Most mornings in Lagos, at about 7:15 a.m., I go on a brisk walk. I turn south from a road linking the Lekki-Epe expressway and enter a wide pedestrian walkway, where, after I get to a bus stop at a junction, I head back home. I am almost often in an interregnum as I walk, the moment between waking up – attending to the rituals that shake me awake – and getting on with my day. I am not groggy, but it is early enough for me to feel I am still at anchor. The walk is my ferry, a portal to that day’s sense of self.
I am on that road, on aggregate, for 200 minutes, considering that I walk forty minutes each weekday. The minutes become, like keystrokes, units for measuring what might yet be written. I take note of what I see, or better to say my eyes rove of their own accord. I realise that what my senses recorded are, as it were, liminal, hidden from me until I begin to turn a phrase in my mind, seeking to fix it in writing.
Take for example: I see a man almost each time I’m walking. He is dark, gaunt and bears a face as blanched as it is placid, as though he has made peace with the extremity of his condition. He seems to pass the night on that walkway in Lekki, where he sometimes lies on a cardboard or stand half-naked, facing a railing that breaches a stenchy ditch, his jumble of clothes in a polythene bag beside him.
Watch my fingers, as I write that, moving to mimic the image in my head. Head entrusts ideas to hand in grumbling acquiescence. Sometimes hand tries to free itself from head’s impertinence – hovering over the keyboard, typing up, deleting, cutting, pasting, reformatting, or highlighting. Head is not entirely sure hand is doing the right thing. ‘How much longer?’ ‘Stop fussing over unwieldy letters,’ head says to hand. They continue like this until there is provisional consent, a tentative resolution.
After I return home, I take a shower, eat breakfast, and, depending on how long it takes me to attend to chores, I come to my desk at about 10:30 a.m. For a long while, it is difficult to temper the cacophony of the crowd of faces and gestures bubbling up in my subconscious from the walk. On the days I manage to find my way on the page, I write an average of a hundred words an hour, and my staying power is shy of three hours. Three-hundred words on the most promising day. Small by small. Medium might be message, but medium is unsparing. When the going is good, I feel like I am descending. No, that’s the wrong image. While the hours accumulate, I do not feel I have taken leave of the world, and so it isn’t descent but immersion. My room takes on the character of a baptismal font.
I find that, in those long moments between a decent sentence and several attempts to write one, I am often looking at my computer keyboard, at the space bar in particular. It is the longest key of all and can be touched from both ends at once. Its function is of similar specificity: as the only key that creates spaces – creates rhythm or cadence or pauses. It is the key that stands for the in-between; the liminality of a sentence converges in it.
When the novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai was a young man, he moved from one little village to another in Hungary, living a secluded life. He had friends, but one at a time. With each friend, he maintained a relationship in which they spoke in lengthy monologues – one day or one night he spoke, and the next day or night the other would speak. He was asked in a 2018 Paris Review interview about his grand, vast sentences, and he referred to those dialogues. ‘The dialogue was different each time because we wanted to say something very important to the other person, and if you want to say something very important, and if you want to convince your partner that this is very important, you don’t need full stops or periods but breaths and rhythm – rhythm and tempo and melody.’
The image of such a listener – sitting in silence, awaiting his turn to speak, equating knowledge with rapt and sensuous attention – teaches me how to write with patience, how to aim my writing at a patient reader.
One afternoon, I am driving home with my wife Ayòbámi, and we’re slowed by the traffic along one of the bridges connecting the Lagos mainland to the rest of the city. As is often the case during such stalls – during the incalculable duration between lurching forward and keeping your leg on the brake, doing that many times over – the road is spotted with hawkers and beggars. (There’s a joke that if you want to know how severe a traffic situation in Lagos is, check to see how many hawkers are gliding between cars.) A boy of about twelve taps the window of my car, stretching his hand. I reach for my wallet and give him some money.
On cue, three more adolescents come, all girls. I shake my head. ‘They saw you give money to the boy’, Ayòbámi says. ‘They want theirs.’ The girls persist, and when I do not turn to them, two leave. But one, who seems youngest, remains. She places her face against my window, saying nothing and waiting for eye contact. Each time I look at her, she mouths a ‘please’, or ‘sir’, or ‘God bless you’. We are prepared to give nothing, not cash at least, and we try several strategies to shake her off – shushing or threatening with our hands. Nothing works for close to fifteen minutes. Even when we move, she remains with us. Until I take down the window and make eye contact. ‘Go away from here!’
She is jolted by my voice. Her shoulders appear to make a jerking movement. She backs off and walks to a truck ahead of us, resting her back against a wheel. She is pouting, looking away. Her face has lost its resolve, acquiring a distinct weariness. I keep searching for her eyes, but our interaction is now over: in a few moments, the traffic clears.
