July 14, 2018, 10:10 p.m. I reluctantly come back to my room after taking leave of my friend Meimuna, who I have been visiting all evening in Zaria GRA, a rapidly expanding middle-class neighbourhood two hours walk away from the servants’ quarters, where I now live, on the university campus. Four years have passed since we met for what we always call our ‘tea evenings’, random conversation over cups of tea flavoured with ginger and a handful of chin-chin, her favourite. During the time I was a student here Meimuna and I used to travel once a month to Kaduna for the sole purpose of taking long walks on the outskirts of town – off Gonin Gora, through the interior of Mahuta and Kamazo, along the stretching roads by the refinery with its rolling fields, towards Abuja expressway: rural, developing and industrial areas with open roads to the wild. We avoided these long walks in Zaria because Meimuna had to be safe. There is suspicion about a young man in a hoodie, sandals and short pants taking a walk with a woman covered head-to-toe by hijab. During our walks in Kaduna she would remove her hijab, lower her guard and, like a baby, soak in the small liberalness that the city of Kaduna afforded. ‘I have always lived in Zaria,’ she said to me once, ‘and I will always love the city, but sometimes it seems I am literally being choked there.’

Like me, Meimuna was out of Zaria for years, and has only recently found her way back. She is a writer of historical Hausa romance, and the close companion of someone I once loved. I have always delighted in the almost childlike innocence that defines our interactions. Our friendship is bordered by a fundamental shyness, and though both of us have come to recognize this, we each quietly, even fiercely, protect it from being shattered. For instance, my relationship with her close friend ended sadly, but Meimuna and I have never raised the issue. If the hand of one of us innocently, carelessly brushes past a sensitive part of the other, we feign unawareness. And this evening, though all the friends who made the city liveable for us have moved to other places, we neither talked about them and their presence in our past lives, or of how the city feels like an empty enclave without them. Zaria, indeed, without close friends and beloved family, feels like chaff scattered across empty farmland.

Our conversations are always preoccupied with small things: weather, folktales, the characteristics of animals, aviation, Elon Musk, textiles and fabric, colour and texture, cuisines, cartoons, sport of boxing, festivals and rituals, geography, rites of passage, spiritism, rivers, palaces, impressive architectures of precolonial kingdoms. The small things are the details of our friendship, without them what binds us together would disappear – the contour of a passing car, the slope of a hill, the flight of a bird above us, the smile of a taxi driver leaning against his car across the road, the size of grains in bowls along a busy trading corner of street, the haircut of a tomboy alighting a bus, the smell of scorched landscape. We shy away from the big things: politics, family, career, religion, sex, love, personal history, sentiment.

This evening, Meimuna mentions in passing that she has been divorced for nearly six months now. Her husband, she says, a chemical engineer with a PhD, had initiated the divorce. This evening we are in her older brother’s house, a medical doctor working with the university hospital. We are sitting in a big room studded with large artworks and Islamic designs. An old large dining table stands in the centre, and half of it is owned by piles of books and manuscripts, while the other half is taken by our cups of tea, electric kettle, packs of cigarette, lighter, ashtray, mugs and bowl of chin-chin. Meimuna sits across the table from me in a black abaya. The ceiling fan above us twirls a mild creaking into the room. Outside, the rain, which earlier held us back from taking a walk, has quietened, but a swoosh of sweet-feeling rain can still be heard. She has never before now brought up anything so personal.

‘I won’t discuss my divorce with you,’ she says.

‘I completely understand that. I heard it’s some tough shit to talk about.’

‘Nothing too far from a breakup. It only gets into headlines in the family because it’s called divorce, meaning you were once married but suddenly no more.’

I am quiet. I do not know how to continue the conversation.

‘How does it feel to be back home?’ she asks.

