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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
[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.
Failing to daydream a life of transcendence, a certain wayfarer found himself at the mercy of his ambitions.1
The first goal he set for himself was to find Voice, knowing as many others before him that to seek a voice was to find a calling, life’s worth, a process that suggested in other words the slippery concept of essence, the indeterminate polemic of illogic, and a measure of aimless strides, akin to taking a stroll in a village where life’s needs were bare and unwanting, akin to a morning of infinite bliss and wordless presences, akin to what’s called Borgesian logic, in sum a world only imaginable by Marquez, everything human and at once transhuman – the wayfarer knew if he’d ever attain a voice, in addition to a calling, his life would be one found in many, the memory of experiences and not places, one-off yet unwholesome, language yet inaudibility; at such time he’s reminded of Mandelstam – that feeling that the language of the time isn’t enough and wouldn’t be.
He knew that the first goal led to a second, Find Yourself, in which living was a collection of searchings, an attempt to perfect the eye, taken to agents of the supernatural, never able to hit the mark. On this quest he discovered the ambivalence of hyphens, mishmashes, middle kingdoms, the industry that negated in order to affirm, fresh nuances, many subtleties sidestepped for the sake of the general, yet in addition to these goals the wayfarer was confronted with the dilemma of leaving the world, not beguiled by the deceptiveness of fleeting pleasures, by streetcars called success, by obsolescence lurking in everyday life like ruined hopscotches
And thinking about dying, he wished to go as a cup emptied, elements of his soul dispersed in a dreamlike museum of silver lights, a bellowing voice welcoming him home.
- I wrote this poem while I was returning to Nigeria from Libreville. We had stopped in a Cameroonian village, and I left my companions for minutes, typing hurriedly on my phone. It has undergone several revisions – and after a few comments, I decided to make it a prose-poem, prose being the only thing that comes easily, at this point, for me. [↩]
Eight Letters to a Young Writer evolved as a fictional exercise addressed by Teju Cole to an imaginary young Nigerian writer. With the encouragement of Molara Wood, the editor of the series, Cole tried to move from discussions of simple writing precepts to more complex things like voice and calling. Those pieces, first published on the now defunct NEXT Newspaper, were made available by Cole as a single downloadable PDF file. From that PDF I have gleaned 20+ tips/lessons on writing. I consider the letters one of the most important resource on the art of writing fiction that has come out of Nigeria in the last five years. And I share in Teju Cole’s aspiration that young writers in Nigeria and elsewhere find the tips useful.
- There are few things more resistant to tutoring than the creative arts. All artists are after that thing that resists expression.
- Keep it simple. There are many who use big words to mask the poverty of their ideas. A straightforward vocabulary, using mostly ordinary words, spiced every now and again with an unusual one, persuades the reader that you’re in control of your language.
- Remove all clichés from your writing. Spare not a single one. The cliché is an element of herd thinking, and writers should be solitary animals. We do our work always in the shadow of herd thinking. Be expansive in your descriptions. Dare to bore.
- Avoid adverbs. Let the nouns, adjectives and verbs carry the action of the story.
- When reporting speech, it is enough to say “she said” or “he said.” You must leave “he chortled,” “she muttered,” “I shouted,” and other such phrases to writers of genre fiction.
- Aim for a transparent style so that the story you’re telling is that much more forceful.
- Read more than you write. In expressing the ambition to be a writer, you are committing yourself to the community of other writers.
- Your originality will mean nothing unless you can understand the originality of others. What we call originality is little more than the fine blending of influences.
- Be ruthless in your use of what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. Add your imagination, so that where invention ends and reality begins is undetectable.
- Be courageous. Nothing human should be far from you.
- Avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning
- Characters do shocking things, not because the author wishes to shock, but because it is in the character of humans to misbehave.
- If you are withholding information, there should be a reason for it. The trick of it will be to give information, when you give it, in a way that feels organic.
- Continue to fail better—failure of a kind that might even be better than certain forms of success.
- One of the things that matters most is voice. Great writers know all about it, and ordinary writers ignore it.
- What all great works have in common is that the voicing is secure. There is evidence, throughout, that how the tale is being told is precisely how the author wishes it to be told.
- Try to better bind the reader to life. Place at the heart of a story a voice that is neither so vague that it applies to everyone, nor so eccentric that none can relate to it.
- What I try to do in my work is to find out how the gestures of various arts can be smuggled beyond their native borders, music that exceeds music, painting that exceeds painting.
- Look at your environment as though you were a child, or a foreigner, or an alien from another planet. But to see what is happening, you need to reform your eyes. Your writing talent should consist of making the ordinary interesting.
- In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail. Your sensibilities have to be retrained so that they catch what others miss.
- Luxuriate in the formalized chat that is called an interview. At times, you can read something in one of those conversations that feels like it is a secret code passed from the author directly to you, in the guise of a public utterance
- Keep an inner fire; keep it on your own behalf and on behalf of so many people who are suffering because of the system.