No Selasi, African Literature Exists

I am worried that it is too late to do away with African Literature, as Taiye Selasi has proposed. It is not a question of how long the term has existed. To my mind it is the fact that it is as complicated as the identity it embodies, as nebulous in its construct and usage as the word “Africa.” Few paragraphs into her Talk Selasi might not realize that she contradicted herself. It is a slippery slope created in plain light:

“What do I mean, or not mean? By ‘African Literature,’ I refer not to the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent – but rather, to the category.”

It is strange that a category called African Literature can be distinguished from the body of written and oral texts produced by storytellers on and from the continent. What may we call the body of work produced by these storytellers? We see that Selasi identifies that there are storytellers who are on and from the continent, but she is skeptical about what to call them. I wonder how her Talk would have read if she admitted this difficulty in naming instead of an outright rejection of a category. Skepticism is certainly preferable to negativity, at least in this case.

I like skepticism because it becomes potent in my attempt to outpace the complexities packed into a word. The fact of Africanness, whether manifest in literature or in personal identity, begins from a scheme of naming perpetuated by thinkers outside the physical entity called Africa. To accept the term should be to be skeptical about it, and to infuse it with the sort of meaning it must embody today. If Africa is an idea, it is petty and nonsensical to imagine it out of existence. It’s rather helpful to ask: what might it mean today, and in what ways can this meaning be deployed in literature?

If you know anything about Selasi, you will recall that she is famous for brandishing her mish-mashed identity – at once a Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and American, and now living in Rome. She made this clear in 2005 with her essay about her Afropolitan identity (in recent weeks there have been renewed skepticism about the term, so it is unnecessary for now to share my antithesis). But she reinforces her commingled identity again:

 “…I was writing about personal identity, about the challenge faced by a certain demographic of Africans, both in and outside of Africa, in declaring their own identities.”

It became clear to me at a second reading that Selasi’s Talk is addressed to a group I do not belong to. The “we” she uses throughout her essay specifies an audience for whom “African Literature” is a label that can be discarded at will. I do not know who this group is or where they are located; are they “Afropolitan?” In my understanding African Literature is a parenthetical term within which I can stumble. I call myself an African writer because I am constantly trying to avoid a generalization. Within the category is a suggestion that it cannot mean just one thing. The audience Selasi is conversing with would likely imagine African Literature as just-one-thing, and they would see reason with any call for declassification. But I do not. My friends who write in Ibadan or Asmara do not engage in the fanciful performance of declassification, or the illusion that when African Literature ceases to exist their stories would begin to engage a global audience.

She quotes from Achebe’s “The African Writer and the English Language” to make the point that overlooking the complexities of the African scene is the “only” way to define African literature. Achebe’s vision was clearer than what she might have recalled. He wanted to define African literature in a way that did not overlook complexities, but embraced them as such. She wants us to embrace the complexities but she amputates the arms we should use. African Literature as a category is how we can embrace the complexities of our vast Africanness. It has become as simple as that to me.

I agree with her: “Of all the continents, Africa is the least eligible for generalization.” What worries me, however, is that if we discard the category in order to make room for its specificities and variations, there would be no endpoint to our degeneralization. Supposing we apply the same theory to the term “Nigerian Literature,” it would soon become clear that it does not account for “Igbo Literature” or the “Literature of the Nsukka People.” One specificity would lead to its underlying specificity, until we would be unable to call up the unspecified specificities.

Selasi says Ben Okri’s answer to the question “do you consider yourself an African writer” in a panel justifies her proposition. Okri had responded: “There are only two kinds of writers. Good writers and bad ones.” Well, I would answer in a different way. I would say, yes I am an African writer and I hope to be a good one. Why? I am African writer because I am Nigerian and Nigeria is in a continent called Africa and Africa is a word I am coming to terms with. In doing this I do not “unhook” a smaller story from a larger one; there is no danger of a single story in my admittance. I know there are multiple, even dispersive stories, but I need a term to account for that multiplicity. “African” is my term of choice.

