Spring 2021 Issue

The Intimacy of Words, or a Better Way of Being

I got my first kiss at fourteen when I was in junior high. There was this classmate everyone loved. She was taller than most boys, so she sat in the back. I sat close to the blackboard—the way teachers arranged their classes then. There’s a story behind every kiss; a kiss is a story between bodies. In Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe writes that ‘The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.’ Let me digress a little. Picture a father and a son on an island. But you’ve been told this story many times because it is an epic, too Greek. And for the Greeks, it always begins with man, with hubris. Their gods can’t even keep it together, bursting with too much libido for anyone’s good, always hungry for…well, that’s not how the story begins for me.

My father dreamt of continuing his education, which the Biafran-Nigerian war in the 1960s had cut short. So, he gave me a dictionary when I turned seven, not wanting me to end up like his younger brother. Uncle Sly spun fantastic tales after smoking hemp. As my father handed me the dictionary, he asked me not to lose it, as if the dictionary had cost him a month’s pay. What I had in my hand was a battered object. Termites had chewed a couple of pages. I couldn’t place where the idea of a key and door fitted into his dreams. For a boy who liked comics, I didn’t see how such a book could serve as a key, let alone open any door.

In his interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Wole Soyinka remarks that ‘one is a product of history’—a point Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o emphasizes in his book Writers in Politics: ‘The writer as a human being is a product of history, of time and space.’ Sometimes, when my father was home, he sat on the veranda and gazed into space, a bottle of stout or lager at his feet. One evening, he asked me to look up a word—logic. Start from the letter ‘L.’ Then another word—Stupendous. And another—Bombastic. It became a game between us as if we were piecing a puzzle together. He was spending more time indoors, with me, and less time gazing into space. One afternoon, I had to write down the words he called out and explain what each meant. When I got them correctly, he told me to search for an Igbo word—o gwula. I stared at him, he nodded. I insisted the word could never be in the English dictionary. He then smiled and said I was free to decide what to do with the dictionary. I had discovered the shape of words.

Doris Lessing remarks that ‘The story-teller is deep inside every one of us. The story-teller is always with us.’ On Saturdays, Uncle Sly got his friends together in his flat to smoke hemp, drink beer, and dance well into midnight. When I lived with him during one holiday, he taught me to sing, I donna wanna dance/dance with you baby, no more/I’ll never do something to hurt you though/oh, but the feeling is bad, the feeling is bad. He also got me to watch him roll a joint, as he clamped it between his lips and clicked his lighter. He took a puff, held the smoke, then let it out in a whistle. I watched the smoke spiral away from him. He said it was important I learnt about life—there was music in silence, there was music in cacophony, but there was no logic to life. When I reminded him that smoking would destroy his lungs, he snapped, ‘This is my passion, boy. Go find yours!’

Chielozona Eze once told me, ‘Writing begins the moment we want to understand why these things happen. Stories can help us understand the world, why things are the way they are.’ Yet, what makes a good story? An aunt suspected that her husband had been cheating on her, but she didn’t confront him because she wanted to catch him in the act. Then she got a call. When my aunt arrived at the hotel, she sighted her husband and a woman laughing in the exit parking lot. My aunt stood still, panting. Then she called out his name. Her husband got into his car instantly. She clenched her fists and ran after him. My aunt didn’t see the sharp bump on the ground, so she found herself hurtling through the air.

Nawal El Saadawi says she was encouraged to write because she was angry with society. I understand her because my first poetry collection Dark through the Delta was full of anger at my homeland. But let’s come back to the classmate who kissed me. Every boy longed to hang around her. Anytime she called my name, I wanted to hold her voice in my hand, the scent of it in my head. When she laughed at something in class, my heart lifted and backflipped. I couldn’t recollect any dictionary words when I saw her standing next to me during a football game. But an idea would come to me a few weeks later.

When I was in grade six, I found out that I loved my best friend’s sister. She was eleven, and they lived across from us. I hid my feelings from her brother, but she knew how I felt. Every morning her father drove her to school while I went the opposite way. Sometimes we exchanged glances. Other times, we said hello to each other when we met in the street. One afternoon, she walked up to me and handed me a paperback. ‘Keep it,’ she said. And then she was gone. That was the first time anyone has ever given me a gift. Later that evening, I found myself between the pages of Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night. I was caught in another world, a world different from that of the dictionary—more alive, more vibrant.  

Lucille Clifton remarks that ‘It is important to see what you look at and to hear what you listen to. If you remain open to the world and the people around you, you’ll get a lot of ideas.’ The idea of a novel came to me that night I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about my classmate. I got a notebook and spent one month writing sappy fiction about a shy boy and a jaunty girl. When I was sure about the ending, I slipped my “novel” to her the following day at school.

It was infatuation that spurred me to fiction. But poetry found me in my moment of gloom. I left Lagos in the summer of 1992 to live with my father’s eldest brother in Owerri, southeast of Nigeria. My uncle was a biochemist, who had a library stacked with more Achebe, Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aidoo, Naguib Mahfouz, Dennis Brutus, Nuruddin Farah, Kofi Anyidoho, and Agostino Neto than my high school ever had. One afternoon, my uncle’s cook gave me a bucket and the store’s key to get some goat meat from the freezer. The store was in the Boy’s Quarters, behind the main building. I opened the door and went in. I lifted the lid of the freezer and loaded the bucket with slabs of meat. As I made to leave the store, I caught sight of an old bookcase in a corner overflowing with cobwebs and books. The first book I pulled out was a compact edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. That night, I slept with Shakespeare’s voice in my ears. The next night, it was Léopold Sédar Senghor’s.

