The Writer and the Global Frontier

Looking back, it is sometimes difficult to believe that I have already spent four months abroad. How time blurs, in retrospect. When I left Lagos, almost a month late, for my originally scheduled six-month term as a writer-in-residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, the months ahead had seemed like years. I had been somewhat loath to make that journey. Lagos has been my home for ten years, and perhaps I had become too immersed in its robust rituals to contemplate a relatively long spell abroad with favour. I have also never been particularly enamoured of solitude, because I carry enough of that in me. I have always preferred my sort of abstraction in the midst of the lively throng of Lagos, which is why I always prefer to live besides the roar of the road or the watering holes where men convoke to recharge themselves with the tumult of easy fellowship.

But I also knew why I had to make that journey. The grind of Lagos and the pressure of editing a weekly newsmagazine were energetically conspiring against my root profession as a writer. I was serving two exacting Caesars, and it was as if they both wanted my head on different platters. The experience of Solitude would liberate me for some time and allow me to concentrate on completing my second poetry collection and on actually writing a novel that I had mentally been grappling with. All through the previous year, I had achieved nothing more than some scattered lines, and it was evident to me that my writing career at that point needed the sort of ‘salvation’ that Solitude promised. Even if I achieved only one of my objectives, I reckoned, the experience would have been worth it.

Once I arrived at the Akademie and surveyed the setting -a residential, informal faculty of arts adjoining a castle, with miles of woodland as neighbours, and quite some distance from the heart of old old Stuttgart- I knew I would have to strive towards achieving both objectives. The pall of silence demanded a creative answer. Of course, there were other options, but I preferred not to recognise them beyond their worth. The excellent personnel encouraged creativity without demanding it, and continually prompted the fellows towards a higher awareness of their creative possibilities. I had arrived in the dead of winter, and the snow pondered me unkindly with tremors. But in all I consider my months in Solitude as perhaps the most important period in my writing career so far. I completed the novel and the poetry collection, of course, but I also did more than that. I had the time, and the atmosphere, for a lot of significant soul-searching. In Solitude, I rediscovered myself.

But it was outside Solitude that I rediscovered the world, the burgeoning world of economic exiles, and contextualised it with the benefit of personal experience. My first major journey outside Stuttgart was to America, where I was scheduled to give a reading at Harvard University alongside Obi Nwakanma and Akin Adesokan, two Nigerian writers currently living in America. Before the journey to Harvard, I chose to spend some time in Alexandria, Virginia, with a Nigerian friend who has lived in America for fourteen years. I had spent four weeks travelling through America in 1999 as a participant in the International Visitors Programme. I understood a bit more about “the home of the brave and the land of the free” during this recent visit.

The high-rise block of apartments where my friend lives presents a picture of what America is becoming. The Latino presence is so strong that the English language seems endangered in that vicinity. There are actually a couple of fellows who live there whose knowledge of the language consists only of a mumble of English syllables. Around the corner, there are Latino shops and cafes selling everything from recordings of salsa music to a meal of chicken frijitas that I could as well have set out for America and ended up in Mexico. It struck me that the movement my friend’s neighbours had made was only a gravitation towards a larger economic space, not a cultural immersion. They had actually travelled and arrived with their villages and hometowns in their battered suitcases. And whatever obeisance they paid to America’s grand idea of itself was only a matter of survival.

“When are you going to learn Spanish?” I said to my friend. “Very soon, you can’t live here without it, and your little daughter is probably going to grow up with a knowledge of Spanish and none of Igbo language.”

“Does it matter? Spanish is almost becoming an official language in the States. Besides, according to the latest statistics, the Latino population has just about caught up with the black population.”

We spent some time analysing what it would mean to have the black population displaced by Latinos as the major minority group in America, knowing that political and economic concessions are often powered by demographic details. However, considering the history and signposts of the black presence in America, the arithmetic may not be that simple in this case.

“Many of the Latinos do not believe in abortion, and the African-Americans seem to have become very white in the way they go about marriage. So, what do you expect? But there are a number of Africans here, only they hardly speak anything else but English.”

“We don’t have the advantage of a common language like the Latinos seem to do. But I think Africans coming abroad now are more inclined to speak their native languages or Pidgin English than ever before. There are more of them, and they are no longer apologetic.”

“What does it matter anyway? A lot of us will never live fully in Africa again. Many people in my daughter’s generation will probably grow up with only the idea of Africa.”

Only the idea of Africa. The idea filled my head on my way to Harvard. I was reminded of some of the people I had met in Stuttgart who had expressly told me that they would never return home: a Nigerian student who arrived a year ago; an Eritrean who has been living abroad for ten years; a Cameroonian who has been away for seven years; and a Turkish photographer who is also a student. The new exodus obviously goes beyond Africans leaving their homes for better economic opportunities abroad. The current seems to ripple through all the countries of the world where living standards are poor, and very many people in those countries are therefore scouting determinedly for ways of going abroad as economic exiles.

Those who can mass outside foreign embassies in their countries to brave the horrors of getting a visa do so. Others brave the horror of the perilous crossing across the Sahara Desert for increasingly improbable entries into Spain. Both are driven by the horror of remaining in their homeland where the government preys on its citizens as it runs homicidal errands dressed as “economic adjustment programmes” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Many leave with the idea that they will someday return, heralded by their success. Some die on the way. According to a recent BBC documentary, many of those who attempt the crossing into Spain are emptied into the high seawater; many more are stranded on the route to Morocco. Many of those who reach their destinations will return finally only as corpses. Some will never return at all. For the generation born abroad, the prospect of return may be even bleaker.

