“My Novels Are Definitely Not Happy. So I Wanted To Write Something Happy For Once”: Akwaeke Emezi Is Deviating Into Romance
“I’m not very good at relaxing,” confesses celebrated author Akwaeke Emezi, talking to me from their home in New Orleans which, once they decided to make home decor a hobby, became a full-on renovation project worthy of Architectural Digest. “The problem is, I don’t know how to do anything on a small scale,” they say with a laugh. It is the full-throated, infectious giggle of a prolific creative at the top of their game, for whom even home DIY becomes an art form.
This year alone, the award-winning Nigerian writer has published three works; a young adult novel, Bitter, a debut poetry collection, Content Warning: Everything, and, most recently, You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty – their first romance novel. It is the latter which may come as the biggest surprise. Emezi has carved out a career as a literary titan, who recently became a TIME magazine Next Generation Leader. Their sparkling prose has thus far been an unflinching investigation of ontology, spirituality and heritage. Their debut novel, Freshwater, a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl embodying multiple ogbanjes (an Igbo term referring to a reincarnating spirit that moves through different worlds) was a sensation, which The New Yorker named its book of the year in 2018. Their follow-ups have received markedly similar praise and have foregrounded trans and queer narratives. Theirs was hardly the career trajectory headed for the mushy love story. “My novels are definitely not happy,” they say. “So I wanted to write something happy for once. I read a lot of romance novels!”
Because, of course, to define Akwaeke Emezi as a certain type of writer would be foolish. They exist, by their own description, in “liminal spaces”. Emezi is non-binary and identifies as ogbanje; proudly never quite one thing or the other. Their writing follows suit – a fluid and ever-evolving, prolific body of work that has already spanned genres, from memoir to verse. “My agent told me all my books sound like me, and none of them sound like each other.”
Emezi has a track record for taking risks, and their latest ‘deviation’ to a genre misogynistically referred to as ‘chick lit’ is further testament to that. “I think that literary hierarchy is nonsense, to be quite honest…” they say with a shrug. “I started out with this weird book that a lot of people weren’t really going to understand, and it gave me the confidence to continue just writing as myself.”
Hence, in Emezi’s career, they never seek external validation – only their own. Yet this was a hard-won lesson, discovered when their debut novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. When their non-binary identity was revealed, Emezi says they received a deluge of online abuse. This only increased when they removed themselves from contention for their second novel The Death Of Vivek Oji after the Women’s Prize asked for their “sex as defined by law”. “Because I don’t have a gender because I don’t fit neatly into the boxes, I realised that I was going to be penalised for it by the industry, by the media, by the public,” they say. “I thought, ‘why would I wait for people who don’t even respect who I am to then tell me that I’m good at what I do?’”
Yet it is tempting to see Emezi as a commercial success story. After all, Freshwater is being turned into a limited series, and You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty has already been bought by Michael B Jordan’s film production company in a rumoured seven-figure deal. But it is not that cut and dry, argues Emezi. “You still are not going to see Black non-binary or trans writers winning awards because our work is just not considered on its own merits. People focus on other things about us more than our work. That was a rude awakening for me.” Emezi then segues neatly into a discussion about their now-infamous ‘twitter beef’ with esteemed fellow Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which began in 2021. Emezi accused Adichie of being transphobic and Adichie launched a thinly disguised critique of Emezi via an open letter. This, says Emezi, resulted in an avalanche of abusive messages online.
Today, however, Emezi laughs and swiftly begins to speak of other things; their compulsive writing, their garden. There is that joy again, trying desperately to poke through and remind us never to define anyone by only their worst days. Then, they surprise me again: “You know, I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy novel; I’ve been trying for years but my books keep… becoming something else.” But whatever they become, much like the ever-evolving Akwaeke Emezi, they will, undoubtedly, be unabashedly themselves.
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar