On Queer Privilege and Music in Sacrament of Bodies: Romeo Oriogun, in conversation with Logan February

(The following is an excerpt from a Zoom conversation between Nigerian poets, Oriogun and February, from Iowa, USA, and Lagos, Nigeria, respectively. Read the full transcript here.)


Logan February

Okay. I want to start with a question of beauty. Beauty is one of the problems of this book [Sacrament of Bodies], philosophically. In a poem called ‘At Udi’, the speaker says: “Lord, is beauty the only way / through which we can protest?” It thought it was a beautiful line and also such a deep question. Many of the poems in this book are pretty dark and fearful and lonely, but there’s always this orientation towards beauty, and always remembering to look for the music and look for the flowers. That question really stood out to me, so I was hoping you could tell me what you think of that.

Romeo Oriogun

First of all, there’s this notion that if you’re a queer person doing art, you have to be super good. Like, there’s no average, if you’re average you get left behind. Because already it’s a space that’s not designed for queer voices, especially the Nigerian literary space—maybe now, there’s a lot of room for queer voices. And that testifies to a lot of work people have done in the past, from Chinelo, to yourself, to Frankie, a lot of people. It testifies to the strength of our voices. But in the past, when I was writing, you had to be super good.

And I was thinking about the whole thing, what it means to be super good and to be presentable. You look at queerness in Nigeria, and you look at everyone who is a “pioneer” whether in the arts, fashion, journalism; there’s this idea that you just have to be either super smart, or really funny—like, beauty in different forms. Especially also, bodily beauty. It’s almost like when you’re beautiful, you’re “permitted” to be. I started asking this question about myself, after Brunel. So, I’m bi, right? And women would be like, “oh, I wouldn’t have sex with a bisexual dude. But Romeo, you’re different.” What was different about me?

It gave me this idea, like, “Wait, is beauty the only way we’re permitted to live? Is beauty the only true way we can be seen?” I think that poem was me trying to question if one’s voice can be heard…because I feel there’s a total sidelining of a lot of things. For example, I go on Twitter, and people are mocking James Brown. Even within the queer community.

 

LF

Yeah.

RO

It’s a lot of mockery going on. He’s trying to act as if he’s beautiful, he’s trying to speak English, bla-bla-blah. It’s a lot, even within queer spaces. It always begs a question. Same thing with Bobrisky, before she became this rich and “confirmed celebrity,” there was also a mockery of her accent, like oh can you speak good English, and all of that. There’s a way the world has conditioned us to see ourselves. Before you can speak you have to be beautiful. And we internalise that standard, it’s now the way through which we move through the world. I’m totally tired of it. Where is space for the common person in all of this? Like the common queer person who is not considered beautiful or wealthy.

LF

Freedom isn’t something that should be afforded to us just because we’re “presentable.” That’s not freedom.

RO

Yeah. I feel like the poem was really questioning that. And I always aspire, just like you said, in a lot of my poems I aspire to a certain level of beauty, whether it’s through language, affects or whatever. That poem was actually one of the last ones in the manuscript. It was written when I was in the US , while I was in Boston and thinking about a memory of Udi. Because I became really aware in Boston, of the privilege of having this body, this very masculine-presenting body, where people see you as one ideal idea of queerness, and see someone like James Brown as a person to be despised because of his affects, and accent. All these things, I’m always questioning. How and where I stand in my own privilege. And how to move.

LF

Speaking about privilege—I think this is a conversation we might have had before, but I was wondering if you could say a bit about your thoughts on privilege, in terms of freedom, and social class. Wealth versus a lack of wealth, how do you think that informs the freedom to be, as a queer person in Nigeria?

RO

I always find it difficult to talk about queerness in Nigeria in its present state. I feel these spaces are very fluid, and I’ve been out of Nigeria for about three years now. So I’m always careful speaking about it, but I’ll try.

I think my first experience of queerness with a certain kind of queer freedom was in Abuja, after Brunel, when I was invited to a party. It was strictly just queer people, having fun, in Abuja. I was like, is this possible? All my life I’d aspired to this freedom, and here it was possible. That was the first time I realised the discrepancies between queer people in Nigeria, and the idea of how privilege works. Because if you have money and you stay in a fancy apartment in Lagos, or your family belongs to a certain middle-class or upper-class, it means you can function well. But not everyone, to be honest. It’s why speaking about privilege in queer spaces is always a double-edged sword.

