Equal Fates III

People push others towards approaching trains. This happens occasionally in New York City. When I first arrived my friend S. said: Don’t stand too close to the edge of the platform, there are crazy people here. Sometime last November I saw a notice reporting the recent victim of such manic shove. The photograph, grainy from repeated copying, depicted a man with Asian features. Perhaps my age, perhaps in his early thirties. I walked on, towards the platform, fighting chilling thoughts. Two women who were waiting for the coming train discussed the tragedy. One said to the other: if any motherfucker pushes me, he goes down with me.

I now remember this woman. I wonder if she would have the time, in the instant it takes a perpetrator to push her forward, to reach back to drag him along, towards death. And if in the last moment of her life she would be consoled by the knowledge of shared dying.

This is how I’ve lived

I moved into this apartment in early October 2014. In mid-November, I traveled to Nigeria for a weekend, and lost a bunch of keys in the process; it included a key to the apartment building, my apartment, and my room. I paid almost $200 to a locksmith who helped break open my room. Although I got a new set of keys, I am yet to request for a new key to the building. Since then, I’ve always waited, reliant on chance, for neighbors who are entering or leaving.

Yesterday, April 3, I left the keys to my apartment in my room. Each time I’ve forgotten the bunch of keys, I’ve depended on my roommates to help open the door. But yesterday they were out of town.

I took the elevator to the basement, and knocked on the superintendent’s door. After about five minutes of knocking, a young man thrice my size opened, and I explained my predicament. He asked for a minute. Seconds later, the superintendent stood in front of me. He explained to me, straightaway, that he didn’t know who I was. I’d have to call the owner of the apartment to speak to him, and then he’ll consider letting me in. I called my roommate, whose uncle had transferred ownership to us. He spoke to the superintendent, and the matter was settled. The portly young man rode upstairs with me to open the door. I said my solemn thanks, truly grateful.

While I readied for bed, I felt disconsolately bitter at myself, for steady insouciance. First I imagined the conversation my roommates would now have about me, behind my back. They were likely to discuss my life as off-kilter: I couldn’t remember an item as essential as my keys. And then I imagined how I might have appeared to the superintendent: an unrecognizable black male, new to the city, surviving only through magnanimity. Otherwise homeless.

This is how I’ve lived: dependent and potentially disposable, even for a night.

 

Dilemma-of-the-New-Age-by-Emeka-Okereke

 

I’ve returned to this photograph many times without looking at it; it’s installed somewhere in my understanding of the ways I could erase myself, or become anonymous.1

I rarely think of committing suicide; but there are times I want to comprehend the burden of those who are nameless in death, whose identity are summarized in a set of numbers.

  1. Image credit: Dilemma of the New Age, (c) Emeka Okereke, 2012 []

Equal Fates II

With great anxiety I wrote
an essay about mass deaths

Remembering old gravestones
I’d seen in Sarajevo
also in Ijebu-Ode

clustered beside sidewalks
but emptied of vistors

As if in the years
between those burials
& my travels

an unquestioned doctrine
about human immortality
had gained young followers

Equal Fates

Sometimes time
guised as an arbiter of
things to come
dazzles you with premonition

Somewhere in a logbook of deaths
you find your name written
at first in unsteady lettering
but soon a sure one

Do not fight this

Even unnamable deaths
share this fate

– in ledgers of justice
all entries are equal.

Mass Dying

I’m afraid, as you are, of anonymity—the unself, a forgotten name, an unremembered identity. This is the tyranny of mass deaths, and mass burials.

Where do stories hide after a bomb has gone off, after a town is left massacred? If stories disappear, how can they be returned to life? And if a name lies hidden within the leftover bits of a destroyed market, or a massacred town, is it still a name?

All over the world there are anonymous gravestones. In all the places where death is an ominous bridegroom—death that comes without warning—names disappear with a loud blast.

I think gravestones matter. I think death is scared of being named. If we look without fear at shredded limbs and blood that smells like melted metal, we’ll traverse the anonymity of unnamed corpses.

