July 19, 2024
Colloquium

‘I will write my own truth, my own experience; that’s not demarketing Nigeria, says Michael Afenfia

anote
  • July 8, 2024
  • 13 min read
‘I will write my own truth, my own experience; that’s not demarketing Nigeria, says Michael Afenfia

‘It’s a shame on our governments that we have to leave

‘The Canadian Government is more or less paying me just to write; we don’t have such opportunities in Nigeria’

By Anote Ajeluorou (who was in Yenagoa)

I grew up with my morality being skewed by watching a lot of Nigerian movies, Nollywood movies, where a hand will just appear from the sky and slap a wicked step-mother or boils will start coming of out Chiwetalu Agwu’s body, as a wicked uncle. For a young child growing up and watching such movies, you’d be thinking, ‘that politician that stole money, boil should also start forming on his body’! But it’s never going to happen. That’s the sort of scenario painted in Rain Can Never Know, because that’s the reality of life. Life can be that disappointing, you know.”

That was how Canada-based Nigerian writer Michael Afenfia described the improbable content he consumed as a youngster and which would later inform his realistic writing that veers in opposite direction. It was the July 27, 2024 1402 Book Club Reading/Authors Dialogue held in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, led by Annette David-West. It was an afternoon of fun and retrospection with Afenfia giving insight into his writing and his experience of ‘japaing’ abroad from the harrowing encounters that forced him to leave Nigerian. Rain Can Never Know and Leave My Bones in Saskatoon were his two novels in focus, with On-Air-Personality and delectable Debbie Diamond anchoring proceedings.

Afenfia described the opportunities his adopted country currently afford him as a writer as against what obtains in his home country Nigeria, where writers and other talented individuals have to survive whichever way they could without government’s support. A grant he got from the Canadian Government enabled him to complete three books within a year – a full length novel, a collection of short stories and a children’s book!

“The Canadian Government is more or less paying me just to write!” Afenfia declared. “But we don’t have such opportunities here in Nigeria. I use this opportunity to call on our government to also do the same. There are talented people in this world, people who are funded to dance, people who are funded to write scripts, talents who are funded to do whatever it is they are gifted to do. The focus is not always on Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), as important as they are; those governments also recognise that through these other means their culture is being propagated. So the Canadian Government might sponsor a movie that will be on Netflix if they want to sell something about their country to the world. We can do that. A Nengi Ilagha doesn’t always have to look for work. If he can be funded, he can just write. I have experienced it for one year, and because of that funding experience, I’ve written three books in a year.”

Afenfia spoke glowingly about his book that bears the name of his home city, The Mechanics of Yenagoa and Rain Can Never Know and how they were warmly received after their publication. He spoke about a missed opportunity though to truly shine with the peculiar Pidgin English that pepper the book.

According to him, “Two years after publishing The Mechanics of Yenagoa, there was hardly a day that I wake up in the morning that I didn’t receive a mail from someone who had just read the book or when I wrote Rain Can Never Know. Hardly a day passed; it was like a ritual every morning. And the questions were always, ‘oh, why did they kill somebody or the other.’ It was always that. It occurred to me that this thing is really bigger than me.

“There was a time I was invited to Port Harcourt to read from The Mechanics of Yenagoa. It was mostly a white audience and I thought… Remember that there’s a lot of Pidgin English in The Mechanics of Yenagoa, and since I was reading in front of a mostly white audience, I had to look for the whitest chapter to read. When it was my turn, I read a chapter that doesn’t have Pidgin English and the audience was happy, or so I thought. And then after the event, a white lady walked up to me and said, ‘I’ve read this book and I was looking forward to hearing you read the Pidgin English part, but you didn’t. I’m disappointed, because you ended up reading the part with good English that I’m used to. I have never heard anybody read in Pidgin English, and I was looking forward to that.’ And it hit me that I’d missed a great opportunity to shine with our Pidgin English before a white audience.

