The Art of Lying to Strangers

When Akin told me about a writers’ event in town, I was ambivalent about it. I see a lot of upcoming Nigerian writers on Facebook and wonder where they get their endless reserve of pretentiousness and condescension.  Following their discussion threads often feels like slipping into an intellectual orgy; everyone trying to make the other feel as much ecstasy as possible. The idea of spending an evening with folks like that filled me with dread.

Well, I finally agreed because staring at my keyboard all evening, after a week spent indoors, wasn’t appealing. “How bad can it get?” I said to myself.

I put on my green and black batik top, jeans trousers and converse high-top sneakers. My African-writer look was on point. At the last minute, I decided to put on my glasses because I didn’t want to squint when one of those writers hand me badly printed books to read. I spent 30 minutes looking for the venue with an Okada man who assured me he knew the place but was as clueless as the leader of the most populous black nation.

“You’re late” the lady at the door told me in mock annoyance. I flashed her a toothy smile and sat at the last row. I saw Akin’s large head sandwiched between a man and a lady I recognised from her profile picture on Facebook. She looked better than her profile picture, a rarity considering how people go to photo studios to take pictures meant for their social media profiles, until they get married and use their wedding pictures, or give birth and use their babies. I should shut up. You get my point? Good. Back to the story.

Various writers read in the event, and most of it was poetry—bad poetry. I cannot write poems to save my life, but years of feeding on Whitman, Neruda, Rimbaud and Def Poetry Jam on YouTube has heightened my sensitivity to inferior verse. The anchor, an expert in the delivery of dry jokes, forced us to applaud loudly at the end of each performance. Each time I jammed my palms together, it felt like I was betraying my conscience. Then the comments, oh… the comments were so cloying I wanted to puke. One of them even compared one performer’s doggerel to a Soyinka masterpiece and I was like, hey man, don’t do that. Don’t commit literary blasphemy.

As the reading progressed, I felt bile build up from my bowels, travel through my gut and sit patiently in my mouth. I was holding it in with all the self-control in me. Then a lady climbed on stage and read a short story. You know that feeling you get when you’re finally alone in the elevator after holding fart for minutes? Yeah, that’s how I felt. I listened to the sounds of her words, the way she strung them together and the freshness of her metaphors, and I wanted to hug her.

When the anchor asked for comments, my hand shot up of its own accord. No, no, no I screamed internally. This was not part of the plan. For years I’ve been trying to prevent that kind of rubbish. The last time I commented in an open forum, it was at a lecture delivered by the head of my department in a conference. My comment made him look so foolish he threatened not to allow me graduate that year. I had to corral classmates into pleading with him in his office. I still vocalize curse words when I remember my chin touching the man’s red carpet, dust rising into my nose as I breathed heavily in fear. After that incident, I’ve learnt how to praise people before criticising their work and most times I just keep my mouth shut.

The anchor handed the microphone to the dude whose poem was compared to Soyinka, and he started to sing praise of the lady’s story. He said she was the best thing to happen to Nigerian writing after Chimamanda and the whole group agreed, nodding their head in unison like a family of agamas. They gave her another round of applause and the anchor brought the microphone to my seat.

I talked about the beauty of her story, the inventiveness of her choice of words and the freshness of her metaphors. I told her how she managed a twist ending that a less skilful person would have forced, then, I told her the problem I had with the story. She used a number of mixed metaphors and some sections had purple prose that the story could do without.

At this point all the heads in the room were turned towards me, so I just ended on that note and handed the microphone to the anchor. As I did that, the praise singer stood up and started to talk about how my criticism was off point. He said I lack taste for good prose and should read more proper books. I smiled and said, “I’ve always feared that my afro is detrimental to my assimilation of fine prose”. No one laughed at my joke.

Akin gave me a ‘you don mess up’ look, and I shrugged. In my books, that was one of the sweetest comments I’ll ever give anybody. The event ended and as I slinked out of the backdoor, the lady who wrote and read the brilliant story cornered me.

“Hey, thanks for the comment” she said.

I was my usual cool self, so I just said “You’re welcome.”

We were both silent for a few seconds, then she broke the ice and asked me for my name. I told her.

“We should connect sometime” she said.

“Okay” I replied, still playing it cool.

We exchanged numbers and she said I must call her. I felt so vindicated. On my way home I bought Five Alive: apple splash and Hollandia Yoghourt. That and the leftover rice from my breakfast was equal to a party.

