We Write These Things to Make Our Joy Complete
Thoughts on the appeal of writing about trauma
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is one of the few science-fiction films of recent years set in an Utopia. It is about a futuristic city ruled by a scorned scientist who will do anything to keep a tachyon machine running, so it can continue to project visions of an apocalyptic future, a self-fulfilling prophecy that he had hoped will stop the world from destructive tendencies but has only bred a people eager to embrace the coming doom. For a while, there’s been chatter among young Nigerian writers that the evolving culture of personal essays, bold and admirable as it is, is like Tomorrowland: writers writing sad stories and publishing them all over the world, creating a feedback loop that suggests that this is the only kind of story worth telling by young Nigerians. There was brouhaha over this when Oris Aigbokhaevbolo talked about essays published in Catapult magazine, which appears to have a predilection for publishing Nigerian narratives marked by trauma. Oris was skewered by those who thought he was trying to act like a gatekeeper. And in a recent iteration of this discourse, through an essay by Amatesiro Dore published in the Johannesburg Review of Books, Oris was referenced again.
“Don’t be like my acclaimed friend, Orimalu,” writes Dore, “who currently has no story to tell so he bullies everyone with the techniques of dead white men in order to hide the fact that his pedestrian existence as a straight, mildly-achieving, middle-class Nigerian with girlfriend issues and concerns about our sociopolitical nightmare is unworthy (just my jealous opinion) of a full-length novel.” Anyone who knows Oris knows he is the one being referred to as Orimalu in that quote.
Oris is a critic with an affinity for style, especially the kind that makes music out of the restraints of English syntax. He loves stories that shine, not by the glamour of their subjects, but the grace of the writing, and he’s vocal about this to the point of being a dick. So maybe Dore is right when he says Oris bullies writers with techniques of dead white men, but this is only true if the critic’s continued proselyting on Twitter about the use and misuse of semicolons and other persnickety pronouncements can be counted as bullying.
The question of whether Oris is a bully or not isn’t my concern. He’s a grown man who can defend himself against such allegations. The telling part of that passage is that Dore refers to Oris as someone “who currently has no story to tell” on account of being a “straight, mildly-achieving, middle-class Nigerian with girlfriend issues and concerns about our sociopolitical nightmare….” What does it mean for someone to have “no story to tell”? Dore ties Oris to Updike, that scapegoat for stylistic writing sans substance, who he writes, “glorified the mundane lives of straight white men during the era of the Civil Rights movement in America, apartheid in South Africa and other exotic world problems of our time.” It therefore surmises that Dore believes stories worth telling are those that aren’t mundane, that are about the “exotic world problems of our time.”
Dissing Updike isn’t novel. The narrator of Teju Cole’s Everyday for the Thief famously said, “Had John Updike been African, he would have won the Nobel prize long ago. Shillington Pennsylvania simply did not measure up to his extravagant gifts.” Our problems as Nigerians are a source of such rich material for stories, especially the kind that appeals to foreign establishments who have their own interests and agenda. And there’s nothing wrong in embracing this. If you have a traumatic story and the requisite skill to transform it into something that keeps the world in rapture, you’ll be a fool not to tell that story. But the possession of a Nobel-worthy tragedy isn’t enough to earn you a prize in literature if you do not pay attention to the craft of writing. “Tell your own Abiku story. Leave the critics to argue about form,” writes Dore, a statement that looks nice, but ignores the fact that the only Nobel prize winner from Nigeria, who also has an Abiku poem, is so devoted to form his work is almost incomprehensible to the uneducated reader. Form is not the enemy; mediocrity is.
Dore also considers the kind of stories that need to be written about “exotic world problems of our time,” an indication of what he thinks is valuable about his writing and that of the young queer intellectual he’s addressing. But to whom are these problems exotic, and whose exoticism have we prioritised? If there’s as much distance between a gay boy in Anambra state and a western audience interested in Nigeria’s collective homophobia as there is between me, a straight Yoruba boy who grew up in the South West hinterlands, and a rich kid in Ikoyi who controls the oil that powers my I better pass my neighbour, then whose parameters are we using to decide what is exotic?