‘I feel more timid now. Few people know that I am back from America. My family wants money from me. My older brother called me a disgrace because I told him I went to America for school, to be a writer and not to make money. Nobody believes that I do not have any money. It makes no sense to my family when I tell them that I was in America trying to be a writer of books.’

She is quiet. She takes a bag of tea, sizes it up as though seeing it for the first time, drops it in a cup, add a little sugar, and pours water. She stirs absentmindedly.

I ask her about the manner of her divorce once more. It is my first attempt asking about a big thing with her. Meimuna pauses, silent. She will not talk about it; she has healed from the pain, she says after a lengthy pause. Pain as a whole fades when she writes; that is why she has become a writer. Spaces open up in her when she writes and so she has arrived at joy. I sit there, watching her navigate her way through discussing the big thing, one unconnected story to another, until she eventually ensconces herself in telling me about how she became a writer of historical romance. She successfully evades my question. And not until I decide to leave does she stop talking about the joy of writing. I leave the house, and on way back to my place on campus catch myself wondering at the manner by which Meimuna came to this joy, this joy in writing. I take the bus instead of walking, because Zaria becomes a vast mud after rain. The brief journey across town is tinged with regret, for I cannot help thinking that my inquiry about her divorce was a desecration of the innocence of our friendship. There was a distinct sadness in her voice when she mentioned her divorce, but a horrifying expression emerged when I pried. In this country there is a deliberate hoarding of personal history. Tribal history, religious history, social history, national history. All are prevalent and abound, but a sustained suspicion surrounds individual history. As I open and enter my own room this night, I fear my friend’s arrival in joy from divorce, this joy that she believes can only be found in writing.

 

July 15, 2018, 4:43 p.m. Last night was a string of thundering, lightning and rain pouring down on end. This morning I tried to reread the opening pages of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I could not continue beyond page ten. I have read the opening pages more than fifty times. He is one of my favourite writers; he, Kamel Daoud, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, W.G. Sebald, Nadine Gordimer, Kendrick Lamar, Werner Herzog and Naguib Mahfouz are my favourite artists. Opening my window this late afternoon, perhaps because of the wind, the combed grassy backyard gives an impression of a gentle river flowing south. I remember a dream of the previous night, in which my mother and I were travelling in a boat that capsized after a gale swept across the river. My mother did not escape the tempest but I did. This afternoon I cannot recall my struggle ashore. I am only able to recall a scene in The Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Jack Sparrow washes ashore. I light a cigarette, lean by the window and begin smoking.

I am on my third cigarette when the reality of the beauty of the early evening weather enters me. Due to the heavy rain that fell all night, the day has been without sunshine. My residence here in a Servants’ Quarter is surrounded by rolling grassland and giant trees. It is different to the house in which Meimuna lives in faraway GRA, with its old-style houses, busy streets and corner stores. The Government Reserved Area (GRA) and Servants or Boys Quarters (BQ) are colonial relics embedded in the chests of Kaduna and Zaria, and of course elsewhere across the country. The dream of postcolonialism is that a nation sheds itself of the unjust social attitudes prevalent during the time it was a colony, but one is easily convinced otherwise in Nigeria. Here it seems like there is an unspoken delight in colonial relics. The GRAs were exclusive European neighbourhoods during the colonial period, and after the white people left a black middle-upper-class naturally took over. The Servants’ Quarters were blocks of building inhabited by the natives serving European masters. After the white masters left the industry of this new servanthood persisted in the imagination of the growing black prosperity. This particular Servants’ Quarters in which I live is one of many that found their way onto the campus of the Ahmadu Bello University – West Africa’s largest university – for the convenience of the domestic workers who cared for the European teachers who formerly dwelled in the nearby duplexes. Now Nigerian teachers have replaced the Europeans, and the servants – at least on campus – no longer exist. The Servants’ Quarters are lived in by relatives of the professors or rented out to students. During my undergraduate studies I had friends who were allowed to live in the quarters by professors in exchange for labour – laundry, gardening, assisting their office, cleaning their houses, tutoring their children.

