I’m Not Here, But I’m Not There Either
Akwaeke Emezi’s "The Death of Vivek Oji" presents queerness as a personal, liminal space completely free of heteronormativity
The Indian Government decriminalized queer sex a little over two years ago. The law— section 377 of the Indian Penal code, a remnant of imperial rule—defined “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” as punishable. The loose language of the code left it open to interpretation, and therefore open to misuse. Now, though the law has been repealed, queerness is still considered abnormal. My family members call it “unnatural.” There exist no human rights for the queer community, and as a whole my country is unable to accept queerness. Consequently, even though I have accepted my own sexual and gender fluidity theoretically, I continue to promise my mother that I will marry a man. I propel heteronormative patriarchy and push its violent agenda forward because I am afraid.
Nigeria is another such country where queerness is criminalized, rejected and feared. Akwaeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji, published in 2020, battles with transphobia and queerphobia in the Nigerian community. Emezi’s genderqueer protagonist, Vivek Nnemdi Oji, dies on the very first page and inhabits the afterlife, speaking to the reader from the beyond, but even as he lives, he is not part of the center, the “real,” the concrete. Vivek existed in liminal spaces even before his death, having never fully been part of the living world. He is used to being marginal.
When Vivek is 11, he is sent to an all-boys military school where he is frequently assaulted, both physically and sexually. He starts diving into fugue states in which he “would become very, very still, just stop moving while the world continued around [him].” As Vivek grows up and goes to college, a lack of community, love, and empathy drives Vivek into depression. The first time I read the book, self-isolating during the pandemic, I believed Vivek’s suffering resulted from his queerness. I questioned Emezi’s representation of genderqueer identity as a sickness because I considered Vivek’s fugues a consequence of his genderfluidity, in addition to the physical and mental abuse he suffers at the hands of the seniors at the all-boys boarding school. But as I delved deeper into queer theory and Emezi’s writing and reread the book, I understood that Vivek’s fugues are not a representation nor a symptom of his genderqueerness. Rather, they represent a safe space for him, a manifestation of his spirituality. The violence perpetrated against him is a symptom of the diseased society that surrounds him; it’s not connected with his queerness. His fugue states are a medium of communication between Vivek and his grandmother, Ahunna. Vivek is Ahunna reincarnate. Ahunna dies the day Vivek is born with a “dark brown patch shaped like a limp starfish” on his foot, just like the one on Ahunna’s foot, making Vivek two spirited—both a man and a woman.
When Vivek declares to his cousin and male lover, Osita, “I am homeless,” we are inclined to think that homelessness is the price of queerness in societies like mine and Vivek’s, and that the ultimate goal of queerness (read queerness as the umbrella term for all forms of divergent existence based especially on sexuality and gender) is to fight its way to the dominant center. Whereas “[q]ueerness is an ideality” as José Esteban Muñoz writes in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer-Futurity and like all idealities, queerness is yet to be fully achieved, will always be yet-to-be-fully-achieved and hence eternally homeless. “We may never touch queerness,” Muñoz writes, “but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Emezi teaches us that that “horizon imbued with potentiality” is not the margin of society, not a mirage at the end of the world. It already exists in the in-between. Vivek’s homelessness is a metaphor for his lack of a spiritual home. But it’s the liminal spaces he occupies—gender fluidity, his fugues, stolen moments with his friends and lover, and the spirit world writ large—that allow him to live a full life and actualize his queerness.
Vivek’s chosen community consists of children of Nigerwives—foreigners who had married Nigerian men. Vivek’s chosen family protects and loves him passionately. The safe space “the girls”—Juju, Elizabeth, Olunne, and Somto—provide for Vivek allows him to more fully develop his gender expression. Vivek begins wearing dresses and eyeliner; he also paints his toenails and lips red. He asks his friends to call him Nnemdi, the name Ahunna had wanted to give to her granddaughter. Vivek often goes to the local market as Nnemdi, until one day a riot breaks out and the whole market is burnt down.
I instantly fell in love with the fluid, the most beautyful Vivek. Vivek’s matted tangles falling below his shoulder blades, sometimes knotted in a bun atop his head, his loose curls of hair—a cause of concern for his family—continue to entice and haunt me. Vivek’s beauty fills me with desire, just like it does Osita. The moments that Osita and Vivek spend together are ephemeral, but they occupy a lifetime. Each time I read Osita’s words, “I died at [Vivek’s] mouth,” I die too, and I understand that as much as I love Vivek, it’s my curse to be Osita—a person afraid of being himself, a person who gives up on love and happiness in order to be accepted by the heteronormative dominant society.
When Osita hates himself and his own queerness, Vivek holds Osita, releases him from his agony, gives him pleasure, and calms him. The “abnormal” love between the two breaks me even as it heals me; it confuses me, confounds me, mirrors my tiny existence, but also expands it beyond the scope of this universe. That Vivek can speak to me from the spirit world, that he has become a spirit and is now light and free, untethered to this realm of humans, proves to me that liminal spaces are more real than any concrete reality.
