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A Writer's Portrait

Chinonso Nzeh

In 2020, I was preoccupied with frivolous ambition, fuelled by fallacy, ignorant of my paltry prose and watery storytelling. I was seventeen with a colossal dream of publishing my manuscript and becoming the youngest award-winning writer in Africa. I did not know how this would happen.

I needed to stave off the daunting reality that perched in the air when the world steeped into abysmal quiet because of the pandemic.

Days were slogging with gruesome news on COVID-19 dispersing over headlines. I resorted to literature, largely out of boredom and curiosity, which would spur the birth of a new me in my craft.

As a child, in a house crammed with Enid Blyton and Lewis Carroll's books, I became a reader. I adored reading: that language could transpose me to newer worlds and absorb me into people’s lives. Like most writers today, I read everything—newspapers, church banners, obituary posters, grafitti. And I wrote stories, all of them an imitation of the things I’d read. I started writing a novel manuscript in my first year in senior secondary school; I finished it roughly two years later, loaded with buoyant expectations. The plan was to submit it to a literary agent in the next year, 2020.

Pico Iyer wrote, “Very young, there were two things I should try to do before anything else: strive to understand the world around me and strive to understand the self who was observing that world.”

Even though I wasn't ‘very young’, Iyer’s statement was true for me because I wanted to comprehend the world better and zoom in on the self.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the first book I read during that time. Because I began to pay attention to the poetics of sentences and profundity of characters, I was awash with newer awareness. I realised, too, that protagonists need not be angels. Before then, in secondary school, I remember debating with my late literature teacher (may her soul rest in peace) about Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, because I thought an errant person who stole too often and quarrelled with his mother and killed the daughter of his white employer could not be a protagonist. But Ifemelu, messy and largely unchaste, was the protagonist. And I began to see her beyond her badness. I liked how the sentences sang. I mulled over the story: the heart, the themes explored, and its premise. I thought hard about these things, my mind stretching into a large pool that could immerse both analytical and effusive thoughts and nuances.

I read more books, like James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, with deft language and defiant themes. Like Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, and his essay, I Am A Homosexual, Mum, which I found resolute and mirroring.

For every book I read, I unlocked new enigmas and new ways of thinking. I began to question things; I grew unsatisfied with the predominant conclusions the world offered. I had unlearned many things about writing and had come to see writing and the self as one.

I knew I would no longer make do with that manuscript; it hurt me. I wanted so badly to get that young award-winning writer title. But I had to discard it. A newness was sprouting in my writing—a sense of authenticity my previous works lacked.

The first time I met Bunkechukwu, he was a mere name that I liked—a name I funnelled in my mind. As days went by, I began to grasp a glimpse of his face: he had round eyes, full lips, and a birthmark that sat above his eyebrows. He was dust, void of life. Weeks passed, and he drew life’s breath: a homosexual man who became a priest because he was the first son and would be pressured into marrying a woman to whom he had no romantic attraction. Layers and more layers began to unfurl in the story; it felt right to write about it.

But I could not. There were so many things I could not write about, even though I had begun to capture a sense of the stories that felt authentic to me. I was fervent in my Christian faith, and this meant that writing about queerness was debauchery and a rebellion against the Christian God. I would open my laptop to write but close it in fear because I couldn't tell my truth. It also meant that I would face myself. I didn't want to accept that I was gay then, even though I was very aware of my attraction to men.

I tweaked the story. Bunkechukwu morphed into a straight, effeminate man who became a priest because he did not fit the patterns of traditional masculinity. But this premise did not feel true to me. I wrote it and submitted it to a literary journal. Weeks later, the editor emailed me saying they liked the presumption of my story, but it felt coerced.

Similar stories would come as a revelation, but I would tweak them, submit them, and get similar responses as the first one.

I struggled with my sexual orientation while actively struggling with writing these stories. I did not want to come off as a rebel in the eyes of God. With the world still on lockdown, many voices spoke in my head:

You should write your stories truthfully and tell them boldly.

You should not even dare write these rubbish stories; they are sinful, and God will punish you!

How about facing yourself so you can tell these stories?

I sank into depression, ripped between affirming queerness and writing what was true to me and pleasing God. I had searched for writers who were in the faith and actively wrote such stories, thinking I would feel less alone, but when I saw them, I couldn't connect with their reality. It felt like some sort of cognitive dissonance; I could not balance both.

One morning, while watching the news with my father, I thought of Binyavanga Wainaina. I wasn't sure why. I told my father who had called me to the sitting room to “see what the world has become because of Covid-19.” This prompted me to search for interviews of him online, and I stumbled across his profile, Writer Tells Africa What He Couldn’t Tell ‘Mum’, written by Nicholas Kulish in The New York Times. It was instructive, edifying, and revealing—a well-construed profile of the writer as regards his essay, I Am A Homosexual, Mum.

The last paragraph pulled me: But he said he had no doubt that he had made the right decision. “There’s no point for me in being a writer and having all these blocked places where I feel I can’t think freely and imagine freely,” Mr. Wainaina said. “There just really is no point.”

I felt seen. It was one of the most remarkable moments for me as a gay man and a writer, even though it would take more months to make peace with myself and also write what felt true to me.

It's 2023. Almost three years after the lockdown ended.  My writing is in a better place. I have reconciled my sexual orientation and have become bolder with the stories I want to tell. As for the divine, I'm beginning to see Them from a newer prism. I believe they should know better about storytelling. I believe They understand that writing mirrors the human condition.

At a writing workshop last year, I learned that people needed my stories to survive (just as I had survived by other stories). I'm here to do the work: write. And even though I don't necessarily want to be regarded as a “queer writer” (and by this, I mean a writer who writes solely about queer experiences)—I do not mean this to stroke the egos of heterosexual people—but rather as a writer who happens to be queer because my stories vary, but my sexual orientation is constant, I will keep telling queer stories and making sure I attain what James Baldwin described as bone-clean sentences in my prose.

In the middle of 2022, I wrote a personal essay about being a gay man, published this year in Evergreen Review, and so far, I have gotten a lot of responses, most of them tinged with gratitude for telling my story as a gay man, and for reflecting their lives. And a few peppered with bitterness, telling me to repent from my depravities or saying I would die. But I try not to get fazed by any of this. James Baldwin’s quote, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer,” makes much sense now. I'm walking worthy of what I think is my calling, staying candid and breathing life into my sentences.


Chinonso Nzeh writes from Lagos, Nigeria. He thinks of himself first as Igbo and then as a storyteller. His works have appeared in Evergreen Review, Isele Magazine, Agbowó, The ShallowTales, Ibadan Arts, and elsewhere. He’s a prose reader at Beaver Magazine and an editorial assistant at Black Boy Review. His essay, The Slipping Away, won the 2023 Isele Prize for Nonfiction. He is a law student at the University of Lagos.


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