THESE WRITERLY ENCOUNTERS V: THE ENTITLEMENT
Although we do not biologically inherit it, it is such a part of us that, concerning the ones fed us from childhood, it feels like they have always been there, and as for the ones we consciously acquired as we grew mature, it seems natural that they would be passed on. But we deceive ourselves.
It – let’s call this thing we are referring to It for now… It is not a part of us in the same way our hands or bone marrows are. It is something we acquire, and can drop any day we decide to. However, for as long as we have It, we carry it around it in our pockets or briefcases, handbags or underwear – somewhere close so we can whip it out at will, to define and to diss, to shape and to blanket. But what is It’s form, you ask me? And I answer, It has no one form. Sometimes It comes out as a dagger, ready to slash and draw blood; other times It takes the form of tinted glasses which colour our vision as we prefer. There is also the time I have seen It clink out from your underwear as a chainmail which you put on to protect yourself against what you see as the enemy’s attack. And for that our colleague who is mild-tempered, his It is usually in the form of sleeping pills which he downs and goes to sleep, dead to the enemy’s ranting.
Look, its form is neither here nor there, because we could go on and on about that. What is important is that when It is out we use it with abandon, with no thought for anyone else but ourselves and our stand. We use It when we think our younger brother should be in science (not arts) class ‘where there are more brilliant students and better careers’ – never mind that his maths is lamentable. We use It when we regard our family/tribe/religion as better than that other family/tribe/religion. When light-skinned girls are the only ones deserving of the adjective ‘beautiful, we use it. When skinny jeans are meant for fools who are kids and kids who are fools, we bring It out. When Blackberrys are merely ostentatious, and Twitter is an avenue for people to display their puerility, It is talking. It is It at work when your friend looks through your book collection with his lips turned down at the corners and the lights in his eyes dead – Just novels is all you read? What about inspirational books? Why would anyone want to waste time on made-up stories, or empty words issued from the broken minds of disillusioned men in the name of poetry? he wonders. Your friend has been unfair, denigrating your tastes just like that. You resent this and you want to lash out, to tell him that poems and novels are inspirational works too, and that he is being rude. But hold in that anger against him yet because you are no better. You have your It, which you don’t fail to draw out and act on when there is an opportunity.
Like those times It comes out of your pocket in the shape of a detachable Pinocchio nose, and you stick it to your face and start to get supercilious: This here is serious literature, that there is unserious literature for puny minds. In fact, you are being kind classifying these latter as literature at all; the cheap trashes are written for instant gratification – both on the part of the writer who rakes in the millions from his ‘bestsellers’, and on the part of the reader who cares nothing for depth and connotations while reading. Writers in this genre are simply unimaginative, which is why they have chosen this style of writing as an excuse to continue churning out the same worn tales over and over –‘ like akara sellers’ – with changes made only to character names and setting. The structure is a formula. As for the reader who is thrilled, page after page until the end, what remains with him after he shuts the book? Has fiction now become what it is for fiction’s sake, like we are kids? you would ask? Isn’t real literature for mature minds who are not lazy, ‘who can read in-between the lines to see the story within the story’, who can enjoy ‘muscular prose’? It is insignificant that of the 150,000 words in that serious novel of yours, 58,920 are deadweight, occupying space and swelling volume – after all the language of writing should be ‘rich’!
Which is why last week, your It showed itself again in the form of a mitre. You were Pope, officiously teaching literary dogma: Simplicity of language is the mark of creative excellence; the writer who uses complex words is a non-starter, an insecure amateur, too eager to impress rather than express. If he knew what he was doing, he’d stick to ‘relatable, every-day language’ – just like Achebe did – even if it means him coming off as pretentious and downright ridiculous; even if, in fact, this writer speaks verdant instead of green, masticate instead of eat, sentient instead of awake. You do not know of the relationship between the physical voice and the creative voice, and, more importantly, you do not care. No one writes that way. It is highfalutin, distracting and gaudy.
