When Akwaeke Emezi wrote and released their autofiction debut novel Freshwater, I wonder if they knew it would come to be as important and iconic as it is. Knowing them, they most likely did. We did not know the book would go on to break down so many walls in the literary world and become the important body of work it is or become a symbol of hope to many African queer and non-binary writers and people. Freshwater has since it’s release, has been listed on Elle, Esquire, Book Riot and more as a critically acclaimed must read. Recently, Freshwater was longlisted for the coveted Women’s Prize For Fiction –one of the highest awards in the literary world.
What then could be the problem?
Akwaeke has previously stated they are not a woman on several occasions and it seems with their book being longlisted for the Women’s Prize, many people have certain ‘concerns’ over a non-binary author who doesn’t identify as female (or male) being nominated for what apparently should be a woman-only award. What I find distasteful in this whole debacle is how for many, their concerns seem less genuine and more like ‘aha, we got you now’. There seemed to be less people who were bothered about them potentially being misgendered and more of people who felt that Akwaeke accepting being longlisted for the award invalidated their identity as a non-binary person. Throughout the debacle, it didn’t seem many people asked Akwaeke why they were okay with being longlisted for the award, rather people – mostly cisgendered people – were telling a non-binary person what they should and shouldn’t be accepting. Forgetting that gender and how it is expressed in and by each person is more fluid than we think it is.
Following the original Guardian article which announced Akwaeke being longlisted, another Guardian article was written seemingly in response to the outrage caused by a non-binary writer being longlisted. This article was written by one of the judges and stated that originally Akwaeke used ‘she/they’ pronouns and implied that Akwaeke was female as at writing Freshwater. A claim Akwaeke rejected violently and addressed on Twitter.
I won’t claim to know why Akwaeke accepted being longlisted for the Women’s Prize. However, I know better to invalidate certain parts of or make certain assumptions about a person’s identity.
so. there's been a second @guardian article floating around, written by one of the women's prize judges. i'm not sharing it for several reasons, most glaring of which is that it claims i 'identified as female' when my book came out. this is wildly untrue.
— akwaeke emezi (@azemezi) March 6, 2019
What is the lesson to be learnt here? That people – cis people – should stop speaking over trans/non-binary people especially when it comes to their own gender identity and should do better than attempt to exclude trans and non-binary people from spaces that were created to fight exclusion like the Women’s Prize.
Vincent Desmond is a writer and journalist who mostly covers fashion, identity and pop culture.
He can be found on Instagram @vincentdesmond_