by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo.
I was part of the 2014 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop (FCWW), by which I mean I became Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s boy – an appellation which, made any time before 2013, might have meant the famous writer and I were good and jolly friends. That harmless definition has been made impossible after Cocoyam-gate – or Boy-gate depending on the speaker’s gustatory inclinations – an incident involving an FCWW alumnus who construed a statement Ms Adichie made as demeaning. Cocoyam-gate went largely unmentioned during the 10 days this year’s participants were hosted by Farafina Books and taught by Adichie.
That isn’t fully true: the incident came up twice, once indirectly and later as apologia and warning. At lunch on the first day, in an attempt to start a conversation, I told her we had several mutual friends (which hardly means anything because the Nigerian literary scene has a limited and dwindling cast, losing actors to the more lucrative fields of PR and politics). Adichie smiled – my attempt at familiarity may have been familiar – and asked for names.
Stumped after just one name, I struggled to find someone with more than a passing acquaintance with her. Nothing more came forth, mainly because I was making a show of struggling to not mention the name common to both of us, Elnathan John. Of course I knew John. We both wrote for Metropole Magazine, an Abuja-based outfit, and for a year kept a weekly column for the magazine’s website. We attended the Abuja Literary Society meetings and met regularly at watering holes the way writers living in the same city do. Eventually I coughed up his name.
“Why couldn’t you just say?”
I looked at her. She was smiling. But maybe that’s just my imagination.
The remains of that conversation were dug up on the last day of the workshop when, after an elaborate dinner, Adichie did a mischievous mimicry of the episode. A participant had asked her if she might read his manuscript. She wouldn’t. She wasn’t into emails, not anymore, not after Boy-gate. Tragic news – Adichie occupies a coveted spot in Nigerian literature. Between the heydays of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and today, every writer to register in Nigeria’s consciousness is a comet, dazzling and subsequently spirited into dust. Adichie, on the other hand, is a star, each book as highly regarded as its predecessor. Which wannabe writer wouldn’t welcome a recommendation from her? Gathered in Lagos, this optimistic gaggle of wannabes, having been fed, was chucked out of the manor.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” a participant said.
I was mostly amused. Like most people I find entertainment in a little gossip and some joy in minor controversies. Literary spats have a quality to them that is both comical and grotesque. Once, when the writer had value for the population, these fights seemed to be fought on behalf of readers and the culture of birthing the warriors. With an increasingly marginal relevance even to readers, who now have so many more options, literary fights are at once ineffectual and sensational. Punches no longer hurt as much stun. Where were essays, are now tweets – the avian size of these signifies.
Adichie’s friend and co-tutor, the abundantly brilliant Binyavanga Wainaina, took over and explained impassionedly the adopted policy. On this occasion, as on the first, Adichie maintained a deathless poise, deadpan and enduringly regal.
There is an American parallel featuring the great film critic Pauline Kael and then young journalist, James Wolcott.
Kael had been Wolcott’s mentor until the latter penned a lacerating piece on the Paulettes, the name given to followers, and imitators, of Pauline. The matter was never fully resolved, and years later when Wolcott, now Vanity Fair’s film critic, published a collection of his writing, he left out that infamous piece, writing in the preface of Critical Mass that he “couldn’t bring himself to include it”. It would be enough to stop there, but there is more. Another Kael acolyte, the music critic Greil Marcus, asked if he had read Lucking Out, Wolcott’s memoir on his early days as a critic – published before Critical Mass – had this to say:
“I’m not really interested in what Jim has to say about Pauline. I thought he wrote a really hateful piece about her, which was a matter of putting his obsession with her behind him. He became an acolyte of Pauline’s in a way that was embarrassing to read, when he was mimicking her and celebrating her in The Village Voice. And he was so clearly her boy, her defender. Like I said, it was embarrassing to read. Then a point came when he had to put that behind him and show that he was going to speak in his own voice and no longer needed to have the imprimatur of another critic behind him. I know that Pauline was horribly hurt by that piece. She really never got over it, and she had enormous affection for him.”
The Wolcott piece discussed here was written in the 1970s. Lucking Out was published in 2011, Critical Mass came out in 2013 and Pauline Kael died in 2002. Both Marcus and Wolcott are in the twilight of their careers: Whoever said time heals wounds didn’t factor in writers.
I am particularly fascinated by Marcus’s choice of words in that interview: “and he was so clearly her boy…” At that point drawing a line between that event and Cocoyam-gate stopped being an extrapolation, turning instead into meta-interrogation, like what we have here is a recreation of an ancient event.
The use of a creative writing programme is still contested. The lack of the real thing here, offering an MFA, means Nigeria is excluded from the debate, but writers’ workshops are the closest thing. And their utility, too, is debated. Several of this year’s participants agreed that its utility to the writer is extracurricular – the aim of the programme is less teaching than imbuing the upstart with confidence. Which for a writer, especially one living in Africa, is invaluable.
Consulting with Adichie, in the case of the FCCW, grants the young writer permission for the idleness upon which creativity depends. Parents, seeing the chance of fame if not success, are temporarily willing to cut their layabout offspring some slack; ditto partners. But the interaction with the page doesn’t become easier because one has attended a workshop. And because these workshops focus on the big picture – the story – and neglect the little things – the sentence – a fraught relationship with text, or, say, a facility for clichés will not disappear.
“It… can be an awful waste of time,” William Styron said to the Paris Review in response to a question about the value of a writing course. “It can’t teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven’t got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn’t be any hope at all.”
Cruel but true.
At the workshop’s closing ceremony, Adichie stood onstage, resplendent in a white dress, an artful bush perched sideways on her head like a forgotten dream. She called the participants to receive their certificates with attendant applause, lavishing praise on each participant, praise many will prefer on debut novels: “His writing has a terse beauty…”; “her characters are well drawn out”; “her prose is searing”… such beautiful blurbs. Beyond having her words on book covers, some might want them on their tombstones.
By the time I was called up, she had run out of spontaneous adjectival constructions. As I walked onstage, I couldn’t think of anything, overwhelmed by the applause of mostly strangers, bound by an unspoken etiquette. The famous novelist looked at me as she had at the others but didn’t call my last name. (I declined to pronounce it in class.) The Managing Director of the sponsoring company handed me a piece of cardboard with my name on it in black ink. I held it, lent a sheepish smile and camera lights dazzled me awhile.
“I want to thank you for coming,” Adichie said.
No blurbs for me. Nevertheless a friend in the audience took this product of a deserved exhaustion to be high praise. And passed it on to another friend. I didn’t know it then, sheepish smile on face, and light in my eye, but a myth was building. Dwelling among alternatively praising and mocking shouts of Chimamanda’s boy! Chimamanda’s boy! was a sanguine narrative: he was so superior to the environment she thanked him for attending the programme. The tale got to me and I laughed, but left the origins of that peculiar gratitude untroubled. This, it so happens, is what it means to be Chimamanda Adichie’s boy circa 2014: to be deemed special by an utterance made in worthy exhaustion. That and the ownership of a piece of white cardboard with esoteric borders – containing the logo of a brewery, the signature of a publisher and the novelist’s name sans email or phone number – proclaiming your participation.
This story features in the Chronic, published April 2015, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?