“I carry a burden to promote my culture, and it’s a burden I’m dedicated to carrying with me everywhere in the world. There’s some Pidgin English in some parts of Leave My Bones in Saskatoon, but not as much as in The Mechanics of Yenagoa. But the short story in Covik One Nine anthology is written entirely in Pidgin English. The inspiration for it is my white Canadian friend, who I’m teaching Pidgin English, but only for me to discover that he was dating a Nigerian lady. So all the Pidgin English I was teaching and he was pretending that he didn’t know, he actually knew. So it inspired the story there, entitled ‘Aproko’. It’s about these women gossiping about a white guy sitting next to them, and they didn’t know he could hear everything they’d said about him. Writing the entire story in Pidgin English was an awesome experience. And Kudos to my wonderful friend here, Ebiware. For some strange reason and in spite of Pidgin English being spoken in my house in Yenagoa, Pidgin English fails me. A lot of the Pidgin English in The Mechanics of Yenagoa, I owe them to my friend, Ebiware! If I wanted to say something in Pidgin and I didn’t know it, I’d call him up and ask.”

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Guest author, Michael Afenfia (left); Nengi Ilagha; founder of 1402 BookLounge, Annette David-West and Bayelsa ANA chapter Chairman, Murphy Bribena at the event… in Yenagoa

Having written about his native Yenagoa in his previous works, Afenfia decided to explore farther afield in Leave My Bones in Saskatoon. But to do so effectively, he had to research his material to come up with the same authenticity that defines his earlier works. He added that living abroad is not a tea party, as Facebook and Instagram posts of many suggest, noting that he would rather stay at home than go abroad if minimum living conditions at home in Nigeria were a given as they are abroad.

“I chose not to write about Yenagoa, but Tiv and Makurdi in Leave My Bones in Saskatoon, because it gave me opportunity to research about my people on the other side of the country. So I had to do research as regards the culture of Tiv people. It’s an immigration story and having experienced it myself I thought that it was only natural or fair that as a writer I use my voice to share that experience. And you’d be shocked there is really very little information about how that process can be like. You think you know, but when you get there you realise that you know nothing. Even people who have moved never come back to you to really tell their truth. It’s ‘oh, I’m in Canada, I’m in America’. They won’t share that part of their experience with you. Even people in the same house with you, in the same church; they only tell you, ‘I’m going to work’, but they won’t tell you where they work!

“So I just thought to be honest and share what that experience is. For anybody who is here and looking at the Facebook posts or Instagram posts of most of those already there, and think that’s the true picture, there may be something going on that you are not aware of. So I thought to be honest and share that experience.”

The poverty porn question African writers living and writing abroad often have to answer also came up, with Afenfia arguing that saying his truth is not demarketing his country or continent, but an honest take that should bring about a reset of the country’s way of being into what he enjoys outside that compelled him and many others to seek refuge outside.

“As to the question about poverty porn, you have to have read the book to see the values that this guy brings, what he represents, and you’d see that ‘oh wow, this guy is a Nigerian, even though these terrible things are happening in his country, this guy is a good representation of his country in terms of justice, moral fortitude, his values’. So, it’s a balance between the reality of what might be his life and where he’s coming from and having to tell that story.

“Did I struggle, that maybe I shouldn’t say all these things? But what’s the reality? But even for me, Michael Afenfia, and some people who are here who know my story for real know that for maybe two years, maybe three years of living in Yenagoa, even being a part of the government, I wasn’t sleeping. I will come out and do all my stuff, but when I go back home, I couldn’t sleep, because my neighbour had been kidnapped or my neighbour’s wife had been kidnapped! And the information we had was, ‘oh, the people who kidnapped her, they know you; they were telling us what you wore, how you dressed to work, the car you drove, the time your wife leaves the house. They know these things about you’. And every time there was a gunshot and it sounded like it was close to our door, we took the children and hid them in the bathroom or under the bed until the gunshots ended. Or if we could, we called the police. Police indeed came several times to our house, our street. We even had police come to my house almost every night and I was paying them so that we could sleep. On a night that they don’t show up, because I couldn’t afford to pay them that night, my children couldn’t sleep.

