Akwaeke Emezi is a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria. They were this year’s Eleanor Roosevelt speaker series guest. Emezi, writer of “Dear Senthuran” and “The Death of Vivek Oji,” came to speak at Brandeis about their experience as a Black writer, previewed one of their upcoming books and offered advice for writers of color.
The great American novels we celebrate feature white, heterosexual and cisgendered characters, according to Emezi. Emezi provides readers with characters that represent them: “Black, queer, and trans people are the center, they are the center of those stories,” said Emezi.
Emezi thoroughly discussed many ideas that appear in their memoir, “Dear Senthuran.” Discussing relationships with institutions, Emezi imparted their own growth in relation to these organizations: “you won this prize and that prize … they’re useful because people will improve your quality of life with those accolades.” These designations have a perceivable impact on writers’ lives, said Emezi. “They will literally pay you more because of it.” Because of the belief we place in these establishments, “we tend to ignore that these institutions are such sites of violence.”
During the discussion, Emezi spoke to young writers about their creative process which allows them room to practice their art comfortably. Emezi told student writers from personal experience that “frontloading the work has helped a lot.” According to Emezi, this has been helpful with being patient with themself during the writing process.
Emezi is not ignorant of their own motivations for meeting deadlines. Said Emezi, “When people talk about my productivity, I want to be very clear that it is tied to capitalism.” They are transparent about how their output was driven by fear. “The only thing that will make you safe is if you are creating product for the market,” said Emezi.
Providing young writers with financial insight, Emezi expanded on their philosophy about the economics of publishing institutions. In negotiations, Emezi tells publishers, “I’m going to talk about how much you paid me for this book.”
Intended specifically for young writers of color, Emezi disclosed the financial status of their books. “I need them to be able to use this as a benchmark and go ahead and advocate for their own work.”
The conversation was introduced by Brandeis’ Frances and Max Elkon Chair in Modern Jewish History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor ChaeRan Freeze, and moderated by cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of Women’s, Genders and Sexuality Studies V Varun Chaudhry.
Emezi presented their lecture on Oct. 26. The Eleanor Roosevelt lecture series was created in 2004 to honor Roosevelt’s commitment to social justice and her important place in women’s history, according to the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies’ page.