I got home, took a quick shower and sat behind my PC to take my night dose of social media. The lady had sent me a friend request on Facebook which I accepted. I refreshed my news feed.

I’ve always had issues with Zuckerberg’s constant desire to tweak Facebook’s algorithm, and the new style of flooding my feed with updates of folks I’m not friends with.  It pisses me off. But last night I was more than pissed. Sitting atop my feed was a picture taken from my back with my big afro prominent posted by the praise singer. It had a caption that read:

Once in a while, you meet people, gaudy people, who think they’re the smartest people in the room. Every time you meet them, you laugh at them, for they are people who know nothing.

Was I furious? Of course I was. I mean, it is one thing to shut me up in a crowd; it is another to throw shade at me on social media. Thank God he did not use my face; that would have meant war.

I blame Zuckerberg for bringing that drivel into my feed and blame Akin for not telling me those events are echo chambers. But above all, I blame myself for never learning the art of lying to strangers.

_________________

Featured image via flickr by Dave Rutt

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Lying to Strangers

  1. Lmao! This earned you a good laugh. Seriously though from years of being on Nigeria’s biggest social forum, and the short time i spent in the literate section, I’ve learned how big an ego writers have, and bigger cowards sycophants are.
    Or may be it’s just that we’re so used to suffering that we now celebrate mediocrity and refuse to push people to achieve better with ‘constructive’ criticisms.

    Any way even if you hate these events, you can’t deny they give you something to write/talk about and something your readers can laugh about.
    Now can I get a picture of that head? 😀

    1. Me? Hate these event? Nah. I don’t even get invited to most of them. You can’t hate what you don’t have [or insert any other feel good quotes]. And what head are we talking about Uju? The protagonist’s? Because I’m confused here 🙂

      I agree that we often settle for mediocrity when we can embrace criticisms and strive for excellence. I try to remind myself that it is not just the one that praises me that wants my good; the one that ‘rubbishes’ my work might also like me as much.

      I’m glad this made you laugh. Thanks for the comments.

  2. Loved the rant and the various jabs at life in the age of social media 🙂 cleverly done.
    Praise singing versus honest criticism? Personally, I prefer truth tellers. I want honest criticism, so I can assess my progress. Sometimes though, the praise singers aren’t exposed to quality work, and what they consider excellent is really excellent to them. Beauty they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

    If this isn’t fiction, at least the event gave you something to blog about 🙂
    I’ve been to some writing workshops. They weren’t bad at all . . .

    1. When I look at the writing I used to praise a while ago, I agree with the second paragraph of your comment. Makes the need to read wide even more imperative.

      It is fiction o Timi, and I’ve started to start look for those writing workshops too. I’ll hold on to your word in this: they must not be bad.

      Thank you for the kind words.

  3. Truth is “at the very end, we will regret for words left unsaid” though it is imperative to appreciate a piece before criticising, at least it gives the author a credit for the time wasted tasking his brain to write whatever it was. But fact remains that without critics and I mean subjective critics, writers won’t improve cos it is hard to identify your error. Personally I love the critics cos they’ve helped me a lot. A fellow called me recently to totally disagree with an extract in a book I recently published which has barely made its way to the market, when I cross checked and did a re-study. I noticed my erroor which I have corrected ahead of second edition, you can imagine the rate of disservice that he ( the critic) will be doing to me and by extension the thousands of people who have and will be buying my book if he hadn’t corrected me. No matter how people react to criticism. We as writers and observers owe it to them and the public to keep correcting them and do it subjectivly. How they react to it should be there business. Nice piece life. Don’t stop doing the right thing for the wrong reason there is

  4. The Art of Lying by Mark Twain. Find and read it Bro. I remember it being poignant when I came across it.
    You tried o. emi Bolu, ifih say I collect Mike talk. I could find the person on Facebook n share my thoughts. I would never do it in the open. The praise or criticism is for the writer and not the crowd. For the reason above exactly.

    People who are full of themselves just piss me off. Anywhoo… You never know what would come out of the exchange of phone numbers. *coughs* You know… *winks* Count your ribs…

  5. I still stop by to ask: how dare you call the best president ever in Nigeria (according to sycophants) a clueless man……be careful about what you say about our leader before your case is taken to DSS instead of Facebook……. I wonder who you will pour your anger at by then…..lol

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