Ok, so I saw this event link on Facebook saying Teju Cole and Tolu Ogunlesi were going to be having a literary conversation on Sunday November 27 from 4 to 6 pm at a place called Cinnamon Café on Adetokunbo Ademola in Victoria Island. And I thought, hey, that’d be a nice thing to go to. So, I logged it in my mental calendar and later, when I got an invite to the same event from Chinelo Onwualu of the Cassava Republic group, I thought, ok, I’m going for that then. But I marked my attendance on the event page as a ‘Maybe’. Nov. 27 was the date for our former pastor’s send-forth at my church. I couldn’t be too sure what the day’d be like.
Still. I knew I was going. Teju Cole. ‘Every Day is for the Thief’. An opportunity to see him in the flesh and listen to him talk. To decode him. Duh. Of course I was going.
Ok, so I went. Our pastor’s send-forth programme started at 12noon after the main service and ended sometime past 2. Nice. I got home, ate my send-forth rice, freshened up, got my well-read copy of EDIFTT, left the house. Seeing as Oga Me has no car, had to use public transportation.
First, a bus to CMS. Hot. Stuffy. Tight. The lady beside me was carrying all the load of her present and previous lives with her. And the guy beside her, who had this old-school shag hairstyle, didn’t know where MUSON Centre was and kept asking me and Lady Load if he should come down near Iyana Oworo. If you don’t know what a shag is, it’s when the hair at the back and sides of your head is higher and fuller than the hair on top. I believe the hairstyle was last popular in the early 80s. Anyway, Lady Load and I told Mr. Shag, no, don’t get down at Iyana Oworo. And when we reached Obalende and Lady Load exited the bus with her load, I had to stop Mr. Shag from following her, letting him know quite honestly that MUSON Centre was not located at Obalende and he needed to stay in the bus.
Ok, so Mr. Shag got to MUSON safely. And so did I, to CMS. From there, got into a bus screaming ‘Barbish-Eko’otel-Roundabout’ at the marina. Got to Adetokunbo Ademola. Alighted in front of Eko Hotel and Suites. Trekked back a bit and found the Cinnamon Café.
I was underwhelmed by the place. Hadn’t really expected anything fancy, not really. But at least I thought, you know, when you hear Cinnamon Café…
Ok, so I was underwhelmed. It was obviously a new joint. Just opening. Cassava Republic helping them to get the word out. There was a small indoor area. But the event wasn’t holding there. No, the event was holding outside. In the compound, if I can call it that. It was so small. There were white plastic chairs arranged under a white canopy. And that was it. I found a seat at one end. Sat down. It was hot. People were fanning themselves with the fliers the Cinnamon Café people had left on every seat. I was hot and a little sweaty from the bus rides and the trek. Started doing the same.
Ok, so I recognized Jeremy Weate of Cassava Republic immediately. Had added him as a friend on Facebook sometime ago. Had seen his pic there. Ticked that one off in my head. Same with Tolu Ogunlesi. He was indoors. In the café with Jeremy and some other people. Ticked that one off too. It’s always nice to see someone you only know via media in the flesh. At least for me. That was half the reason I went for the event in the first place. You get to say oh, he really looks like his picture but he didn’t look this tall (Jeremy Weate) or jeez, exactly as I pictured him (Tolu Ogunlesi). But where was Teju Cole?
We waited. I looked around. Nobody I knew or recognized. It was hot. Kept fanning. Waited a bit more. The great, almost ubiquitous, poet Odia Ofeimun arrived. Ok. Waited a bit more. Saw Eghosa Imasuen who I knew from when I attended the Farafina workshop. Waited, waited. Waited.
Ok, so Teju Cole arrived. He also looked exactly like his Internet self. Beard and all. But didn’t sound the way I thought he would. He sounded nicer. I had thought he would have this distant, above-all-your-heads, haughty, ‘intellectual’ manner. Just got that impression from EDIFTT, though I really like the book. But he was actually quite accessible. My bad. Sorry Teju.
Ok, so it started. Sometime past four-thirty p.m. or so. Jeremy Weate said a few words. On Tolu Ogunlesi just returning from his Masters at the University of East Anglia, and on CR publishing Christie Watson who also went to UEA. The book is called ‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’ and it’s about the Niger Delta. It was nominated for the Costa Prize. I think he said she was present there too. But not sure. Can’t remember that bit.
Ok, so Teju read from EDIFTT. He read from ‘Open City’, his newest work, before that, but the reading from EDIFTT was much longer. And then the discussion started.
Tolu asked him about his books, about the line between fiction and fact i.e. non-fiction. The question was, as I saw it, are your books about you Teju? Tolu also chimed in a question about a sequence in EDIFTT involving Queen Elizabeth II visiting Nigeria in the 70s, and asked how come that was in the book when the Queen actually never visited Nigeria in the 70s.
Teju replied. It was what I will call ‘a very artistic’ reply. *grin*. Not complex or hard to understand, but he talked about art and what a novel is and what fiction is and how even in real life, there are elements of fiction and in fiction, there is real live truth. But he did say the protagonists in his novels are not him. He specifically said that the unnamed protagonist in EDIFTT was halfway between him and Julius, the protagonist of Open City, with Julius being nothing like him.
