Okechukwu Nzelu’s first novel, The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, won a Betty Trask Award, was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Betty Trask Prize, and the Polari First Book Prize. It was published by Dialogue Books/Little,Brown in October 2019 and is available in hardback and ebook now, from all good booksellers. The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney has been shortlisted for the 2020 Polari First Book Prize, the winner of which will be announced in October.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
What does being shortlisted for the Polari Prize mean for you?
It’s a huge honour. Completing my first novel took years and I really wasn’t sure anyone would want to publish it at all — there were some heartbreaking rejections and near-misses, so this kind of recognition is really encouraging, especially as I work on my second novel. And I’m already a huge fan of so many of the other authors, so to be in their company is such a blessing.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
Every day that I am a Nigerian but not a doctor, I rebel. What can I say? Bad boy 4 life.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
I think most queer people of colour, but especially queer creatives of colour, can point to their whole lives and say this. We have always been here, and there are bright stars in our history, but there’s no roadmap laid out for us and for our lives, which can be a good thing in many ways — at least I know I won’t sleepwalk through life just doing what everyone else did. I didn’t really have any role models as such as I was growing up, and I had to figure out a lot of stuff for myself. I’m quite proud of that, really.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
My first novel. (Do all your writers say that?) I poured so much of myself into it, in terms of the way I see the world, my sense of humour, the writers who’ve inspired me – and also in terms of the sheer amount of time and energy I put into it while working full-time. Looking back, I’m really not sure how I did that with no guarantee it would ever see the light of day, and I’m not entirely sure I could do it again, now.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
I’m not sure there’s just one event. Can I squidge two into one? This is pushing it, but I think growing up as a Christian and then leaving the church when I was about 17. I really, really believed in God when I was growing up: heaven, hell, sin, the Bible, the whole kit and caboodle. It really shaped the way I saw the world, and still does in some ways. But as I got a little older, there were more and more questions I just couldn’t answer. Why is there so much unnecessary, pointless suffering and death in the world? Why is life so much more brutal and unfair for some groups of people than others? How can God care about sexual orientation? I just couldn’t square any of that with the idea of a benevolent god, and when I’d wrestled with it for long enough, I left the church. This really affected me, partly because I was suddenly away from this huge framework I used to think about the world, but more so because I’d single-handedly taken a decision to step away from something I thought was powerful and huge and beautiful, simply because I couldn’t make it sit right with me. I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a rebellious person (see above re: not being a doctor), and I’m nobody’s idea of a saint, but leaving the church really affirmed for me the importance of doing what I want, and what I think is good, as best I can.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and brilliance, how would you describe yourself?
Look, I really tried. But no. I can’t. I cannot.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
Maybe not in those terms. I try to do things that sit well with my conscience, but I’ve never thought of them as ‘sacrifices’. I’ve never worked in jobs where I’ve had to make those kinds of sacrifices — I’ve worked in education for the last few years. (Is there any material to be sacrificed in teaching? Maybe a hair shirt.)
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
I don’t think there’s anyone who precisely exemplifies everything I’d like to be — and of course we never really know who anyone is, behind closed doors — but Arundhati Roy is a hero of mine. She’s so passionate and she seems to entirely follow her own lights. She wrote an incredibly beautiful, impactful novel, but she’s also written tons of essays and speeches that are so astute and elegant and inspiring. Both as an activist and a writer, she’s a legend. I’d love to meet her one day.
Someone who incarnates everything I’d least like to be… Ordinarily I’d say I feel like this is the shady part of RuPaul’s Drag Race where Ru asks the queens to say who they think should go home and why. But actually, there are tons of people who incarnate everything I’d least like to be, and most of them are in positions of great power. You expect me to choose just one? This is Britain in 2020! I’m spoilt for choice. Oh, go on then. Boris Johnson: sashay away.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
A notebook and pen, my moisturiser and my running shoes. Some sort of deep-frying apparatus.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
“The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known.” Elle, Legally Blonde. Joke, quotation and proverb. And, may I say, a serve.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
‘new breed’ by Dawn Richard, is a really great song. She raps and sings about herself in basically the way I wish I could do above. She’s such a talented, prolific, underrated artist! I think she’s incredible.