In the last thirty minutes, your It was a pitch fork, lifting into the incinerator what you have decided is chaff. And so, assuming you are in this huge library whose floor is covered with books from all over the world, this chaff would be every scrap of paper written by a Nigerian, nay, African. These have to be burnt because Africans simply cannot write. Only Things Fall Apart will be rescued; it was the novel that made the West begin to take African writing seriously, so it is an important book and, as at 1983 when you read it, it felt well written. The facts that you can no longer remember the thrust of the tale, or that African writing has moved on since TFA, or that you cannot even state, in one sentence, what this classic did for the continent do not matter. Everybody talks about Achebe; he is the first and last of writers this part of the world – hell, TFA has been translated into many languages, even Persian! Why hasn’t any other African writer achieved so much greatness? Again, it is because Africans cannot write: ‘Their’ books are filled with crappy plots, infuriating resolutions – the kind you find in Nollywood films – and a tone that just goes on and on about some abstraction or weary socio-political subject that makes you yawn. These writers obviously do not read Sheldon and Grisham; no wonder their stories are merely wool-gathering in ink – nothing to make your heart race, or even stop altogether so you can die already.
Speaking of death, remember two years ago? You would remember two years ago, but do you remember what happened two years ago? No? Let me remind you then: Your friend had just shown you a story he’d written. This friend of yours is a poet, his poems are good, but he had never written fiction before; he wanted to know what you thought. So you told him. That day, your It revealed itself in all its malevolence as a dagger. You looked your friend in the eye and pressed the blade into his heart. You told him of niches that must be maintained, of servants who cannot be equally loyal to two masters, of the stupidity in the idea of a jack of all trades, of carpets that must not be crossed…what else did you tell him?… Ah, yes you told him – Stick to poetry and leave fiction alone. Well, your friend shrugged, thanked you and left. But do you know what is happening to him these days? No, you wouldn’t, so I will tell you. He has written many stories since then. They lie about – under his pillow, in his liquor cabinet, tucked in various books – all in halves and quarters. None completed. Because he cannot block the flashes in his head of that day when you made him stop believing in himself, when you ended his quest to explore and grow. When you killed him. But you have no inkling of this, because he bares his thirty-two at you every day, and tells you of the latest poems he has written, but says nothing about the stories he dies to tell.
And you are not done.
These days, the It you carry around comes out often as a mould, casting and setting in stone and metal. That is why all poets are lazy writers who really cannot manage more than a few words. They are melancholic and miserable, always going on about the mush they fantasize about instead of getting out into the real world to claim the lover or life of their dreams. They are idealistic – as if any society was ever built on beautiful words! They are weird, and need healthier outlets for their feelings before they go mad, if they are not already past redemption. As for fiction writers, you must applaud their first-class imaginations. They can sustain communication about fabricated stuff for the longest time. If only their heads weren’t so weak! The world needs people who can bring about transformative innovations in physics, economics and media – and not people who sit by windows all day weaving tales.
Tomorrow, your local book club will be meeting. You are going to be there, armed with the book to be discussed – and It. That tomorrow, It will come out as a tin of poo. Hot, putrefied poo, which you will smear generously on every page of the book in review while the others watch. Why? Because the work was everything literature shouldn’t be. It was ‘hollow and shallow’. It did ‘not address the existentialist question inAfrica’; the characters had ‘depth but no truth.’ While you are at it this, you will not observe that other members may not have followed your convoluted point – well, and so? This is supposed to be a forum for literary intelligentsia who should be able to reason critically and get philosophical, not just read and come here to make small talk about what the characters wore.
It goes by so many names, this It, but I will list just a few: (i) slant (ii) predilection (iii) preference (iv) taste (v) leaning (vi) penchant (vii) liking (viii) bias. My personal favourite is the last: Bias. I do not know what yours is, but what I do know is that this – It – is yours to have, yours to keep. Hold on to it as your entitlement and we will be fine; feel free to let it out, so long as its smell does not suffocate me. And the day, you fall foul of these rules, and think to make your biases my curse, may thunder blast you to pieces. Amen.
Afterword: Someone once told me that all writers are thinkers, and so, in this regard, fiction writers hardly qualify. LOL. KCN.