April 25, 2008

Lost Prose - Chapter One

It was on one of those days when I was just itching to write something, that ideas began flowing for a book, which would, to my great surprise and anguish, become a nationwide bestseller. How I accomplished such a great feat at seventeen years of age, I still cannot fully explain, but I will tell you why it caused me great anguish.

I began writing when I was in eight grade. Then, I wrote about the things that caught my attention. No one in my house knew; if they did, they said nothing either to encourage or discourage me. I worked with childish delight and ecstasy at finding something I love deeply. My mother is a well-known writer. At the time, she was the author of four truly wonderful books. Three of them are bestsellers (the third book hadn’t stayed on the bestseller list long enough to please Mom). The last book, published seven years before I wrote mine, sold a little more than five hundred thousand copies. My Mom had been noticeably disappointed about the sales figure and as a young child, I thought she was greedy. Five hundred thousand - plus copies of anything sounded like a lot to my ten year old self. She complained severely about not making the New York Times bestseller list, I had not known what that was and why it bothered my Mom so much. Once when she was sober, she said she was having a prolonged case of writer’s block. Writer’s block? “What’s that?” I had asked, but she shooed me away. After a while, she took to locking herself up for four hours every day in a study she pronounced out of bounds to my brother and I. It was the last four hours of the day, by then I was back from school and usually I skulked around, praying for her expression to be bright whenever she emerged. It never was. Mom tried to look happy at other times, I could see the effort, but there was no hiding it from me. I could see beneath the façade. I could see that she was troubled. Dad knew it too.

Like I said earlier, ideas began flowing for a book and I worked on it mostly at night when I was through with supper and homework. I did not tell a soul what I was up to. Not Billy my brother, not Diane my best friend and not even Dad my buddy. After months of work, I completed my book. I called it Ten storeys high. It was a two hundred and twenty-one paged book about two families that lived on the top floor of a ten storey high building. I was excited and nervous. I wanted my Mom’s approval; I wanted her to read it. I read and re-read Ten Storeys high, corrected all the grammatical and typographical errors I could spot and with the only copy of my manuscript in my hand, I knocked nervously on Mom’s study door.

This short story is part one in a four part series. Click to continue reading parts two, three, and four.

Lost Prose - Chapter Two

‘Who’s it?’
‘Mom, it’s me.’
‘Is the house on fire?’
‘No…’ I waited for what seemed like a decade. I was about to lose my nerve when she came to the door.
‘Sweet heart…I’m trying to work. I want four hours to myself. When I come out, I can attend to you. Okay? What’s that you’re holding? You want help with a school assignment?’ She asked wearily.
‘No…I want to show you…’ I faltered. ‘I wrote a book.’
I looked up into her face. I’m sure she wanted to laugh. She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it.
‘You wrote a book?’ With raised eyebrows, she pointed at me chuckling mildly.
‘I would like you to go through my book…and tell me what you think.’ I handed it to her.
‘Honey, I can’t promise to read this soon. It would take a chunk out of my time.’
I nodded.
‘Okay.’ I wanted to tell her not to take too long or I might burst with impatience. She rubbed my shoulder wearily and went into her study. I was in my usual corner when she came out three hours later, smiling. I was about to mess my hair up, when it occurred to me that I did not know why she was smiling. Had she read my book, or had she received inspiration for whatever she was working on? She called me into her study three days later.

‘I read your book yesterday in my spare time…’
‘Did you like it? What do you think?’ I could not help smiling. I knew my book was not terrible. However, my Mom sighed dramatically.
‘Abby sweetie, to be sincere, it was not good.’ My smile sagged. ‘I’m your mother and as much as I would love to tell you it was a very good first try… you have got talent, and all that sweet stuff, I don’t want to raise your hope. The book is below average. The story deals with too many complex issues at the same time. The characters are not “breathing” as my editor would say. It’s…it’s like Soda without the gas…sweet, but lacking…’ She waved her hand in the air as she searched for the unpleasant word that would summarize my book. Not finding any, she continued.
‘To sum it up, you still have a lot to learn. But don’t be disparaged.’ My smile had disappeared long before she finished. Disparaged? I was crushed. Didn’t she see anything commendable about my book? Couldn’t she encourage me, didn’t she know she was crushing my spirit? And why was she being sweet with me as though I was still a ten year old? I sat there, staring at my fingers. She rubbed my knee sympathetically.
‘Look, I am proud of you. You’re my girl and I love you. It takes time to develop writing skills. There are millions of books published on a daily basis worldwide, you have to constantly keep readers entertained or you lose your audience.’ I nodded slowly. ‘I am saying, being a writer means more than penning down a couple of words that make sense. Face your studies for the mean time. I don’t think this is where your talent lies.’ With those last words, my mother ruined my entire week.
‘Mom, I will leave, I have some homework to do upstairs.’ In truth, I wanted to run up to my room and weep.
‘No, wait a while. Tell me about your book? Your characters, the plot, the end –why is it so tragic? Who knows, I could spot one or two places you veered off track.’ I nodded, curled up in the leather sofa and began telling my Mom in earnest, everything about my book, Ten Storeys High. I left later on without my manuscript and my Mom never returned it.

