy-sweet promises and cigarette-warm love.” Your account depicts a hurtful past. I imagine the long, painful process of bearing the bruises of such abandonment and it reminds me of a larger political situation that climaxes to the betrayal of the nation by the ruling class, a case of postcolonial disillusionment. But I also know that there are fathers who show love in complicated ways.

You are right, sand is both the origin of life and the delight of childhood. Everything begins and ends in sand. It is where humans return to when this earthly journey suddenly ends. And I think that the only possession we truly own is that tiny portion of earth that will receive us when our bodies, with all its passion, shall embrace death. And, to answer you, when memory is lost, all is not lost, for we can return to sand; there, childhood is born again; there, “a boy’s body begging to be loved despite [its] cracks”, as captured in your poem “The Suicide of Young Idriss”, finds love. But, what is it that makes you want to return to the Eden of your life? And why do I think you share a lot in common with Orhan Pamuk, that peerless Turkish writer? His 2006 Nobel Lecture, “My Father’s Suitcase” is a trajectory of human concerns, from familiar echoes to literary freedoms.

Chibụìhè: My childhood was the stuff of dreams. It was a rural childhood, quite unlike what you’d expect a millennial like me to have had. But we have varied realities. My maternal family, where it all happened, was this large extended family compound, a sprawling spider web of houses with two of my mother’s uncles—one a juju priest and the other a bard—keeping it alive and animated. I can’t remember a single dull moment in that compound. You would always see someone in a corner retelling stories, performing a timeless act; tales bouncing off walls into eager ears. I was a quiet and dreamy child who lived mostly in his imagination, so the drama and activities notwithstanding, I’d suck on my tongue and brood over a story I’d heard or a song or an idea until I travelled out of my body. But somehow I managed to absorb all these stories. In that whole compound, there was not a single bookshelf or library.

scraps of Day By Day my older cousins brought home from school—which nobody actually read to me from—I didn’t know stories existed in text form. I only knew those old people—walking stories—who spun tales that would make a hitherto starless night burst into fireworks. The passages we read during Comprehension classes about city life were distant and unrelatable. I was instead charmed by the flourish with which these old people narrated and animated their stories. It was rustic and magical and great, but I don’t mourn the loss of it, because, in truth, I didn’t lose it. I don’t believe in the Eden of place or time. I don’t believe that home is a fixed place either. I’ve always known Eden to be my imagination—that mental state of quiet possibilities—and that’s the only place I call home. And it’s actually beautiful, because I carry it with me wherever I go.

I have noticed, from listening to most writers talk about their childhood, that almost every writer out there started reading at a very tender age. Sadly, mine was different. I was a late reader. I started reading when I was in primary six. And once I started, I didn’t and couldn’t look back. Mariya was mostly busy and didn’t do much until later when she discovered I was really interested in books. Before now, I used to think that, like Orhan Pamuk, I inherited my love for writing and literature from my father. But I just realized something: I actually got both from Mariya, my mother. Long before I saw my father’s bookshelf, there was Mariya’s little cupboard which was stocked full with almost all the books in the African Writers Series. I discovered the content of that small cupboard when I started secondary school, this time the ache for books had consumed me. One afternoon while she was away, I raided the entire room until I found the key to the cupboard and started sneaking out the books one by one to read. Long before my father spoke to me about books, Mariya had gifted me this children’s book with colorful illustrations and stories from which I read about the owl and the pussy-cat and their eventful boat ride, and also read me poems she’d written by herself.

At a point in her life, Mariya had dreamed of becoming a poet. In fact she has a poetry manuscript which she brings out to dust from time to time. My father, the much I know about him, had never dreamt of becoming a writer. Mariya believes in stories, telling them, retelling them until they sink into every pore of your skin. My father preferred silence, mostly. And because he took himself away from my childhood, it’s difficult not to think of him as this gaping quietness, this echo that, when I tried to grasp, swallowed my feet and nearly took my entire body. I spent the bulk of my childhood longing for his presence, and most of my teenage years chasing after him. But in the end it didn’t work out, because some things in life are not meant to work out. So I turned back and chose to love the person who has always been there for me—Mariya.

Darlington: Mother is Supreme, that’s the title of a poem I wrote three years ago. Perhaps we share a lot in common.

Let’s talk about your poetry chapbook hallowed. “To read Chibụìhè Obi-Achimbá’s ‘hallowed’”, wrote the literary scholar and writer, Chimezie Chika, “is to see and to live through the pain of fragmentation and the anxiety of identity. Each poem in the collection is a feast of wondrous, elegant imageries. Written in language so pure and searing, this is a humane testament to the human predicament, the will to live and exist on one’s own terms.” I’m moved to ask what a reader should expect from the book, but I think Pamuk’s belief that “a writer talks of things that everyone knows but does not know they know” provides the necessary writer-reader mutuality that literature often demands. “When a writer shuts himself up in a room”, Pamuk explained, “for years on end to hone his craft—to create a world—if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity.” Essentially, Pamuk’s conclusion that his “confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand” sets a new fire in me, a quest to affirm the connectedness of all literatures, and, of literature and life. How much of your personal tribulations and triumphs went into the creating of hallowed?

Chibụìhè: Perhaps we share a lot in common—including a near-obsession with Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize speech—but I must quickly point out that the idea that Mother is Supreme is not one of them. Mothers too can turn feral. Maybe we are just alike in our lucks. For me, the imagination is supreme.

My poetry chapbook hallowed is a brief history of the queer body in the Nigerian political space—thanks for lending me that. You know somehow we’ve become accidental historians. It is one of the things we have imbibed from living in a country that is quick to sweep its atrocious past under the carpet. And one of the ways homophobia works in Nigeria is to wreak violence on the queer body and erase every trace of that violence so that there’s no evidence at all. It’s a total war. So to fight erasure, I decided to document the history of the queer body in these poems. The work echoes the voices, desires, hopes, anxieties, disappointments, protests, resistances of people whose only demand is to live and love. My experience, which is but a shard in the painful collage that is the queer history in this country, is interfaced with the stories of people I know. I can’t say exactly what the reader would get out of it, but I’m certain that empathy, the ability to connect with other people’s stories is universal. And I agree with Pamuk, human suffering, angst, the will to wrest love against all odds, these are feelings every one of us is familiar with. Our sense of empathy is sharpened through reading. When we encounter other people’s stories, when their lives bang against the doorpost of our worldview, we experience a mental shift. I thank all the authors who had the courage to commit their thoughts and anxieties to paper. Their courage saved me. And this is what I have done with hallowed.


DARLINGTON CHIBUEZE ANUONYE is a literary conversationist and writer. He is editor of The Good Teacher, an anthology of essays that documents the lives and achievements of teachers from the perspectives of their students. Anuonye is also the curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories; co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian ShortFiction; and editor of the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. Anuonye was longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award, and shortlisted in 2016, by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. His writings have appeared in Brittle Paper, Black Boy Review, Eunoia Review, The Shallow Tales Review, Praxis Magazine and elsewhere. He is areview correspondent for Praxis Magazine.


Poetry of Redemption and the Brief History of a Queer Body


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