Akachi Was a Remarkable Human Being: On Mental Health, How Not to React, and What Universities Can Do to Help

 

1.

WITH AKACHI

I have known Akachi for years, as a poet acquaintance from The Writers’ Community, UNN, but until this year, we hadn’t had a conversation that was personal. On 14 April, I saw a Facebook post by him and was worried. Benson confirmed that he was struggling with depression, and I sent him a message, got his number and texted him, asking if he wanted to meet and talk. We met the following day. I asked all the questions I knew to, everything about him, and listened. He had previously tried to end it. He was seeing a therapist. He was speaking with friends. We talked for hours: what he was feeling, his writing, his family, his circle of friends, his role as editor of the university literary journal The Muse. I told him I thought highly of him—and I do. At 21, he was stuck trying to answer great existential questions of meaning, happiness, fulfilment. One of the things I told him: Most of the answers you want can come from only experience; logic is not enough, has never been enough; at this young age and with limited experience, the answers are likely beyond your reach. I asked him to call me any time he wants so we would talk. Any time he felt it. He agreed. He seemed better having talked.

We spoke the following week and he sounded well, even jovial.

The next time we spoke was on Sunday, 12 May. He messaged on Facebook saying he’d lost my number, asking for it. I called him. How was he feeling? Fine. How fine? He said he was really okay. He said he would send me a message on Monday. I thought the message would be about The Muse. I wanted to tell him that I was in Nsukka and would like us to see. But he sounded okay, so, so okay, I didn’t, told myself I’ll do that tomorrow.

Monday morning, sometime after 7 a.m., he called. “You said I should call you if I want to go,” he said. “Okay, I want to go.” I called his name. Where was he? Would he come to see me, just enter okada and come, I would be at the gates. He said it didn’t matter, or something else that could be summarized as that. I was ready to come and see him right away, I said, that I was in Nsukka and would come right now. He hung up. I called. Unpicked. Again. Busy. Busy again and again.

I called his friends, found his hostel was Alvan Ikoku Hall. I knew he wouldn’t be there, so I went to Franco Pitch, searched the pavilions, checked each of the open, empty rooms. At first I didn’t know his room in Alvan, so I went room to room, asking if each was his. Ernest called to tell me the room number. I went there. Roommates said he just woke up and went out. Benson said to search the uncompleted building in the lawn tennis courts, and I did, all the rooms. Searched for two hours. I was ready to give up and just go to his room and hope he would return when Neke called: Mary said that Akachi said he was in the “tower” behind the UBA building—the huge uncompleted Colosseum-like structure there. So Mary was there with him? I began running there, relieved. But Neke then said that nobody was there with him. Which meant that there was guarantee that he hadn’t done anything. He had outsmarted everyone: he’d walked the entire expanse of UNN, from the Second Gate, where his hostel was, to Green Gate, where the building was. Very, very few people might have guessed that someone would go there.

I reached there as Neke was arriving with a taxi. Together we shouted his name, climbed the stairs, calling his name and searching for him. Minutes later, we heard him screaming. Four or five screams. We followed them. As we ran down the stairs, we felt a fear we hadn’t known before. We did not know what we would see.

We found him in a state I cannot say in public. Neke saw the two bottles of Sniper. She helped me lift him onto my back. Her courage is inspiring. We found our way out to the taxi. We brought him to the Medical Centre. Around 9:19 a.m.

The nurses were quick. He was fed a dark liquid, was given oxygen and several injections, and a tube was used to suck a glass jar-ful of liquid out of him. He remained unconscious. His phone was locked, his parents’ numbers weren’t in the removed sim, so one of his lecturers got it from his departmental file. His father arrived and I felt bad having to stand there and tell him what has happened to his son. He began praying. Everybody joined. The doctors and nurses weren’t sure if he would make it, but there was hope, it seemed.

Sometime to 12 p.m., he was taken in an ambulance to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital. I didn’t join them, his friend Ebuka Evans did, and they got there sometime to 2 p.m.

Later in the evening, I got to the hospital in Enugu. His family was there, and for the second time, I could almost feel their pain as I answered their questions. He was on oxygen. I thought his breathing seemed to have improved, but a doctor told me to postpone talking about a psychiatrist because it was still 50-50. Hope was what everybody needed. My friend studying at UNTH, who offered to closely monitor his development, said that the drugs he was given should reverse the poison, but its success would depend on the time gap between his drinking it and our taking him to the Medical Centre. I left the hospital around 7:30 p.m. or later—likely.

I was home, had just told a few people that Akachi was better than he was in the morning, that I really think he will recover, when my UNTH friend, whom I was chatting with on WhatsApp, sent another message at 9:35 p.m.: “He has passed.”

My bones weakened. I called back the people I’d just given hope. It was then that a friend told me that he left a note on Facebook. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop seeing the stairs we ran down as he screamed.

I am in pain, for his family, and for myself; and I am terrified, for his friends’ pains, and what might happen.  I am writing this hastily because it needs to be said, because I have woken up these past two days to find myself paralyzed. I have not written everything, the things I cannot unhear or unsee, because I have not even begun processing this. Akachi is not coming back.

At the end of most of his conversations, Akachi told people: “Don’t die. Live.” At different moments in his life, through different relationships with people around, he was able to cause real joy for the people around him. That is what we should hold on to: Akachi at his very best, caring for the pain of others, wanting happiness for them even as he tried to find it for himself.