This short story is part two in a four part series. Click to continue reading parts one, three, and four.

Lost Prose - Chapter Three

Mom was on the phone a lot over the next couple of weeks. I did not know what to think, and since the phone line in her study was secure, I could not eavesdrop on her conversations. I came home from school one day to find the hard disk of my laptop formatted. Mom claimed the technician had erroneously formatted the memory while trying to upgrade my system to the new Microsoft Vista. I had not asked her to upgrade my operating system; the Microsoft XP was doing just great. I was pissed. I lost a lot of things I had written, my photos and school assignments. I assumed she was trying to surprise me and it had gone wrong.

It was with surprise I greeted the news Mom made over dinner two weeks later.
‘I have written a new book.’ She announced brightly. I looked up from my vegetables.
‘Really?’ I asked. Dad kissed her gently.
‘What’s it called?’ Billy asked after swallowing.
Ten Storeys High.’ She replied brightly. I should have choked on my vegetables, or on my drink, but I did not have anything in my mouth. I just stared at the woman I call Mother in surprise, my mouth hanging slightly open. I watched as my mother narrated an abridged version of my story to Dad and Billy. I was sitting across her on the square, four-sitter dinner table, but she did not look at me once. Billy and Dad were listening attentively. I chewed my bitter vegetables slowly and listened to her, while a thousand things ran through my mind. Maybe later, she would explain to me why she was stealing my story; Maybe she would tell me that she needed to give something to her publisher because she had signed a five book deal and was under intense pressure to deliver; Perhaps she would beg me on bended knees, not to feel betrayed as I glare down at her; Maybe she would bribe me, give me hush money. My mother did none of those. After the meal she and Dad went into the kitchen to wash up, while Billy went to the living room to watch TV. I left my room door wide open; it was my silent invitation for her to come in and explain herself. Mom walked past twice but did not enter my room.

I came back from school and Billy showed me the finished book, Mom’s publishers had sent over. The cover art was beautiful; maybe not what I might have had in mind, but it was good. The only error I spotted was, the publishers had printed boldly -Ten Storeys High by Cynthia Schroeder instead of Ten Storeys High by Abigail Schroeder. She had dedicated it to her husband “for his love and support”. I was still waiting for Mom’s apology, but she had been avoiding me. I rushed upstairs to peruse it. It was still my story, the style was hers, but it was my story. She had changed the names of most of my characters.

I was still waiting for Mom’s apology when Ten Storeys high began to make waves around the country. It entered the New York Times bestsellers list and was still there ten weeks later. Mom went on shows nationwide promoting my book, she spoke about the characters like they were her creations, and answered various questions about the twists and the tragic manner the novel ended. She gave them the same answers I had given her in the study. Critics were raving, calling it her best book so far. It sold twelve million copies in three weeks. I watched Mom do book signings and book readings. I watched her on various talk shows; she laughed sweetly as ABC’s Sandra Sullivan interviewed her; she spoke warmly on NBC’s tonight show when asked about family life; her cheery voice came out the radio speakers as she discussed Ten Storeys High on YWO Radio. I watched her squeal excitedly as her agent called to say three studios had indicated interest in buying movie rights to my book.

In the twelfth week that Ten Storeys High was on the New York Times Bestseller list, we moved to a bigger house in a more affluent neighborhood, and hired a maid full time to clean the big house. Mom bought me a Porsche that made me the envy of my schoolmates and bought Billy a terrific Mountain Bike that even wealthier kids in the neighbourhood wanted to ride. Ten storeys high was phenomenal. Mom began to rub shoulders with the bigwigs in the literary world. She sent Toni Morrison an autographed copy of the book. She was on a judging panel with John Grisham, Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon. Guys whose books I had, prominently displayed on my shelf, Men whose books coloured my youth. My ex-crush –CNN’s Shihab Rattansi, was quoted as saying he loved my book; there was a paparazzi shot in People magazine of Ryan Gosling clutching my book. Jealousy clutched my heart. Hate. Hate was conceived inside of me, dwelling inside of me, feeding on everything I was seeing and hearing. I did not want her to concede publicly that I wrote the book- it would destroy her reputation. I wanted her to tell me face to face, that she had stolen my story; and she was sorry; could I ever forgive her?

