We caught up with Chike Frankie Edozien, author of Lives of Great Men, the 2018 Lamda Literary Award-Winning gay memoir, to find out what motivates the gay Nigerian writer, and other questions to inspire the readers and writers among you.
Summarise your book Lives of Great Men for our readers, Frankie Edozien
‘Lives’ is a memoir that touches on highs, lows, loves, journeys, and more on the contemporary African gay man. It’s not a uniformly easy life that many of us have but it’s full and richly layered with friendships and chosen family. It offers everyone a peek into our world since for some time now many in power would seek to define us without knowing us. This is a way for me to add to the record and have our own voices out there. It is also a love letter to the places I’ve called home, from Lagos and Abuja to Accra and Cape Town.
Does your family support your career as a writer and your life as an out and proud Nigerian gay man?
My family is and has always been supportive of me. It’s extraordinary for some who don’t have that but I’ve never expected anything less than that and have now evolved to the point where I have chosen family so where there may be some who do not, it becomes more their loss than mine.
How does one live authentically as a gay man on the continent when so many same-gender-loving men in Africa lead secretive double lives?
It is hard. But everyone must make choices for themselves. And the reality is that it takes some amount of independence, or financial stability or simply huge balls, bravery and courage to do so. Those who do it tend to have some combination of those in spades. It is difficult coming out if you know some around you would physically hurt you, maim you or even try to kill you. ‘Lives; deals with these scenarios which keep cropping up around some African countries.
Is black (gay) love dead?
NO! Black Gay Love is thriving. I see it all over the place. But often we have to look closer, look deeper. It’s not always flouted but it is there.
You recently lost your father—how has that experience changed your perspective on being a son and the lives of great men?
Bereavement is difficult especially when a parent is involved. I’m not sure it’s changed my perspective or my outlook on life yet. Maybe it might in a few months but I am happy to have been an authentic version of myself in his lifetime and in his eyes. He died knowing and appreciating who I am not some cookie-cutter ‘acceptable’ version of me.
As a writer, do you try more to be honest, original or to please the reader, and why?
My training is that of a journalist so while I want to serve the reader I don’t necessarily try to please them. My storytelling is built on honesty and in nonfiction, I have no room to try and make readers happy. Rather I want them to have an honest story and in turn that I hope would make them happy. So far it has worked.
Was it challenging to find a publisher for a black gay memoir spanning three continents?
Yes, it was. The toughest part was getting the book placed in a house that could accept it for what it was. Several American houses wanted large changes to focus more on my life and work in America which for them, their readers would find fascinating more than anything. Some British houses just didn’t get my voice or care so much about the lives and scenarios I found fascinating. Ultimately Team Angelica instantly got the vision and bought the book without requiring me to prioritize one part of our stories over another. My African publishers, Ouida Books in West Africa and Jacana Media in South Africa instantly loved the work and I’m proud ‘Lives’ is available to readers in markets I care deeply about.
What are the ethics of writing about living people who have played a role in your life? Do they ever recognise themselves, negatively or otherwise?
Ethics are ethics. Honesty in storytelling is what I’m about but I’m also sensitive to dangers and would never ‘out’ anyone or put anyone in jeopardy. In ‘Lives’ some names and circumstances are changed to protect the sources, while others are not. I left that to my friends to let know what they preferred. Those who identities were disguised were able to appreciate that their stories and circumstances and points of view where included, even if strangers don’t know it is them.
How long did this book take you to write, and what was the most problematic part of the process?
It really did take me some time; a few years, in fact. I had in my head of what it should look like. Even before I finished writing a book proposal back in 2014, I had already sketched out a plan for how I wanted to tell the stories I’ve been fortunate to be a part of and I’d already completed a few chapters that I used as samples for the original proposal. But I still had a very long to-do list. A good chunk of the memories was in the distant past, so I felt the need to go back and have a look again at places that meant a ton to me.
Places I still have an emotional connection to. I wanted to reminisce in those spots that marked a change in my worldview or opened my eyes in some fashion or simply traumatized me. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, as a journalist is that one can only be so effective if you are not on the ground. So I tried hard to look at the project as a grand reporting project, not merely recollection. I would then go and do some of my work, reporting whenever I was home to spend time with my family in Lagos or travelling someplace for work.
I also needed to have certain conversations again with women and men in my life at the times I was focusing on for the book. I needed to know: did they have the same recollections? Were there things and details they could tell me from their own perspective that I might have missed? Or simply didn’t remember? Yes, there were, so putting my thoughts and memories side-by-side with theirs provided an opportunity to give me details that helped me with certain chapters. And thus I think, I got a fuller richer account of those times.
I used the same technique with my more recent encounters. In situations and conversations that I wanted to share with the world, even if I remembered them with crystal clarity I still went back to get the take of my friends and family to ensure that what ended up in print was the most accurate rendition of those joyous or painful or hilarious accounts that I shared.
Do you have any suggestions to help our readers become better writers?
To be a better writer, you must become a better reader. Read everything.
What are your three favourite books of all time? The bible doesn’t count!!
I won’t tell you my favourite books of all time but I’ll tell you what I’ve enjoyed lately and kept returning to.
- Kintu from Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a modern-day classic and a fountain of knowledge and riotous laughter. The sex scenes are incredible and the man-on-man rolls in the hay are a hoot!
- Chris Abani’s The Face: Cartography of the Void is truly a work of art.
- Zukiswa Wanner’s Men of the South is just fire.
- John R. Gordon’s Drapetomania: or, the narrative of Cyrus Tyler and Abednego Tyler, lovers a whopper of a tale of black gay love in the slavery era.
All these titles keep me coming back to the well. They are so inspiring.
What’s next for you as a writer?
New for me is more storytelling focusing on the African experience in a global context. So yes, more articles and more books to come!
- Read Forgetting Lamido our extract from Lives of Great Men