In Bitter, acclaimed Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi returns to the world of their National Book Award finalist YA novel Pet. Pet follows Jam, a Black trans girl residing in the peaceful city of Lucille, who meets Pet, a horned, clawed creature that emerges from one of her mother’s paintings in search of purportedly slain monsters. In this prequel, youth-led revolutionary protest in Lucille is met by growing anti-protest violence, culminating in the summoning of the ominous and otherworldly Angels first introduced in Pet. These Angels hunt monsters, too. Emezi spoke with PW about the difficulty of defining justice, the role of Black community organizers in inspiring Bitter, and taking a well-earned year off from releasing their books.
What first drew you to storytelling?
It's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I think I started writing around the same time as I started reading. The adults in my life, specifically the educators, were really encouraging of it. The principal of the school I attended from two years old all the way to the end of high school is a Black woman educator from Ohio who had married a Nigerian and started this school in Aba, Nigeria where I grew up. Both she and her husband were super encouraging. At the time, I was writing children's stories and she made a deal with me. She would give me a blank tablet, and if I returned it with a story in it, I would get another blank one. We did that for a couple of years, and she saved all the children’s stories I wrote and gave them to my parents.
What compelled you to expand on the story you began in Pet?
I started writing Pet in 2017. It was originally designed to be a trilogy. I won’t be writing the third book after all, because writing these books was really, really difficult.
With Bitter specifically, I wanted to write about revolution but community. A lot of the conversations that I’d been having and that I’d been hearing have involved a lot of guilt around not being able to be on the front lines and kind of judging what role others were playing, making fun of online activism because “it's not real.” I wanted to address that in Bitter. I wanted to address the concept that we need everyone in all our different roles, that if you can find your pocket and fight from there, then you’re doing enough. That we don’t have to break ourselves to fit the ideal of what a real activist is or what a real revolutionary is.
How has the response to Pet and Bitter surprised you?
One thing about how people react to my books is that it never actually tells me anything about my work. It always tells me about the people who are reading my work.
Just writing a world in which a trans girl is loved and cherished and has access to medical care--the fact that people reacted negatively against that wasn’t really surprising because I know the world is really transphobic. I’ve experienced that very personally. In some ways, I think Bitter is going to piss off people more than Pet did. Because Pet is in this world that doesn’t exist yet, but Bitter, you can relate that clearly to the world we’re in now.
Why did you include Mariame Kaba’s quote, “Hope is a discipline,” in Bitter?
I included that quote about hope because Mariame Kaba is one of the Black community organizers whose work is foundational to the world of Lucille. Talking about ending violence, about dismantling the prison-industrial complex, and supporting youth leadership, those are the concepts that really underpin the world of Pet and Bitter.
How did you decide how justice should be defined in Pet and Bitter?
It was really difficult to write a world like Pet or Bitter because, at first, I thought I had to come up with a solution.
One of the questions both novels ask is “What does justice look like?” I don’t have an answer for it, which I’m glad I figured out. It was too much pressure.
What helped me was thinking about the fact that we didn’t always have police; we didn’t always have prisons. In our Indigenous societies, how did we figure out justice without those two things? So it has existed before, which means it can definitely exist again.
What projects can readers expect from you next?
Content Warning: Everything is my first poetry collection. I actually was a poet way before I started writing fiction. My adult novel, You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty , is out in May. I was supposed to have two books out next year: another YA fantasy, and a separate literary fiction novel with Riverhead, but I postponed them. I’ve done seven books in four years. I need to take a break from publishing, which I’ve never done since I released Freshwater in 2018. I’m going to see what it’s like to have a year where I’m not releasing a book, and maybe six months when I’m not editing a book.
Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi. Knopf, $17.99 Feb. 15 ISBN 978-0-593-30903-2