When dying becomes shared, a strange disruption occurs in the balance of justice. Justice works with identification, with straight not crooked fingers of accusation. It seeks a name, an act, it admits no exception. Too many destinies are decided in one loud blast, or in one devastating massacre—this cannot be justice.

What happens in a mass grave is outrageous. All paths intersect; limbs cross and skeletons misplace their bones. There is nothing purposeful in lacking an identity, even in death.

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Death, rightfully, is said to be the imagination of the living. When hundreds of people are named dead, following a massacre, the hashtags that follow aim to discover the nature of dying. Mourning is imagining your own death, nothing more. It’s a form of humility to admit that you mourn yourself; that while mourning you realize the immediacy of life’s moments. Grief should be utility. Grief should become a way to avoid unnecessary dying. Anything else is like frolicking in the wrong garden.

In Nigeria, where ethnic fault lines couldn’t be made to intersect by amalgamation, grieving takes this unique utilitarian shape.

Go mourn yourself.

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Breyten Breytenbach tells a story:

Today I heard about two twin ladies in their great old age, having lost both their husbands and the memory of orgasms and names, sitting together in a room warmed by an evening sun, and the one turning in utter uncertainty to the other to enquire plaintively: “Tell me, am I alive?”

The ultimate despair comes from sorrow jagged from overuse. Too many questions erupt in a climate of terror, but none more significant than those that interrogate the borders of memory, experience and existence. I think of too many Nigerians in the Northeast and North-central wondering whether life lived as a blur is still life at all. Today you wouldn’t need to be of a great old age to lose the memory of orgasms and names. Terror works the same way rape works; during the rapacious act, all pleasure is impossible, even the impulse to imagine pleasure.

Those who have the luxury to afford long moments of laughter must not overrate their experience. They must live with the burden of shared joylessness. For now there are moments of security in southern Nigerian cities. Those who live there must be desperate about enjoying this luxury while they can.

It’s important to remember that joy, in Nigeria today, is an unclaimed territory.

The Nakedness of a Stranger

Most mornings after I’ve taken my bath I return to my room to moisturize my body with cream. I am naked while I do this. As most windows are, my window is divided in two parts. One part is covered with discarded sheets of paper, from an old news journal. The other half of the window is not fully covered with paper. I do not have a curtain. The room is not protected from intense sunlight, or intense peering.

Often, while moisturizing my body, I look out of the uncovered window, and imagine my naked body is being watched by a stranger in the opposite apartment building. I worry about this, but not always.

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I read The Stranger by Albert Camus right after I had read Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, published almost 60 years apart. Both books are in conversation. The final sentence of Carrère’s book, “I thought that writing this story could only be either a crime or a prayer,” reminds me of what Camus termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.”

What is this nakedness, and what is this absurdity that is equally a crime as it is a prayer?  A stranger? An intimate adversary?

The reduction of things to the absurd interests me. “Absurd”—out of tune, out of harmony with reason or propriety—is, in a sense, the story of a man who kills his entire family to protect them from his eighteen-year lie. It is the story of another man who kills without premeditation; when asked he says he did it because of the scorching heat of the sun.

A Man Shouting on the Street

A man shouting. It’s almost 9pm and I am walking with a new friend. It snowed heavily today. Manhattan has been washed, but remains without the sparkle of an unblemished city. The shouting man struts in the middle of moving cars. At first we do not see him, only hear his voice. Then he appears, hands held up in surrender. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” he screams, the lone voice in a city of great noise. This is the first time those words have brought me to a pause, as if I must join him at once.

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From “Kindness”, a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa:

Sometimes a sober voice is enough
to calm the waters & drive away
the false witnesses, saying, Look,
here are the broken treaties Beauty
brought to us earthbound sentinels.

Letter to my Father

Dear Father1,

The language with which I now address you will eventually become a secret thought. These are thoughts I pass along as though a secret, which when disclosed remain undisclosed. Once, you asked me, “so, all you want to do is read and write?” I laughed but you didn’t, and I gave no response. It has been three years since, and I return to that question in this letter, for the first time.

