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