Ani Kayode Somtochukwu wrote his first novel without the benefit of the internet or even a computer. He scratched it out by hand on large white notepads, then transferred it, tap by tap, onto his cellphone.
Then he sold it to a major publisher.
That novel, “And Then He Sang a Lullaby,” a love story about two young men in Nigeria, was published Tuesday by a new imprint at Grove Atlantic, launched by writer and social commentator Roxane Gay. Gay has said she plans to elevate writers from outside the usual publishing pipelines, and Ani (in Nigeria, the family name often comes first) is the imprint’s first author: a queer Nigerian man from a working-class background, whose manuscript, submitted without an agent, came from the slush pile.
Ani is 23, quick to smile, quick to laugh, and he apologizes for making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves.
“He is both wise beyond his years and also charmingly 23,” Gay said. “You can tell that even though he is living in Nigeria, where it is challenging to be gay, he is living a vibrant life.”
Ani grew up in Enugu, the second of five children born to a schoolteacher and a storekeeper who sold stationery and gift cards at a market stall. He has always been a writer, scribbling stories and poems that he shared with his siblings and friends, but he never considered it a possible career, instead studying applied biology and biotechnology in school. Today, he lives in Lagos, where he moved for a job at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research.
“There are certain class backgrounds you grow up in where, when you think of your career, you have to stick with what’s very practical,” he said. “Being a musician, for instance, or being a dancer, being a writer — those are things you are allowed to enjoy, but you don’t really think of them as a career.”
As it’s turned out, however, “writing has taken me out of poverty,” he said. Today it’s his full-time job.
“And Then He Sang a Lullaby” centers on two very different young men who meet and fall in love in college. August is wealthy, athletic and passes for straight, while Segun is flamboyant, political, working-class and frequently targeted — same-sex relationships are illegal in Nigeria. The novel explores how people respond differently to homophobia, and how love is possible even under such difficult circumstances.
“It is a novel about queer love and about queer pain,” Ani said. “But maybe most importantly, it’s about queer resistance.”
Ani considers himself an activist first, and says his writing is in service of that work. He describes organizing campaigns in support of LGBTQ rights and helping to raise money to buy the freedom of friends and strangers who have been kidnapped and held for ransom because they are gay or trans.
He has also been targeted: assaulted twice, he said, detained by the police and threatened many times. After a protest in Nigeria’s capital against legislation that would have sent people to jail for wearing clothing that didn’t traditionally align with the gender assigned to them at birth, Ani said he had to leave the city suddenly when commenters on social media said he and others involved should be killed.
“He came out so early in a very dangerous country, and I must say, it’s really a miracle that he got to this point,” said one of his sisters, Ani Uzoamaka Chinedu. “Kayode is one lucky child.”
While studying biology in college, he also joined a writers’ club. Later he learned on its group chat that Gay’s imprint was accepting submissions, and sent in a few chapters.
Gay said she was drawn not only by the book’s message but by the strength of Ani’s voice. By the time he reached out to Emma Shercliff, the woman who would become his agent, Ani already had an offer.
Most traditional publishing houses require that submissions come from agents, rather than directly from authors to editors, and it’s rare for a book deal to get done any other way. It is a practical consideration, because submissions from agents have been vetted. But getting an agent is itself a steep hill to climb, so this setup means that many authors, even if their work is excellent, may not be able to get a manuscript in front of an editor.
When Gay first opened her imprint, with an announcement that she would accept unagented submissions, she was receiving 200 or 300 of those manuscripts each month.
“Does it require a lot of effort? Yes it does, and I’ve had to hire people to help me get through the queue,” she said. “But I’m happy to do it if it means providing that opportunity.”
The advance from selling the book allowed Ani to move into an apartment by himself for the first time, with a quiet place to write. His sister said he also gave some money to his father to support the family. Ani kept the African rights so the book could be published in Nigeria by a local publisher, making it less expensive for readers.
This month Ani will visit the United States for book-related events, his first trip outside of Africa. With his profile elevated, he said he doesn’t fear becoming more of a target in Nigeria, maintaining that his visibility offers him some protection, which he plans to use to push harder on what he believes.
“What I want people to know about me,” he said, “is that I am an African queer liberation activist who believes that Africa is my home, that it is a home for queer people. I truly believe that.”
Credit: The New York Times
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