“And because I’m in Canada now, am I supposed to lie that I didn’t have that experience? So it’s not a burden for me as much as it is for our governments to do their job. Saskatoon is very, very cold. Honestly, there are days I wake up and ask myself, ‘what am I doing here? Why am I here, when I should be enjoying the Nigerian sun in my shorts and sleeveless t-shirt or whatever?’ But I can’t live that life because of the fear that I had that made me take that decision. So I have to be honest about my experience; I owe that to myself; I owe that to my children, to be able to say my truth. So this is my experience. And I encourage other people; if you have a different version of Nigeria that’s your reality, let’s all write it, so that when those foreign audience sees my book, sees Nengi’s book, they see Annette’s book, they can put all of them together and that will be their picture. But I will write my own truth; I will write my own experience.

“It’s painful and very annoying reality that some of us who moved abroad don’t have any business being abroad if our governments were doing better. I don’t have any business living there. So, I’m not struggling whether I’m demarketing my country or not; I’m just saying what my truth is. A place like Canada is very diverse and multi-cultural. Indians are saying their own story, the Japanese, the Chinese; everyone is saying their own story. So I have to share my own story.”

Afenfia recounts the immigrant experience and how his writing is helping to clear a fog in the minds of his host country about the realities back home and why emigration is a plus to host countries and a loss to the immigrant’s home country that would rather be cavalier about making conditions right for everyone to flourish to their true potential.

“And again to get back to the book, for the Canadian audience, there’s a misconception that it helps them overcome. There’s the misconception that once you see an immigrant you’ve seen them all; once you’ve met a black person, you’ve met every black person. Even within Nigeria, we all have our different realities. Back to Leave My Bones in Saskatoon, the protagonist is a successful broadcaster, everybody knows him; his wife works for the government. From the story, she has money. I’m trying to tell the Canadian audience that look, because some of you think that we still live on top on trees or that we don’t know what chicken from KFC is or that we don’t have television in our houses. You’d be shocked that some people still think these things about us. So I’m saying, no-no-no, this guy has cars, has his own security that goes everywhere he went. He was on TV; he’s a successful person, but because he lands in your country and maybe ends up being a security man in a super market or driving Uber, don’t think that that’s all he is or was. He’s coming with all these talents and education, and if you put him to proper use, he’s a plus to your country and even a loss to his own country.

“A text message I got from a Canadian friend of mine says it all. I didn’t tell him I was coming to Nigeria, but when he saw my posts on social media, he asked when I would return to Canada. When I told him when, he said, ‘oh thank God; I thought we have lost you to Nigeria!’ So we bring something of value, but something has compelled us to make that decision and we need to be honest about it. It’s a shame on our governments that we have to leave and I hope that that message is in this book. If you read Leave My Bones in Saskatoon, you’d see that it’s a shame that we have to let these people go.”

He, however, expressed gratitude to his literary mentored-turned fan, Nengi Ilagha, who wasain the audience with his writerly wife, Bina Nengi-Ilegha, saying, “I just want to use this opportunity to shout out to the man known as Pope Pen – Ilagha. I’m grateful for your support and encouragement. Even though people might think that I’m an established writer, I will see his social media posts and it’s about me. It means a lot to me. It’s such wings that help us to fly even higher. Thank you so much! I had looked forward to saying this to you a long time now!”

Earlier, founder of 1402 BookLounge Initiative, Annette David-West, while welcoming Afenfia and guests to the Reading/Authors Dialogue, sad, “The last time we had Michael Afenfia was when The Mechanics of Yenagoa just came out. So when we learnt he’s coming to town, we thought to have this gathering around his new books. You’ve been away for so long. We miss you! I thank you all for coming by, and I hope you have a great time with us.”

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