Class is the single most important origin of injustice in Nigeria. Not sexuality. Not Ethnicity. Not gender. Class. And if my one year of working with Oris — during which he was a fantastic line editor of my work — was not spent with a man who has created a mirage of himself, I do not believe Dore can say Oris is not capable of telling a unique story about how class works in Nigeria. Now, if Oris can tell a Nigerian story about class, and has the writing skill to pull it off, who does that story appeal to? If the audience that funds our storytelling isn’t interested in how the quotidian life of a Benin boy living in Lagos illustrates the class structures that define contemporary Nigeria — which I assume they aren’t, at least not to the degree of other ‘exotic’ problems — it follows that Dore’s conclusion that Oris “currently has no story to tell” can be accepted as gospel albeit in error.
“Harvest your pain, tell your stories and leave Orimalu to bother himself about your use of colons and semicolons,” Dore tells the young queer intellectual. Like the tachyon machine in Tomorrowland, admonitions like Dore’s combine with the realities of publishing in Nigeria to create a cottage industry of harvested pain. There are groups on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp where young writers support themselves to practice and improve in the art of writing trauma. Nigerians are smart and ingenuous. So, this sounds like a practical response to a perceived demand. (I know there is catharsis in writing down traumatic events, but this value, in my experience, doesn’t carry over into publishing.) The appeal of trauma in writing is universal; what isn’t common is the elevation of this to the point where we can say to have no pain to write about is to have no story.
The irony of this is that some of the most successful Nigerian essayists of the past decade write about “mundane” subjects. Yemisi Aribisala, whose Longthroat Memoirs is perhaps the best collection of essays published by a Nigerian in the past five years, writes about food. Since its publication, every time I return to Ibadan, I remember her essays and how they have animated that city for me. Aribisala, through her unique obsessions and excellent writing, has expanded my sense of humanity. The same is possible for every aspect of our lives. I hope the queer intellectual Nigerian harvests her pain and collects her coins. But I also hope she does this knowing that the world we desire is one where she can also be free to write about cooking for her lover on a humid Sunday morning with windows open and the voice of a church choir singing in perfect harmony wafting in with the breeze.
The world’s interest in our stories as historically marginalised people is rational. There are stories that need to be told, histories whose excavations are necessary for an understanding of how we got here. We may be tired of the straight white man’s navel gazing, but we do not know enough about ourselves as Nigerians — gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female — to scoff at anyone’s story. The world may demand our trauma and be ready to pay premium for it, but to be woke is to be aware of how these stories affect us and know that our duty is to create a vision of ourselves that is capable of bringing forth freedom. In writing fiction and personal essays, I’ve discovered there’s an inherent appeal for stories about my misery, and little regard for stories that “spark joy.” We may mine our pain so others can witness them, but I do not know anyone who writes so they can retain the pain. We write to make our joys complete.
In his Eight Letters to a Young Writer, Teju Cole writes, “Be courageous: Nothing human should be far from you. Write about murder and exam cheats; about depression and borrowed money. Write about the senator who lives in constant fear that her thievery will be found out, or the grandmother who wants to sleep with her son-in-law. What about the imam who realises one Friday afternoon that he’s become an atheist? What of the anti-gay activist who himself is secretly gay? Tell the story you need to tell.”
From Rainer Maria Rilke to Cole to Colum McCann, there’s a tradition of writers passing on wisdom gained through experience to others. Dore fits well into this genre. He writes in hope that the young queer intellectual will read and be able to navigate living as a writer in Nigeria in ways that will be safe and financially rewarding. And that is admirable. But as we bend to foreign benefactors with paternalistic desires and local mentors with misguided ideals, we cannot tell stories exclusively for those who need to turbocharge their failing empathy machines.
“You are writing so that you and the reader can share a solidarity in the complications of the human condition,” writes Cole. Prescribing a guide for what any artist should create may be fraught with potential misdirections. Yet, we have instructions that can save us from ourselves, such as the words of Mary Oliver, the recently departed “queer intellectual” writer of poetry who said, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”