A scar can tell a story—a story about a woman, a man, a boy, a girl. A scar is a dark story. Lauretta Ngcobo says that ‘Writers have a responsibility to society, and in this instance, to women in particular.’ I remember the first time I saw a woman with a swollen eye and split lip. She and her husband had a son and a daughter. It was the perfect middle-class family, and every neighbour envied them. Then we heard objects crashing about in their house. We heard shouting and screaming, too. This scene became familiar in the neighbourhood. Their children, who used to laugh and play, stopped attending school and playing with us. Bones started to stick out in their faces. Their eyes appeared like a candle-flame struggling against the wind. One evening, their father came back with another woman, and the whole house threatened to explode. He chased his son outside, knocking him to the ground. Somehow, the son got a bottle, smashed it against the wall and slashed his father’s shoulder. That last time I saw the boy I wanted to touch him because he looked like something salvaged from a junkyard. I longed to take in some of his pain. But I was ten and wasn’t sure how to go about hugging a fellow boy.

‘Find love,’ she said, squinting at the scar on my knee. My grandmother spoke in bits as if speaking was a burden.

‘Mama the mama,’ I teased.

‘You know why we named you Uyoyo?’

‘No,’ I answered. I knew what it meant, but I hardly used that name.

‘Not everyone gets to experience love in their lifetime,’ she said. I realized then what it meant to look the past in the eye, to scrape open a scar that one had thought gone. To recount the story of a girl who had managed to survive two wars—the second world war and the Biafran-Nigerian war. Her father would hand her over to a man who already had two wives. The girl eventually left the man and got along by herself, but only to have another man, yet another man, treat her much worse than a foot mat. Shortly after, while waiting for a taxi, I whispered my name into the air.

Nadine Gordimer says that ‘writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being.’ I believe that stories open the door for us to understand human pain, a family’s pain, a neighbour’s pain, a lover’s pain, a stranger’s pain—the pain of not belonging. There is nothing photogenic about pain. Yet, writers illuminate the other’s pain. They give voice to those denied speech or space. Achebe describes this attentiveness to the other’s pain as ‘imaginative identification.’

Who can say where fiction begins? When does memory mesh with imagination? Two days before I turned twelve, Mike and I went to play football near a lagoon. Mermaids crept out of the weed-infested waters every midnight of the first month. That was what our parents told us then. Those who worshipped the mermaids left coins, beads, eggs, feathers, palm oil, and gin on the shore. Any man, who stumbled upon the mermaids while they were dancing naked under the moonlight, ended up mute. So, when Mike kicked the ball hard, I ran after it and found myself under the water. Writing is a plunge into the sea of time. Part of my experience of drowning made its way to my children’s book. PD James says, ‘Nothing that happens to a writer—however happy, however tragic—is ever wasted.’

Stories and poetry come from anywhere. They defy borders to create spaces of intimacy. They connect as much as they  cut. Words are affective, words are intimate. They do something to us, to the hairs on our skin, to our bodies. They contour our being. It is safe to claim that writing is an expression of yearning—a yearning for answers to questions that baffle or beset us; a yearning to fill the void with a voice; a yearning to texture a surface with a touch; a yearning for what is on the other side, even when it appears to be inside us. All writing attempts to assuage that yearning. Yet, whatever it is that we are yearning for is beyond touch. It exceeds word and image, and it expresses something indefinable. Still, it’s a feeling, deeply intimate. Orhan Pamuk claims that ‘a writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.’ I like to think that that being is not only within but also outside the writer. It reflects our way of being intimate with the self and with the other, a reflection of our shared intimacy for beauty and truth. Every story that I have written, every poem I’ve managed to write, is a way of finding—and possibly—sharing intimacy with the world of others.

In his poem ‘Letter from a Contract Worker,’ Antonio Jacinto laments: ‘I wanted to write you a letter/my love,/a letter that would tell/of this desire/to see you/of this fear[…]/of this yearning to which I live in total surrender…

The kiss—my first kiss. After I gave the notebook to my classmate, she looked at me, skimmed through it, then stuffed it in her bag. Just like that! I couldn’t tell whether she was bored or upset. The rest of the day went like a blur, without excitement. I got to school early the next day, scared of what might happen in class since I believed that I had made a fool of myself. To my surprise, I found my classmate at my desk. She got up and stepped aside for me to sit.

‘This is…is beautiful. You wrote this?’ she said. I nodded. She pressed the notebook to her chest. ‘Can I keep it?’ I managed to smile back at her and said, ‘Yes, please.’ As she leaned forward and crushed her lips against mine, I thought I could feel my toes barely touching the floor. She would crush my heart in a month, dumping me for a boy who went about flaunting his flashy sneakers.

Let me leave you with this image of my mother. When I showed her my first published poem, she held the newspaper clipping up to the light. After a while, she folded it and pressed it into my palm.

‘Son,’ she said, ‘we all yearn for a better way of being. Stories are a means to seek that way. The story is the way. Go as far as you can.’

Uche Peter Umezurike

Uche Peter Umezurike holds a PhD in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta. An alumnus of the International Writing Program, Iowa, USA, he is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. His children’s book Wish Maker is forthcoming from Masobe Books, Nigeria in fall 2021.

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