When Selasi asks, “Why does it matter where a writer comes from? Does it change the way he writes?” I am wont to answer, yes it certainly does. For one the material and functional differences in the world needs to be dealt with. Literature helps with that – or I hope that the literature I write accounts for the material conditions under which I work. The more I consider my experience, my doubts and fears, my consciousness and biases, the more I realize that they enable me to offer imaginaries to the world.

For Selasi, though:

 “To write fiction, one must remove oneself — one’s consciousness, one’s experiences, one’s biases, one’s doubts and fears–as completely as one can. To write powerful fiction, one disappears altogether. All writers know this moment.”

Such a moment eludes me. I wish I knew how to enable an act of disappearance in my fiction. This proposition is made with such blatancy that we might have to conclude that Selasi’s vision exaggerates its importance, or undermines the scope it should consider. The question has shifted from that of African Literature to one of the writer’s handling of material. A dangerous proposal is made: to write fiction with as much absence you can master. But when you disappear, what is left of the work? Which part of yourself would be left to complete it? What will bear the marks of your suffering?

I hope I can embody the material I am working with. It has to break me, bring me to my knees and then promise redemption, all at once. Even if I wanted to disappear when I write fiction the material wouldn’t allow me to. In fact, “powerful fiction” would mean being so present you wish you could disappear.

How do we begin to make sense of Selasi’s declaration?

 “Afropolitan is a personal identity. Fiction has no need for such things.”

A piece of writing, like any godlike creative ability, takes its breath of life from its creator.  The creation should be ipso facto identified by the creator. Accordingly, a category such as African Literature invokes the identity of an African – or an Afropolitan, or an Afrofuturist. That my writing is termed “African” has something to do with the fact of my being and of my belonging. Selasi may want us to belong to “a world with human literature” or to “classify literature as we do music, allowing that the identity of consequence is the writing’s, not the writer’s,” but I remain convinced that you cannot fully imagine my writing if you do not imagine me. Besides, whether or not I write a story set in Nigeria, I necessarily offer imaginaries out of my personhood and my understanding of my place in the world.

Agreed, novels aspire to “global engagement.” Certainly in a good novel the map of a nation might turn out to be the map of the world. Yet I realize that the idea of global engagement is incomplete without one of a center; the point where a compass begins to draw a circle. By all means African Literature has to stand side by side with the rest of world literature. But the departure point matters. It must be named, termed, categorized.

 

Thought Scores /5 – More Sentences on Distance

photo

Drawing by Nabila, Victim of Drone Attack | Emmanuel Iduma

 

 

“In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding chaos existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal. Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation….

“Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world and – at its most extreme – abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd.”[1]

If home is the center of the world, in an ontological (not geographical) sense, have I shifted centers?

I feel I have been beguiled by physicality; I hadn’t known that it is through the visible that one orientates himself with the world. These days I am disoriented by the simple fact that I can’t find her face on every street.

 “The very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation.”

I have lost the ability to recall her face without looking at a photograph.

 “Without a history of choice no dwelling can be a home.”

When does a dwelling become “home”? If you could feel uprooted in every city you’ve chosen to settle in, what can you claim as home? What is your center?

 “The mortar which holds the improvised ‘home’ together – even for a child – is memory. Within it, visible, tangible mementoes are arranged….but the roof and four walls which safeguard the lives within, these are invisible, intangible, and biographical.”

You have to realize, as I have, that home is memory and memory prostitutes itself.

“Meanwhile, we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.”

I am implicated by demands higher than myself; it has carried me afield. It seems all my life I will have to keep outpacing distance, covering the tenuous ground between my Self and other Selves.

 

Note[2]



[1] All quotations from: John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, (London: Writers and Readers, 1984), 54-67

[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /4 – Sentences on Distance

What the Eye Saw in Passing | Emmanuel Iduma
What the Eye Saw in Passing | Emmanuel Iduma

I have to be conscious that I am getting an American education, and this wasn’t an inevitable choice.