The room in which I now live belongs to one of the university professors. I have not laid eyes on the professor who is supposed to be my landlord. Maybe, I think, he and I have already passed each other, wandering the campus.

Despite the absolute beauty around me, the exhilarating wind blowing around the building, I feel low. Worse, I do not know the name for what is not right with me. I will stay indoors today. I am supposed to be out by six o’clock to visit a nearby house, to be interviewed for a manual job, working a fishpond and a tiny poultry farm, but the wife of the old professor called in the morning to reschedule the appointment for Sunday. I am naked here by the window. I love being naked when alone in a room. I am forever suspicious of clothes. I am shame-ridden (have always been since my boyhood), and, because I understand the story of Adam and Eve so well, I have an inexplicable belief that clothes are worn only to cover shame and not the human body. So I am naked.

The pack of cigarettes is now empty. I continue leaning against the window, where the thought of Meimuna returns to me, and the particular joy she spoke about. I try to comprehend what she said about her escape from marriage to joy – intellectual joy. But I cannot. Once again I recognize my inability to reach for joy. I am full of anguish. I am naked in my room, always.

The kind of relationship that exists between my writer friends and writing has always left me in great bewilderment. At book festivals, writing workshops, readings, and whatever space we come to inhabit for the sake of writing, they endlessly radiate a writing joy (or intellectual joy) that I myself seem unable to reach. I know this joy, I have seen it, but it seems impossible for me possess it. It makes recall being a child lost in our village; there was a guava tree in the backyard of my grandparents’ house that produced abundantly in its season, and I could never reach the beautiful fruits. I could not climb the tree or any other tree due to my fear of heights.

Maybe I should think of this writing joy as a kind of romance between my writer friends and the act of writing. I began to notice this joy during my undergraduate years here in Zaria, when I was a member of the university’s Creative Writers’ Club. The other student writers and I would discuss our favourite writers, genres, plot, characterization, books, styles, themes, literary awards. Underlying these nervous conversations, nervous because I did not know any manner with which to engage others except through nodding and stuttering, was a clear romance between aspiring writers and the idea of writing – the phenomenon of being a writer. I recall attending the Farafina Writing Workshop in Lagos and spending a whole night – a whole night –  listening to a co-participant relishing her moments of writing – how she would be nothing or dead if she couldn’t write down a note every day. Writing, she said, is the air that ensured her survival in the world. And hearing this, I was filled with fear. The realm of which she spoke was alien to me. Even though I was deeply convinced that I would become a writer of books, I did not enjoy writing or admire the idea of ‘the writer’. Writing as a whole has in itself a certain mirage, and I have always dreaded sharing an affinity for it.

I move away from the window, turn fully to face the room and, as if seeing my spartan accommodation for the first time, I am rattled. A single room, small; without a bed, kitchen, flowers, photo; only inhabited by my smell, suitcase, books and the personal and tribal myths with which I live.

 

July 16, 2018, 1:00 p.m. Afternoon is a transparent place. My solitude is obsessive. In America, I called Nigeria once every six or so months. Shy, stuttering and guilty on the phone with my family or my friends, the conversations felt official, like job interviews. All manner of financial requests came in the email every other day – the house needed renovation, aunty was in hospital and needed money, a wedding was next month, someone wanted to start a small business but there was no seed money, my siblings had not paid school fees for nearly a year. I sent money back home each month, my stipend divided into two – one half reached the family via Western Union, the other half paid rent, utilities and bought me books. I did not save. Instead of getting a job, I decided to use the time outside my graduate study to finish writing my first book. My solitude is obsessive. My fear of crowds and the public is no longer strange to those who know me, some of whom have, perhaps correctly, described it as my narcissism. Living in Zaria at the moment is part of my desire for solitude. I returned here to complete my novel because this is where, as an undergraduate, I began to write. The place feels so familiar but also anxiously distant. My desire is solitude. But while solitude is my decision there is lonesomeness I suffer, a lonesomeness that is not the result of an absence of friendship or family but, perhaps, a consequence of my own inability to be present in the lives of loved ones. I am growing apart from the people who genuinely love me. I swear, all this pain is a madness.