Now I must disclose my vocation. My vocation remains shadowed by a failure to understand. The energies I have expended since you asked your question, and which I now distrust, are energies of comprehension. You understand comprehensibility better than I do. Your work has been to preach Christ’s gospel. I know from watching you – even while washing stains off your white cassock – that preaching is piling logic on logic, like the scaffolding used to build a tower. It’s the same thing with legal practice (the laughable notion that an argument progresses in a linear curve) which I trained for with fees you paid. But what I’m drawn to isn’t the piling of logic, or clarity, or even catharsis. I prefer ineloquence, that moment clarity makes a detour.

The ability to comprehend suggests the fixing of what remains broken. In your sermons you patch up a narrative, making it linear, promising your listeners nothing short of an interpretation. But contradictions emerge in the very act of conveying your thoughts and message. People are listening for meaning through language, but language has never promised meaning, and meaning has never promised it would be properly represented by language. This is where the secret lies, in the coupling of language and meaning to produce incomprehensibility. You might insist otherwise, because you have always felt your dedication is to the translation of God’s word into meaningful and livable principles. Yet I reiterate that these principles would remain indecipherable secrets because they attempt to gain intelligibility through language.

This shadow of ineloquence, as a precursor for my vocation, is double-shadowed by the dissolution of reality. I think often of a worldview that crumbles each time it is created, a world-without-form that God’s hovering spirit didn’t speak life to, humankind remaining clay without the breath of their maker, stasis without logos. This is reality that backtracks constantly, reboots, and reconfigures its own assumptions.

I am always shaken by the suggestion that there is a trajectory of success I must chart. All success is premised on familiarity, but I am not familiar with anything but the dissolution of the real. I write novels because they are works of dissolution, building life by breaking it, breaking life by building it. I do not write novels because I have to respond to the world. The world as-you-know-it dissolves when I write, only because you think of the dissolving world as the real world. But I can promise that this dissolution is nothing in the negative, nothing depressing. It is the affirmation of the world’s dissolution, a yes to the imaginary.

I have decided to practice a vocation that does not keep pace with events, or try to interpret them. My real dream is not to merely become a mailman of truth, hence a conveyer of events, but to always outpace communication. There is no deciphering in my vocation; it is a waste of skill and time. There are people who are committed to analyzing the intellectual situation, or predicting it. But I consider them trapped by the false idea that history is linear. I am engaged in the pursuit of a higher ideal, which is to consider a dialectical contemporary that refuses to name time.

In this sense I refuse to be carried away by the accelerated occurrence of events. (Baudrillard—“In their accelerated occurrence, the events have in a sense swallowed their own interpretation…They are what they are, never too late for their occurrence, but always beyond their meaning.”) I intend to live and write in a way that decouples experiences from meaning, so that what remains are non-interpretable, non-social realistic, a livability that hovers above time. Walter Benjamin would have called this the “Angelus Novus” but I’ll prefer an image having no claim to progression.

The secret thought through which my vocation is borne, dearest father, is this decoupling of occurrence from meaning. And because this secret reinvents itself as a secret, even to me, you will have to ask again what my vocation is.

E.

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  1. In 1919 Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father, in a sense similar to mine, but also quite different, since I do not assume a prosecutorial stance. My teacher Dejan Lukic pointed it out to me after I turned in this letter as a response to a prompt on “secret thoughts” and “poetic singularity.” I found it strange that Kafka began with “Recently you asked me why I maintain that I’m afraid of you,” which is the same sort of sentiment I evoke at the beginning of mine. Howard Colyer’s 2008 translation of Letter to my Father (Brief an den Vater in German) is a good one []

Dead Writers

I have just read Osip Mendelstam’s short essay, “On the Addressee.”1 In it he writes:

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means I have become its secret addressee.

In response, I thought of seafaring dead writers. I like dead writers very much. They are outside linear time, linear time that I hate very much. They have surpassed chronology; they have no claim to the transient constraints of survival, the many questions fame and acclaim might pose to a living person. Their oeuvre has been compressed into a moment of existence, a moment of being in the world, a moment that is neither past or future or present, beyond calendar years. Mandelstam would have called this moment an event, not merely the token of an experience which has passed.

Dead writers are not merely a token of an experience which has passed. They are the token of an interminable experience.