I ask my sister to ask my Dad to send the winter coat he had used in the early ‘90s.

I am writing longer essays now like it takes all that time to make an object into a subject – writing is also making – and all that time to make finer and finer distinctions between what I think a work of art is saying and what it is actually saying.

About her boyfriend in a foreign country a girlfriend writes, “we are outpacing distance.”

It is not “culture shock” but a long gaze at unfamiliarity.

I now accept to write with an audience in mind, but I will have to fix the right scaffolding so I don’t lose grip on my vision.

It is writing and knowing you can’t cover all the possible grounds yet remaining in motion.

My friend is going to attend the burial of our friend and he has been having nightmares lately.

I think about the distance we cover in our nightmares as I recall another friend who dreamt that hair from his nose grew until it reached his feet.

When I sat beside a fatter man in the train, too close for comfort, I waited until a man on my left alighted at the next station, then I moved farther from the fatter man.

Let’s pull the viewer into a space and something will unfold over time, a continuous and active engagement with the work, or so an artist says.

Sending an email is an exercise in hesitation, yet I cannot prove this.

What did you do about your rent except borrow money from your home country?

I read too much opinion that I fear I wouldn’t have any myself.

It is like reading the schedule for a conference of writers held in 1840, and recognizing only three names.

What is the tenuous ground that makes binaries lose their steam, and how do I get there?

All I’m asking from every writer is, let’s see you in motion.

It was the strangest thing, having to exchange emails with my father.

Thought Scores /3

I

I’m scouring the world for metaphors; suddenly their meaning has been problematized. My positive trouble with the word began when I read Teju Cole’s introduction to Ivan Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative. Cole finds that in Vladislavic’s writing, there is an impressive “facility with metaphor.” “Metaphors provide the observational scaffolding on which the story is set.” Gifted this idea of “observational scaffolding” I began to slowly come to terms with the function of metaphors, invisible as skeletons, inimitable in their rifeness, gallant in their assault. Metaphors, as Lisa Robertson mentions in “How to Colour,” “inflate an economy.” Language, stingy in its generosity, economical in its gestures, is inflated by metaphors.

II

I just wanted to say

That I’d had a dream

My lips were to your ear

I kept saying things

That made you smile

There was no end

/

Darling,

I’m

“pushed forward by your idiom

like a giantess opening a window sash….”

— (Barbara Guest)

III

Writing about photographic representation in relation to Boko Haram has made me interested in the metaphorical kinship between cameras and guns. Paul Virilio in Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology posits a relationship between the development of automatic weapons—the repeating gun—and the invention of cameras that took rapid-fire images in much the same way. In “Photographs of Agony” John Berger writes: “The word trigger, applied to rifle and camera, reflects a correspondence which does not stop at the purely mechanical. The image seized by the camera is doubly violent and both violences reinforce the same contrast: the contrast between the photographed moment and all others.”[1] When I think of the photographed moment, I recall the distinction Berger made between the work of Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had popularized the term “decisive moment” in his 1952 essay. About Strand, Berger wrote: “His method as a photographer is more unusual. One could say that it was the antithesis to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s. The photographic moment for Cartier-Bresson is an instant as though it were a wild animal. The photographic moment for Strand is a biographical or historic moment, whose duration is ideally measured not by seconds but by its relation to a lifetime. Strand does not pursue an instant, but encourages a moment to arise as one might encourage a story to be told.”[2]

 

 



[1] John Berger, “Photographs of Agony” in About Looking, (New York: Vintage International, 1991) 43

[2] John Berger, “Paul Strand” in About Looking, (New York: Vintage International, 1991) 47

 

Note[1]



