'Vivek Oji' Is Very Much Alive In This Boundary-Breaking New Novel

Aug 3, 2020
Originally published on August 6, 2020 1:57 pm

You already know what's going to happen to the main character of Akwaeke Emezi's new novel. It's in the title: The Death of Vivek Oji.

Author Akwaeke Emezi
Scottie O.

But this novel about a death is full of life — the life of a person who doesn't conform to the community's expectations of their gender or sexuality. It's set in a part of Nigeria where author Akwaeke Emezi grew up, so I asked them to describe what this place was like when they were a kid there.

"In the late 90s, we were transitioning as a country from military rule over to quote-unquote democracy. And so there was a lot of electoral violence, there was a lot of religious violence," they say. "But I grew up in a community of the Nigerwives, the organization that's mentioned in the book, which is a real organization of foreign women married to Nigerian men, and they created an organization to help them assimilate into the community.

"And so they raised all their children together. So we've got riots going on outside and all this kind of violence. And then we have this community of aunties from all over the world. And my Austrian auntie is teaching me how to make waffles from scratch, and my German auntie is teaching me how to swim in the pool. And it was such a surreal world to grow up in, because it felt like they created a bubble for us and they made sure they raised us inside that bubble despite what was happening outside."


Interview Highlights

On what Vivek — who crosses gender boundaries and exists in a community that crosses national boundaries — has in common with Emezi, who identifies as nonbinary, and grew up with the Nigerwives.

Well, my first book, Freshwater, was about liminal spaces in that sense, you know, between the spiritual world and the physical world, and I think about liminal spaces a lot. And I think that relates to boundary crossing. All these Nigerwives in Nigeria, essentially, that's an immigrant's community. And after I came to the United States, I lived in an immigrant community ever since. And I think there's something there about fluidity between spaces and belonging somewhere, but also being a stranger there, or not quite seen or not quite understood in that space at the same time. And so with this book, The Death of Vivek Oji, I really wanted to lean into that across all these different points — his gender, his sexuality, his cultures.

On the significance of the starfish-shaped scar on Oji's foot

I think that there are multiple realities, and we might be centered in our own, but that doesn't invalidate a reality that someone else is centered in. - Akwaeke Emezi

Well, it's significant because his grandmother had the same scar and she died on the same day that he was born. When I wrote Freshwater, I was looking a lot into Igbo spirituality, and I wanted to continue that with The Death of Vivek Oji. And in this case, I was interested in reincarnation names, because in Igbo culture, which is my ethnicity, reincarnation names are a very common thing. But in a contemporary context, we don't really talk about reincarnation because everything is kind of Christian now.

However, I had gone back to Lagos, and I met a friend who was born with a scar that his grandfather had, and his grandmother had no idea that his mom had gone into labor. But on the day of his birth, she called his mother and she said, "My husband has come back, make sure you name him properly." And this was recent. This is like in the '80s, the late '80s. So I was really inspired by that, to really tell a story about how, even in a contemporary context, these aspects of our indigenous faith traditions still come through.

On Vivek's question: Who are we to define what is impossible or not?

I think that there are multiple realities, and we might be centered in our own, but that doesn't invalidate a reality that someone else is centered in. And a lot of the time, the violence that we see in our world today is because people are trying to make their reality a dominant reality, and to say that the rest of these other realities don't exist. And the best way to make sure that someone's reality doesn't exist is to make sure the person doesn't exist.

On trans identity and using Vivek Oji's birth name in the book's title

With Vivek, I wanted to show a character who is true to himself the entire way. There is no version of him that is more or less authentic than the other. - Akwaeke Emezi

I'm so glad you asked that, because one of the things that I wanted to challenge in this book is the idea of a linear progression when it comes to gender identity. There's this concept that, you know, you're in the closet, you are something that you're not. And then you have a marked point that is a coming out. And then you live openly as who you always were.

And I don't believe in that for everyone, because it's not that simple and it's not that straight of a line. So, with Vivek, I wanted to show a character who is true to himself the entire way. There is no version of him that is more or less authentic than the other. What he's doing is exploring additional aspects to himself, like through the book you see him explore with fashion and makeup and his gender expression. And he's just — it's an additive process. He's not hiding who he is. Everyone else is uncomfortable with it, but he's actually very centered. He knows how he wants to look and he's young. And I think that that's an important part for any young person, regardless of gender, is that we're all figuring ourselves out, and that is honestly a lifelong process.

This story was produced for radio by Clare Lombardo and Jolie Myers, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You already know what's going to happen to the main character of Akwaeke Emezi's new novel. It's in the title - "The Death Of Vivek Oji." This novel about a death is full of life, the life of a person who doesn't conform to the community's expectations of their gender or sexuality. It's set in a part of Nigeria where the author grew up, so I asked Akwaeke Emezi to describe what this place was like when they were a kid there.