I don’t think Mom knew I admired her, that the autographed copies of her books that I had on my shelf were just as important to me as my worn copy of Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes. She did not know I would have been excited to help her, honored to be of assistance, if only she had asked.

This short story is part three in a four part series. Click to continue reading parts one, two and four

Lost Prose - Chapter Four

One day fed up with everything that was going on, I walked into our living room to talk with Billy who sat on the new leather couch. His abdomen was exposed, and with a Q tip in one hand, he used the fingers of the other hand to pry open his belly button. He dug out tiny black lumps and dropped them onto a tissue by his side. Mom’s chattering on a pre-recorded talk show came out the speakers of our new flat screen TV.

‘You look like Mom…but a younger…less sophisticated version.’ Billy said massaging his neck. The maid’s loud singing of what sounded like a lullaby in an African dialect, floated into the living room.
‘Do you think I can write like Mom?’ I queried watching my Mom smile beautifully and hating her.
‘Not in this life.’ Billy chuckled. ‘Okay, seriously, I guess it’s possible…you might have inherited her skill or gift…whatever.’
‘Do you think I can write a book as good as Ten storeys high?’
‘If you want me to be frank, I don’t think so.’
‘Mom stole my book.’ He turned to look at me, his expression quizzical.
‘Abigail, don’t say that. It’s not funny.’ He turned and headed in the direction of the kitchen. It was then I decided that the worst thing to do would be to divide my family. I had to find a more mature way of handling this. I apologized to him later. I told him that I gave Mom one or two ideas, and I wished she had acknowledged that in her book. He nodded and promised not to tell anyone if I let him stay up later than usual.

I never confronted my mother like I had planned to. I let her be. I think there are some things you should just let be. This might not be one of them, but I took it as such. No one knew I had written the book. I did not have an electronic copy; I did not have anyone who could vouch for me. Ten storeys high by Abigail Schroeder existed only in my head.
I have tried to put everything behind me, but that’s nearly impossible. Every new person I meet usually talks about how my mother’s book touched them; how I must be proud of my mother; if I could arrange a meeting for them with my mother. I’m writing something now. It’s complicated but nothing like Ten storeys high. I’m working very hard on it, and I am not worrying about making the New York Times bestsellers list. I want to write books that will touch people, reach them, entertain and free them. When I was young, I scrawled in my diary:

“I would love to possess the gift of moving people with written words.’

Maybe I already possess that gift considering the success of Ten storeys high. I have not forgiven Mom, the way she acted disturbs me very often. If truth be told, every time I go over my uncompleted manuscript I wonder “Is this new book like a can of soda without the gas?” It haunts me and I don’t know why. If there is a measured quantity of love that a newborn child has for its mother before it comes to know her, that’s the exact same measured quantity of love I have for my mother right now. Love, because she gave birth to me.

This short story is part four in a four part short story series. Click to read parts one, two, and three

April 18, 2008

305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, University of Nigeria Nsukka

Does the address ring a bell? Even here on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria, very few students can readily recognize the address. Some time ago, that was the house address of Chinua Achebe, the internationally celebrated writer of the classic “Things Fall Apart”. The interesting bit is after he moved out of the building, the Adichie family moved into the residence with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She grew up and is now the author of two wonderful books - Purple Hibiscus (Winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize) and Half of a Yellow Sun (Winner of the coveted Orange Prize for fiction). Imagine that! Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie lived in the same house at different points in time. This coincidence has intrigued thousands of fans including my colleagues and I, and so we set off one evening to see the building that at various times sheltered two of the greatest literary influences on our generation.

Eromo Egbejule, Onyeka Nwelue and I walked down Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, searching for house number 305. Looking eagerly from one side of the street to the other, we increased our pace, perhaps individually hoping to be the first to spot the house. We got confused at a point because the number of the house was not clear and so through the wire mesh, I asked the two men taking down a telephone pole if the house was number 305. Both of them had no knowledge of what number the house was, they were just there to work. We crossed the street and knocked on house number 306 to enquire. A young woman answered the door, stared curiously at us after we queried her and then pointed at the very house we were coming from. And so we went back across the street this time with our eyes out for interesting details.