This afternoon I begin thinking of ways to dispel the seemingly terminal disorientation that has taken hold of me since coming back to Zaria. My loneliness is so ever present that I cannot help believing that my life has become an impossible island out of the reach of everyone, including myself. Occasionally I feel like a multitude, most times I feel like two people. The other one, the one called Pwaangulongii, is the one things happen to. He is the one known to family and friends, the one fleeing from the world and himself, the one who walks through the streets and fearfully gazes at a world curling around and thinning into the distance like a whirlwind in the Harmattan. The other me no longer exists in my body but floats, lingers somewhere beneath my conscience to assure the other one of its own presence. The last time it was the prominent me was during my boyhood.

What he remembers most of all was watching the giant poster on the wall, a solitary tall woman in embroidered pinafore standing in the middle of grassland with her palms outstretched suggestively in the air. The photo of the woman must have been taken one late afternoon, for there was a joyous yellow sun in the foreground. Even as a child this other me could not help staring at her remarkably long palms, extended out against the air before her. The woman was rubbing the skin of air, he thought to himself. In the boy’s imagination she was essential, she was the first woman he had seen standing by herself and this bewitched him – he had never seen his mother, sisters, aunts, grandmothers without a man or woman or child or hijab, or anything that made it impossible for her to be seen alone. The woman in pinafore was rubbing the skin of air and her act hypnotized the six year old, made him leave his own house, leave his mother, and return to his uncle’s house, to the hallway where the giant poster was, and he returned there again and again until one day the woman’s business with air lost its miracle because his cousin began taking him from the hallway to a small room on the other side. The room was small, crammed and had a little bed that had the fetor of piss. For months his cousin took the boy into the small room and erased from his head the picture of the tall woman in embroidered pinafore. The skin of air disappeared too. He was undressed, laid on the bed, played with from the back, and tired out. Upon waking the cousin ensured that the boy swallowed a pill whose name and purpose the boy did not know. It was probably with the pill that his poor retentive memory and disorientation began. The cousin threatened him – so the boy lived with the undressing, the small room, the bed, the penetration and the white-white catarrh released from his cousin’s thing.

Nowadays it is mostly an alter ego. Allah! I do not know who I am anymore. To allay the disorientation of this afternoon I decide to take a walk from the boys’ quarters to the social centre, through the ever-silent, tree-lined streets, past duplexes inhabited by old professors, with their carefully maintained front lawns. When I go for my early morning walk through the community I meet several professors running and jogging, women and men, fat and athletic, all with bookish, middle-class demeanours, all sweating, all returning my greeting with a smile or a wave, and there is a constant feeling in me that one of them will stop to say that she or he is my landlord, and that my rent has not been paid in full, that they can’t believe this is so – a returnee from America unable to pay a rent that is ridiculously low in comparison to anything in the States.

In the afternoon the streets are quiet, the duplexes, carparks and gardens are eerily empty except for one or two workers carrying out chores; the professors are in school, their children are in school. I continue my walk, turn left towards the big beautiful house that belongs to the vice chancellor of the university. Whenever I walk past this palatial building I cannot help wondering about Zaria. Zaria is an old city, older than New York, and home to a university, a school of aviation, breathtaking mosques, an institute of leather and science technology, a polytechnic, a college of education, a military depot, a prestigious military secondary school, old colonial and pre-colonial relics, but there is a curious stagnancy to the city that frightens me. Walking through it, from the university campus here to distant neighbourhoods like Sabon Gari and old Zaria city, reveals a profound sense of impotence. This impotence is ubiquitous at any place, time and weather – it leaks into my room whenever it rains. The entire Boys’ Quarters was last given a face-lift in the 1970s; the streets and markets off campus are a country of mud and dirt. The city sprawls with old houses. Modern structures, like this palatial building for the university’s Vice Chancellor or the imposing emir palace or the buildings of the GRA stick out, expressions of power and class in a highly socially-stratified city. In Nigeria the starkest evidence of privilege is not in individual imagination or innovation but in buildings and cars. How can a city with so much history be so impotent? The answer is probably found in the nation’s ongoing destruction of everything, a destruction that began immediately after the country was created. The physical dirt in Zaria, in Nigeria, is the clearest evidence of an expansive spiritual and social dirt.

