I wrote a short essay in response to a question posed by the editors of Words Without Borders: “Can international literature make us better travelers?” I was drawn to the work of Pita Nwana, whose novel Omenuko is considered the first novel written in the Igbo language, as well as an lecture by Chinua Achebe, where he denounces the work of T. J. Dennis, a missionary stationed at Onitsha.
“Sometime this year I will embark on a journey through nearly dozen towns of southeastern Nigeria, to research a book I am writing. The ethnic composition of those towns, and the language spoken, is predominantly Igbo. I will arrive with a sense of alienation from Igbo, a determination to immerse myself in the language, and a mastery of English. The matter for me, as I suppose it was for Dennis, is the terms of such an Igbo-English exchange. On my trip I hope to treat Igbo with the same attention I have paid English all my life—to consider, for instance, the subtle shifts in meaning in a word as it is used in a range of Igbo dialects.”
I send my gratitude to the editors, artists, curators, and friends who commissioned me to write essays this year, most of which appeared in print. A selected list, with links:
— “Beyond the Sea,” an essay on the philosophies of Édouard Glissant and Lydia Cabrera, in the May issue of Art in America.
— “Letters to Lina (II),” a second iteration of my correspondence with Lina Iris Viktor, published in a book accompanying her exhibition in Autograph UK, Some are Born to Endless Night.
— “Being With,” an essay on the companionship of Wura Natasha-Ogunji and ruby onyinyechi amanze, in a catalogue accompanying their exhibition, you are so loved and lovely, at Fridman Gallery, New York.
— Two essays, “Aftermath,” and “Archive,” in The Journey edited by Sean O’Toole and Simon Njami.
— “Measures of Power,” in Chimurenga’s book on FESTAC ’77.
— “Elsewheres,” an essay on artists and artistic practice in Lagos, in Practice Space, edited by Jo-Lene Ong and Rachael Rakes. Co-published by [NAME] Publications (USA) and DeAppel (NL).
— “Foreigners in a Foreign Land,” an introduction to the collaborative work of Arguiñe Escandón & Yann Gross in Peru, for the Earth issue of Aperture.
— “Notes on Happiness,” a short story in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Hotel Magazine.
Thank you to William S. Smith, Lina Iris Viktor, Renée Mussai, Wura Natasha-Ogunji, ruby onyinyechi amanze, Sean O’Toole, Brendan Embser, Jo-Lene Ong.
Onwards to 2020!
My friend tells me there is a difference between being happy and thinking of being happy. My friend also tells me there are two kinds of dog owners—owners who don’t look like their dogs and owners who do.
When I realize you’re staring at me, I return the attention. Then I look at your direction every other minute, to see if you’ve remained fascinated by my appearance. To know that I’m being considered, however temporarily, fills me with an intense feeling of worth. Perhaps, after all, I am good looking.
I consider myself an occasionally happy person. It is likely you see me sad-looking, the corner of my mouth tweaked to reveal my irritability, or criticality. It is also likely my joke is half-genuine when we meet for the first time. For, although I am generally polite, and will try to make you feel in good company, politeness scarcely reveals a state of mind.
The daily happiness to which I aspire is attainable. I am most happy when I turn off my reading lamp and lie on my bed. My solitariness, the enshrouding darkness, the stuporous feeling I get from thoughts receding to the base of my mind, and the knowledge that I am momentarily disaffected by the hibernating world—makes me happy.
Sometimes I think I have until I’m 28 to become famous. Otherwise I’ll die obscure.
I once read that fame is like a shiny linen suit you always wanted. Yet when you’re given you become over-protective, wearing it less and less until it can only be found in your wardrobe.
I still want the suit though, because I have a wardrobe. I mean this literally and figuratively.