My contemplation found some sort of validation in an encounter I had on my way from Boston to New York after the reading. As Akin had uncannily deciphered, the driver of the Greyhound bus taking me to New York was an Igbo man. We did not have much chance for a conversation until I alighted in New York. I bid him farewell in Igbo as I hurried to make the bus connection to Washington. Initially seeming not to understand me, he soon hurried after me, and right there in the middle of that bustling bus station we had a lively conversation -in Igbo.

“So you’re indeed Igbo?” he asked me.

“I am, from Anambra State -Nnewi.”

“I’m from Imo. You live in New York?”

“No, I came from Germany. I’m on my way to Washington. I’ll go back from there.”

“You live in Germany?”

“No, in Nigeria. I’m only on a short programme in Germany.”

“Nigeria! How’s that country now?”

“Well, we have democracy now, but things are still muddled up. You haven’t been to Nigeria recently?”

“Nigeria! No, but I’m planning to go soon.”

“When was the last time you went home?”

“Not since I came here.”

“When did you come here?”

“1975.”

“Twenty-six years ago?”

“My brother, you know the way it is. First, I gave myself five years, then another five years. It’s a long story. And that’s the problem I have now. Some people are even telling me I need to go with somebody who will introduce me in the village.”

“They must be pulling your legs. Certainly, if you go to your village, there’ll be people whom you will know, and those who will know you. Or, look me up when you get to Lagos.” I scribbled my address for him.

“Thank you very much. I will surely make it soon.”

“So, why are you going now? Did anything happen?”

“Too much has happened already. I don’t even know my family situation anymore. Sometimes, the thought worries me, accuses me. I want to go this time, see how things are, visit all those who have been bereaved, then I’ll come back.”

As I left him, I felt almost certain that he would not make that journey. He had a strong pull homeward, it seemed to me, because he had left Nigeria as an adult -to get a university education, which he never did- but he had kept it off too long. If he ever did go, it would be only as some sort of exorcism of his personal demons, something to make his mind easier. This fellow was no longer in exile. He was at home, sort of -in America. For people like him, the question of returning no longer arises. Not because he no longer romanticises about it, but the will he now needs to travel from the romance of the here and now to the romance of the there and then is far greater than the tempo of remembering and forgetting from a distance. And with many more Nigerians pouring into America with tales of political and economic misfortunes back home, it is easy for him to suffer further discouragement.

My next international visit was to Amsterdam. I had gone primarily to see Uche Nduka, a Nigerian writer who has been abroad for seven years and currently makes his home both in Amsterdam and in Bremen, Germany.

“You’ve actually become robust, Uche,” I noted as we embraced at the Centraal, “and you indeed look like someone who’s been abroad for a long time. There’s a certain sheen Africans seem to have when they stay abroad for a long time. I guess it’s the weather. And your dreadlocks …”

“It’s a hairstyle, like any other.”

After depositing my bag in his room in an attic, we set out for Amsterdam’s famous red light district. I had supposed that it is just a street or two for hookers such as Ayilara Street in Lagos or 42nd Street in New York. I was wrong. It is a whole area around some of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous canals where a lot of semi-nude girls, hundreds of them, pose behind lit glass cubicles and twinkle at potential clients. Quite a prostitution factory. The processing plant is in Amsterdam, but the raw materials are imports from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the poor countries of the world. Uche spoke of a local mafia that sometimes functions to import these girls -and to extort them. It was clear to me that, besides the ‘protectors’ that ring that area, even a more sinister mafia known as ‘government’ in their home countries functions to transform many of these girls into economic desperadoes. Behind those glass cubicles, I could read the history of the modern world -the consequence of colonial experiments and plots, of corrupt and neo-colonial governments, and of the scaling of international borders by poverty.

We set up our ‘newsroom’ at a cafe run by a woman from Dominican Republic, and we set ourselves the task of coming up with a short contemporary history of the red light district in five days. That cafe was where we held our editorial board meetings -listening to the music of Ruan Rodriguez and sipping a cold beer. Among our book-length findings, these two register here. There is some sort of incomplete segmentation there. In the section for African girls, many of them prefer only sexual liaisons with white men. It is not so much a question of money as the fact that these girls seem to consider sex with white men as not ‘problematic’ either to their present or their future but only some form of overseas labour to earn enough money to send home and to possibly prepare for an eventual return. A matching logic may be the way in which many Africans married to white women do not consider it a ‘proper’ marriage but just a matter of convenience to regularise their stay abroad. Beyond the economics of exile, there is also its relational politics.

2 thoughts on “The Writer and the Global Frontier

  • Nwanna, kedu? Dalu olu. Thanks Maik for writing such a nuanced and insighful travelogue. I'm too from Nnewi, Anambra State. Although I have read some of your works, however it was your Nwanna Don Okolo who spoke to me glowingly about you. Don is dear friend and colleague. We've worked on film together, but he has recently taken some time from film production to pen two novels.

    Best wishes,

    Chris Ulasi

    Reply

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