At an intersection I run into a familiar face: Luka, who I have not seen in five years. I cross the road and embrace him. Like me, he is heavy-bearded this afternoon. Not much has change in his appearance since the last time I saw him in 2013. Luka and I shared a hostel with his cousin during my first year of university. The cousin, Reuben, was not particularly a friend of mine back in those days, but he was always positive about the pages I read at the Creative Writers’ Club. Luka was small and shy but outgoing, belonged to a three-man dance crew on campus and played football. Reuben was the opposite, both bookish and chest-beating. Despite being loud and chaotic Reuben was one of the few folks I knew on campus who maintained a consistent intellectual and political stance – he was famous in our circle of friends for his loathing of Marxism.

Luka is still small and thin. He’d always worn oversized clothes while we were students, and he still does, so when I see him I think he appears cartoonish. But he also looks overwhelmed, timid, and as we speak I see a distinct sadness in his thin face. He avoids looking me in the eye, and when he does I see that his eyes are distant, tiny, lost and frightened.

I ask him about Reuben. He tells me that not too long ago, only three weeks earlier, a group of gunmen stormed his hometown at night, a village in the state of Plateau where his family (father, mother, three grown-up children, a grandchild) was visiting their extended family. The gunmen killed scores of people, Reuben among them. He was there with his wife and six-month old daughter. They were all wiped out. I console Luka, assure him that I will be thinking of him, and we take our leave of each other. I feel an intense disorientation. I walk aimlessly for a while until a feeling of urgency causes me to hasten back to my room.

For nearly two hours I lean against the window, smoking and looking at the nearby houses nestled by hedgerows and the night. Every evening since I took residence here, I take a cold bath, turn off the light in the room, undress myself totally, and come to the window, where I stay and let myself be filled with exhilarating wonder at the nocturnal insects blinking light in the grass. I stay and imagine myself washing ashore in a tempest; I hear voices, sometimes laughing voices, family voices, reaching me from the surrounding houses, and I am painfully reminded of my inability to dispel my loneliness. The loneliness is a desire as much as it is a curse. Returning is not possible and going forward is a great difficulty. I am caught in it like game seized by a hunter’s snare. I am a young man but it feels as though I have been living in my body for centuries. I am hunched over, and when I look at myself in the mirror I appear much older than my age. I feel fear.

I decide to phone Meimuna.

‘I called about Reuben, Reuben Ibrahim, the critic.’

‘Oh,’ she sighs. A long pause passes before she adds. ‘Poor boy. I heard about it too. Sad. Sad. Such a remarkable talent.’

‘But you said nothing about it the other day.’ I say.

‘We never discuss anything like that. Such things have never been part of our conversation,’ she says, her voice slightly tinged with irritation.

‘Come on, girl.’ I say, lacking the words to express my disappointment.

‘Come on?’ Meimuna says. ‘You think you can disappear on everyone, reemerge for your own convenience and think all of us, your friends, will leap in joy and brief you on all the events in our lives? Mr president.’ Her irritation now is clear. ‘The news of the attack that claimed Reuben has been in the media. Check it up.’

‘What’s all this about?’

‘You are not interested in other people’s lives. You are all about yourself. All our friends say it. If no one else has told you, it’s time you knew it. You are perpetually hiding.’