We walked to the house slowly and my eyes ran over everything. The house seemed to be undergoing renovation, as there was a heap of broken asbestos ceiling boards in the corner next to plenty pieces of wood. We walked up to the front door, exchanged glances and then not sure what sort of welcome to expect I knocked.

We waited a while then a young boy of about ten answered. Before I could ask him to fetch an older family member, Eromo recognised him as the younger brother of a friend and sent him to fetch her. When Chinaza Madukwe surfaced my hope of getting a guided tour both inside and around the historic house rose but was dashed seconds later when Chinaza said she couldn’t let us into the house, neither would she let us walk around the yard. I was crushed. Disappointed, we resorted to asking her questions. “Did you meet any piece of furniture in the house?”, “Have any of the previous inhabitants visited?” She replied negatively. “Have you read Purple Hibiscus?”, “Have you read Half of a Yellow Sun?” Her answer to these two questions surprised me. I stared incredulously at her when she said she hadn’t read Purple Hibiscus and that she had read only a little of Half of a Yellow Sun.

She did not reveal much personal information. In summary, her family moved in about a year ago. Her father is a Professor of Agric Extension and the Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture here in the University of Nigeria. While Chinaza conversed with Eromo, Onyeka and I looked around the side of the house. We stood on the lawn very close to the car port, and I stared eagerly at what had once been Chinua Achebe’s backyard and then later Chimamanda Adichie’s. While Eromo and Onyeka discussed similarities between Aunty Ifeoma’s house and this house, my roving eyes fell on the bright red mangoes at the very top of the tree in the backyard. I wondered if Chimamanda had ever climbed that tree. Then I remembered when she mentioned how she and other kids played in the neighbourhood in her essay “Tiny Wonders”. I turned to the street. It was empty. It was evening so I expected that by now kids would be hanging out, riding bikes, playing and yelling at each other. There was no such activity. I asked Chinaza about the neighbourhood kids and she said most of the families who lived on the street had big kids who had left home.

Our sojourn was declared over after a while and the three of us walked away from the dull white house towards the empty street. By the pile of wood, so inconspicuous I nearly missed it, was a plant with large red flowers and I picked it. It thought it looked a little like the flower on the cover of my copy of Purple Hibiscus (British publisher). After examining the petals I sniffed it. It had no scent. I dropped it and went on.

As I walked back the way I came, I ticked off all the similarities Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie shared that I could remember, the petty and the significant. Chinua is an indigene of Anambra State, Chimamanda is an indigene of Anambra State, but from a different area; Both their names begin with the same three letters “Chi”; Middle names not inclusive, they both have the same initials C.A, C.A; they both called 305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, University of Nigeria, Nsukka Campus home at one time in their lives; they both currently reside in the United States and they are both very important literary personalities in Nigeria and beyond its borders.

In a few days, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) will celebrate 50 years of THINGS FALL APART. The theme: Telling the world the African story. It kicked off 6 days ago in Lagos on the 12th of April and will end April 26th here on the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria. The keynote speaker is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and the special guest of honour is the remarkable Nelson Mandela. People are expected to arrive Nigeria from various corners of the earth to celebrate what Chinua Achebe has done for African literature. If you are as interested as I am in Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie, when you arrive you will stop, even if it's briefly, and stare curiously at house number 305 on Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, Nsukka Campus, University of Nigeria.

READ Onyeka Nwelue's version of this trip here
READ Eromo Egbejule's version of this trip here
READ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's personal account of family life at 305 Marguerite Cartwright Avenue, University of Nigeria, Nsukka here.
UPDATE: Celebration of 50 Years of Things Fall Apart by the Association of Nigerian Authors
Post includes photos, quotes, and the keynote address by Professor Ernest Emenyonu

April 04, 2008

Leaving Home

After spending a full session in college, I rushed home two weeks earlier than I had planned. I felt as though an unseen part of me- perhaps my mind, had been bruised and I needed to retire somewhere private and familiar to heal it. I yearned to return to the house I had so desperately wanted to leave. I unabashedly yearned to crawl back underneath the over-protective wings of my parents and coil up. Listening to stories about college had made me feel somewhat prepared for whatever existed outside the confines of the world I knew and so I leapt into college immediately I graduated from secondary school . I was wrong, I still had a lot to learn.