It is very important I keep up appearances. Yesterday, waiting for the train door to open, I stood beside a young woman, black like me, only perhaps a few years older. I looked up at the same time she did. We locked eyes. I tried to pretend I was angry, or slightly irritated, so I could seem mysterious. When we entered the train, and sat, we were a few feet apart. I pulled out Widow Basquiat from my bag. I tilted the book cover so she could see it if she looked my way. I didn’t want her to think I am without suave, or unintelligent: Widow Basquiat is the rave-book of the summer. And when, suddenly struck by the exultation in Patrick Watson’s voice, I wanted to pull out my phone to confirm what song from Love Songs For Robots was playing, it occurred to me that if I did, she would see that I didn’t have an iPhone (although I do, but the screen is now broken), and think I am not fashionable, or worse, impoverished.
For the sake of others, I am always watching myself from outside, and making slight modifications.
Even though I knew he was lying, when he said he read six hours every day, I decided to emulate him.
The first thing he said, once he sat in a train full of people, was: Fuck me. Those words were whispered, but not tentative, quite limpid, like unchallenged truth, like an axiom. So I heard him. And I remembered a story, which I copied into my notebook, to retell in a book I’m writing.
Gustavo, the shoemaker, is old and dies. He dies in his shop whilst repairing a pair of sandals. An angel accompanies him to heaven. At one moment the angel speaks: If you want to, you can now look down, and you’ll see the footprints of your life. The old man does so – and he sees the long trail of his steps. Why is it, he asks, that two or three times, for quite a long way, my footprints stopped, as if my life had ended and I had died? How is it possible? And the angel laughs and replies: Those were the times I carried you.1
The storyteller tells us: All stories are also the stories of hands – picking up, balancing, pointing, joining, kneading, threading, caressing, abandoned in sleep, cutting, eating, wiping, playing music, scratching, grasping, peeling, clenching, pulling a trigger, folding.2
I now attach a copy of a card I was given, days earlier, by a woman. She said she was deaf. She walked around the subway car, requesting the kindness of strangers, handing out cards. One side read: Hello! I am a deaf person. I am selling this…Deaf Education System Card…to make my living and to support my family. Would you kindly buy one? Pay any price you wish. Thank you! (Over)
Over, on the other side, alphabetized fingers and palms – pointed, bent, rounded, firm, held, triangulated, askew. Most importantly, some of the fingers, held together, resembled the gesture anyone makes when lifting a thing, or attempting to lift a person.
In the movie I watched before I fell asleep, a corrupt policeman was bribed with a gold wristwatch. He held it uncertainly, as though contemplating the worth of his soul, while being driven in a taxi. He slipped out his cheap silver wristwatch and handed it to the man driving him, a gift.
When I woke the next morning, forgetting the movie, I thought I had worn a wristwatch in my dream.
The last wristwatch I had worn, given as a gift by my lover, had fallen from my wrist several months earlier. I kept it in an old suitcase. When I last checked, it worked despite its shattered screen, telling the wrong time.
I read about a dream, also. The dream was recounted in a book I bought at a bookstore crumbling with used books, where the shelves were shaped as a fortress, the light dim, and the sensuous smell was of worn paper. The bookseller was young and unsmiling, I suppose in his late thirties. The dazzle in his eyes like that of a far older man—acknowledging all the ways books make us overage.
The book is also a gift from a previous owner, who underlined words and scribbled on the margins. There are long unmarked passages, like fallow territory, indicating incomprehension, or disdain. Or, perhaps, knowing the book would be disposed, the first reader bequeathed those passages to a future inheritor.
In another book, one I bought after wandering for an hour in a bigger bookstore, where the shelves are mock ramparts, another dream is recounted. A lover is writing her lover in prison. She tells him: “The word recently has altered since they took you. Tonight I don’t want to write how long ago that was. The word recently now covers all that time. Once it meant a few weeks or the day before yesterday. Recently I had a dream.”1
In my dream we have surpassed distance.
- John Berger, From A to X (London: Verso, 2008), p. 10. [↩]