It’s easy to think that having money will insulate you from certain things. But I’ve had friends who are from rich families, and are now disowned, and they have to survive on their own. Without access. The worst thing is maybe not having a university education, so you don’t even know where to begin. You have to start life anew and do what you have to do if you want to have this freedom of being, even if “there’s money.” So it’s a double-edged sword talking about privilege.

That being said, for the lower-class people in Nigeria, queerness is just this weight to carry. How do you survive and how do you love someone, in a space where it’s not—even for “heterosexuals”—it’s not a conducive space to live. For someone who is  gay, how do you survive that kind of space, how are you even free? It’s something I always keep thinking about, right from someone sending me pictures of queer people beaten in a village, I think it was in Imo or Anambra. It’s this idea of queer freedom and class and how they intersect our lives.

It’s really funny because it’s different, from age to age. I’ve also seen two gay men marrying two lesbian women, to just live in the same house and no one says anything to them. But they need to have the money to do that. Money affords you a freedom of being; not a total freedom, but it makes you feel freer than the average queer person. It’s this weird intersection of wealth with everything. But I’ll say this: even in wealthy spaces, there are total exceptions. Among poor spaces, there are also exceptions. Because my siblings have been so wonderful, they’ve been great. I was speaking to my half-brother, telling him how one of the reasons I kept running from home was this issue of acceptance, and he was like, who cares?

You can be from the lower class and get accepted. It’s a weird intersection, to be honest. Money makes things easy, but at the same time, it might not be easy. I used to be very angry at the thought of rich queer people having life so easy, but right now…that’s the thing about meeting people. You meet a lot of people and you start realising that for young queer people from rich households, it might be super difficult. It’s a weird space to be in, not a space to just wake up in the morning and say: “I know what happens here.”

LF

Absolutely. But I think that money and wealth is a just basis for inequality across contexts, although it doesn’t entirely insulate anyone from everything.

RO

What I’m always kicking against is people insisting on a vast difference between rich queer people and poor queer people. Yes, there is a difference, just like everything with class. But for young people—and I’m really invested in young queer people, because I feel like the revolution is happening…

LF

In those spaces. Yes.

RO

The young queer spaces. Like, people are online, exhibiting this very crazy freedom that five years ago was not really possible. I’m really invested in that space. And so, for young people, the issue of acceptance is very complicated, and it’s deeper than wealth.

LF

It’s very intrinsic.

RO

So I’m always careful not to say that wealth insulates. When it comes to adults, it’s a whole different meaning. But for young people I try to be careful.

LF

That makes a lot of sense, actually. For a young person, especially with experiences like mine, when you’re in that formative stage, the distinction is important.

RO

Yeah. So I’m always careful. I wonder, at what stage did we propagate this myth that young queer people who belong to rich households have it easy? Because they get forgotten in the struggle.

LF

I think about that. It must be so alienating to not even feel like you’re part of the struggle that you’re going through.

RO

I feel like, queer privilege, especially in Nigeria, those aren’t words to be thrown around lightly without asking oneself, what does it really mean? The world we live in right now, I have a certain privilege of existing, more than people who live in “rich” households. Of course I’d be lying to consider myself a poor person anymore, but even when I was in Nigeria, I was free. Like, even at the height of the Brunel thing, I could go to my siblings’ place and sleep, without thinking of anybody chasing me out.

LF

Right, not everyone has that.

RO

So the idea of queer freedom, it’s a very interesting one that I feel has evolved with me over time, the more I think about it. So I’m careful to say that money insulates people or belonging to a certain class insulates your experience. Because I have friends right now, who are on the streets of different cities in Nigeria, who belong to rich households but have been kicked out, and are just trying to survive. I mean, people would come online and still say this person is wealthy, bla-bla-blah, and therefore not deserving of help, which I think is very wrong. One of my greatest beliefs is that everything, every issue can be held in tension, as long as it’s not an issue against humanity. As long as it’s not that, it can totally be held in tension and I’m always careful about that.

LF

I agree with you, I think it’s a sign of emotional and intellectual maturity. This is such a good talk. I have a few more questions and then we can wrap up soon. You referred to this exclusive queer party in Abuja that you were at, and how that was such a cool experience. I think you wrote about that in a poem called ‘Pink Club’.

RO

Yeah, I did.

LF

It was very fascinating to me, and I share the sentiment of being amazed when you find that kind of space where you feel like it’s actually possible, and you don’t have to be in some other country to experience this. There are these lines: “You are laughing because this is strange, / because the first time you heard about this club / you thought about the boy who met love on Facebook, / who walked through his fear to meet a lynching / in a dark street, who couldn’t report to the police / because a gay man is a fire waiting to happen.” This might be a bit of a sensitive question, but I want to ask about the recurrent imagery of fire and burning in your poems. Your very first volume was a digital chapbook titled ‘Burnt Men’.