[1] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /2

 I

I think it was Francis Cape who set me on this path to figure out the work of art in an expansive political field. He said, simply, so convincingly I was shocked, “I make art to critique society.” Then, I thought, what can art do? I think specifically about my dealings with Nigerian politicization. “That other witchcraft called ‘politics’,” as Ali Jimale Ahmed is quoted to have called it, and as Uche Peter Umez suggests, is something my generation of Nigerian writers has “weaned” itself from. Of course I write as a person whose artistic medium is writing, but I also speak as one who collaborates with (mostly) visual artists and cultural operators. My Position, like Okwui Enweazor’s (in his remarks at “Curating the Curatorial”) is to avoid the “deep depoliticization” in which curators (replace this with writers, artists) take no responsibility. Simply: I want to take responsibility in the field of politics. And what kind of responsibility? It’s certainly not, for practical reasons, offering myself for an elective position. “Art teaches people how to see,” I heard Lucy Lippard say. It is finding a gesture and strategy with which to engage with society. I have to ensure that my work in public is not merely seen — it will have to “trigger emancipatory thinking” (Enwezor). The task of the work of literature and art, therefore, is to move towards the margin. “Unless art meets people where they live, it is not useful.” (Lippard).

 II

Photographs with an Audience (Houston), Nude 2, 2001, C-print, 30 x 40”.
Photographs with an Audience (Houston), Nude 2, 2001, C-print, 30 x 40”.

Stripped of its embattled content, where do you think this image was taken? I am merging two thoughts into something rambling and discursive — the silence of photography and Clifford Owens’ Photographs with an Audience. Yet they are powerfully linked. Clifford Owens describes his ongoing series Photographs with an Audience as the “construction of a photograph” with himself and/or the audience “through simple gestures.” In each iteration, Owens is both ringleader and provocateur. He invites his audience to respond to a question, and afterwards he photographs them. Don’t you think it takes unimaginable charisma, confidence, swagger, energy to make someone undress for performance art? David Levi-Strauss has suggested[1] that “If a photograph is ‘literally an emanation of the referent,’ then photography can conceivably be used to let things speak for themselves.” Look at the eyes of the man Clifford Owens is lifting up, and that of the men on the right and the left, and discover what this “referent” is. It’s not a pornographic referent that emanates. It’s the evidence of what Owens calls a “microcommunity.” A microcommunity that disembodies shame: we have to watch ourselves in ways that sidestep the physical.

 

Note[2]



[1] David Levi Strauss, “A Second Gaze” in Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics, (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2003) 122

[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.

Thought Scores /1

I

The word “gesture” has stayed in my head for weeks now. I hope to fulfill the wish of Bataille and work out an entry into a critical dictionary that examines the task of, and not merely the meaning of, “gesture.”[1] In its latest iteration in my thinking, it is tasked with suggesting the fate of printed books, magazines, chapbooks and journals. Earlier this week, Saraba Magazine released its first individual poetry chapbook, a suite of fourteen poems by co-publisher Dami Ajayi. In the press release, Dami Ajayi’s poems is said to have “notoriously stayed out of print” and in my preface to the chapbook I reflect on how poetry “is falling apart in my time” because the collection is self-published. Illa Amudi, Saraba’s graphic designer, came up with the idea that the chapbook can be “read on all PDF-compatible devices or printed for keep.” Pearl Osibu, in her impassioned “not-a-review” of the chapbook ends with “I know what I will do. I will print this chapbook and keep under my pillow – my bible, my devotional.” This idea immediately becomes a counter-argument to the point that printed matter is becoming obsolete. Print books are emotional gestures. I want to keep thinking of strategies to offer that gesture in my role as co-publisher of Saraba Magazine. I propose that “printed matter” will become a counterpoint to the amorphous, fleeting Internet; I have to, like Triple Canopy, offer strategies that slow it down.