AKWAEKE EMEZI: In the late '90s we were transitioning as a country from military rule over to, quote, unquote, "democracy." And so there was a lot of electoral violence. There was a lot of religious violence. But I grew up in a community of the Nigerwives, the organization that's mentioned in the book, which is a real organization of foreign women married to Nigerian men. And they created an organization to help them assimilate into the community, and so they raised all their children together.

So we've got riots going on outside and all this kind of violence, and then we have this community of aunties from all over the world. And my Austrian auntie is teaching me how to make waffles from scratch, and my German auntie is teaching me how to swim in the pool. And it was such a surreal world to grow up in because it felt like they created a bubble for us.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

EMEZI: And they made sure they raised us inside that bubble despite what was happening outside.

SHAPIRO: It's so interesting because your protagonist, Vivek Oji, kind of crosses boundaries of gender and exists in this community of people who cross boundaries of nationality and ethnicity.

EMEZI: Exactly. Yeah, that's such a good parallel to draw.

SHAPIRO: I have to ask how this relates to your own life. As somebody who identifies as nonbinary and who grew up in this community, did the idea of boundary-crossing feel a little bit easier for you because you had the auntie from India and the one from Austria and the ones who had all these different experiences and backgrounds?

EMEZI: Well, my first book "Freshwater" was about liminal spaces in that sense, you know, between the spiritual world and the physical world. And I think about liminal spaces a lot, and I think that relates to boundary-crossing. All these Nigerwives in Nigeria - essentially, that's an immigrant community. And after I came to the United States, I've lived in an immigrant community ever since. And I think there's something there about fluidity between spaces and belonging somewhere but also being a stranger there or not quite seen or not quite understood in that space at the same time. And so with this book, "The Death Of Vivek Oji," I really wanted to lean into that across all these different points - his gender, his sexuality, his cultures.

SHAPIRO: So your title character Vivek Oji is born with a starfish-shaped scar on his foot. Why is that significant?

EMEZI: Well, it's significant because his grandmother had the same scar, and she died on the same day that he was born. When I wrote "Freshwater," I was looking a lot into Igbo spirituality, and I wanted to continue that with "The Death Of Vivek Oji." And in this case, I was interested in reincarnation names because in Igbo culture - which is my ethnicity - reincarnation names are a very common thing. But in a contemporary context, we don't really talk about reincarnation because everything is kind of Christian now. However, I had gone back to Lagos, and I met a friend who was born with a scar that his grandfather had.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

EMEZI: And his grandmother had no idea that his mom had gone into labor. But on the day of his birth, she called his mother, and she said, my husband has come back. Make sure you name him properly. And...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

EMEZI: This was recent. This is, like, in the '80s - like, the late '80s. So...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

EMEZI: I was really inspired by that to really tell a story about how even in a contemporary context, these aspects of our indigenous faith traditions still come through.

SHAPIRO: At one point, Vivek is talking about this with his cousin. And he says, who are we to define what is impossible or not? Do you believe that?

EMEZI: Very much. I think that there are multiple realities. And we might be centered in our own, but that doesn't invalidate a reality that someone else is centered in. And a lot of the time, the violence that we see in our world today is because people are trying to make their reality a dominant reality and to say that the rest of these other realities don't exist. And the best way to make sure that someone's reality doesn't exist is to make sure the person doesn't exist.

SHAPIRO: In the U.S., we sometimes talk about dead-naming trans people, using the name that a person had before they transitioned. And you titled this book "The Death Of Vivek Oji," which is the name your protagonist was born with. Did you think twice about using that name in the title?

EMEZI: I'm so glad you asked that because one of the things that I wanted to challenge in this book is the idea of a linear progression when it comes to gender identity. There's this concept that, you know, you're in the closet. You are something that you're not. And then you have a marked point that is a coming out, and then you live openly as who you always were. And I don't believe in that for everyone because it's not that simple, and it's not that straight of a line.

So with Vivek, I wanted to show a character who is true to himself the entire way. There is no version of him that is more or less authentic than the other. What he is doing is exploring additional aspects to himself. Like, through the book, you see him explore with fashion and makeup and his gender expression. And he's just - it's an additive process. He is not hiding who he is. Everyone else is uncomfortable with it, but he's actually very centered. He knows how he wants to look. And he's young, and I think that that's an important part for any young person regardless of gender - is that we're all figuring ourselves out. And that is honestly a lifelong process.

SHAPIRO: There's something that you write in the acknowledgements, which is, to all the queer and gender variant people back home, especially those making new worlds for us. And then you include a phrase that I'm not familiar with. What is it?

EMEZI: (Speaking Igbo). It means - it's basically a term of encouragement. It's like, keep going. Like, you - like, keep going with power. You have strength. I honestly don't know the literal translation of it.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: But it's a thing people say to each other. Like, you got this or something.

EMEZI: Yes, exactly.

SHAPIRO: Like a fist bump in words.

EMEZI: Yes (laughter). That's a good way to put it.

SHAPIRO: Akwaeke Emezi - the new book is "The Death Of Vivek Oji."

Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

EMEZI: Thank you so much. This was a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD SONG, "NO SURPRISES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.