LEILA FADEL, HOST:
There are a lot of Pride Month reading lists out there right now, and yes, you should absolutely read "Giovanni's Room" if you haven't already, but we wanted to go beyond the classics and maybe find some new classics. So we've invited author Akwaeke Emezi to tell us about a few books they love, beginning with a coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria in the 1960s. They spoke with our co-host, Noel King.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: I want to ask you about your first pick. This is Chinelo Okparanta's novel "Under The Udala Trees," and it's about a young girl growing up in Nigeria. Tell me about this book.
AKWAEKE EMEZI: The thing that made this book so special to me is that it's set during the Biafran war, which is a seminal moment in Nigerian history, especially for Igbo people. Chinelo's book stands out because it's a queer story. And so to see a queer story set during that time places queer Nigerians in our own history. And Chinelo Okparanta is an author I have immense respect for because now, you know, you can see a lot of young Nigerian writers, myself included, writing queer literature, but she was really one of the vanguard for it.
KING: Your second recommendation is an essay collection - "She Called Me Woman: Nigeria's Queer Women Speak." What do you like about this collection?
EMEZI: This collection was edited by a couple of people. And to me, it was such a big deal that the editors had curated this space for people to tell their firsthand accounts of what they were dealing with, what they were living with. Quite honestly, when we get to hear accounts of what it is to be Black and queer and from Nigeria, it skews towards men. And so having this book that created a space for the women, that was edited by women, I think it's hugely important. And for a lot of the queer women who live back home, there really isn't the space to tell these stories. I think it's crucial to read these accounts and not just for queer Nigerian women, but I think it's crucial for queer Black people. We are often very focused on the queer community in the United States, but the larger queer community is we're all connected.
KING: Your next recommendation is also kind of unusual. It's called "of colour." The author is Katherine Agyemaa Agard, and it is poetry. It's also an essay. It's also a work of art. Describe "of colour" and tell me what makes it of such interest to you.
EMEZI: It's written by a queer Black woman from Trinidad and from Ghana. And I love it because Katherine Agyemaa Agard is one of my favorite thinkers. And I wanted to recommend it because who we are informs how we think. It informs the work we make, the perspectives we come from as we make that work. Traveling through this book was one of the most surreal, catalyzing experiences I've had encountering a book because it is so many things. And I wanted to recommend it because I think part of me wants people to understand that Black queer literature has a wide spectrum of what it can be.
KING: Your final recommendation is a much more - what we might call a much more typical book, but I know that it's one you really enjoy, Alyssa Cole's "How To Find A Princess," which is part of the "Runaway Royals" series. This is a romance. Tell me what you love about this book.
EMEZI: I mean, I adore Alyssa Cole's work. And I think that, quite honestly, people need to put a bit more respect on the genre of romance. But I chose this particular book, "How to Find A Princess," because it's a Black, queer love story. And I think that as the world is continually on fire around us, more and more people are looking for books to give them escape. I love romance because I don't want to read books and see how terrible the world is reflected in the books. I don't read the kind of books that I write because if I was to read the type of books that I write, I would be depressed all the time.
KING: Yeah, yeah. You need an escape.
EMEZI: Exactly. You need an escape. You need a soft, safe place to land.
KING: You mentioned your own writing and how different it is from the things that you tend to like, which serve as a kind of escape from real life. I know we were doing this interview to get your recommendations, but I am compelled to ask you about your new book because it is just out. It's called "Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir." Tell me about "Dear Senthuran." What is this book about, and what does it mean to you?
EMEZI: It's a story of a very specific part of my life but told through the lens of spirit, like spirit first. I wanted to give as much as I could in the book. And there's a lot in it. It travels over several subjects, areas. The parts about, you know, the publishing industry are things that I would teach if I taught. I'm not - I don't like teaching in general. So I don't teach workshops. I don't teach craft. But with "Dear Senthuran," you know, I thought, what would I like to teach if I did teach? And it wasn't, oh, this is how you structure a story or this is how you structure a novel. It was things like this is how you finish a novel. It's not as simple as saying, you know, oh, you just force time every day and you sit down and do it. There's a lot more that comes up emotionally and psychologically to be able to finish a book. And so I try to create a balance with that in the memoir and show while my career looks lovely and shiny on the surface, that these were the things I was dealing with behind the scenes. These were the real costs of being visible and being shiny and being prolific. And it was brutal.
KING: Akwaeke Emezi, thank you so much for being with us, for sharing your recommendations and for sharing your story. We really appreciate it. I can't wait to dig into some of these books, all of them, really.
EMEZI: (Laughter) Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "AWAKEN")
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