II

While watching the second installment of Musée de la Danse: Three Collective Gestures, I made notes about contemporary dance. My involvement with criticism began with an attempt to write about contemporary dance, at a workshop where Qudus Onikeku was one of the facilitators. This was in November 2009. Mr Onikeku was part of 24 dancers that performed “Levée des Conflits Extended” (“Suspension of Conflicts Extended”) by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz. “The concept at the core of “Levée” is mathematical. The dance consists of a sequence of 25 simple and repetitive movements, but there are only 24 dancers. So when each of the dancers is executing one of the movements, something is left out,” reports Brian Seibert. While attempting to figure out what was unfolding in front of me, I came up with the idea that contemporary dance was the most successful invective against spectacularization. It is a troubling display of moving bodies, in a place that is better termed a “space” than a “stage.” And to use Sherman Fleming’s words, this sort of contemporary dance is a “noncommodifiable energy,” the kind that tasks you to see and not necessarily to understand. It’s like the “object theatre” in American performance art of the 1970s, or the performance pieces of Jelili Atiku: everyday mundane items become something other than themselves, yet their resulting substance is hard to define. But the bodies on display, like the mundane items, emerge as souvenirs attached to memory. We will not forget what we do not understand.

 

Endnote[2]


[1] An introduction to Bataille’s critical dictionary is here
[2] “Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to. I’ve never succeeded in keeping my word about “series” and side-projects – for instance “Afropicking”, Weekly Round Ups” – but “Thought Scores” will be an easier promise to keep as I hope that the items will be as though I’m performing thoughts on the go.

“Life Performs Itself” – The First Valediction

Scottish artist Susan Philipz is part of Soundings: A Contemporary Score currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Her work in the exhibition is “Study for Strings.”

“It is a contemporary interpretation of an eponymous 1943 orchestral work by Pavel Haas (Czech, 1899–1944), who composed the score while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The Nazis filmed a performance of the completed work at the camp as part of the 1944 propaganda film Teresiendstadt. Almost immediately after filming was completed, Haas and many members of the prisoners’ orchestra were killed. The conductor, Karel Ančerl (Czech, 1908–1973), survived the Holocaust, and after the war he reconstructed the composition.

For her 2012 reworking, Philipsz has isolated only the viola and cello parts. Recorded onto multiple channels, the piece is a note-by-note deconstruction of the original composition, replete with fraught silence.”

When I entered the room it was being played at MoMA I remembered what Yasiin Bey had done with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He’d performed “Coming Together,” a score composed by Frederic Rzewski.

“Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ is unquestionably one of the great Minimalist masterpieces….It’s really nothing more than a short text read over a repetitive, fast sequence, much of which is played in unison. But the overall effect it creates is of a very slow build up of tension to an incredible climax after 19 minutes.

The text comes from a letter written by Sam Melville, who was an inmate at Attica prison, and was one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica riots, where Melville was killed.”

_ _ _

Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 [His last Facebook profile picture]
Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 (His last Facebook profile picture)

Today I was told a friend had died. When I went to the bathroom to take my bath, fearing my tears would be inseparable from water falling from the shower, it immediately occurred to me how I wanted to mourn him – I’ll write an essay on his life and work as a photographer and actor with the title “Life Performs Itself.”

Everything about him surged with action and performance, as though the business of living was, as one moment followed the other, being restaged as drama. Even now, his death seems to me as life performing itself. I can think of it in no other way – it’s the only form of clarity I have amidst all the questions, the contradiction, the shock.

He performed life. It’s there, right in the way he looks in his profile picture on Facebook. Now he’s performing death. Nothing seems to be missing except his body. I carry about the memories I shared with him. The rooms we slept in together. The arguments we had. How I sometimes hated his guts, his bravado, his manner of approaching (no, performing) life.

Is it wrong to have the language for mourning? How can I write when I’m fighting tears? Why is my vocabulary not grief-stricken?

If I was in Lagos I might have seen him as he lay sick, and dying. Distance did not afford me that opportunity. And perhaps this is why my vocabulary isn’t grief-stricken. I mourn him with words, trying to figure out now what his life and work means. I might write about how I shared in his life in past tense, but not the photographs of contemporary Africa that he took. They remain an eternal presence.

This is Arrival

I was determined not to write about living in New York. This was necessary, I thought, since I did not want to indulge in the negligible demand to articulate my thoughts about immigration. In formal terms, I am not an immigrant. I was granted a student visa. In conceptual terms, however, I am one. I left Lagos without knowing when I would be back. My head was unbelievably calm. I felt I needed to let time run its course.

