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The Banal and the Profane: Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene

The Banal and the Profane: Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene

Author: William Johnson

September 10, 2015

“This is how I want to rock shows—with amazing support, collaborating with people in the cities I’m visiting who are making magic and getting to share it with new folks, old friends, family, people who are and have been rooting for me and my art and my joy for years.”

“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s column comes to us from writer Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene.

Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene is an Ijaw and Urhobo Nigerian dyke poet and performance activist. She’s published four collections of poetry and produced four solo art exhibitions. Yvonne wrote and acted in two one-woman shows: Volcano’s Birthright{s} and GUAVA. Her first novel, For Sizakele, addresses transcontinental identity, intimate partner violence and queer gender.


July 27, 2015

Rebecca Akrasi-Sarpong, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Photo Credit: Rebecca Akrasi-Sarpong, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

It’s my last day in Toronto and I want to make the most of it… so I did nothing for a few hours. :) Except watch Suits on Netflix. I headed north to get patties from Randy’s Take Out, which Arden said has the best patties in the city. I got ackee and saltfish patties (I didn’t even know they made those? What kind of magic…?), chicken patties and beef patties, a vegetable patty and coco bread. Also I had Grace’s pineapple ginger juice which was amazing.

Anyway. The patties. They’re good. But honestly—the dopest patties I’ve ever had were from this one spot deep in Far Rockaway. I headed back to Parkdale, grabbed some curry chicken with the bone in (so good!) roti from my favorite spot on King and Dufferin. “This is my last day here,” I told Vicki, who was behind the counter. “What am I supposed to do without you?”

“Just remember us and come back to visit,” she said, smiling.

Ai’ight. I can and will absolutely do that.

I got back to where I was staying, dropped off my food and walked to Lake Ontario, which was 5 minutes away. Lake Ontario makes me feel close to Syracuse (where I was born and spent most of my childhood) and to my mom. For some reason, my entire life it never clicked, until I started visiting Toronto, that Lake Ontario also touches Canada. I walked barefoot into the cool water. I prayed. I talked to my mama.

I didn’t want to leave but I had to. I walked back to the house. Showered. Did laundry. Ate some patties. Finished packing. Walked to Queen. Got on the 501 streetcar and headed downtown to catch my Megabus to DC.

I got onto the upper level of the double decker bus.

Leaving Toronto feels like a poem unraveling. I can breathe in Toronto in this different way than I do elsewhere. It’s a haven.


Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Photo Credit: Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

July 28, 2015

I’m in DC. Actually—what’s the name of this city? I’m in Virginia. In Woodbridge. At Emilie’s place.

Well, let me back up a bit—after 14 hours in a Megabus from Toronto, we arrive in DC. And Emilie picked me up. Emilie is the little sister of Aymi, my best friend from middle school. I hadn’t seen Emilie in 16 years. We reconnected on Facebook a few weeks ago and made plans to connect in person. I came to DC a day early so I could see her and spend time with her before she left for an out of town trip.

She’d come to Union Station to pick me up.

“You look the same!” I said as I got into her car.

You look the same,” Emilie said.

So many joyful hugs.

We got brunch. At some place I don’t remember the name of. We talked about Aymi. “I remember you called me the year after Aymi’s death.”

That meant a lot to her. She had tears in her eyes as she said it. I don’t remember doing that. Please tell me I’m still the person who’s that thoughtful.

Pictured: Aymi. Yvonne. Noelle. 1995

Pictured: Aymi, Yvonne, Noelle, 1995

Aymi’s death…devastated me. I’d come home after my first year at Oberlin College. I had asked my mom about Aymi or mentioned her name. Then she told me.

“I saw it on the news. I didn’t know if it was the same Aymi or—” my mom had said. And I ran to my bedroom, fell on my bed and cried. For a long time. Worry was all over my mom’s face. She asked me what I wanted to eat.

“I’m not hungry,” I said. And I’d cried. She’d died in a car crash on her way home from a concert. She was 17.

Aymi’s death had broken my heart. In so many ways. And seeing Emilie, her face so similar to Aymi’s—we’re connected. Forever through our love for her sister. This is the kind of pain you never get over. And the kind of love that never leaves you. We cried. We cried together. It was sad but it felt good to be with each other, because we could share our grief. I told her about how for years my grief for Aymi haunted me, and that I didn’t know how to process it.