Photo by Neke.

2.

WHY PEOPLE DIE BY SUICIDE

Based on WHO data, around 800,000 people die by suicide annually—one person every 40 seconds. Presently, it is the second leading cause of death among people between 15 and 29.

So why? The question we were bombarded with at the Medical Centre. Why did a 21-year-old final year student drink two bottles of Sniper? He was suffering depression. Not depression as sadness but depression as illness. Why? Hormones. The world. And some people are more vulnerable to depression due to their personality.

Nobody wants to end their lives without something having gone wrong in them, something they cannot actually control.

Depression and suicidal thoughts are (mostly) not caused by one thing.

Importantly, depression is not a “spiritual problem” in the (Nigerian) religious sense. Don’t think that simply directing a depressed person to find God or praying for them will heal them. What if they don’t even believe in God? As unimaginable as it is for many religious people, it is not everyone who finds meaning in the idea of God, or in anything at all.

To find out, please Google depression. Read as much as you can to understand it.

3.

JUDGEMENT

It is human: caring in death but never in life.

Please stop blaming people who die by suicide. Nobody will normally want to kill themselves, least of all in a painful way. And when this happens, please do not firstly make it about YOUR OWN PAIN, being “angry” that the person’s death hurt you. With some of the comments flying around from a few people who might have known the deceased, you just wonder: Are you hurt because someone is dead or because their death affects you?

This is not to argue that we should not engage suicide with our different pains—it is to point out how we often first play the blame game rather than learn from each case and identify how to help the next person.

Parents could have done this, friends should have done that: When you blame people for “allowing” a family member or friend to die by suicide, do you really believe that they did not do their best, all they could possibly do, to prevent someone they love from dying this way? What makes you think that you, a stranger, probably a complete stranger, are more willing than someone to save their own family or friend? Is there something you would have told the dead person, an expression of love or care, a reason to hold on, that you believe that said person’s loved ones did not say? So why blame them if you know you can’t possibly love their person more than they do? Really, it is easiest to talk about suicide, what “they” should have done, when the dead person is not close to you.

If you, classmate, teacher, neighbour, roommate, pastor, hear that someone died by suicide and query why their friends and family did not tell you, you should also wonder why said person did not come to you to talk about their problems, or even better, why YOU did not notice something wrong with someone you saw frequently, why YOU didn’t ask how they were, until their death.

Rather than rushing to compare yourself to the dead, announcing how you are better or stronger than they are (and you are not), you should challenge yourself to see things differently, to be understanding, empathetic. Life is so vast, and we all know very little. People who have mental illness need help, not judgement; they need sources of meaning, something to hold on to: in the absence of this, we have suicide.

Let the judging stop.

4.

PRIVACY AND RESPECT

If you lose a loved one to suicide or any unexpected death, there are things you would never do to violate the memory of them. Please never do those things when other people lose their loved ones.

A) Respect the privacy of a dead person’s family. Don’t drag them into negative theories. It was breaking to hear that, at the Medical Centre, someone said, in his father’s hearing, that it couldn’t have been the man who caused it, that the man looks innocent. God. Even when he was standing right there.

B) Please never share photos of human beings in a state of death. In death, a human being is at their most helpless, unable to react to or defend themselves from the world’s gaze, speculation, judgement, and reduction. Why expose someone to the world at their weakest? Would you share a photo of your brother in a coffin? If you won’t, please don’t do it with other people’s brothers.

C) There is a different level of pain that Akachi’s family and friends are enduring now. First is the death itself. Second is the unfair guilt that they could have done more. Third is the news cycle, seeing his photos and things written about him by people who do not know him, people for whom he has become “content.” And fourth is the ignorant judgement—an unnecessary pain they are being forced to go through.

D) It is important to know that the phrase “commit/committed suicide” is dangerous language, heavy with judgement, even if unintended. THE LANGUAGE USED TO DESCRIBE HUMAN BEINGS WHO GAVE UP ON THE WORLD SHOULD NOT BE THE LANGUAGE USED TO DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS OF CRIMINALS.

5.

WHAT SCHOOLS CAN DO

In my years in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, there have been four previous cases of suicide that I remember well. On 31 May 2012, a student I knew from afar, O.O., 23, hanged himself in the pavilion near the Male Hostels. In April 2013, a student I knew well, E.M., 20-30-something, caused a stir and our whole class swept the whole school searching for him—he eventually didn’t do it. On 19 July 2014, it was a lecturer in Enugu Campus, Dr B.O., 38. On 27 November 2016, a student, T.O., hanged himself in Odenigwe. The first, second and fourth people left notes. As did Akachi. In particular, this is the second case in the UNN’s Department of English and Literary Studies. Worse: a completed suicide will trigger more.

Yes, Nigeria is fucked-up: poor funding for education, poor funding for good things. But yes, universities can also take care of their students—to the best of their resources. A few things universities could do:

1) There should be a proper orientation for students on how to react to mental and psychological distress. It isn’t enough to put it in a handbook and trust that they’ll read it—most never open the handbook. They should be informed—with care, kindness, attention, and WITHOUT JUDGEMENT—about who to see, how to talk to said officials. Schools should have resident therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, and if they do, they need to PASS THE INFORMATION to students through all possible channels: classrooms, religious organisations, social groups, the university radio, billboards, handout notes.