Immigration suggests permanence. Yet, seeing how dominant culture tells us how we can be outside and yet inside, a person who leaves his country to live indefinitely elsewhere must find ways to remain committed to an exiled identity. The most important factor being that he retains that identity – whatever it is that made him feel a belonging to the place he left.

Upon arrival here, things happened in ways I had not cared to imagine. It took me three weeks to find a room that fit my budget, and the uncertainties that attempted to shake my faith in the positive eventually slapped me awake from the dreamy nonchalance that I had carried along. Which has always been one of my faults; I walk into new phases with expectations painted in broad strokes so that in the end I am blinded by too much colour.

Sometimes I feel it is my impressionability, my Christian faith, that makes me as dangerously nonchalant as this. In New York these past weeks, I have learnt to cling to specific affirmations; life is always in flight and only right aims will reward the hunter; only clarified expectations will count.

I have been dazed by the recurrent nudge that makes me interested in anonymity. Every day without fail, a mass of faces – a rush of quick glances, unintended touches – assault me. It is an assault, now that I think of it. What has always fascinated me about big cities is that the inner, private space that keeps me from others is yet presented with astonishing visibility. I realize that it is a wrong idea to think I am not alone in the subway station where everyone is. Between me and the man sitting beside me there is a declaration of privacy.

Essentially, my visibility needs some air. I need some time to walk alone, be present in an absent manner. Presence-absence, despite its cheeky paradox, is alive with promise. It promises a certain form of visibility akin to speaking with a voice I didn’t know I possessed. Leaving appealed to me when I was in Lagos. I had felt drawn to all the things that were possible, partly because I went off on a less-predictable trajectory, rejecting the convenience of a predictable career. For instance, I wanted to write while organizing conferences, publishing a magazine, and curating photographs. None of these duties were impossible – but I needed invisibility to essentialize my expectations, and measure the levels of imminence.

Now in New York I feel like every time I need to communicate with my family in Nigeria I have to clear a foggy path. That I feel this way suggests complicated emotions. It is often a mix of gratitude, frustration, nostalgia and joy. I am grateful that it is possible to exchange instant messages, but frustrated that when on Skype I see a blurry face. I feel joy when it seems my lover and I will succeed in our quest to stretch romance across bandwidths. But nostalgia when I recall there were times when our eyes met and our bodies touched. On Skype the other day, she asked me to look directly into the webcam so that when she looked at her screen it would appear that I was looking at her. When I thought about her request days later, I felt embarrassed and belittled. It occurred to me that maybe the aliens that ran the virtual universe had sent us smileys with stuck-out tongues.

I am being circled by a whirlpool with letters spelling survival as well as significance. To earn a wage has never been as needful as it now is. Sometimes the fear that I will have no money fools around in my head, poisoning the responsibility I feel towards the ongoing project of relevance. But I am consoled by another cheeky fact – now in New York the gavel of beginnings has been slammed.

Many thanks to Dami Ajayi, who requested that I write a follow-up to On Leaving

A Great Expectation

There is a poem for every feeling, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Transcription of Organ Music” for the feeling of great expectations. To expect is to imagine a future, sometimes without colour, sometimes without direction, like the wind.

In my case the colour I see is white smoke. I see myself in the middle of whiteness. And despite the noise and movement around me, is an essential quietude.

The first stanza of that Ginsberg poem reads:

The flower in the glass peanut bottle formerly in the kitchen
                crooked to take a place in the light,
the closet door opened, because I used it before, it kindly stayed
                open waiting for me, its owner.

Being young is that feeling of a great expectation. People tell me this all the time, “You are young.” Before now I took it badly. To emphasize my youth, I felt, was to shoo away the importance of my presence in today’s moment. And worse, I didn’t feel young at all. Deadlines and to-dos whirled in my head. For me youth was a relative I was growing up with, who made constant journeys to undisclosed locations, yet familiar in his absence.

