Finding Meaning in Death with Akwaeke Emezi

“The world is always ending somewhere,” Akwaeke Emezi says over the phone from their home in New Orleans, where they’ve been quarantined since March. “It just depends on whether it falls in your line of vision or not.”
When the Covid-19 crisis started, the novelist reflected on their childhood in Nigeria in order to keep calm: “You grew up in a military dictatorship,” they told themself. “You dealt with statewide curfew. You dealt with people being burned alive a block down from your house.”
In retrospect, Emezi says, the Nigeria of their childhood sets a low bar against which to compare 2020 New Orleans. “But it did help me remember that the world is ending everywhere for someone or for a community. Those ends still matter even amidst all the noise of this one.”
The Death of Vivek Oji details the circumstances of one such end. It’s Emezi’s second novel for adults after their highly praised 2018 debut, Freshwater, and Pet, a 2019 National Book Award–nominated young adult novel. Vivek Oji unravels the mystery of a young queer person’s demise in Nigeria in the late 1990s. Freshwater and Pet contain fantastical yet emotionally true portrayals of young queer characters, but Vivek Oji is more grounded.
“Vivek is struggling the same way any young person who’s coming of age struggles to figure things out,” Emezi says, “not in the narrative of, if you’re queer you’re repressed and that is therefore the source of all your angst, and once you come out your problems are magically solved.”

The source of Vivek’s struggle, Emezi says, isn’t gender or sexual preference. They take issue with the Western idea that coming out as queer is a panacea. “To me it was so clear that this was a spiritual thing. Other factors of identity play in, but correlation is not the same as causation.” Vivek is much more than a character who just grapples with his queerness.
Emezi is aware that the premise is problematic. “I realized when I was writing it that killing off a queer character is a bad trope,” they say. But understanding Vivek’s death requires the reader to also understand his life and the people in his community who loved him.
The novel’s nonlinear plot structure provided Emezi with a challenge, they say. “How can I write a book that keeps its own secrets until the end? How can I write things that I know but the reader can’t know?” The Death of Vivek Oji may reveal its protagonist’s death in its earlier chapters, but the surrounding circumstances are the great mystery.
“With Vivek, I wanted to write a story about someone who’s queer and living in Nigeria but who is still loved and who still has a community,” Emezi says. They thought particularly of Vivek in the early days of the pandemic, when a social media campaign aimed at stamping out homophobia in Nigeria surfaced in the wake of the murder of a gay man in the region of the country where Emezi grew up.

Akwaeke Emezi
“When the hashtag happened, it hit me that the realities of all the queer babies out there don’t change because of a pandemic,” Emezi says. “If anything it gets worse, because there’s more isolation and more of that feeling that you can’t talk about your own struggles. But at the end of the day a queer kid who’s stuck with a homophobic family is still stuck.” Becoming unstuck is Vivek’s ultimate triumph, even as we watch him inch closer and closer to his untimely end.
Emezi wants readers to struggle with the idea that a book that features a death so prominently is actually one that, more than anything, celebrates life. “In order for us to make a new world we have to be able to imagine it,” they say. “That’s step one. For me, Vivek is something like that: an imagining of a community that loves this boy as he is unconditionally.”
Emezi hopes that in witnessing the community that Vivek’s peers form around him, readers will see what acceptance might look like. They want people to read The Death of Vivek Oji and learn that such treatment is possible. “You have to create that space first,” they say. “From there you can actually start building it. You know what you can say no to because there’s something else to say yes to.”
The book, Emezi says, went through many drafts. “It was important for me to give Vivek a voice, because earlier drafts didn’t include his chapters, and I realized he can’t be the protagonist if we don’t get to hear from him.”
In learning about Vivek as they were writing him, Emezi discovered that he is the only character who is not worried about himself or his fate. Because Vivek is dead for much of the book and only narrates a smattering of chapters, it can be easy for readers to miss the fact that he’s fairly coolheaded. Emezi puts the concerns of Vivek’s family and friends front and center, daring readers to tune out the noise and figure out what it is that Vivek wants.
“Are we forgetting to listen to him because he’s not centered in the way we expected him to be?” Emezi asks. “Are we forgetting to listen to the actual people who are at the center of this? What do we miss by looking at things through everyone else’s lens except Vivek’s own?”
Subverting the typical coming-out narrative is also a question of writing for a specific audience, Emezi says, and not worrying so much about the rest. “I’m writing for black trans people. I’m not trying to raise empathy by showing how bad it is out there and that people are dying.” They chose not to amplify the hatred and the trauma it causes and has caused. “We know very well what’s out there, and we don’t need to see it again. So instead I try to amplify the alternative.”
Emezi believes that oppressed people need to create spaces in which they feel safe. “When most people create bubbles it’s not to hide from reality,” they say. “It’s in order to survive. For people who are oppressed, creating bubbles doesn’t stop you from seeing all of the horrible things that are happening, but it does give you a little space to not die in.”
Stories, Emezi notes, are fantastic vessels in which to start mapping out such bubbles—especially during the heightened isolation of the present. “We have to make sure that the stories get to the people who need them. The supply chain of a story cannot be corrupted because of the pandemic. Because stories matter. If anything they matter more than they did before.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

We Did Everything and Knew Nothing: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