I told her about the death of my mum. And how that broke me. It was comforting. Talking to someone about losing someone, when they’ve lost someone—it’s a comfort, a balm that helps the healing.

Emilie has a daughter, Georgia. And a husband. She was so excited about my book!

“Tell me about it, tell me everything,” she said. Her excitement was so sweet. We talked about Syracuse like a place we escaped and didn’t want to get stuck in. And I spoke about wanting to go back, give back, perform at JD (Jamesville-DeWitt High School), maybe collaborate with a literacy program. I want those Syracuse kids to know that someone who lived there can be an artist—I want to inspire them and show 315 love.

It’s good to see Emilie. Good to remember Aymi. Good to cry and make jokes and talk about having babies and creating a family and Syracuse. You never know when reconnecting with childhood friends as adults—you may have severely different politics, it may be painfully awkward or sometimes it just feels like home. There’s the beautiful bits and the awkward bits. Emilie asked me how Oakland is. I said beautiful but there’s lots of anti-Black racism.

“What’s that?” she asked”

“Racism that specifically impacts Black people. You can google it.”

And later she mentioned Sandra Bland. “I almost hope she killed herself. I don’t want to think they did that to her”

But they did. “And it happens everyday,” I said. I said a bunch of other things in that moment about the hateful, racist inhumanity of the U.S. that I absolutely needed to say.

Later in her kitchen as she cooked us dinner, she asked, “Is homosexuality accepted in Nigeria?”

“I get that question a lot. I don’t want to answer that.”

And I’m glad I didn’t.

With white friends. Sigh. There’s these conversations I don want to have. Lets talk about your sister and babies and how amazing corned beef hash is.

PS: There’s a boy next door. A little boy, Jamal “What happened to your nose?” he asked me.

I laughed. “It’s a nose ring, like jewelry for your nose.”

I asked the mum, Aisha, where they’re from and she did that thing Africans do when they think they’re talking to an American, she answered: “Africa.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m from Nigeria. Where are you from?”

She smiled. “Ivory Coast. Côte d’Ivoire.”

One of her daughters asked me, “Do you speak French?”

“Un petit peu.”

She didn’t seem impressed, lol.


July 29, 2015

I was in Virginia this morning with Emilie, then she dropped me off at my AirBNB spot in DC, (which I later found out was actually in Capitol Heights, Maryland.) Is there any food around here? Like I don’t even see a bodega. :( It’s late, I’m hungry, I want mangoes and chicken and a milkshake and Drake and that’s not in order of importance, obviously.

Tomorrow is my first of 2 DC shows; I need to find time to rehearse. Talking to Emilie on the drive to my AirBNB, I found out Aymi died on May 2nd. My mom died in May too. So much heartache in May.


My birthday is in May.


So is my mom’s.

May is full of love too.

Touring is packing and re-packing; unpacking enough to get dressed or find whatever you need, then re-packing again. I just wanted to chill today so I did. Drake dropped “Back to Back” on SoundCloud—that’s the first thing I listened to when I woke up. Like…damn, some of those verses are vicious. And rightfully so. I’m happy he’s giving us quotable bars—truly the gift that keeps on giving. When will “trigga fingas turn to twitta fingas” not be hilarious?? Never, that’s when.

Tomorrow: haircut, early AM meeting, rehearsal, Operation: Find Food, figure out the Metro, etc & et al & so on. For now, I’m gonna sip on some coconut water, watch Netflix and chill the fuck out.


July 30, 2015

Jolearra Tshiteya, Washington, DC

Photo Credit: Jolearra Tshiteya, Washington, DC

I had my first For Sizakele DC show tonight and it was beautiful. It was at Busboys & Poets, co-sponsored by Zami and Makers Lab DC. Lee (of Makers Lab) is just so good at what they do and handled all the logistics so well. Laela (founder of Zami) was sweet. I had a box of my books shipped to Lee and she brought them to the venue and also arranged for a photographer for the event and a volunteer to run the merch table. Support! Makes! All! The! Difference! For real for real. The crowd was lovely. Soooo many Oberlin Alums who live in DC came through. It was a sweet mini Oberlin reunion. When you’ve known people for 16, 17 years and they come through, buy your book, stand in line to get it signed and tell you how proud they are of you, how happy they are for you…I mean, where are the words for that? How can I express my gratitude for that?? It’s a beautiful, beautiful feeling. I hugged Chris so many times.

