Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The giddy years

Jos, September 2001 (c) talatu-carmen
This morning, I glanced at the date at the bottom right hand of my screen and jumped a little. It has been 12 years, and there have been hosts of other heartbreaking tragedies since then. But it is a date I will not forget. 12 years ago it felt like the world was exploding, with the riots that had begun in Jos and then the crashing down of silver towers that pushed Jos out of the news. While rummaging around in my laptop today for old memories to commemorate a happier anniversary this week--25 years since my family moved to Nigeria--I found this piece. 

How young we once were.

I thought I should post it today. 

for R.


Those were the giddy years in Brooklyn where the light stretched long and we danced out in blizzard-thick snowflakes in our platform clogs and socks, dragging Ladi’s duffle between us like a sled. “Will you take a picture for us,” we asked the man, grinning lunatics, the three of us, by the deli, snow turning our hair white.
“Why?” he asked, a native skeptic. We nudged Ladi.

“To capture the moment,” we trilled.

“Some moment,” he said. “Whadaya from Florida or sumthin?” He snapped us there, the snow floating big before the lens—the two of us in our summer sandals and coats, and behind us the Methodist church and the old Ford on the curb under heaped snow as if we were on the set of some old movie.

“It’s perfect,” we told Ladi as we hugged her goodbye on the steps to the subway. He was a perfect New Yorker. We went home and drank hot cocoa and celebrated the New Year, and Ladi came trudging back when the planes wouldn’t fly out of JFK.

Dust motes float in the sunlight over gold parquet floors and the glow of vines is like emeralds. Ella Fitzgerald croons, “We’ll make Manhattan an Isle of love.”

That night after dancing we met the Californian visitor under the city at 2 am, while the subway ran haywire. We explained the system to him—we savvy New Yorkers in our black dancing clothes. We went to Harlem and swing danced with the Germans and one night tried to meet up at an artsy party in Fort Greene, where we both nearly froze to death trying to find the party and each other—you walking for hours through dark deserted streets and me forging over an empty bridge holding my umbrella like a sword and trying to walk heavily in the dark like a man.

You never found the place and went home and when I got there I knew no one except for the bizarre European with the bowler hat who had come to our party. I stood alone in my tight red shirt, sipping wine, barely escaping a kiss by a mad Romanian painter before running away in a taxi with five Korean women from lower Manhattan who only spoke to me in English when I figured the fare.

We strode down canyons silvered in afternoon light, buying amber jars of honey at the Farmer’s Market, passing guitarists in Union Square. We lived a song and daydream of life

Until that Tuesday morning when you went to work on the subway and I ran to the water to watch the skyline like a movie—an avant garde performance piece of silver and black and red and white drifting across a sky the colour of Mary’s veil. I remember in colour with no sound—a jerky old hand-tinted movie in garish colours with captions and black flecks shimmering across the screen. “No,” in quotation marks

I would see you again. I knew I would. I lay on the futon in the sun, the light moving across me. Hot tears wrung out of my eyes, wetting my sheets.

It was a week after that I began to pack my life into boxes. Each item packed away was a part of myself.

NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names makes Booker shortlist

I have been going off social media during the weekdays the past few months as I try to finish writing my dissertation, so I only just remembered to check the Booker shortlist to see if NoViolet Bulawayo's brilliant debut novel We Need New Names: A Novel, which was longlisted, had made it. It has been. I'm so delighted.

I had the rare pleasure of reading the novel in one sitting in the Atlanta airport back in June of this year, as I waited for 7 hours for the British Airways desk to open so that I could change my ticket back to Nigeria for a longer layover in London. (A long story involving British Airways ridiculously refusing to let anyone make ticket changes over the phone or internet on tickets to Nigeria. I caught a ride with my aunt to a MARTA train station at 7:30am. I got to the airport by around 8:30am, and then discovered that the British Airways desk would not open until 3:45pm. I was pretty annoyed, but after a day with We Need New Names, I was grateful for the guiltless time to just sit down and read. The airport was a perfect place to read a novel places itself between two worlds.)

The novel builds on Bulawayo's Caine Prize winning short story "Hitting Budapest." While, to be perfectly honest, I had not loved that story, I thought the novel, with its attention to detail and form, was brilliant.  I could not help comparing it to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah,which I had read a few weeks earlier. I also like Adichie's novel a lot and thought it was very honest, but compared to We Need New Names, it felt like cardboard. In part that is because the novels are doing two different things. Americanah is partially a satire--another reviewer I read compared Adichie to Jane Austen--and in satire there are a lot of flat characters. But, while I thought the elite Ivy League America Adichie describes feels very familiar, the America where immigrants become stuck may be more representative. We Need New Names was very deep. Almost every person, place, and event had multiple meanings. Sometimes, I felt the symbolism was a bit too heavily encrusted, but the irreverent funny voice of the protagonist Darling, who describes Zimbabwe with a child's eyes and America with an adolescent's angst, lifts the novel from any over-literary fustiness. The book, when I first read it, took my breath away, and I am delighted it has been honoured by the Booker. I highly, highly recommend.For more of my thoughts on the novel, check this link.