2) Lecturers appointed as Staff Advisers should be people who are humane, kind, open, and have integrity and strong moral reputations. The last two are crucial. I doubt many students would approach a Staff Adviser who is known to be corrupt or to sexually exploit students. A depressed student needs to feel safe, to know that they are in good hands, before they will trust an official, before they would speak.

3) Schools should train—in truth, retrain—their teaching and health staff to have the right attitude towards depressed students. Lecturers should refrain from shallow, reckless judgements about mental health in classrooms. The more they criticize and flatten the very real suffering of some students, the less depressed students would be to talk not just to them but to their colleagues. A particularly troubling case: Yesterday, a professor in UNN, a mother, was said to have called the death “stupid,” implying that he does not deserve sympathy because “he is an atheist.” This is a mother; this is her ignorant, arrogant dismissal of the child of another, a 21-year-old; and that this came from a professor is a different story. Who will approach a lecturer like this when they are depressed?

4) Schools should organize occasional evaluations of their students. Talks. Emails. Phone calls asking if the student noticed something odd about their classmates. Anything at all. If, like in UNN, the school has a Suicide Watch, then it could be more active. Both students and lecturers could be monitored.

5) Schools can consult with students, especially friends and family of people who have died by suicide, on what to do to detect signs, how to follow up such signs without triggering the depressed into doing it.

6.

WHAT TO REMEMBER

At the end of most of his conversations, Akachi told people: “Don’t die. Live.” At different moments in his life, through different relationships with people around, he was able to cause real joy for the people around him. That is what we should hold on to: Akachi at his very best, caring for the pain of others, wanting happiness for them even as he tried to find it for himself. He was a remarkable human being and a gifted poet, and that is how he should be remembered: as a light.

Easter Playlist

A boy’s ears should be busy during Easter.

Check out my previous lists—for 2017, for 2018, and a playlist & thoughts.

“Ratchet (Happy Birthday),” Drake

Friend played it at my birthday and it got me. First Drake solo song I love.

“Summertime Magic,” Donald Glover 

From the Guava Island film, which has Rihanna, which means this song is lovely—on its own merit too.

“Savage,” DJ Worldwide feat. Lil Kesh

Took me months to get this song, multiple Shazam failures. Makes me dance even if I don’t have moves for it yet.

“Nobody Knows 2moro,” Jeffiraino feat. Duncan Mighty

I just love the feel of it, as I do many songs with Duncan Mighty on them.

“Dawn, the Front,” Talos

Final song in that How to Get Away with Murder episode where agent Telesco kisses Tegan Price.

“Trobul,” Sarz & Wurld

Has a video in my head, full of men in suit.   

“Entertainer,” CDQ feat. Davido

Let’s just say I like Davido’s voice whenever he stretches it.

“Tipsy,” Odunsi the Engine feat. Raye

Sleek. First song of his that I liked.

“T-Shirt,” Migos (Y2K & AVIDD Remix)

Epically epic.

“Melanin,” Notrace

Like the beat.

“Awesome God,” Unknown Male Choir Acapella

Touching. After one tiring travel.

“I Got 5 on It,” Luniz

Knew it from childhood but Jordan Peele’s film Us, which has Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, refreshed it for me.

“Chlorine,” Twenty-One Pilots

Uber-danceable.

“Spiritual Riddim,” Sarz

Nice groove to it.

“Nobody Fine Pass You,” T-Classic

“Piercing Light,” Warsongs (Mako Remix)

Epic. Found in a Messi highlights video.

“Doc Shebeleza,” Cassper Nyovest

Never related to it at first, now in love with it. Kind of empowering for me.

“4U,” Ejiz

For night walks.

“Dreams Pt. II,” Nightcore

Found in a football highlights YouTube video.

“Boss Whine,” Krizbeatz feat. Skales

That middle beat.   

“Blessings on Me,” Rekaado Banks

“America,” Neil Diamond

From The Big Bang Theory, Howard and Amy singing it in the car.

“Toast,” Koffee

“Sweet Dreams,” Eurythmics

“No New Friends,” LSD

“Old Town Road,” Lil Nas

Country or hip hop? So good you might just think: who cares?

“Dancin’ Around the Truth,” The Stunners

“Bloodline,” Ariana Grande

This line: But you gon’ have to let this shit go.

“Akwa Ibom Ayaya,” Mish

That feel of home.

“Only Want You,” Rita Ora feat. 6lack

Anything Ora is on point. And 6lack’s solo material is just beautiful.

“Sally Walker,” Iggy Azalea

Good to have Iggy back.

“Grip,” Tessa Thompson

I love it, from the Creed film.

“Confirm,” Patoranking feat. Davido

“Last Hurray,” Bebe Rexha

“Is This Freedom,” Lucky Dube 

Heard at a launch event and….

“New Day,” Kate Havenik

Heard on Grey’s Anatomy, touching episode 9 of season 3.

“Crazy Love,” Flavour feat. Yemi Alade

Grew on me. Big fan of it.

“Alone,” Marshmello

“Your Love,” Haerts

“Wobble Up,” Chris Brown feat. Nicki Minaj & G-Eazy

“Kriminalz,” Rolay Bondo

“Breaking Free,” Night Riots  

“Holy Water,” Temmie Ovwasa

I feel the anointing in this song. Pure talent.   

