InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week we catch up with Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene, a dope 30-year-old Nigerian poet.

ELIXHER: So tell us a little about yourself.
YVONNE: [Clears throat.] Ok, let’s see. Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene. That’s who I am. I’m from Nigeria. I was raised in Nigeria as well as upstate New York. What I do is always an interesting question because I feel like a lot of times what people do is known as who they are. But I am a poet. I’m a performance poet, playwright, visual artist, dancer, and essayist. I’m working on my first novel. I crochet and I cook. I like to make things.

ELIXHER: What drew you to your craft?
YVONNE: I feel like art chose me. I remember I started writing at nine. I was very lonely and I had just moved back from Nigeria. I had an accent. I didn’t feel like people “got” me. I just had a couple of friends, so I’d write stories. I used to write those five-teenagers-stuck-in-a-haunted-house kinds of stories.

If I look at all my art forms, painting is probably one of the newer ways of expressing myself, so I’m not as confident in it sometimes. I almost resist that desire in myself to paint because I’m like, “Oh, I can’t do it.” But then when I just let go of those things and I just paint, there are just all these things I can say and ways I can touch people through that medium.

So the art forms really choose me and I can choose whether or not I listen.

ELIXHER: Why do you choose to listen?
YVONNE: One of the most important things for me is to be able to tell a story especially stories that aren’t always amplified in the media and around us, similarly to what you’re doing with Elixher. So for me, I choose to talk about myself, my community, where I’m from and who I am in hopes that other people get inspired to tell their own stories and feel like they’re not alone.

I write a lot about being a Nigerian dyke and being a hard femme and what that means to me. I talk a lot about Black gender and love. I think it’s important, especially in this country where we’re asked so many times to choose one part of our identity. It’s like you’re not supposed to be multiple things. It’s supposed to be you’re Black and that’s it. You being a woman or you being queer or you being Caribbean or you being African but raised in Europe or whatever, that’s not important. People want to be able to put you in a box. A lot of my work is about just not accepting those boxes—just really expressing myself as creatively and with as much nuisance as I actually exist in the world and not distilling myself down to what’s simplest for somebody else.

ELIXHER: You talked about the subject of your writings being about your queerness and Nigerian roots. What are the subjects of your paintings?
YVONNE: Same thing. I primarily identify as a poet. I feel like a poet is the simplest way to describe me, the strongest way I identify. And I feel like every other medium that I express myself in is just another kind of poetry. The subject matter is about the same things that move me in life and that I love in life. I get to use a different part of my soul to talk to people. If I can’t share with you this poem that’s four minutes and fifteen seconds long about my love, rage, and passion, how can I express that four minutes and fifteen seconds and that passion visually? It’s so interesting because you get to see other sides of your emotions that you would have never thought about. Like what does rage look like? What color is that? If I want to express the line “I kiss the sky” from a poem in a painting, what would that be? I get to know my own emotions even better and then even say more. That’s why I really love dance because where words can’t take you, dance goes. Dance for me is the closest way I can be a goddess because language and all of that is irrelevant. You just get to move.

Yvonne1ELIXHER: Is there a certain power in claiming a label and saying, “Yes, I am a dyke”?
YVONNE: I love this question. There are certain people that are not into labels. But I love them. I understand because, honestly, this is why I have so many names. A name is an expression like if your spirit had a sound what would it be. The spirit is huge and beyond words. So that’s why I like it when people call me different names of mine and they have different meanings. I’m more than just the one name. Same thing with labels. I understand that no words could ever capture someone’s soul.

As far as labels, I understand deeply that people sometimes feel confined by them. Sometimes depending on what community created them, people feel as if it’s erasing parts of themselves. I respect it, but for me, I love labels because they create a lot of ambiguity in the world. People don’t want to offend anybody, so they don’t actually want to say what the fuck they mean. They end up being what’s called “politically correct” and I just think that’s garbage. I just choose to be who I am. To be explicit and to be out especially because so many people, given the fact that I am perceived as feminine, will just presume that I am heterosexual.

And that’s what homophobia is. What’s “normal” is what’s straight because straight is “normal.” And it’s not. Heterosexuality just has a much bigger media machine. It doesn’t mean that it’s more common. It’s just more visible. So I don’t want to pass. I don’t want people to be like, “Oh, she’s straight.” No, I’m not. That’s not who I am.

ELIXHER: Why is it important to disrupt that heteronormativity and those assumptions?
YVONNE: For our youth and for ourselves, for literally our sanity, we need to be able to see each other and to recognize each other and feel that we exist. When you don’t think that you exist, you don’t see why you should exist then you’re like, “Well, I’ll just erase myself via suicide, via drugs, via not living out my dreams, via being an asshole via not being who I am.” There are all kinds of ways that people numb out because they don’t see their own value and because they don’t get affirmed in their every day life.