The talking began in full swing. At this point, the reader will forgive me. I can’t remember all the questions Tolu asked him. I can just remember snatches, memorable lines, from all of what I heard Teju saying.
I remember Teju saying something like life is always straining towards disorder. And that we humans are the ones to set the order, to determine the flow of events, both in real life and in fiction. I found that very deep. Almost Biblical. Teju said he was fascinated by the law of unintended consequences. Said things in life happen quite randomly really and so it’s hard to draw the line between what can be truth and what can be fiction. He talked about some strange things happening in real life, things people wouldn’t believe if they found them in fiction. A sort of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ speech.
Teju discussed his ‘small fates’, the tiny, 140-character, self-contained series of micro-stories he’d been releasing on Twitter. Tolu had asked him about absurdity, how the small fates contained a lot of the absurd. Teju said real life is absurd. And I thought, so true. Look at Mr. Shag who was going to MUSON and wanted to get out of the bus at Iyana Oworo. Absurd is almost an understatement. He didn’t know the way, I know, but still it was ridiculous.
Ok, so Monsieur Cole said the absurd starts from the obvious, things that are right in front of you. He said if you tweak the obvious a little, the absurdities start popping out. For example, of a wife-beater, who he referred to as ‘Mr. Ogunlesi’ – there was quite of lot of ribbing between the two of them – he said, “Mr. Ogunlesi’s wife didn’t believe that her husband was a gentleman, so he beat her up to prove it. And she still wasn’t convinced.”
Everyone found that hilarious.
Teju had said that he was in Lagos researching his third work, a non-fiction piece about Lagos. Tolu asked him why he was writing about Lagos again, after EDIFTT, and also if he had turned to non-fiction because he had ‘exhausted his fictional capabilities’ after Open City. (Like I said, they exchanged quite a few verbal jabs). Teju said he was writing about Lagos because not enough had been written about it. And it is such an interesting city. He also said he’s tied to Lagos. He grew up here, was admitted to study Medicine at Unilag, just before he left for America. I found that interesting. I didn’t know that.
Ok, so Teju also talked about the blog that gave rise to EDIFTT. He said his purpose for that blog was to write about Lagos, to have a series people could follow and also to make it ephemeral i.e. have it disappear after a while. So what he did was he started the blog, wrote in it for a while and built up a following, and then he deleted the blog. Just like that. That one made me chuckle and shake my head. Why would someone do that?
But after he deleted the blog, Jeremy Weate and Bibi Bakare-Yusuf of CR convinced him to publish stuff from the blog as a book. And that’s where EDIFTT came from. Found that interesting too. It explained his dedication in EDIFTT: “For K. With gratitude to my parents, and to the Bakare-Weates, who saw what was there.”
Ok, so Teju Cole talked about a lot of other things. After the session with Tolu Ogunlesi ended, people in the audience asked their own questions. My hand was up from the beginning but never got the chance to ask my question. Sulk.
Teju talked about social media, about how it has made sharing of experiences instantaneous. He said he didn’t like Facebook much ‘cos they had too much personal info and too much of it was outside his control. Said having a private space for yourself, having your own private identity, having things that are only yours and no one else’s, is important.
He was asked about how art, film, music influences his writing. He said art, not so much, even though he’s a Dutch art expert. He said film and music influence him. Said he is a fan of Federico Fellini’s movies and that the sort of music that inspires him is Fela because of the way it ‘unfolds and unfurls’. He said his work is like that psychologically. He wants things in his books to unfold slowly, gradually. He said something about that being called ‘free indirect style’ but I’m not sure. Google that.
Ok, so it was all over. And it was time for mixing, mingling and autographs. I’m not so good at the first two, so it was straight ahead to where Teju sat to get my well-read EDIFTT signed. While in the queue waiting, realized I’d been sitting next to ‘@misswanawana’ Wana Udobang of Guerilla Basement all along. Another Facebook friend. I said hello.
So Teju autographed my book. He wrote ‘For Gboyega, with best wishes’. Yay! I was tickled pink. Still am. Ok. Don’t mind me.
Also, got to ask him my question one-on-one. And I got an answer. But I won’t go into that. Taking Teju’s advice and keeping that private. Lol.
Ok, so I was leaving when I saw Tolu Ogunlesi outside. Incidentally, he was a judge on the Vote Chronicles contest on Naija Stories, a contest I was part of. Then, his comment on my story ‘What Theophilus Did’ was that he found it hard to suspend his disbelief at a critical point in the story. He scored me 6 over 10. But he was right though. Have since reworked that story many times. Anyway, I walked up to Tolu and introduced myself. He seemed a bit embarrassed when I reminded him of the ‘suspend my disbelief’ comment. He laughed and covered his face a bit. I thought, hmm.
Lots of writers are shy really. Like Oga Me.
Ok, so I left. And by the time I arrived back at the bus stop close to home, at about 8pm, guess who I saw?
He said hello, do you remember me. I said of course. He said thanks for the directions that time. I said, no problem. We went in opposite directions.
Strange. That’s what I thought.
But if Teju Cole heard the story, I wonder what he would think.