The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. In this week’s special Pride Month edition, PEN America Public Programs Coordinator Lily Philpott speaks to Nigerian poet Romeo Oriogun, author of Burnt Men (Praxis) and The Origin Of Butterflies (APBF). 

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as a “writer’s identity”?
As a Queer man from a place where LGBTQI+ people live in fear of being lynched or thrown in jail, a place where homosexuality is criminalized and Queer bodies are forced to shrink to survive, I can’t help but be shaped by these things, by the fear that lives inside of me and the joy also. This has found a way into my poems and most times, especially with the manuscript I’m working on, I’m writing in response to events or to the fear waiting outside. There are events and memories that make up our identities, we are shaped by them and they find a way into our writings and I’m not an exception. It is from these identities that we all write, that we respond to the realities around us. I am Queer, I am Nigerian. I do not have the luxury of forgetting my identity, it is one I must carry and always be aware of as I navigate spaces where I don’t feel welcomed and it sits over my shoulder as I write. Still we are humans first; it is the only identity that should matter, but we are reminded every day that we do not have that privilege, that our bodies and identities must be talked about differently, pushing us into places where we must fight against the trauma that this has and continues to cause us.

2. How does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction in your work?
I think poetry comes from a place of truth, I try to always remember this as I write. I also think the poet is a witness; he writes about these events and memories as a way of saying we shouldn’t forget that there was a time certain things happened. Sometimes truth can be relative depending on who is telling and shaping these narratives, so I try to write things the way they are and then write how I feel about them because, at the end of the day, we are emotional beings and poetry most times brings out emotions we try to hide.

3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
I think all poets start their journey by imitating the style of other poets they love before finding their own voices. I agree with you about the works of other writers being foundations, but there’s a line not to be crossed. You can be inspired by a poem and not steal it and make it yours or edit parts of it to make it your poem. I frown at deliberate erasure of a writer from his works by not giving credit for lines that inspired a poem.

I also think that it is wrong for writers to come into spaces where they don’t belong and own those spaces and the experiences of those spaces making it difficult for writers in those spaces, especially in marginalized communities, to find a space for their own works. 

4. In a 2017 interview, you said: “I’m fascinated about spaces people inhabit, about how those spaces shape them into who they are.” What spaces do you inhabit, both artistically and physically?
I am always thinking about this, I think I do it to remind myself of where people are coming from and why they act in certain ways. How the spaces they’ve been in shaped them, especially our identities.

I am a male, a poet, a lover of wine, a Yoruba man, a worshiper of Olokun, a son, a Nigerian, a wanderer, and a Queer person. Each of these identities have a space and I occupy them. I try to recognize how each of them shape me and how I navigate through them as I live. I think the thing with living is that we must always remember our history and also understand where we are to gain the most out of every experience we will walk into.

5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression in Nigeria today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged due to the laws criminalizing homosexuality or other circumstances?
I consider the law and religion to be the biggest threat to free expression in Nigeria. The law to criminalize homosexuality was made to please most Nigerians that were frustrated and tired of the Nigerian government; it was made to buy goodwill for an election that the past government, led by Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, still ended up losing, but the damage has already been done. Queer people were thrown under the bus and a marginalized group of people were pushed further into the dark and called criminals, making it a crime to even hold events that support homosexuality, and the law gave religious leaders a free pass to call queer people sin and encourage a mob culture that has always been there.

I have been threatened both online and at readings. Sometime last year a group of lawyers wanted to sue me for promoting homosexuality, I had to talk to Amnesty International and PEN America about it, it was a scary time for me. I have been attacked and had to stay in a safe house for a few months before leaving for Ghana. At one of my readings someone said if he had a gun he would have shot me. Those words stayed with me and I couldn’t understand why someone will be full of hate and want to kill another person that has no business to do with him. It is so sad to witness how the world is full of hatred.

6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
It is writing poems about Queers in Nigeria, sometimes I think I must be crazy or have a death wish and sometimes I am happy that I am walking my truth and writing about it. For me, that’s a blessing I don’t take for granted.

7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
No, everything I write is deliberate.

8. In 2017 you said: “I don’t dwell much on my writing, but I’m moved when someone says because of my poems he knows he’s not alone and his feelings are valid.” Which works of poetry, art, music, etc. have made you feel that you are not alone, and that your feelings are valid?
Discovering the poetry of Essex Hemphill was the beginning of me accepting myself and my body as home. Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak Of Nothing, Chike Edozien’s Lives Of Great Men, Unoma Azuah’s Blessed Bodies, and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees are books that speak to me intimately because they are books that talk about the Queer experience and are written by Nigerians. There is a special kind of ownership that comes with reading these books. I find the songs of Nina Simone and music of Tokio Myers fascinating and inside them are moments where your humanity is laid bare for us to see.

9. Who are you reading? Can you recommend some poets from Nigeria, Africa, and other parts of the world that readers might not know about?
I am currently reading Thaw by Chelsea Dingman and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith while also searching sometimes for poems on the internet.

There’s a revolution going on in poetry coming out from Nigeria at the moment, and poets like D.M. Aderibigbe, Gbenga Adesina, J.K. Anowe, Ishaya David Osu, Kechi Nomu, Hauwa Shafii Nuhu, Saddiq Dzukogi, Wale Owoade, Omotara James, Ejiofor Ugwu, Kanyinsola Olorunnisola, Logan February, Theresa Lola, Ruth Sutoye, Chibuihe Obi, Rasaq Malik, Okwudili Nebolisa, Ojo Taiye, Gbenga Adeoba, and Shade Mary-ann Olaoye are at the forefront of this movement. It is an exciting time to be alive.

There are also wonderful poets on the continent; poets like TJ Dema, Alexis Teyie, Yalie Kamara, Richard Oduor Oduku, and Lillian Akampurira Aujo.

It is amazing that a sizable number of these poets have published chapbooks through the African Poetry Book Fund, an organization that has also published amazing poets like Tsitsi Ella Jaji, Safia Elhillo, and Warsan Shire.

10. Can you tell us anything about the poetry collection you are working on? What were the writing and editing processes like? Who is the intended audience for this collection?
I’m working on a full collection that interrogates the place of memory in human existence, migration, fatherhood, and the Queer experience in Nigeria.

The way a poem begins for me is from an image, so I start from there and interrogate further until I inhabit an event, a memory, a song, a sea. The editing process is still in the future, for now I’m just writing.

I like to think that it’s a place in the hands of those who need it just the way Essex Hemphill’s poems found me. We do determine who we write for, but I hope this book makes someone feel there’s someone else out there.