The Feast of the Goat

 

I like the word “feast.” The sound of it, the upper teeth touching the lower lip. I like when it is used in titles of things. I want it when it comes like this.

Mario Vargas Llosa was one of the first writers I knew their names and work, back in 2011 when I was beginning to take interest in literature, Googling writers and books. Here’s a story about him that stuck with me: In 1976, five years after publishing his doctoral thesis titled Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Story of a Deicide, Llosa punched his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mexico City, and their friendship died. Another story: in 1990, he ran for president in Peru and lost. And the story most people know: he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” Still one of my favourite citations.

So Saturday night, while reading Junot Diaz’ novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I stumbled upon this accusing clause, in one of that book’s many in-text notes:

Appeared as a sympathetic character in Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat.

The person in question, Joaquin Balaguer, was racist to Black people, an apologist of the Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo’s genocide against Haitians, and ruled the Dominican Republic thrice, unleashing “a wave of violence…death-squading hundreds.”

I am fascinated by book titles, movie titles, song and album titles, find them inspirational, and back then in 2011, The Feast of the Goat, triumphantly titled, was the only one by Llosa that I liked. Back then when I had no access to books of that kind.

So Saturday night, I asked Google and received a copy of The Feast of the Goat. And with it a Book Excitement I don’t always feel these days. It is told from three perspectives: a woman’s, the Dominican Republic dictator’s, and the Dominican Republic dictator’s assassins. The sentences strike me, his articulation of things I want to write but presume might be uninteresting, his flourishing of things I want to write but haven’t found the vocabulary for. Or haven’t bothered to. In a way, I feel a kinship with his words here.

By the way, I really like, maybe even love, all the covers of the book that I’ve seen.

 

 

Image from joydelire.wordpress.com.

Between Short Stories and a Novel, My Creative Shutdown and Transitioning

 

1.

This is only half of the story.

2.

My third idea for a novel came in June 2013, one evening as I was starting a short story. At that time, the manuscript of my short story collection, You Sing of a Longing, was still in its earliest incarnation, on course to be a very different book from the one I eventually finished.

There I sat, facing a yellow wall, the sole window of the room above me, trying to find a shape for a short story but already thinking of a novel. Unlike my first two ideas, this one came in full—the plot, the characters, the setting—and I wrote down the full synopsis, believing I had something special. The collection would take years to be completed, I knew, years of focus that a 19-year-old would have to learn, and still I couldn’t stop thinking of the novel, couldn’t stop thinking of completing the collection so I could hop into it, and because I couldn’t stop thinking, I began writing it, the first chapter, the starts of a few more chapters, drawing an outline, titling the sections.

3.

After completing what I decided was the collection’s final story in August 2016, I decided to take a few months off from writing, partly to celebrate and partly because I was emotionally worn out. But things happened that overhauled my life for worse, the first my own doing, the second the kind that people would call “God’s Will.” With the collection done, I was itching to move onto a novel, had programmed my mind that I wouldn’t write another short story if I didn’t finish the novel, that everything must be channeled into the novel. But there was one “problem”: the ideas didn’t stop coming. I had, I felt, reached a creative peak where every observation morphed into a story of its own. To continue indulging this, to continue collecting the ideas into more stories, would be to never start that novel.

Looking back now, at what I thought I knew, how much I thought I could control, it is easier to forgive myself for treating that continuum of short story ideas as a “problem,” something about which another drastic thing needed to be done.

4.

It is artistic arrogance for a writer to believe in the infinity of their creative powers, to believe in their presumed power to negotiate with it, when it comes, how it comes. I had that belief, and due to it I did something stupid: I shut myself down. I suspended the very thing that made me a creative, the thing from which I’d drawn not just my ability to write but my other abilities to draw, carve, paint: I suspended my imagination, closed off all channels of observation and immediate analysis. For someone whose life is one of heightened sensory awareness, it was a creative coma that I put my mind in. If I hadn’t done it to myself I might have doubted that it was possible. But so was my arrogance that, within weeks, when it became clear that it worked, when the ideas disappeared, when I began to see a raindrop no longer as some metaphor but as a simple raindrop, I was happy. It was, for me, one more example that, at this point, I could do just about anything.

The shutdown was meant to be temporary, a sabbatical from the intensity that writing fiction was for me, because I wanted to breathe and let my breath be just air in my lungs rather than some avenue to start thinking of life in the human body. Without it, the ideas would have continued coming and I’d have remained in my fiction-writing mode, and worryingly—yes, worryingly, stupid of me—I’d have been writing more short stories and would never have started the novel. And so I thought that whenever I was ready, I would turn myself back on, slot back into that mode.

But the thought was as silly as the action that caused it.

5.

If I knew what would happen the following month, I would not have done what I did.

Someone I love died.

It was an implosion I survived partly because of my friends and partly because I had been there before.

When it was over, and I tried to hurl myself back into writing fiction, I found that I couldn’t. I could write essays, write creative nonfiction, because those required only parts rather than the whole of me, and so in my mind, in the absence of that blooded link between my brain, heart and fingers, the new fiction I tried to write lacked that vivacity without which I refuse to write at all. Worse: the short story ideas were no longer solid and the novel refused to be written.

To pass time, I drowned myself in querying agents, convincing myself that it was not so much me as it was my situation, that once I got an agent, once they took the collection off my hands, I would be able to write new fiction again. It wasn’t true. I didn’t write new fiction for more than a year. I couldn’t.