James Baldwin. Edward Said. Osip Mandelstam. Walter Benjamin. C. S. Lewis. W. G. Sebald. Clarice Lispector. Christopher Okigbo. Nadine Gordimer.

The works of dead writers are a trans/action. Trans, a going across, a wandering-between, interests me. It is a place time is broken open to allow more insertions, more disrupted histories. In this trans- place I can exist at the moment of Baldwin’s “A Stranger in the Village,” Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Lispector’s The Hour of The Star, Sebald’s Campo Santo, Okigbo’s “The Passage,” Gordimer’s “Living in the Interregnum.” I exist, I am imagined into existence. I am, in other words, trans-time in the writing of dead writers. I am the friend they have written letters to.

To whom then, Mandelstam asked in his essay, does the poet speak? “We do not know, nor will we ever know, where this audience is…” “We,” living writers. The living poet has an unknown audience, but the dead poet’s audience is the finder of the message in the bottle. Finding the bottle takes time—even outdistances time.

Now I ask you, you whose eyes dances across this page, to think of death as something different from the stopping of time. This death is immortality. This death is eternity. This death is animated sleep. This death is not-death dying.

I ask you, also, not to take living writers very seriously. We, who can even dare be named writers, are bound up by the prejudices of time. We are constrained by editorial input, denied flights of fancy, steered towards a publishing industry increasingly serving as a product line.

Mandelstam: “…appealing to a concrete addressee dismembers poetry, plucks its wings, deprives it of air, of the freedom of flight. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise. In addressing someone known, we can speak only of what is already known. This is a powerful, authoritative psychological law. Its significance for poetry cannot be underestimated.”

  1. A new issue of New Observations responds to this essay through varied essays and images. []

“It takes a lot of experience to be a writer.”

A young woman beside me on a flight to Moscow wrote intermittently on a small notebook. When I peeked over her shoulder I saw that she wrote in Russian alphabets, and the pages held clusters of sentences, boxes of words placed one page after the other. It took me a while, but I got around to speaking to her. She was good-looking, had a ready-smile, and in one-word, was attractive.

“Are you a writer?” I asked. “No,” she replied immediately. “I’m an illustrator. ” Then she added what sounded like “I’ve had some ideas for a long time, so I’m writing them down.” Seconds later, she said, “It takes a lot of experience to be a writer.” I replied with a hmmm, impressed by the elegance with which she conveyed her conviction.

We said nothing for a few hours. There was a second opportunity to speak with her, and I told her I had been thinking about what she said, about experience. I recall now that after the in-flight meal was served I said to her how stressful it was, sitting in a place for 8 hours, and she said we were going to be “broken” at the end of the flight. Her English was, in some way, effortless, yet spoken with what I thought were bursts of timidity, as if she was feeling her way through the language before uttering a word. When I said I’d been thinking of her thoughts on writing, she said, “oh, you don’t agree?” I said I wasn’t sure if I agreed or not, but I understood her point. We talked on, and I mentioned I’d been writing from early on in my life, but gained perspective as I grew older. Yes, she agreed, people shouldn’t call themselves writers until later in life, after at least 20 years of practice, when they had sufficient experience.

Fiction and the Meaning of Life

How can we imbue the novel with a quality that is less about social realism, more about the meaning of life? (“The ‘meaning of life’ is really the center about which the novel moves — Walter Benjamin”) This is the question for the African novelist who seeks to escape the niche of polemicism and social realism. It goes further to the root of the complaint people make nowadays about the inadequacy of fiction to compensate for the hyper-realness of the occurrences in the world. If novels can somehow be tasked with something other than realism, perhaps with meditativeness and a proliferation of ideas, then we can gift stories that are not judged by their familiarity with social realities but how they are seeped in meandering through the pressing questions of our time.

(“The novelist…cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis.'” — Walter Benjamin.)

My point is that the imaginative work of fiction cannot be circumscribed only as social realism. In the wake of growing interest (and growing commodification) of African literature, we have to demand for other narrative niches that approach the meanings and purpose of life differently. This is not merely a call for genre-bending narratives, or experimental writing.