While in university, the highlights of stories I wrote occurred to me during strolls. My parents lived on a university campus in Ile-Ife, at the edge of the staff quarters. It would take me twenty minutes to get to school from our house. I walked mostly at night. Done with the day’s work, and so fatigued I sometimes dozed on the road. I saw the value in being somnambulant, and the promise stupor held: the right name for a character on the tip of my tongue. On one of these walks—to be fair, not one at night—I perceived Ella, who is the driving force of the first chapter of my book, The Sound of Things to Come. She came to me as a dare. Could I write about her as she occurred to me, charmed, charming, and elusive? In fact, I knew at the outset, before writing a word, about her disappearance at the end of the first chapter. Memory reminds me I thought of Ella while at a junction, on a forked road. Quite fitting. The narrative chose its detour.
And then I studied to qualify as a lawyer. I was back in Ile-Ife after months at the law school. My friend housed me. He is a poet. In the preceding years he’d read everything I wrote. The measure of my gratitude for his support, and for the bed I was offered on the floor of his room, was to offer him in return a place in the novel—a poet who read poems at the earliest opportunity. The story is a tragedy / but it is a story nonetheless. In front of his room, adjoining another and overlooking a mango tree, I often sat to write. It’s possible that I wrote him into the novel on one of those mornings. Possible, as well, that the novel developed its narrative arc as a result of dawn, the sudden burst of light—I couldn’t write, at the time, past 7am.
For a brief moment in Enugu, a woman told me her life story. She was there to retake her bar examination. And why? In Abuja, where she studied the first time, she became inexplicably restless. She’d drive for hours without destination, listening to the sound of her voice, stop to pick up beggars or give them alms. Hence she failed. Who knows if we would meet again, she said. It was at the campus of the law school where I studied. I saw her again few hours later. But by then the story had formed, hence the chapter “Helper.” A woman seized by manic restlessness and suicidal generosity. Also a musician: My life’s work is to translate you / I’ll sing for you as a mockingbird / but I’ll be gone when you love. I saw her, and she saw me. We recognized in each other an unbridgeable distance. My knowledge of her enlarged as imaginative, eclipsing what was factual. Her knowledge of me? Impossible to know. She looked at me in the imperceptive way we consider strangers while in transit.
In fiction that interests me, the outlandish attenuates what’s accepted as real. For instance, I do not attempt to resolve what I experience in dreams—the likely terrain of fiction—through the normative experiences of waking life. I let improbability stand. How about a widow who makes her husband’s house into a museum? A man who walks down the aisle of a church throwing sheets into the air, containing syllables of the word nonsense? A woman who makes twenty four songs to match the hours of the day? In storytelling of this sort, the frames double endlessly. “‘We are stories.’ It is a notion so simple even a child could understand it. Would that it ended there. But we are stories within stories. Stories within stories within stories. We recede endlessly, framed and reframed, until we are unreadable to ourselves,” writes Ivan Vladislavić in 101 Detectives.
One possibility tapers into the next. I like the idea of a novel that tells the story of an unbroken sequence of encounters, one informing the next. The Sound of Things to Come might be considered a preface to that: a novel in which a university chapel is site for a sum of encounters. I became aware of the possibility of uniting the characters after writing about their disparate lives. It was a matter of resolution. As I discovered, however, one way to resolve a book is to leave it varnished with questions.
The book—a novel? collection of stories?—cast its shadow over my subsequent writing. It has taken me all of four years to begin work on a novel that doesn’t seem like the older cousin of my first. Now my impressionability has evolved into something slightly critical. I proceed with realizing that, as Susan Sontag said to an interviewer, I write because there’s literature. I’m conversing with reading lists, and with the ways literature enriches humanity.
This book, published initially as Farad in Nigeria, has been retitled. I am ambivalent about this change. Sometimes the question is squarely practical: what’s the title of my first book? Will it depend on where I’m talking about it? A part of me thinks my ambivalence will be resolved as I produce more work as a writer, refracted through the lens of maturity. Yet the deprecating part of me thinks that’s cheap consolation. If changing the title was erroneous, I am mired in the experiment that is my debut novel.
Writers Notes, Fiction