 

RO

Yes.

LF

Could you tell me a bit about that? What does fire mean to you, as a symbol?

RO

People have asked me this question. People have also attacked me for painting Nigeria as this barbaric place, and all of that. But my first experience with homophobia was seeing a man beaten to death and burnt, in Benin. I was 10 or 11.

LF

Wow, that young?

RO

I was that young. I was also at a stage where I was trying to understand what my body was doing. Because growing up, there was this intense desire for boys and it kind of changed as soon as I was a teen. So I was wondering what was happening. Then we were coming from school and there was this dude, at this place where we normally rented bicycles from. This person was just being beaten, because they said he slept with this other guy. He was just being beaten and beaten. And just the way a lot of mobs work, someone brought out a tyre and placed it over him. From nowhere, someone brought fuel, and before we knew it, this guy was already burning. And there’s this image of a gay body, also, as very fitting for Hellfire.

LF

Even the historical idea of what a “faggot” is, is related to burning, right?

RO

Yeah, something to put on a fire.

LF

I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you, as a kid.

RO

It was a crazy experience. It really shaped my formative years.

LF

Really fucking traumatic.

RO

It was. And I think, more than traumatic, it was like, dude, you have to be properly hidden in that closet. When I started writing in response to homophobia—which was in 2016, I think in February, while I was working in Ikare, which was basically two hours away from Ondo where this guy was lynched to death. We heard it on the radio and my colleagues were just laughing. These were road safety officers who were supposed to preserve law and order, just laughing and saying this person deserved being killed.

I realised there was really no safety for queer bodies. So I went home and wrote this poem. But what was crazy was, when I was writing, it stopped being about Olubunmi at a certain point, and it became about this person who was burnt to death when I was growing up. It was the image that was coming up, this nameless gay man who was beaten on the streets of Benin and then burnt to death. And then going to church and always hearing that queer bodies are meant for fire, you’re going to burn in hell if you love a man, bla-bla-blah.

When I think about queer danger, those are the two images that surface in my head: it’s the man burning, and the body in hell. Those are the ultimate meanings of queer danger to me. It’s quite funny, because unknowingly to me, that has been the image that comes to me when I think about danger, even if I’m in a safe space or whatever. I think of what could happen and I don’t think of someone slapping me, I think about someone burning me. It’s always somehow unconsciously been there, at the back of my head.

LF

We could get into what all that means, but it’s quite clear that such images, especially at an age like that, they just stay with you. And it must be such a heavy thing to carry. But you write about it so eloquently and—I’m wary of saying you write about it beautifully, because, I don’t know, what does beauty do to something like that?

RO

I’m always questioning this idea of beauty. I mean, one must always strive for beauty, right?

LF

There’s this tension between striving for beauty versus the idea that beauty is almost a hopeless affair.

RO

Yeah. I just feel like—because I’ve been accused of being a formalist, and I’m always thinking about it—people have been like, oh you’re writing about this, but why are you writing about it so formally? And beautifully? It’s two different things, and they might be in tension sometimes. Because the funny thing, which I feel people don’t really understand, is that a body burning is beautiful.

LF

(Laughs) I don’t know about that.

RO

No, but I’m serious. I’m dead serious right now. For a long time, it has really been a conflicting image in my head. And there’s a line in my book where I wrote that “a burning man is so bright / it brings envy into the eyes of God.” To be honest, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a body on fire. Growing up, I grew up in Benin where a thief is just like…you burn the person to death, and all that. I’ve seen someone burning before the River Niger in Onitsha.

LF

Wow.

RO

And it was like, I was terrified, but at the same time, there was this great fire blazing before the water.

LF

Yeah, I think I understand what you mean.

RO

It’s one of those mysteries that I keep rubbing against my head.

LF

I feel it’s such a grotesque image, but there’s nothing else that could really compare to that.

RO

Yeah. Have you seen these burning monks? Like, pictures of burning monks.

LF

I saw a video of a monk on fire once. I was like, what is going on here? But I couldn’t look away.

RO

That’s the thing I keep thinking about.

LF

I think it’s just an image that’s incredibly compelling. No two ways about it. I wonder what that says about everything else, though.

RO

It’s funny, but that’s life, right? I think, actively, I’ve been pushing against this idea of beauty as a refuge. How do you hide queer trauma in beauty? Because that’s always the go-to for queer people, beauty is always this place to hide queerness, queer suffering, queer pain and everything. And it’s like that with the burning image: it’s like the worst idea of queer trauma, but also a place to hide queer beauty. It’s just crazy.