I am hounded by guilt, a precise kind I feel for the first time in Lagos. I know it is so because of how long she stayed beside the window of the car, defiant and solicitous. But each time I return to the encounter, I also know that, at the risk of romanticising her destitution or the cause of it, I am less ashamed by the fact of my ungenerousness than of the power she gained over my emotions. I moved from pity to irritability to rage, and, afterwards, sadness. Most of all, when I sat down to take notes about the encounter, I wanted to identify my unrestrained emotions as the moral for a larger fable, to shift my shame to something abstract.
I now think of Judith, a poet I’d once met. Every year for six years, she chose a word to omit from her vocabulary. Once it was ‘my’. All year she stayed free of this personal pronoun. She’d avoid saying ‘my house’, ‘my book’, ‘my child’, ‘my mother’, ‘my self …’.
The audacity of this exercise lies in Judith’s incredible restraint, and in the courage to accept the frightening possibility that each word in use stands in place for another held back. The same potential of a ritual informed by deep belief, small and intense gestures that enlarge to take on solemn significance. Months of holding back the personal pronoun, like a word left so long on the tip of your tongue it tastes stale.
I consider the man I see on my walks, joined now in my thoughts by the pubescent girl. What does it seem like to access Lagos from an unhoused or destitute point of view? And why does it matter for me to write about them? Suppose like the poet I must learn to query precious words – to let self stand without my – and learn to test for how the practice of writing can attend to the displacement of personal pronouns.
Describing the length of a computer to me eighteen years ago, D., my classmate, spoke flattening his palms so the tips of his longest fingers touched. It was known as a palmtop, he said. Then he began to speak about the rest of its parts: a detachable keyboard of similar length as the screen, then a mouse, as well as other items whose uses he was yet to discover. He’d like to give it to me as a gift. His father had bought several, and he was sure he could get me one.
That term in boarding school, he had become my closest friend – which meant, in the pattern of those days, that an event or circumstance in class or at the dining hall or at the morning assembly had sparked a connection. As I remember, before he described the palmtop, we spent a lot of time discussing hardware and software and, in particular, word processors. If I were to be adept in using computers, he told me it was necessary to memorise shortcuts. Ctrl + S, Ctrl + P, Ctrl + V, etc. ‘And when I eventually give you the palmtop’, he said, ‘you’ll realise how useful these shortcuts are.’
Our favourite spot was a room in one of the unfinished hostels, close to the dining hall. We’d sit on the broken window frames and speak of the world outside: the girls we thought we were in love with, our hopes to one day live in Canada, which was close enough to America. He was a lanky boy with a patchy voice and gave the impression that his speech was once scarred by stuttering. You wouldn’t think by the timbre of his voice that he would be a compelling speaker, but when we spent time together, he did most of the talking. Mostly – perhaps because I’d been raised in a suburban church, surrounded by acres of uninhabited land – I thought of myself then as unworldly. I see how he might have used my naivete to his advantage. Of course, I didn’t know it then, and wouldn’t comprehend it until several years had passed: his advantage was that he understood, soon into our friendship, that I was desperate for mental transport. I needed stories, contrived or concocted, to temper my need to escape the confinement of home and school.
We agreed I’d come to his home to pick the sizeable box containing the palmtop during a holiday between school terms. I had enough money to take me to his house, but not for the return trip. I got to the neighbourhood he described as where his family lived, and, in order to confirm the exact address, found a kiosk where I could pay to use a cell phone to call his landline. The line rang through. Hours later, by a stroke of luck, after asking a passerby if he knew of such-and-such family, I managed to find his home. But he wasn’t in, said his surprised, stern mother. The interior of their house was nothing like I thought it would be. The dining area was cramped and unsightly, with plastic dishes packed in a corner and a jumble of rusty metal tins (and I registered the detail of the dining table in particular, since he often spoke elaborately about the finery of the dishes his family ate from). And so, since he was not home, I had to find my way back home on foot. I must have walked for close to six hours, registering the landscape as fatigued and sufferable, the very opposite of the promised palmtop.
A crane, a migrating water bird: Palamedes, it is said, invented the alphabet after watching the patterns made by flocks of cranes while in flight. That would suggest that each letter depicted corresponds to the spectacular swerve of a bird. Some days everything depended on how well the cranes could be observed. Their flight marked the turn of seasons, or remnant sources of water in the desert, where birds came to rest between Africa and Asia.
The metaphor gets multilayered: ancient augurists believed that if you find a knowledgeable bird, who has flown high enough to have seen the whole world, it can tell you where utopia was.
I can think of no other example to illustrate the fusion of writing with my perceived utopia of technology. All these years later, I understand that my desperation – my tolerance for D. and his compulsive lying – was similar to recording the swerve of an imaginary bird, a palmtop powerful enough to show me the shortcuts to a writing life.