I couldn’t turn myself back on, couldn’t turn off the Shutdown.

And I am yet to recover.

6.

But between those two phases of my fiction, in that frustrating purgatory, was the start of the best phase of my adult life yet, and surrounded by friends, I spent it working and talking and laughing, having conversations I wouldn’t exchange for anything. It was during one of such conversations, with JK Anowe, that I realised the first step I needed to take to break free. An idea for another novel had come and I was split between the two, split, but more on the side of the latter. JK Anowe agreed that the second was more interesting.

Then a real factor I needed to look hard at: two of the inspirations for the lead characters of the novel had died in the space of four years, and while their deaths, the force with which they’d hit me, was enough to sustain writing them both, doing so would mean confronting their deaths once more.

I wasn’t going to. Not yet.

7.

By the time I wrote the opening chapter of the newest novel idea in December 2017, I was still unsure if I was writing the right book, if like the three previous ideas I might desert it. But it flowed, the writing flowed gloriously. A few more chapters came, less easily but with promise.

It was at that point that I realised that something was missing, felt missing to me, something about the form being unwieldy, about the chapter transitions not being smooth. Perhaps nothing actually was missing and it was just my worries. Perhaps it was just my awareness that I was working in a different genre, a longer genre, one I’d always insisted was the less strenuous of the two and yet was struggling to transition into.

8.

Much of the debt I owe in writing my collection came not from short story collections but from novels: that short story during which start my third idea for a novel came was itself, its language and mood, inspired by the first page, even the first paragraph, of Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. However, that several of my stories are novelistic, spanning decades, entire existences rather than just moments in the characters’ lives, is because of my want to realize as much of the characters’ worlds as I could. While it was easy for me to hold their whole lives in a short story, in 10,000-20,000 words, doing the same in a novel, in around 100,000 words, would leave me exhausted, hence my determination to avoid writing a definably cerebral novel, anchored in the characters’ psyche, as I did with some of the short stories—not that the plot would allow me.

9.

Writing a short story collection, having to enter and build several worlds and several sets of emotions one after the other, is more demanding than writing a novel, embarking on this one story with a more coherent emotional system, a river with tributaries. Reading her second novel The Lowland, I suspected that Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favourite writers, one of the greatest short story writers of the past two decades, resorted to the familiar: crafting the novel as she would a short story,  keeping it contained. My novel came to me a sprawling thing, and in my battle to structure it desirably I was tempted to do what I felt Lahiri did with hers, to pretend that it was merely another, giant short story.

The temptation was not dissuaded by my finally finishing Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, my hope that studying its plotting, different as it is from mine, might provide the spark I needed. But my resolve strengthened when I opened Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, itself sprung from a short story, and after reading its prologue I became determined to do exactly what I wanted with the novel, to never think of an easy way out.

10.

A different kind of writer like Roy just tells the story. It isn’t an easy thing, just telling a story, aware of the requirements of a genre and unbothered by it, just telling the story and knowing that, by its end, everything would have resolved themselves. Writing The God of Small Things, she has said, was like building a house, but writing her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was like building a city. It would appear that those, building a house and building a city, were two of the strands that writing novels fell into. Mine feels like a city, and even when taking literal walks through streets that meander and meet, I am aware of this, am thinking of it, of main plots and subplots.

11.

Which is why, a few days into the new year, when someone who was supposed to be a kind of tour guide on a travel suddenly opted out due to personal engagements, I felt stranded, like I was out on this ocean, standing on a patch of sand. Frantically, I called Arinze Ifeakandu. He called back, and after nearly two hours of me brooding and him saying don’t worry, the book’s path changed. By opting out, this guy made it far easier for me to write within what I knew, where I’ve been. But the change was temporary: Within weeks I flipped back to the earlier, tougher but better idea. Still, that panic I felt had been useful, that temporary change; it had done what it needed to do: recalibrated me.

12.

In writing this novel, I have become aware of so much more, on a more detailed level. I have been thinking of suspense and subplots in a way I have never done before. I have considered doing away with chapters.

13.

On a few blessed days, I think I am feeling my way back into that gunning version of myself. But on most days I know I haven’t fully recovered; I feel like a surgeon trying to regain full control of his hands. The story is moving gradually. The irony isn’t lost on me: that novel for which I almost wrecked myself will not be written anytime soon, not in the coming ten years.

 

Photo credit: Julio Garcia via Flickr.

How (Not) to Compare Viola Davis to Meryl Streep

I wrote this as a comment on a Facebook post that, in discussing a tweet comparing Meryl Streep, Angela Basset, and Viola Davis, suggests that Viola Davis lacks range.

Can Meryl and Viola be compared? I think so—it’s okay to compare careers for positives. But in the way that said tweet did? I don’t think so because the tweet overlooks many things. They’re both Great Actresses. Meryl is regarded as the greatest actress in modern cinema alongside Katharine Hepburn (who disliked Meryl’s acting due to what she said was an overreliance on technique). In the generation after Meryl’s, Cate Blanchett is considered the greatest. Cate may be in Viola’s age bracket but their breakthroughs came at different times. I’m using Cate to illustrate the gap between the breakout of Meryl in the late 1970s and that of Viola in the late 2000s. Nearly 30 years between the two friends’ breakthroughs although they’re 16 years apart in age—Meryl is 69, Viola is 53.