But now, reading this Ginsberg poem, youth is rushing into focus. The poem’s questions are side by side with its answers –

Can I bring back the words? Will thought of transcription
haze my mental open eye?
 
                The kindly search for growth, the gracious desire to exist of
the flowers, my near ecstasy at existing among them
                The privilege to witness my existence – you too must seek
the sun…

What does expectation mean if not to witness one’s own existence as it unfolds? What else does expectation mean except to have hazy dreams of tomorrow?

Being told I am young, I realize, is the greatest compliment anyone can pay me. It means I am expected to grow, to acclimatize. It means I am not being watched – the demands are less, the promise is endless. It means I am up to something. It means my ambition is utilitarian, my life is of use. And these facts wouldn’t change until I am old.

My favourite stanza of that poem –

My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them, they haven’t
disappeared, time’s left its remnants and qualities for me to use –
my words piled up, my texts, my manuscripts, my loves.

This feeling of great expectations thrives on the endlessness of time. Ginsberg writes mostly backward, recollecting amongst other things his first homosexual experience. My project, in response to his, is situated at the point where I wait to ‘transcribe’ my own music, as he has done in his poem.  It is mostly an ideal, but an ideal is okay since an ideal is mostly an unclaimed utopia. The way I feel is like I have the right currency to buy time; for all I care there will be no change in time’s market value.

How has time managed to become my ally? How has it left its quality for my use?

Christopher Okigbo had written in “The Passage”:

Ray, violet, and short, piercing the gloom,
Foreshadow the fire that is dreamed of.

In all, lulled by the feeling of great expectations, I have to listen for the wind. I have to wait for the passage of time, and enjoy my place in it.

Okigbo agrees,

For we are listening in cornfields
Among the windplayers,
Listening to the wind leaning over
Its loveliest fragment…

And, with deafening clarity, Nina Simone sings,

 “…tomorrow will be the twenty-second century.”

On Leaving

In the last one week I have slept little, staying wide-awake even after I have slept barely four hours. A friend says this is anxiety.  I don’t think I am anxious; it is like waiting to enter a room whose door is open.

I am making mental calculations about leaving. Repeatedly I have revised checklists, although I hardly visit the lists when making plans for the day after the list is made. I want to slow time, capture a year-full of memories. Ultimately I want to understand how the passage of time will be my ally. I want the texture of both worlds. I want to halve existence into ‘home’ and ‘diaspora.’ I want to fight nostalgia. I want to berate absence. I want to feel nothing has changed, or will change.

Affection is falling around me, like fresh wound being poked. But, why, I keep having the feeling that I am looking at affection and calling it the wrong thing. I have been prayed for, encouraged, advised, warned, and those words have formed a cordon in my head; so that I am encircled by affectionate words, all the while thinking that they will reach out to me later.

What is it about self-deprecation that is attractive? Every time I think of the congratulatory messages I have been receiving – especially after I got my visa – I fight the tendency to think that, no, this is ordinary, I am not a special person, I don’t want to be different from the others, there are hundreds of thousands who have done this before me. And the temptation to belittle myself is even more endearing when I think of the kind of glances I get when I mention I am leaving my home country, to the ‘West.’ I get the feeling like I’m being welcomed into the afterlife, like this is where my life has led to, like irrelevance will never haunt me again.

And to remember that I have invested a substantial emotional sum into the need to remain at home: I am in love; I have collected photos of my family; I have founded a new enterprise. It is even more painful when I realize that the boundaries of involvement – what becomes immediately gratifying – will shift. I will have to reshuffle my priorities; I will have to decide which projects are urgent, important or are not.

Despite shifting boundaries, I keep thinking of what new quality I will discover about love. How can I outpace distance? How can I appear everywhere so that those that love me the most will feel I am still visible? How can I berate absence?

Then, again, the passage of time – I am drawn to think that leaving Nigeria will mark the beginning of a different phase of my life, and ultimately a new variable in understanding my place in the world.