I can tell she is holding back tears. I can see her face drawing itself towards tears. Meimuna drops the call. I pace the room for a long time. I immediately feel unclean, and enter the bathroom to wash myself once more. And I wash and wash and wash, and at the same time I summon my ancestors to lay a curse on my dirt.

I do not call Meimuna back. It is 10:00 p.m. I am standing by the window. One of my clearest memories of Reuben is of him falling into a lengthy disagreement about Heart of Darkness with an old man, a veteran journalist, at a dinner given by a book enthusiast in Kaduna. Guests had broken into pairs and small groups in the backyard, wineglasses in hand, all absorbed in conversation. As usual I found myself lost and without a partner. I heaved a couple of timid footsteps and joined a group standing round a big cactus plant in the middle of the lawn. When I arrived the elderly journalist was talking to the group, disagreeing with Reuben (who by now had drawn a long face) about a particular point of which I had no idea. I heard the journalist adding that Reuben had grossly misread Heart of Darkness, that Reuben could not make any other argument besides the obvious fact that Joseph Conrad was a ‘bloody racist’, that having listened to Reuben all evening he had become convinced that Reuben unfortunately was of the generation whose poor aptitude for learning largely bordered on a haughty disregard for the basic principles of education. Reuben considered Conrad his favourite writer, the best writer. I also loved Conrad’s writing a great deal, and still do. Unlike me, Reuben never hid his admiration for fear of a backlash. In fact, and sometimes to stir a controversy unnecessarily, Reuben would boldly state that Achebe’s famous denunciation of Conrad as a racist encouraged a reductive reading of him in Africa. It was a repetition of this statement that had enraged the veteran journalist. It was my first time seeing Reuben woefully losing a debate in public. But I was impressed when he defended our generation by telling the man that his criticism lacked both context and empathy, that there was nothing wrong with our generation besides the fact that we were not as fortunate as the veteran journalist himself, whose generation were beneficiaries of educational opportunities that were put in place by governments immediately after Nigeria became an independent state, opportunities that had eroded through a corruption perpetuated by that very same generation.

I look up the attack on my phone and find varying accounts of the assault on eleven communities in Plateau State that night. Some accounts hold the death toll at fifty, others hundred, others over two hundred, and there is one particular report which quotes a local official, and puts the toll at two hundred and sixteen deaths. I read each report with the strange hope that I will come across details specifically about Reuben, his aged parents, his six-month-old daughter. Page after page, paragraph after paragraph, I begin to be filled with a guilt of my own. It is five years since I last set eyes on Reuben, and the only effort I have ever made to know anything about his life is this one, this search for details about his death.

But the story of the massacre is poorly covered by the press. The longest report seems hastily written, and is only eleven paragraphs long. How can a massacre of 216 people be reported in eleven paragraphs, without any concrete details? I want to be drawn into the reportage, to empathize with the victims, but the stories are not grounded in deliberate moments and in-depth details. Instead I am overwhelmed and horrified by the scary casualness with which they are written. Is this unserious way of covering horror the effect of our becoming too familiar with horror? Or is it evidence that journalism in Nigeria disregards long-form, in-depth investigation? Is it not clear that with their meagre reportage both the journalists and their editors are, subconsciously, killing the story before it enters the awareness of the reader? Is this not why our Nigerian world is built up out of myths and half-truths, rumours, and stories and failures of humanity? Why does Reuben’s butchering alongside his family and friends not deserve a step-by-step breakdown? Journalism in Nigeria delights in reporting from a distance, in collective data, and avoids close examinations of lives.