Racism is real in Hollywood, so Meryl, a White woman, can lay claim to far, far, far more roles than Viola, a Black woman. More roles equals more showcases of range equals more recognition and awards. Still, for someone whose first Oscar nomination was in 2009, Viola already has the most nominations for a Black woman (three, now tied with Octavia Spencer) and is the only Black acting professional to win the Triple Crown of Acting: Tony for Theatre (twice), Emmy for TV, Oscar for film. Also the first Black winner of that Emmy for Best Drama Actress.

Where Meryl had precedents on her path to greatness, Viola is a precedent for non-White actresses. Meryl never carried a TV series and made it, at one time, the highest rated drama on TV. Viola did. While roles are always written for women of Meryl’s race, a woman like Viola, someone not only Black but a dark-skinned Black, has had to struggle for roles. So she takes the ones she gets. Note, though, that the lead roles for How to Get Away with Murder and Widows were both written for White women. Rewritten after Viola got them.

While I think Meryl has the greater technique, I think Viola is the more balanced between technique and emotion. Meryl is efficient but Viola transforms the tiniest of moments into lasting impressions.

Viola Davis receives her Hollywood Walk of Fame Star from Meryl Streep. Image from Vanity Fair.

They’ve been in a film together: Doubt (2008), in which Meryl is the lead and Viola has 12 minutes, all spent with Meryl in one scene regarded as a rare moment in which Meryl was outshone. Those 12 minutes alone got Viola her first Oscar nomination, for Supporting Actress.

They’ve contested an award: Best Actress recognition in 2012—Meryl in The Iron Lady, Viola in The Help—and Meryl’s win is regarded as an upset. Over the years, for her excellence and the extraordinary, really extraordinary love the industry has for her, Meryl has three Oscars from 21 nominations. Despite the barriers provided by racism, Viola has one from three. The ratio is (if I still recall my math) 1:7 vs 1:3. Viola’s is higher.

In a 2017 analysis, The Guardian UK‘s chief film critic, Peter Bradshaw, rated Viola in Fences as the greatest ever best supporting actress Oscar winning performance; Meryl in Sophie’s Choice was rated the greatest best actress winner.

Who do I think is a better actress? Give Viola 20 more years and varied leading roles and then we will have that conversation.

I must add, too, that people see Annalise Keating in every Viola role because that character is so iconic and recent. If you lived in the 1980s, you’d know that Meryl was associated with her character in Sophie’s Choice. Also, other modern greats are associated with specific roles: like Helen Mirren is for The Queen.

Game of Thrones Better End This Way

 

Discussing Game of Thrones is one of the few times random people are allowed to publicly wish death on other people and to invent ways for them to die. If you’ve been paying attention, really paying attention—and I don’t mean memorizing the names of dragons—you’d know now that ONLY  a woman will sit on that damn Iron Throne. One of the marvellous things about the show, which isn’t easy to spot beneath all the nudity and violence, is how it set itself up to be a feminist affair: how the focus gradually shifted from the men in the early seasons—Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Tyrion Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, Tywin Lannister—to the women now: Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark. Even if Jon Snow is still central.

So here’s how I want the series to end.

Something Happens to Jamie Lannister

I grew really fond of him and was upset that the Emmy for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series that should have been his went to Tyrion Lannister’s Peter Dinklage. Still.

Something Happens to Jon Snow

I’ve never understood how he became so popular. I mean, I understand, but he needs to go for the show to make sense. He already died once, then returned probably to appease fans (although I don’t know what happens in the books), and now he’s done his job. If they insist and keep him as the Ice in “Ice and Fire,” then that’d be rigging.

Cersei Lannister Disappears

The bad ones die eventually: seems to be a mantra of the show. But Cersei has been the person most deserving of the Iron Throne, the one with the right amount of wit and ruthlessness to keep it firmly. She did what she had to do to get here and she’s not going down that easily—for peeps hoping Arya or even Jamie kills her. I imagine Cersei realizing they can’t beat the Night King and cutting a deal with whoever captures or traps her and then escaping—to who knows where. That’d be too easy for her, yeah, but if Joffrey died merely from poisoning after all he did, then all’s fair. Also, she’s actually my favourite character since Season 6.

Something Happens to Daenerys Targaryen

When I started watching this series, I was interested the most in this woman’s story. Somewhere in Season 6, she lost me to Cersei. I like dragons, but she has so much going for her—not that she hasn’t endured her fair share of suffering. Her obsession with getting people to “bend the knee” is curious. Or not, actually. Just puts me off. Keeping her will be the most predictable—and ridiculous—move by the showrunners. I imagine her offering a deal to the Night King as well.

Something (Maybe) Happens to Arya Stark

Her transformation into arguably the greatest fighter in the Seven Kingdoms is one for the ages. While I suspect they’ll take her also, I’d rather she stayed alive as her sister’s bodyguard.

Sansa Stark wins the Iron Throne

She’s remembered more for her naivety than anything else, but nobody is better suited for that ugly sword-stacked seat than Sansa. Born and raised in the North, suffered and learned in the South, twice forced into marriage, abused, abused: I maintain that nobody has suffered more than the Lady of Winterfell, certainly emotionally. But nobody has grown as much, also, not Daenerys, not Cersei—both of whom have grown tremendously. Born with kindness, she learned ruthless calculation from Cersei, learned ruthless politics from Little Finger, and will be learning from Daenerys soon. The Northern elders trust her more than they do Jon Snow. After they are all gone, she will be the only royal blood capable of sitting on that chair. Aside Tyrion.