When I was counseled to avoid peer pressure on campus, it sounded easy enough: saying "NO!" to a group of layabouts who want to persuade you to do wrong. I got to college and discovered I had overlooked something significant. It was not saying "NO!" to a group of faceless people who mean nothing to you, it's resisting the negative but enticing influence of people you desperately seek to impress.

The more days I spent on campus, the more naive I realised I was. The things I will now mention may sound silly to some or too inconspicous for me to take time to "rattle on", but i noted them down mentally. I never knew I could sit through a two hour lecture and understand nothing; consider this development late or not, I discovered girls were distractions; In all my life I have been a content person, so it came as a shock when I discovered I envied someone as close to me as a brother; I have learnt never to underestimate anyone no matter how tattered they look, no matter their shape, size or colour. I have understood that sincerity is commendable but not always necessary; I have learnt how catastrophic procrastination of even the tiniest things can be; I have come to understand that the virtue "tolerance" is hard to cultivate, because it means tolerating people no matter how much their views, words or actions irritate you.

Scarred, I cooped myself up in my house. In here I have become grateful for the curtails on my freedom, grateful for every meal on my plate, grateful to providence for all I have recieved, grateful for many of the things I would normally have taken for granted. I have begun to see life and the world in an entirely different light.

Goodbye Buddy

I'm seated at my desk, searching for words to convey the grief that consumes me. I'm groping blindly and trying to re-live suddenly elusive memories. I'm staring into the vacant, dead to the world, trying to fight the pain that rips my soul apart. I'm trying to fight the tears that cloud my vision.

I'm wishing so many things. I'm wishing I could see you again, hear you laugh raucously. I wish I could tell you how much you affected me, affected us your friends. I wish i could tell you how much you meant to us; I wish I could tell you what losing you has done to me, to us. You were our center, our support, our pride. You were a friend in deed.

I have never been one of many words Tobi, and even if this contained a thousand words, I would still not feel like I have managed to capture you. Grieving for you is tearing my soul, my person. It's breaking my spirit, man. You were more than a friend, you were a brother. I'm wiping my tears and returning to the sitting room where living people are sitting quietly, wiping streaming red eyes and dripping noses, missing you sorely.

Into the Den of Lions

I had ridden into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus, not on a mule flanked by an adoring, enamourous crowd, or in a chauffeur driven Pontiac, but as a skinny boy on a motorbike, bringing along with me, big dreams that quadrupled my body size. Weighed down innately with the desire to make something of myself, the next step was to find an institution that would conducively help me achieve that. I strongly believe UNN will help me hone my natural talents, like it helped Dora Akunyili, Charles Soludo and all other illustrious Lions.

My journey into the Lion’s den had not been easy. UNN’s selective process had skipped me twice. I remember vividly years back when as a wide-eyed kid, I listened to interesting tales from a members of my immediate and extended family - all Lions, about the University of Nigeria; while dreaming, working, praying and hoping I would join the ranks of illustrious people who proudly bear the car bumper sticker “A UNN graduate is ahead of you naturally”.

I looked up to see my proud family beaming at me, and clicking away furiously as I made my way from my matriculation address in my forest green matriculation robes. Some of my fellow students looked on in bewilderment but I didn’t give a purr. This was my day, and I was as proud of my family as they were of me. Words of wisdom from gray haired lecturers some of whom were Lions, reverberated in my head – “…your future begins now…” and “…what do you want to achieve?…the answer lies in you”.

So far, I have learned that it’s one thing to gain admission into the prestigious University of Nigeria, it’s quite another to avoid getting sidetracked, stay focused, and live up to your expectations and that of everyone else. As my Alma Mater pronounced, “Our dreams will come true”, I’m determined to graduate from the University of Nigeria with a bang, or should I say – a ROAR.

The Woman I Call Mother

Let me tell you all a little about the woman I call "Mother".

"When I stare at my Mother, I see a beautiful, smiling, passionate
and strong willed woman who amazes me constantly. I see a calm,
collected, wonderful, soulful, spiritual lady, who without provoking
me, is able to get through to me, to reach me, to mould me.

I see an industrious caterer, a talented seamstress, a skilled organizer,
an understanding teacher, a marvelous preacher, a wonderful comforter.
I see the kind of woman the Holy Bible in the book of Proverbs chapter 31 describes and verses twenty seven says "does not eat the bread of idleness".

She encourages me to be better, challenges me to reach my peak. She
recognizes I have flaws but forbids me from dwelling on them. She believes in me, sometimes even more than I do.

This is the woman I love, this is the woman I call "Mother" and this is the woman that means everything to me.