“All fiction writers write out of their deepest, most intimate personal experiences, even if some of them try to deny it or disguise it,” Susan Choi tells me over coffee at the Ashland Place food court in Brooklyn, a loud yet somehow uncrowded space that she playfully refers to as “the mall.” Her writing space is just around the corner, but it hasn’t had heat for a while, thus the mall is providing a booming pop music soundtrack to our conversation. “I’ve never read a really good fiction writer who wasn’t writing from something they had felt personally, even if the story seems different from anything they have lived,” she says.
Choi’s fifth novel, Trust Exercise, examines the ways that writers choose to represent and distort their own stories. “Trust Exercise was my side project while I worked on my ‘real’ book, which I have yet to finish,” she confesses. “I’m a big believer in consistent engagement with a project, but a lot of interesting things happen when you step back. I kept disengaging and then something would bring me back, but my perspective would be altered in some unexpected way.”
The result is a wildly inventive novel that is told in three distinct parts, the second and third blowing up and reframing what came before. The first part is set in a suburban high school theater program in the 1980s, where two students, Sarah and David, fall in love under the watchful eye of their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, the kind of blowhard who insists that the proper way to spell the word theater in Middle America is theatre. When a group of British exchange students visit the school to stage a precocious production of Candide, the world becomes a little bit bigger for Sarah and David and their classmates. That’s all readers should know at the start.
“There are limited ways to talk about the plot,” Choi says. “I’m still figuring out what they are.”
To avoid wandering into spoiler territory, I ask about Choi’s own theater background. Much like the characters in her book, she attended a drama program—in a high school in Houston, where she grew up. “It was exotic for me, because I was supposed to be the smart kid,” she says. “My parents wanted me to attend a rigorous academic high school, and I rebelled and auditioned in a single mad flair of individuality and self-confidence. Then, horribly, I got in. I was so ill-suited for theater. Every time I had to go on stage I was mortified. So I became a techie, which is the happy refuge of every kid who loves theater but can’t stand being on stage.”
But Choi insists that her own experience was nothing like the one she depicts in the novel, using a modern-day TV metaphor to make her point. “I think of this book in terms of Stranger Things: this school is like the upside-down version of the school I attended, where, for the most part, I was really happy.”

I ask Choi whether she’s ever frustrated by the fact that many readers assume that a protagonist written by a female author is nothing but a stand-in for the author herself. “It’s something I became inured to with my last book [2013’s My Education], because it also takes place in a world I know, which is the world of unhappy graduate study,” she says. “But yeah, it’s an interesting conundrum for women writers. We get it much much more.”
My Education may be set in grad school, but it shares with Trust Exercise a tight grip on the unrelenting angst of obsessional first love. The students in Trust Exercise are told that they’ll never feel emotions quite as strongly as they do right then and there in high school, but the heroine of Choi’s previous novel does not seem any wiser or less passionate.
“I wrote both books thinking a lot about youth,” Choi says. “In My Education, I was interested in the youth of early adulthood and how different it feels from later adulthood. Looking back on your first chapter of adulthood, you seem like a teenager.”

The teenagers in Trust Exercise are similarly foolhardy in love and are taught by their theater teacher to revere Shakespeare above all. “Think of Romeo and Juliet, the most romantic tale ever,” Choi says. “And how old were they? That was on my mind—that these relationships that are culturally romanticized have their influence on young people. When you’re young, you’re capable of repurposing experience into a much more self-mythologized narrative than you are when you’re older.”

Mr. Kingsley also has a fierce influence on the way his students see the world. “A friend asked if I’d ever be able to write a novel that didn’t take place in some kind of school environment, and I hadn’t even noticed I’d been doing so until that point,” Choi says. “Clearly I’m preoccupied with the student-teacher relationship, with charismatic teaching, with what that sort of power does.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever had a teacher as pretentious as Trust Exercise’s fictional drama teacher. “I had wonderful writing teachers who, if anything, were too hands off, too confident of my abilities to tell me what to do.” She leans closer to me. “But I know people who’ve studied with writing teachers who are incredibly tyrannical and dictatorial. I have in my possession a sheet of dictates that a very well-known writer and writing teacher used to issue to their students. The dictates are bizarre and petty and detailed. They were not at all ironically dictated—they were handed down by this writing teacher as the way to write serious literature.”
In contrast, Choi does not have a capital P process. “I almost never think thematically when I’m writing anything,” she says. “I’m usually writing about the rudiments of a circumstance, and following it. I usually don’t know how my books are going to end, or even what will happen in the middle.” She says she began Trust Exercise with the aim of writing something sleek and short. “I’d been reading a lot of Muriel Spark, and all her novels are less than 200 pages—slim—and she has brusque, aggressive openings to her books, where she grabs you by the neck and throws you in, and you just have to figure it out. I really wanted to do that.”
Though the final version of Trust Exercise runs more than novella length, Choi grabs readers right away, immersing them in the fixations of artistic students—the kind who claim to be too serious for musicals but are riveted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. “Trust Exercise is set in the 1980s, which is when I was a teen,” Choi says as the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” begins playing over the mall’s loudspeakers, as though she’d summoned it. “I remember the ubiquity of the Cats sweatshirt,” she says. “If you wore a Cats sweatshirt, it meant that you’d gone to New York and gotten it yourself. It was an incredible totem to have.”
Choi says she wanted to evoke a lack of worldliness in the Trust Exercise students. “My own teen has so much more knowledge of the world than I did at that age,” she says. “Maybe it’s being a New Yorker, maybe it’s growing up in the 21st century and with the internet—we love to blame the internet for everything.”
Trust Exercise is meant to be more provincial. “I wanted to depict teenagers who had never even met anyone who was from outside their city, let alone outside of their country,” Choi says, noting that much like her characters, she was incredibly naive as a teenager. “My sense of sexuality at the time was that we were both more precocious in terms of behavior than now, and much more innocent in terms of context and a larger understanding of everything having to do with sexual life and identity. We did everything and knew nothing. We thought we knew, but we knew so much less than we even realized.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.