LF

I think that’s part of the wonder of poetry, in that it’s a space where all of those conflicts can be held together.

RO

Yeah.

LF

So, your work also features another recurrent image, of music and song.

RO

Thank you! You’re the first person that’s saying that.

LF

Yeah. What does that mean to you, as a queer person, but also as a poet, because there is a musicality to your writing. And just as an individual, what does music mean to you?

RO

Some of my best musicians are griots. Like Sona Jobarteh, Kandia Kouyate, Ali Farka Toure, Mory Kante; all these people are some of my favorite musicians. And I like them because the idea of a griot is a poet who sings, right? A poet who sings, a poet who keeps records. I don’t know if there’s anything in the English language that has the power of that word.

I think for me, there’s this aspiration. I can only aspire, I don’t think I can ever be that. I’ve watched some of them in performance, and for me it’s one of the highest forms of poetry. I can’t begin to describe the experience where poetry meets music, meets history, meets mysticism. It’s just breathtaking. So when I write poetry, I write with a lot of music. It’s like, since I can’t be a griot, I can try and see if the music can find its way into the poems. Although my poems are very descriptive, there’s also a musicality I seek for. What holds a poem that reads like a story? And what’s the difference between a flash fiction and a poem? I’m asking myself these questions as I write, and always aspiring.

Songs mean a lot to me. I totally believe everyday begins with a song, that the world wakes up with songs. It’s a vital part of being human. It says a lot that you might not be able to read a poem in Spanish or Arabic. But you can listen to songs in those languages and feel transformed immediately. I read some poems in Seaview, Washington, sometime last year. And this Arab lady said: “I couldn’t really understand what you were reading; I’m just learning English. But I could feel it.” It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever had in my life, because that’s my aspiration. I’m totally taken in by these people.

LF

I don’t remember which philosopher or critic wrote about this, but it’s been said that pretty much all art aspires to the condition of music, the beauty and seamlessness of it. I think I do agree with that. I want to talk about one more of your lines, which jumps out to me. It’s from the last poem in the book, ‘After A Blackout’, which recounts a certain event, and finds you coming out of what you felt was the end. I found that very important. The line says: “Those who still have a voice still have hope, / still know a place is home, still know the road is just a road.” It was really beautiful. I guess I’d like to find out: what are your thoughts on hope?

RO

That’s the fear of what you write and how it gets interpreted, right? For me, I think every poem shouts for hope. I mean, the fact that I could write was a reach for a certain kind of hope. Even in the most traumatic events, it’s what sees humanity through. A reach for hope, a belief that this is just a phase, a stage. And I’m always, at the end of the day, trying to remember that. I think about poetry that way.

The new-wave Polish poets who I’m so taken by, even Mahmoud Darwish, you read about these people who have gone through extreme hardship, extreme trauma. Someone like Paul Celan, for example. You read not just their poetry—one thing about me is once I’m taken by a writer, I try to read about their life and what informs their poetic voice and their occupation. And you see those people who have gone through so much trauma, still always return to hope and wonder.

LF

Yeah.

RO

For me, that’s always on my mind. It was a very conscious decision to have that as the last poem.

LF

I thought it must have been. It was quite beautiful.

RO

Thank you. It was a conscious decision because I didn’t want people to go through the book, and then leave with this very dark sense that everything is lost. No. That’s not what I’m aspiring for, at all. I want to say, in these multiple poems that deal with desire, fear, trauma and everything, there’s always hope. Which might not sometimes be what we want, or what we see.

Hope, it’s a complex thing. It’s crazy because when I was in Boston, Mitch Manning, who teaches at UMass, was telling me about a Consequence Magazine series he edited. He was telling me there was this project between Iraqi poets and American poets to write about the war. And the Iraqi poets were writing strictly about love. The American poets, of course, were writing about soldiers shooting up things. And it showed that they hadn’t lived through that life. It’s such a powerful story. I keep going back to it whenever I’m in despair. The ability to still reach for a certain hope, in love, in being. It’s what keeps us sane, at the end of the day.

LF

Yeah. It does keep us sane, in situations that seem absolutely bleak and just like there’s no way out. I also think of it in terms of even this time we are living through, where the whole world is confused. A lot of people think that hope is illogical right now. But that’s what I keep saying to everyone, whatever you can find to keep your faith and have hope, that’s what you need. Because I think this will pass.

RO

Yes. I agree with you totally. Hope is all we have.

 

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