And Tish wore a “Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here” shirt because she knows I love Drake—I meeeeeeaaannnnn the level of sweetness! Chris was reminiscing on when my first collection of poetry “afrocrown: fierce poetry” came out while we were at Oberlin. The history between all of us! And Anaïs was there—she’s an Oberlin grad who I met while she was a student at OC, and I came back as an alum to perform. So much love and sweetness in that room. It’s something divine when your people, your Day 1s, are happy for you. I’m blessed. And I’m so thankful.

It felt good that people are happy and excited about this book. My dear friend, Sunu, came through and we had a delicious dinner after the show and caught up. I love when our Taurus brilliant writer selves link up. Old friends. It’s so good to have old friends. She has a daughter, a partner and is in DC now. We met in Brooklyn and now we’ve both moved to other cities. This is how I want to rock shows—with amazing support, collaborating with people in the cities I’m visiting who are making magic and getting to share it with new folks, old friends, family, people who are and have been rooting for me and my art and my joy for years. Years. Like—the fact that hella Obies came thru with laughter and support and each one of them got a book likkeeeee—thank you God for this love you’ve placed in my life! I didn’t know they loved me like that.

Pictured: Yvonne, Anaïs, Tish, Hope, Stephanie, Chris

Pictured: Yvonne, Anaïs, Tish, Hope, Stephanie, Chris

And it’s more than them buying my book (although heaven yes to that!). It’s the look in their eyes. That pure happiness. They’re proud of me. As someone who’s spent most of my life away from most of my family, I haven’t always had people around me who were proud of me, who saw my growth cuz they’ve been there from Day 1. So when people are proud of me, people who have been down for me for a minute, and are like “I see you, you better work!,” it means a lot.

Such a beautiful day. Thank you, God.




Photo Credit: Jolearra Tshiteya, Washington, DC

Photo Credit: Jolearra Tshiteya, Washington, DC

July 31, 2015

Today I chilled at the AirBNB spot, slept in, talked to an old friend, watched Netflix, caught up on the last 2 episodes of Power (I love that show!), then got some fried catfish and fries. I guess I took the day off, although I did do some work via email, (I mean, this is me, so duh & obviously & of course I did some work.) I have a Queer Immigrant Stories reading with Mala Kumar (author of The Paths to Marriage) tomorrow at the OutWrite LGBT Book Festival. Oh and the food is awesome but do I have to ask for hot sauce when I order fried catfish?! Like…are you for real? Besides that, it was yummy.

Heaven yes to a day (mostly) off.


August 1, 2015

My last day in DC. My Uber driver is really driving like I don’t need to arrive at 2pm and start my event on time. It was a lovely event and I enjoyed hearing Mala read. Afterward, I got to see some people I haven’t seen in awhile—Tim’m T. West, Joseph Reaves, Bettina Judd. She published a book recently too: Patient.

Pictured: Bettina Judd, Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene

Pictured: Bettina Judd, Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene

I’ve been collecting photos of my readers with my book in their hands. Something about it just feels so good to look back thru the camera roll on my phone and see all those hands wrapped around my book, smiling, in all those cities. It’s beautiful.

I grabbed some Thai food (pineapple cashew rice) from a spot up the street, called an Uber and headed to Union Station to catch a bus to New York for my show there tomorrow.


August 2, 2015

Arrived in New York at 12:30am and headed to my friend’s apartment in Crown Heights. (I love this part of Brooklyn, by the way.) Didn’t like my Thai food that much. It’s like 1:30am and I’m hungry so I leave my friend’s apartment in search of a bodega, corner market, something selling something I can eat. I find red grapes, Milo, and lemon lime soda at a spot up the block. Lol. This’ll do. The grapes are so delicious.

I slept.

Then I overslept.

I get dressed, and meet up with JP and together we head over to the Women’s Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon at New York University. It goes from 12:30pm to 5pm; I facilitated a poetry workshop, then performed, then we had a Q&A. They were sweet! I loved co-creating space for the workshop participants to write. The beauty that came out of those free writes were amazing!

I just did 2 shows in 2 cities in 24 hours. Lord have mercy!

The summer edition of the For Sizakele World Tour is done! After the event, on my way to Bleecker to catch the 6 train, I stopped at Jacques Torres Chocolate and got some mango gelato. Because: necessary, because: priorities.

Now…I breathe.

And chill.

Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, On The Parkway, Brooklyn, USA

Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, On The Parkway, Brooklyn, USA



Author photo: Rebecca Akrasi-Sarpong
William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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