Years ago, on the train in New York, I notice a middle-aged couple. The man places a lemon-green Max Air backpack between his legs, and he’s wearing blue jeans. It’s a near match with the woman’s blue trousers. They chat: the kind between people who have known one another for a little while, but have established a connection, to see where things might lead. The man pulls out cookies from his bag, passes it on to the woman, who examines it with
a small smile.
I realise they are Corinthians and Porter, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), in which they are described as follows: ‘Pleasant as their conversations were, they were also curious. Each took care not to ask the other certain questions – for fear he or she would have to volunteer the same information. What part of town do you live in? Do you know Mr So-and-so?’
The notion of characters with long afterlives: fiction is joined to non-fiction, as lived life to imagination.
Days after I saw the couple, while walking to teach a class, I chanced on a dim-lit bookshop. I’d walked on that street in the East Village almost every other day for two years and never seen the bookshop. I entered. The shelves, shaped as a rampart, tottered with the weight of used books. The sensuous smell of the cramped room was of worn paper. I glanced towards the young, unsmiling bookseller, who acknowledged me with a nod as he flipped a page. He seemed to be no older than thirty-seven, but the hunch in his gait was of a far older man, as though each page he turned led to an increase in his years.
The cover of the book I chose was in good condition, but inside, there were words underlined in red and scribbles on the margins. I scanned it from cover to cover, curious about its previous owner. Occasionally, there were long, unmarked passages. Perhaps, I thought, the first reader, deciding to dispose of the book from the outset, chose to leave those passages unspoiled: a gift to a future inheritor, who now happens to be me.
Writing narratives matters for how it may enlarge the potential community of readers, for whom there is a contiguous line between reading and kinship.
For several weeks, throughout November of last year, during the afternoon lull between working on a piece of writing and getting on with email backlogs, I take photographs of objects on my desk.
My study is on the second floor, and it overlooks a church that shares a fence with the compound of terraced buildings I live in. When I sit on my desk, I am with my back to the window, the only source of light to the room. The photographs I take while sitting – zooming in on piles of books, my computer keyboard, a cluster of open notebooks – are of low contrast. Yet it is the darkled sheen that keeps me interested in angling my lens in all possible directions, seeking the various configurations of the objects I’m surrounded by when I write, so that when I say I am immersed in the process of my work, I have pictures to back my claim.
Consider this photograph of three open notebooks: The focus is on the one in the foreground, and if I strain my eye, I can make out my scribbles on it. The farther I look, the more indistinct my letters. Yet it is the farthest notebook that matters most to me: I have written in it every day for a month, preparing, as it were, for the book I plan to write – outlining the plot, typifying the characters, copying out sentences from my research that might inform the historical background, writing test paragraphs. Each day, especially after I have taken photographs of the desk, I write in the notebook. How did I manage to do that all month? This takes me by surprise. I have never undertaken such an activity, habitually skirting through several notebooks, as though incapable of regimen. I imagine this sudden focus has to do with five years of attempting to write a novel – novels, in fact, at one point coming to 40,000 words – and failing to see the point, the through line to connect story with imperative.
I am most attentive after I have taken photographs. In the moment between my glimpse and the records I make, I stretch the lining of the present, honouring what outlives a moment. Just as the soldier who, as Andrei Tarkovsky recounts, is walking around in circles. He and others are lined against a hospital wall, about to be shot for treason in front of the ranks. They have been ordered to take off their coats and boots. But the ground is full of puddles. The condemned man, wearing socks full of holes, spends a long time looking for a dry place to put down his coat and boots – coats and boots he would have no need for a few minutes later.
I keep the photographs of my desk in the same month I write in the notebook, one regimen overlapping with the other. It is like a photographer I know, who has worked with the same medium format camera since the late 70s. His camera is not so much a device that takes pictures of what is visible, but one through which he learns what is peculiar about a place. Or perhaps it is that, by using a camera for that long, he understands his special relationship with the world, as if the rays of light cast on his eye refract in a unique manner. Think about this. It is like two people reading the same book, imbibing its ideas in the same sequence. Yet, do they raise their head in miscomprehension at the same sentence, or nod at the acuity of the same phrase?
After these month-long exercises, it seems okay to take shelter in process. Okay to make a pact with an elusive narrative, to keep track of its mutability. I want many more months like this. Not just so I can know for sure when I am ready to write the book without stopping, but simply for the pleasure, and indeed intensity, of daily regimen. Like Robinson Crusoe, that famed voyager, making a table on his new island. An attempt to render the basic and necessary. In the notebook, I have made no rule except that I write today’s date. And to pay heed to Anne Carson, in a note on her method: ‘Copy down whatever vibration you see while your attention is strong.’
You know, I keep these notes as compromise, in case I never get to the main thing. The main thing, what I pass on occasionally in vignettes, is yet unknown to me. My notes are daily sweepings, to clear ground for a story on the horizon.