 

July 17, 2018, 5:00 p.m. There are various quotes written on the wall of the room in which I live, perhaps by a former occupant who had an abundance of writing joy. Two of the quotes stay with me. ‘I done cried for this shit.’ – Kendrick Lamar. ‘I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people and things.’ – Romanian novelist Mihail Sebastian. It is this latter quote, the one by Sebastian, which comes to my head when I hear of a disturbing incident that took place on campus earlier in the day. Precious, a final-year student in the English department, was detained by the university security services. Her offense was that she, a young woman, was caught in public embracing a male student by a high-ranking member of the university’s senate. In the last decades, the university has been gradually deployment an Islamic code of conduct, despite its former renown for its cosmopolitan community, and this has been choking both staff and students, little by little. The university’s anti-intellectual impulses shape daily life. The intellectual and social spaces have shrunken remarkably. Censorship of all kinds is rampant. Is the concept of a university not a place that makes us freer and unafraid of being? Precious was told that hugging and kissing in public attracted a penalty of rustication for one academic year.

My job interview is today. A short walk from my room, through a quiet road eerily darkened by amazingly tall trees that line it, and I arrive at the duplex. A group of schoolboys stand by the other side of its hedge, conspiratorially invading a flowering plant. The front door, white with a silver-coloured knob, opens and a maid welcomes me inside the living room, where she immediately disappears without showing me to a seat. I wait on my feet. The television is on but the lights have been turned out. The gentle TV light cast itself evocatively on objects in the room. Enlargements and artworks hang on the wall; photos of the professor, a tall light-skinned man with large eyes, his wife, his family, his academic colleagues; photos of him in academic gowns; artwork and handcrafts on the wall. There is no one in the entire world, I think, who is more aware of himself than a middle-class Nigerian.

Footsteps – one, two, three, four, five. The opening of door, a sound of dishes in the background. The professor emerges, we exchange greetings and he leads me into the backyard. Like a tour guide, he shows me the tiny fishpond and, on the other side, his birds.

We return to the living room and his wife is seated on a couch, his little daughter doing homework at the dining table. I take a seat across from him for the interview.

‘Have you done this type of job before?’ the wife asks.

‘Yes. My mother reared animals when I was a child. I helped with the work.’

‘The job is actually a cleaning one. We need someone who cleans and maintains both the pond and poultry shed twice a day,’ the professor cuts in. ‘Preferably morning and evening.’

‘Are you able to come twice a day?’ his wife asks.

‘Why not? That works fine by me,’ I say.

‘We will pay fifteen thousand Naira,’ she says.

‘That won’t be enough for my food. I am taking the job mainly to buy food.’

‘Okay,’ the professor says. ‘Eighteen thousand.’

In my head I hastily converts eighteen-thousand naira to dollars – it’s fifty dollars a month. It has become impossible for me to stop comparing currency rates since I arrived back in Nigeria from the US. I agree. There is a long pause. I do not know how to stand up and leave.

‘We hear you just came back from America,’ the professor says, filling the silence.

‘You are right, sir. Graduate school. But I am here to research and write a novel.’

‘You mean you cannot live in America and write a novel?’ he says, his tone tinged with sarcasm.

‘Don’t you think you are making a mistake by returning to Nigeria? Do you know how many young folks like you dream of the opportunity of living in America?’ his wife says. It is more a scolding than a question.

I am silent, shy.

‘Well,’ says the professor. ‘Not to discourage you but I have to say that no one can live on writing here. Nobody buys and reads books here. I’d encourage you to think about a proper career. You look handsome and industrious, you can find something. You do realize that being a writer here means a life of poverty?’

I do not know what to say.

I stand up, tell them I will start the work the next day, bid them goodnight and walk out. I am already on the street when the maid runs to call me back into the house. I return. The professor is no longer in the living room. His wife meets me in the doorway.

‘Our daughter is entering Senior Secondary in September. We will need a literature tutor for her. Six hours a week. We will pay fifteen thousand naira,’ she says.

‘That’s great. I can do that as well.’

‘She loves poetry,’ she says.

‘Good to know, ma.’ I say. ‘Thank you.’

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