“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.
“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.