Tyrion Lannister becomes Hand or Husband to Queen Sansa

Tyrion will survive because George R.R. Martins likes him the most. In ways, the show is his, has always been his, but it’d be too easy to make him king, even with the Targeryean blood. He’ll do what he does best: advise. Maybe he’ll get lucky and marry the new Queen. He’d have made the best monarch in the series, though.

 

If this doesn’t happen.

TWC Prose Workshop in Nsukka

 

In December, I was at The Writers’ Community (TWC) in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for a prose workshop. It was where we started: Arinze Ifeakandu, Chisom Okafor, Ebenezer Agu, Osinachi, Michael Umoh, Uzoma Ihejirika, Festus Iyorah, Adaeze Nwadike, Pius Ifechukwu. Without TWC, there might be no me in the way that I am. I left in 2014 when I graduated, and four years on, it gives me unusual joy to find promise in the present members.

I might be doing more workshops this year.

A Pop Concert by Chance

 

Sunday nightfall, I’m bored—actually I feel like munching succulent bread and Vita Milk—so Friend and I go to Spar. We are surprised to see a crowd: a concert is on, a #DefendYourVote initiative, and on the poster are Phyno, Peruzzi, and Naeto C. I’ve never seen Phyno live, or anybody I really want to see live; in fact, I’ve never been to a concert. So we stay. On the stage is that MTV Base video jockey, the sanguine guy with dreadlocks who once mispronounced Phyno’s “Isi Ego” so that it meant “head money/capital” rather than “the smell of money.” He’s kinda sorta a fave. He is rousing the crowd, keeping it hot. The DJ spins them, each greeted by jubilation: Burna Boy’s “On the Low,” Tiwa Savage’s “Lova Lova,” Naira Marley’s ‘Issa Goal,” Olamide’s “Motigbana.” Out of nowhere, 2Baba’s “Implication” drops and we are legit mad. It still is the ultimate Nigerian banger. I’m thinking: Naijapop is so rich, a bit sad that pon-pon has come and homogenized things. I step aside to pick a call. I return thinking: Aren’t they the most blessed of us artists, musicians, to have the power to command crowds. When King Monada’s “Malwedhe” lands, VJ shouts, Nobody should fall here o! Still, the crowd of heads mock-bend at the chorus. All around us people—boys—are dancing, or will say they are dancing if asked, most of them doing the same leg thing to every song.

Generally, the songs are hot. Generally, the DJ is bad, doesn’t know when to switch, always chooses the wrongest moments: pre-chorus, mid-chorus. “He doesn’t have permission to play the full songs,” Friend says when I complain.

Then a talking break: Dreadlocked VJ is saying: How many of you have your PVCs? Raise your hand! Not everybody does and I’m worried. Really worried.

When Naeto C appears, my first thought is to try to remember his politician mother’s name. I can’t. We run through his songs: “5 & 6,” “Kini Big Deal,” “Tony Montana (Remix),” “10 Over 10.” I’m thinking: this guy really had huge hits. Not everybody in the crowd is flowing, singing, even moving, and it strikes me that there are people here who don’t feel Naeto C, or don’t know him well enough, or are trying to remember who he is, or maybe, even though they look like adults, just hadn’t been born in 2008 when Naeto was the Next Big Thing. Fine.

They want to give us a surprise, they say, Naeto C and Dreadlocked VJ, they say it again, but instead of a Surprise, we get this beat, really good, this beat, but nowhere around what I hoped for.

Then Peruzzi.

Enter Peruzzi. Jump in Peruzzi. Power in Peruzzi.

Peruzzi has energy, like he set out to conquer the stage, and what seems in videos like an over-featured man all over the place with his artificial swag suddenly comes alive, becomes charisma. Never thought I’d say this: I like Peruzzi. Or, more accurately, I’d like to attend his own concert, with his big voice. But the DJ starts from his least: songs the crowd sings back but isn’t moved by, just singing back, maybe humouring a star. Life returns when his DMW song comes on. “Aza.” You know, the one in which he delivers a killer verse with a sideways dance after Duncan Mighty has threatened to spoil it by screaming, for whatever reason: Ofe nsala! Peruzzi screams it now and it comes out a bit more dignified. I’m thinking: Only “Amaka” can restore the anointing here, his song with 2Baba. But when it comes, “Amaka” doesn’t kick up dust—it comes and is passing like any other song.

“Amaka” is still on when I tell Friend we can go now. “I want to see Phyno,” he says, and I say, “Even me sef.” We move to the left and wait. Someone comes to us: he’s a Facebook Friend, I remember his name even though we’ve never chatted, he’s asking if I’m me, I am. After he leaves, people begin to leave. “Phyno kwanu?” I ask, to the bread-smelling air. “Maybe he was the first to perform,” Friend says. We are walking with the trail of people, out.

6 Things This Week

 

Literature

I have been touring the 2018 archives of African literary magazines for a Brittle Paper project. I resumed reading Miles Morland’s memoir Cobra in the Bath, which is full of humour. But Richard Tarnas’ study of Western intellectual history The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View has been open on the floor for months. I want to read a book that does for African knowledge systems what Tarnas has done here for the European. I am thinking of Molefi Kete Asante’s Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change, which seems to be such a book given what I’ve read about it.