So for me being out, you’re never going to wonder about how I feel about something. If you ask me, I’ll tell you. If I don’t know, then I’ll tell you I don’t know and need more information. But I definitely want, especially as a Nigerian in America, to be able to represent as much as I can for African dykes. Our voices don’t often get heard, and our stories don’t often get told besides over food with each other or sometimes at open mics or whatever. I think it’s important to share those stories and affirm that existence so we can open the door for more people to share even more diverse stories. So yea, I love labels for that reason.

ELIXHER: That’s an interesting take because so many people disassociate themselves from labels.
YVONNE: Yea, you know, that’s good for them. But someone’s got to say something.

ELIXHER: Definitely. If you had to pick three words off the top of your head to describe yourself, what would they be?
YVONNE: I would say Nigerian dyke poet. Or my mother’s daughter. Can I have six? [Laughs.] One of those because I’m very proud of being Nigerian. I’m very proud of being a dyke. And I’m incredibly proud of being an artist. And then my mother’s daughter because she is just who I am.

ELIXHER: Are there any misconceptions people tend to have of you?
YVONNE: [Laughs.] Oh, Kimberley. Yes, I do think people have misconceptions of me. I have misconceptions about myself. I think sometimes people think I’m mean.

ELIXHER: Really? That’s hard to believe.
YVONNE: Yea, I mean, maybe I think that people think that I’m mean. I’m so passionate that I get really angry when I allow myself to be present to the pain that exists in humanity whether it be a kind of oppression like sexism or kids being raped by their parents or poverty. It’s like you are hurting my mother. I take it very personally. Sometimes in New York you just kind of shut down. You see someone homeless, you don’t think about it. But that is a human being who has family, who has had lovers, who has dreams, who has a favorite color and they are homeless and they are probably hungry and cold. And that’s really painful. When I see other people disregard that or say something like, “Pull yourself up by your boots straps” without taking into account that capitalism and the deliberate oppression of certain groups in society has maintained stuff like the prison industrial complex that just repeats stuff like all these fucked up patterns, it makes me very mad. Sometimes people don’t understand that I’m only angry because I care and I’m moved by our collective humanity.

Yvonne3

ELIXHER: A lot of times passion gets misinterpreted as anger.
YVONNE: Yea, and on top of that, being a Black woman, and people not allowing Black women to have vulnerability. There are these stereotypes about what feelings Black women are supposed to have and vulnerability isn’t one of them. You get to be strong. You get to be a bitch. You get to be nurturing. But you don’t get to be vulnerable or hurt. When you combine that with already being a passionate person, it’s like, “You sound so hostile. I don’t understand. Why are you raising your voice?” I’m like, “I’m not raising my fucking voice.” [Laughs.] I’m just telling you how I feel. I think people’s supposed fear of me is based on Black women are fucking scary ass motherfuckers. Sometimes you use that to your advantage to get stuff done, but a lot of times it’s just constrictive as a human being because they don’t give me room to be who I am. So I make room.

ELIXHER: What or who inspires you?
YVONNE: My mom inspires me a lot. Nigeria. My friends inspire me. Love inspires me. Pain inspires me. Sometimes I look at people on the train and I just imagine their story. Anything. As far as other artists, definitely Ntozake Shange before the whole Tyler Perry movie. Um, that’s a whole other thing. I saw it. It was intense, but um… [Laughs.] “For Colored Girls” is one of the top three books that have moved me in life. I love that book. I would say Sharon Bridgforth, jessica Care moore, Chrystos, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde. There’s so many really, really, really good writers. Judith Jamison. She’s not a writer, she’s a dancer, but oh my God. So inspiring. Just good writing inspires me to write. Art inspires me.

ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be part of the Black queer community?
YVONNE: I think we’re really beautiful. We’re beautiful people, like aesthetically, we’re the shit, you know? [Laughs.] And we know how to make things happen. We know how to come together—over an issue or party or Pride or what have you. There are times when we will take over the streets or we’ll celebrate something so beautifully. We know how to organize. Sometimes people just reduce it to hustling, but there’s actually a very complicated structure behind being able to organize a successful rally or how you move people around an issue. I think we’re good at that because we’ve been excluded from a lot of spaces, that we almost have this natural way of knowing how to create a safe space. I love that.

