Why Akwaeke Emezi Killed Their Main Character on Page One
In "The Death of Vivek Oji," death and suffering aren't the same thing
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Akwaeke Emezi’s work continues to get wide acclaim for the fresh perspectives, differentiated structures, and succinct, palpable narratives they bring with every book. Their latest, The Death of Vivek Oji, continues to show Emezi’s dexterity as a writer and their keen focus as an artist. In Vivek Oji we are introduced to a wide community. The saying “it takes a village” is clear here through the relationships Vivek has with his family and friends as well as those he touches throughout his life. While the outcome for Vivek is not a secret—it is in the title and his passing occurs on page one—his death is a driving force for many to face a truth they ignored while Vivek was on this earth. We meet Vivek, his parents, Chita and Kavita, his cousin Osita, the Nigerwives and the extended community in Nigeria where blood family and made family come together to help build a life and provide support in ways others weren’t able to. Emezi’s latest book encourages readers to pay attention to who we focus on as readers and what characters like Vivek are telling us.
I spoke with Emezi about the origins of Vivek Oji’s stories, the importance of the prominence of queer characters, and how confinement versus awareness comes into play for characters within their new novel.
Jennifer Baker: In regards to the title—The Death of Vivek Oji—I thought about the presence of death as an inciting incident in some works. Vivek’s story is not just about his death. We get to hear from so many people in this book including Vivek and those who make Vivek’s life full. Do you feel like death was a necessary signifier in this story or is it really about Vivek’s life? And can we explore one without the other?
Akwaeke Emezi: The reason why the book was structured like that and named that was actually a craft reason. After I had written Freshwater, I had written Vivek in 2016, and I was trying to figure out a way to challenge myself because I’m a Gemini. As a book it has to be interesting, otherwise I will get bored halfway and I just won’t get to the end of writing it.
It was honestly hard to follow up Freshwater. It was like “Okay, well, you’ve already done this thing with form in your first book. What are you going to do in your second book that is going to be more or equally as interesting, or just challenging perhaps as what [you] did with Freshwater?” And I had just dropped out of an MFA program, and in the program we had read Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And I had done a Toni Morrison seminar in which we read my favorite novel of hers, Love. I loved it because Love as a book is so opaque up until the end. The last maybe 20, 30 pages is when everything suddenly clicks into place. And with Chronicle of a Death Foretold I was fascinated with the fact that Marquez could kill his main character in the beginning of the book and still have an entire book. That seemed really difficult to do. So I was like, “What if I combined these two things?” What if I start with a main character who dies at the beginning, and then I write backwards, and I also keep it opaque until near the end of the book, which is basically being structured like a mystery which is how Morrison structured her book. And that’s actually how I ended up with the book being that way was because I wanted to write something backwards.
Jennifer: I love that form because it makes us do more work as readers.
Akwaeke: I’m always a fan of giving the readers work.
Jennifer: As I was reading I realized I didn’t care if I knew how Vivek died because I cared so much about Vivek. I cared whether or not Vivek found a semblance of self before he left this earth. My question as a reader became: Was Vivek happy?
Akwaeke: I love that so much! That’s actually really reassuring to hear because I worried a lot with the book about essentially killing off a queer character. And I worried about the book coming out and people saying “Oh, well, you’re leaning on this problematic trope or whatever.” But my other queer frineds who read the book were like, “This is not about that at all.” They said “He’s so alive in the book.” There’s so much more there. So that was really assuring to know that he was alive in the book, in the work, and that was the thing that readers would really connect with in that sense.
You can’t do anything about death. It’s going to show up when it shows up. I have conversations with my friends often about how I don’t have a problem with death, I have a problem with suffering. Death is fine. Death is natural. What most people identify with the trauma of death is really about suffering. Was this person suffering before they died? The people left behind, are they suffering? It’s really a question of suffering. And I think there was something that is important in Vivek’s life: how suffering is managed. A lot of the early reviews because Vivek is queer it’s like, “Oh, he’s suffering because he’s queer.” No he’s not. He’s got a bunch of spiritual stuff that’s difficult for him, but it’s not about his identity in a sense.
Jennifer: I agree with you, I just never saw it as suffering being queer, I saw it as suffering to perform. I thought about fight or flight and sometimes there’s this kind of “play dead” mentality where someone doesn’t say anything. He’s not lying but he’s going into myself and silent as a form of protection. And Vivek seemed to realize that pretty quickly as a way to manage being around his family.
Akwaeke: And the thing that I just realized as you were talking is that if there’s anyone who is suffering due to their queerness it’s actually [Vivek’s cousin] Osita. And no one ever focuses on that. That just kind of slides under their radar because he presents as “normal.” He doesn’t present as “deviant” in the ways that Vivek does [to others], but Vivek is actually the self-actualized one. And Osita is the one really having a lot of suffering based on not being okay with who he is.
Jennifer: Where do you think that comes from? Vivek and Osita were fairly close as young people, as cousins. I’m curious how two men who grow up together, practically brothers, and one is more assured and the other is hiding?