Music

I looooove Sarz’ “Trobul,” featuring Wurld. It is a love song, one of those that make me create videos for them in my head. Little Mix’s “Think About Us” is the first song by the band that I completely like—lyrics, beats, those beats. Post Malone’s “Wow” is the confirmation that he just may become my favourite pop rapper (I really tried for it to be Drake). I like Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” although I’m not comfortable about its hip hop sound and flow and appropriation accusations. Other favourites: Jeff Akoh’s “I Do,” Lady Gaga’s “Always Remember Us,” Tems’ “Looku Looku,” Ellie Goulding’s “Close to Me,” featuring Diplo and Swae Lee. Meanwhile, The-Dream says Rihanna’s new album is almost done so I’ve been clearing my mental shelf.

Movies

How to Get Away with Murder is back! Good to see you again, Viola! I finished Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart convinced it is one of the two, three best Nollywood films I’ve seen. It is a solid feat of cultural awareness that I hope to write a review on. I am watching Hustle & Flow, a 2004 film about rap with both Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. I never watched Grey’s Anatomy when the rest of the world started, so last Christmas was my start. I’m currently on its season 2, with 13 more seasons to go. I am also watching Orange Is the New Black’s season 5 and it’s comedy stretches are a bit of a bore for me. And, finally, the Oscars. These are what I want: Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor for Green Book and Glenn Close for Best Actress for The Wife. Fortunately, they’re their categories’ frontrunners. I finally finished A Star Is Born because a friend said it made him cry. I suspect that the version of the film I watched has to be different from what every other person watched. I mean, it’s nice to see Lady Gaga playing a toned-down Lady Gaga, but Bradley Cooper simply crossed my annoyance threshold.

Football

On Sunday, in the Nigeria Premier League, Rangers beat Enyimba 1-0. It was a match I had prepared to go watch, but somehow I forgot about it until I went to Google. I am keen on Gonzalo Higuain fitting into the Chelsea team as smoothly as possible so I’ve been watching videos of him from his Real Madrid and Napoli days, trying for it to make up for this 4-0 thing at Bournemouth.

Fashion

I’ve been reading reviews of The September Issue, about the making of US Vogue’s September 2007 issue, and thought about watching The Devil Wears Prada again. I have been watching and re-watching Catriona Gray’s “lava walk.” The Miss Universe 2018 is also an articulate talker; I watched an interview with her and liked her bright, positive attitude. I have been checking out the videos on Naomi Campbell’s new YouTube channel.

Social Media

The chaos is continual. When writers are not lowkey campaigning for the current President they are arguing about why they should be allowed to embrace concepts rather than humanity.

 

 

Image from weheartit.com.

Messi, Mbappe, Pique, Pogba: Fantasy Football 101

One evening ten years ago, when I was still a die-hard football follower, I decided I wanted my own team: it would comprise players I would buy if I were a club owner. At that time, my only experience of fantasy football had been on PlayStation, in my reselection of players I liked into different clubs I was playing with. So when I decided I wanted my own team, it felt novel to me to do it beyond PlayStation. I wrote their names on paper, with shirt numbers:

1. Petr Cech | Goalkeeper | Chelsea | Czech Republic

2. Maicon | Right Back | Inter Milan | Brazil

5. John Terry | Centre Back | Chelsea | England

6. Paolo Maldini | Centre Back | AC Milan | Italy [Captain]

3. Ashley Cole | Left Back | Chelsea | England

4. Andrea Pirlo | Defensive Midfield | AC Milan | Italy

7. Xavi Hernandez: Centre Midfield (Barcelona | Spain

8. Frank Lampard: Centre Midfield (Chelsea/England)

9. Ricardo Kaka: Attacking Midfield (AC Milan/Brazil)

10. Lionel Messi: Striker (Barcelona/Argentina)

11. Didier Drogba: Striker (Chelsea/Cote d’Ivoire)

Manager: Jose Mourinho.

My formation was a 4-4-2 Diamond. My manager was Jose Mourinho, who was an easy choice as, back then, I still loved him and he hadn’t gone to Real Madrid to turn El Classico into a death zone. I liked this team badly.

Over the years, I’ve had new favourite players, old ones have dropped out of the scene, retired, and the Team has changed considerably, with only Messi and Pique keeping their places. Today, this is what I have:

1. Thibaut Courtois | Goalkeeper | Real Madrid | Belgium

3. Gerard Pique | Centre Back | Barcelona | Spain [Captain]

5. Leonardo Bonucci | Centre Back | Juventus | Italy

4. Raphael Varane | Right Back | Real Madrid | France

2. Antonio Rudiger | Left Back | Chelsea | Germany

11. N’golo Kante | Defensive Midfielder | Chelsea | France

6. Sergio Busquets | Central Midfielder | Barcelona | Spain

8. Paul Pogba | Central Midfielder | Manchester United | France

7. Kylian Mbappe | Left Forward | Paris Saint-Germain | France

10. Lionel Messi | Right Forward | Barcelona | Argentina

9. Harry Kane | Centre Forward | Tottenham | England

Manager: Pep Guardiola.

It doesn’t at all show that I’m a Chelsea fan.

 

Individual images of players from Zimbio. Football pitch image from Deviantart.net.