ELIXHER: What are some areas that you think we can grow as a community?
YVONNE: A lot of these things go for everyone, just to be clear, but I’m gonna be specific right, as per your request. I think a lot of folks are survivors of massive amounts of abuse or sexual assault. I say this because when I think of my friends, people I know, people I’ve met, people I’ve dated, a lot of them are survivors of some kind of violence. I’m a survivor of some kind of violence. A lot of people have not taken the time to take care of themselves and to heal. People walk around with huge wounds and a lot of our wounds cause us to wound each other. We wound ourselves and we don’t even know how to recognize love when it’s there because we’re so used to bullshit. That’s something we need to work on. It makes me sad. I mean, I do my healing. I tell people to get into therapy, acupuncture, pray, dance, laugh, eat, sleep in, whatever you can. Talk to your friends because being able to heal is a part of the revolution. You can’t fix everything outside of you and not take care of yourself. How can you heal anything when you yourself feel so broken?

There’s also a really strict way in which gender is policed. For instance, people make comments to me when they see me dressed butch because I’m like the femme with the glittery lip gloss with the nails done, like all that shit. So when I roll up in a button down and a tie and a Kangol hat and Tims, it’s like, people get fucked up and they don’t always know how to embrace that.

ELIXHER: Are you referring to people in the queer community?
YVONNE: Yea, sometimes. It’s just like, “Oh, this is something you’re doing now?” I’m like, “What the fuck are you talking about? Since you can’t see my titties, now you’re mad?” There’s a lot of room for androgyny within the Black queer community, specifically in New York, specifically in Brooklyn. So it seems like there’s a lot of room for female masculinity to exist, but it’s just another kind of box. There are folks who are like, “Yea, I’m butch” and I feel like they’re excluded. Even when I talk about how I love butches and I think butches are amazing and I love Black butches, people are just like, “Why?” They question that. But if I were to say I love dating transmen, ain’t nobody gonna say shit to me because that’s what we’ve come to accept in our community and it bothers me. Why can’t I just say that I like butches without it being that I’m “subscribing to a heterosexual idea of gender.” You don’t know me. And you don’t know my life. I also feel like femmes that are into butches and butches that are into femmes are kind of segregated from the community as outdated, as if something’s wrong with you. It’s like I’m not trying to date like a hipster dyke.

ELIXHER: [Laughs.]
YVONNE: And this is the thing, I make these jokes, but if you look at my friends they’re all like hipster dykes. And I say this to them, so I’m not being shady. It’s just that there’s a certain kind of privileged Black female queer aesthetic within our community and it annoys me because I feel like just as there’s this time of androgyny being embraced, there was a time when it wasn’t. There was a time when it was just this or that.

And then, should I talk about polyamory? Sure. Sometimes people cloak their fear of either intimacy or commitment or inability to communicate their desires clearly in polyamory. Polyamory actually gets a bad rep because a lot of people disrespect it and don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not taking it seriously or they’re just like, “I fuck a lot of people, therefore I am polyamorous.” No sweetheart, you fuck a lot of people. Being polyamorous requires a certain set of ethics and communication skills that you are not exhibiting right now, therefore you’re just fucking around and good for you.

ELIXHER: Don’t call it something it’s not.
YVONNE: You know? [Laughs.] And I’m speaking as someone that formerly identified as poly.

ELIXHER: So what’s next for Yvonne?
YVONNE: Oh chile. Hard questions! What’s the point of your life? [Laughs.] Um, so definitely re-launching my one-woman show. I want to tour with it. I definitely have a solid run in New York and want to go to Nigeria with it, South Africa, different parts of the States. I want to expand it even more. I want to have more art exhibitions. I want to continue to mix and match genres and be able to explore what an art exhibition looks like. Not just always be like, you’re gonna come, there’s going to be wine, there’s going to be cheese, people are going to have their noses turned in the air and talk about the paintings and point to them with their pinky finger.

I’m going to start working on an album. I can’t say that I’ve officially started working on it. I’m in the process. I am working on a novel. I’ve been working on my novel for ten years. That’s my baby and I’m really scared because I don’t want to let that go. I’m a perfectionist and as I grow, what I want to say grows and how I want to say it grows and it’s almost like if I don’t let it go, I’m never gonna let it go, right? So working on that. I think by spring I would love to have it in the hands of an editor or a publisher. I want to dance some more and do more push ups. [Laughs.]

ELIXHER: Is there anything else you want to add?
YVONNE: Just thank you so much for taking the time to interview me.

ELIXHER: Thank you.

To learn more about Yvonne’s work, visit her website and YouTube channel.

Also, check out her upcoming shows!

Fri., April 1st @ 8pmRivers of Honey, WOW Cafe (59-61 East 4th Street, 4th Floor, 6 train to Astor Place, N.R trains to 8th St, F train to 2nd Ave.) Doors @ 7:30pm, $10
Sat., June 4th @ 6pm: Volcano’s Birthight{s}, talk & performance, Brooklyn Museum, First Saturdays (200 Eastern Parkway, 2 or 3 train to Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum) 6 – 7pm, Free

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Your go-to resource for all things empowering, thought-provoking, and pertinent to Black queer and trans women and non-binary people.

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