On Travelling

I

Travelling as I know it began as a failed experiment. As a young boy I was taken to the American Embassy to attend interviews for a visa. Till this day I have no idea why we were refused a visa – my mum, elder brother and younger sister, then a toddler. My father had began his studies in an American theological seminary, and he had friends who had successfully moved their families from Nigeria. Our failure to travel, then, must have been like shame reaching out to him. He returned home.

In the last few years I have had successful trips. But I find the failure I now feel is of a certain kind – homesickness, that tendency to be abroad and yet keep thinking of home, keep wanting to be home.

This is not new. I know of artists who straddle the convenience of Nigeria and elsewhere. I am enviously drawn to their homeliness when they are here. Their accent isn’t changed, the pidgin English they speak retains its brilliant texture. They hop into buses when the need arises, commuting out of necessity, their gaze as windy as their presence.

Windiness – I increasingly wonder if their homeliness isn’t rooted in their perpetual movement, and travelling. That they are Nigerian, but live in Amsterdam, or Paris, attend conferences in New York, California, that they are here-there, is perhaps the reason for their ease in dealing with Nigeria’s malfunction; whereas I find public transportation increasingly irritable, whereas I am becoming accustomed to ‘how things work’ in other ‘developed’ countries.

I might feel homely at home, but I am making extreme demands from home. I am demanding infrastructure, a stable life, a home. I am demanding that the gentrified chaos in Lagos, our emerging megacity, be pushed over the edge.

 

II

Pico Iyer made an enchanting claim that home isn’t ‘soil’ but ‘soul.’ When I listened to his talk at TEDGlobal, I was enchanted by the kinship I felt with his wonderings, this man whose ancestral homeland is India but adopted home is Japan. But the more I thought about it, the difficulty I had in understanding the simplicity of his displacement. Why could he find so much allure in the multi-person he had become?

Waiting to catch a flight, I chit-chatted with a Chinese-Canadian lady who had been my travel companion during the preceding flight. Of course her English sounded more Western than Eastern. Yet her features were remarkably Chinese. It disturbed me that a passerby would think of her first as Chinese before anything else, just as anyone who looked at Iyer was more likely to think of him as Indian before Japanese.

In other words, I want to think of how my ethnicity is home. I can’t – or wouldn’t be able to – think this through because I feel unqualified about ethnicity. What do I understand about being Igbo? Friends say I should learn how to speak Igbo better, but I have too many things to learn; like playing chess, writing a novel, winning the heart of my lover. The buzz of everydayness is an ethnicity I equally have to master, especially an everyday like ours invaded by technology and its allied tendencies.

 

III

Says Abha Daweser: “Travel is liberating, but when it becomes incessant we become permanent exiles.”

No one wants permanent exile.

“As every Lagosian knows, both bounties and hardships impose on all-comers the need to prove loyalty to the city.  After you are lagosed, wherever else you travel, the city tags along.” – Odia Ofeimun

Essentially, we need a soul to return to after we travel. For Ofeimun, Lagos is that ‘soul’ and it is so because Lagos tags along when he travels everywhere else.

I understand this tagging. I’ve been up and about, but month after month I return to spend days in Ile-Ife, where I keep finding my soul.

 

IV

What do we see when we travel?

I was on the same flight as a group of deaf middle-aged Asian travellers. I suspected they were going on a vacation. One of them, a woman, sat beside me. When she smiled at me I wondered if the world without sound could be replaced by the world with sight. I imagined that travelling was really about seeing, not hearing.

 

V

Ofeimun, again, in the last verse of “Lagoon” –

I let the Lagoon teach me
to forget street names
in order to gulp whole cities
like a glass of kola wine.

Will constant travel uproot us from our identities? How can we maintain the knowledge of the streets at home while gulping whole, global cities? Could it be that it is by travelling that we could know this?

Timeless

[2 January 2013. Umuahia en route Lagos]

When the year cast its irreverent ambitions upon him
mild-mannered C. wrote a list of goals

bearing longings for longings he barely remembered
the indescribable beauty of life’s watermark

Therefore the word timeless.