But then I descend into my own reality, and I hear my dad say that Vijay, my best friend who is a gay man, will become normal, that I should marry Vijay, that we can beat it out of him, as if “it” is a demon that lives inside Vijay, very much like the demon Vivek’s aunty—Osita’s mother—tries to beat out of him. I don’t think my father actually means any sort of harm; Vijay and I often laugh at my father’s homophobia because beating kids is an often-joked-about phenomenon in north Indian households. But a larger truth lurks behind these statements: heteronormativity is the way.
Heteronormativity functions on a timeline where an individual must achieve milestones set by the society: get a degree, find a job, get married and then have kids. Perpetuate the cycle. Editors David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz of What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now? argue that queer politics is also falling prey to a standard of normativity, creating a phenomenon which has been labeled by Lisa Duggan, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, as homonormativity. Eng et al describe homonormativity as the political pursuit of gay marriage in the Western society “while rhetorically remapping and recoding freedom and liberation in narrow terms of privacy, domesticity, and the unfettered ability to consume in the ‘free’ market.” Any form of normativity “collaborates with a mainstreamed nationalist politics of identity, entitlement, inclusion, and personal responsibility” and overlooks “capitalist exploitation and domination, state violence and expansion, and religious fundamentalisms and hate.” And homonormativity is no different in its pursuit of a place within the dominant construct.
The day section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalized, I WhatsApp-called Vijay and congratulated him. I still thought the victory to be more important, more relevant to him. I still thought I was more straight than queer. While books were my safe space, the predominantly white literary world seemed to be rejecting me, and now there was another world that I was trying to get into but thought I didn’t really belong in. Being Indian, my fears were dual—I feared would never be able to experience the sweet fruits of homonormativity, and I feared that only homosexuality is queer. I thought that everyone else, including me, was just pretending. If I could be attracted to men at all, then I was not queer; if I had not slept with women, femmes, dykes, gender-nonconformists, then I was not really queer. Now I realize that I was in search of not queerness but queer domesticity. Much like the Western liberal politics lamented by Eng et al, I had limited my queerness to a form of domesticity that mirrored heteronormative ideals of marriage and rearing a family.
In the equation set by normative ideals, home is mistaken as domesticity. Riots and political unrest in Nigeria of the late 90s form the backdrop for the present day story of Vivek Oji. The reader and the characters assume that the cause of Vivek’s death is a hate crime, an inevitable end brought about by not having a place in the society. But Vivek dies of more liminal causes: unacceptance from his family, and Osita’s fear of Vivek’s two-spiritedness. The lack of such love causes the loss of a spiritual home. Emezi writes in their debut memoir Dear Senthuran, “I’ve been thinking about these earthly homes less as homes and more as places of origin for our embodied forms.” The chapter titled “Home|Dear Jahra ” describes Emezi’s struggle to find their way back to their deity mother, Ala, the Earth goddess, who takes the form of a snake. Vivek’s journey is similar to Emezi’s—a move away from “earthly homes,” and towards spiritual ones. Vivek never wants any form of domesticity. Rather he wants and finds home in his love for Osita, in his own corporeal existence as Nnemdi, in his best friend Juju and finally in the spirit world.
I want to relate with Vivek; I want to search and desire a true home. But instead I relate with Juju and Osita.They echo my fears. Juju is “scared that [either her girlfriend or she] would wake up someday and decide [the other] was tired of being with a girl.” On the other hand, Osita pines for normativity; hopes his love for Vivek proves to be an anomaly. He hides the relationship from everyone, even after his lover dies in his arms. He locks his queerness inside of himself.
Despite their fears, Juju and Osita love in the most queer ways possible. After Vivek’s death, in order to relieve each other of their grief, Juju and Osita have sex; arguably this act is not queer, as it’s strictly between a man and a woman, but it is an act of manifestation, an exercise to bring Vivek into existence. Vivek watches them from beyond, and achieves the peak of his happiness:
[T]hey were so beautiful together. I put my hands on the small of her back and on the stretch of his chest. I kissed the sweat of her neck and his stomach.
They were keeping me alive in the sweetest way they knew how.
The homage Osita and Juju pay Vivek shows that queer time is magical. It doesn’t need to function linearly. Non-linear time and liminal spaces are often seen as purgatories, transitory spaces of suffering through which one must pass to reach the final destination but queerness finds safety in transition, in purgatory. The dominant construct assumes that everyone desires to be the center, but queerness expands into spaces where no center is needed. Emezi says in an interview with Electric Literature that Osita lives “very much in this world with all its limitations,” and that is a character flaw that proves to be fatal for his lover. Vivek lives a much fuller life in a world that expands beyond the corporeal. Vivek, in his true spiritual and corporeal self, embodies the ideality that Muñoz says we might never achieve, but even he achieves it after his death. In a mortal life, I may not be able to achieve the peak happiness that Vivek finally achieves, but I also do not want to make the same mistakes as Osita’s. I am searching for something between domesticity and queer ideality. Meanwhile I read writers like Emezi and through their stories, I live multiple lifetimes and idealities. For even as Emezi’s words highlight the loss of queer domesticity from my life, a loss that burns bright, they also give me hope that my queerness will inhabit liminal spaces of my own making.