Akwaeke: I feel like because Vivek is having kind of a different spiritual experience than Osita. The dedication of Freshwater is “to those of us with one foot on the other side.” And Vivek is one of those. Vivek is here but also not here. He has these spiritual episodes. He’s connected to something else. And I think that gives him that sort of a detachment where he thinks this is not real. Or he thinks it doesn’t matter. He’s floating outside of this reality a bit. And Osita is not. Osita is very much in this world with all the limitations, with all the expectations of what he’s supposed to perform and who he’s supposed to be. So he takes that on harder than Vivek does because Vivek is floating. And Vivek has one foot on the other side. And that actually gives him a freedom that Osita doesn’t really have.
Now that I think about it, I’ve been pushing back in the last couple of months ever since review copies have come out, against this narrative that Vivek is living an inauthentic life. Which is bullshit quite honestly. Or that Vivek is not facing his true self. It makes no sense to me because he is actually the only person who is facing his true self and is tapping into that and is exploring that even when people don’t see it. He sees himself. And he can look at himself. That’s a quality that is really important is the ability to look at oneself. I also think I wanted to write them in contrast to each other because seeing how Osita can’t look at himself, in comparison to how easy Vivek looks at himself. I think their presence helps you see them clearly if they’re standing next to each other.
Jennifer: You’re very concise in your work. You let us in and also you don’t over-explain. This allows me to appreciate those small snippets that cater to what you’re talking about. Vivek’s moments are so tightly written and that’s all I needed as a reader because Vivek knows who Vivek is. I know you can’t explain other readers’ reading habits, but I am curious about how you are so succinct in your writing.
Akwaeke: I think of it often as centers. What center are you creating the work from? And Vivek is at the center of writing this story about him. Which, honestly, I think people are not used to. The idea that he can be at the center and not say as much as other people are saying. There’s not a lot of him compared in the ratio of his chapters to other chapters. But, what’s interesting to me, is that it does test the reader because then the question is: Are you listening to Vivek? You listened to him and all you needed is that one thing because he says it very clearly. And he is very clear, he’s just not as verbose in the book.
I don’t know if people are used to actually centering a queer character rather than centering everyone around him. Because you can read the book and you can listen to everyone around Vivek or you can listen to Vivek, and you get two completely different experiences of the work that way. If you’re listening to everyone around Vivek then there’s a lot that isn’t clear because they don’t see him. And there is a lot that’s assumed or guessed. But if you’re listening to Vivek himself and if you focus on him amidst all the noise then everything, to me, is quite clear. And I think that’s in exercise in centering, not just in this work but in the world, in centering queer kids. Are you listening to the person? Not to their parents. Not to other people’s perceptions of them. Can you cut through all of that and actually listen to them? That’s huge in deciding what actual support looks like. It’s huge in just telling these stories because the person’s story is often different from the story that people around them have that’s based in fear.
Jennifer: That feeds into my next question about support systems and who we’re hearing from in this book. Those support systems are so key to Vivek to not only be aware of who he is, but to actually live and express himself to people who recognize it. In building these other characters did you already have a sense of who Vivek’s community would be?
Akwaeke: I think the rest of the community. The Nigerwives, that’s a real organization. My mom was a member, my mom still technically is a member. But that’s the community I grew up with was all these aunties from all these different countries and all these kids. And we lived in a very specific bubble, especially our early years. Our worlds were very different from our mothers and their cultures and the community that they had deliberately built in this country that was foreign to them. So I wanted to put Vivek in that community because I think it’s interesting, it’s not in a big city like Lagos or Abuja. It’s in a small little commercial town in Nigeria, it’s such a little niche subculture. As I was writing the book it made sense that these children would have their own private worlds. And that would actually hold together as they got older. And this idea of a private world that the parents didn’t have access to. I think that pushes back in some ways against this very Western idea that if you’re queer you have to come out and be loud & proud. And that’s the only way your life is deemed authentic and real and all your problems go away because now you’re out & proud. That’s not true. That’s a very specific narrative, and I wanted to write this world that’s more private.
It’s not that Vivek is hiding out of shame or anything. He just has a private life. And the idea of these queer characters having enough agency to decide that they want to stay in their own world, with their centers and they’re not going to expend the energy to try and get to try and their parents to see them. They’re going to just stay with each other where they’re safe, where they’re loved. I think that’s radical in a sense. So much of how we treat queer people in this world is that “you have to intergrate into the rest of the world,” “you have to explain,” “you have to fight for your place.”
And I think the book asks, what does it look like to not need that? That outside validation. To find it among your own people. And to stay within that support system and to know that is an equally valid form of family. That you’re loved and you’re seen and you’re able to live express yourself. And that shifts centers for readers who are used to the center being in this “mainstream” to reject that belief, and to say, “It doesn’t actually matter if you see me or whether you understand me because I have people who already do. I’m good. I already have my world. I’m steady in this world.” And that is why I pushed so hard for Vivek to stay at the center of readings of this work because it’s not just as innocuous as “You know every reader has their own perspectives…” But those perspectives are informed by something. And often when we’re talking about queer characters and queer people it’s informed by violence, it’s informed by violence that says “If you don’t follow this path of, ‘well come out and be loud & proud, make sense to us, make yourself legible to us’ then you’re not truly a true life.” And you’re pathologized. I push back against this because that’s harmful to real people in real time. The center is the queer people, and we’re in our center, and we’re good. It doesn’t have to be legible to you. Vivek doesn’t have to be legible. But you will respect that center as valid.