The Nigerian Literary Mixtape is a creative storytelling project created by Sheba Anyanwu, to showcase essays and short stories about Nigerians or being a Nigerian in the Diaspora.
There was a time where we bought records, tapes and then CD’s . The pleasure in that wasn’t just in the melody, but the visual experience of seeing the cover art and actually touching the material. We don’t have that anymore, but I thought this would be fun to try.
Release Date – November 11, 2015
“What do you plan on achieving there?” her brother had asked, the night before she left, when she texted him from JFK.“I don’t know, I just need to tie up loose ends” she responded.
“You know if anything happens, Lagos isn’t really your home, you have to go back to the village,” he would say seriously, as we merged onto the expressway. “They chased so many Igbos out of here years ago, they have no reason to not do it again.”
He never looked back or spoke about Lagos when we were leaving. But the three of us, sometimes sitting together or in different cars, because of his fear that we might all perish if we were unfortunate to meet a road accident, would have our necks craned staring at the city, our lives becoming miniature pieces of contained adolescence the farther away we were.
The house in front of us used to be a thatched brown hut with raffia and palm sealing the roof. He grew up here, the only son of a woman we never got to know, someone his people say my sister is a reincarnation of. The once wooden door is now metal, with a shiny doorknob, and another man lives here. We are to call him Chief Rufus, his greetings are deceitful, his hands forever outstretched, his eyes continually lingering on the things he does not have. He is a man who wears his bought chieftaincy like a badge that he has earned.
“This is where I grew up, I want you to see where my mother raised me,” he says, beckoning us towards the small unit. The sides of the bungalow are ravaged with cracks, roots from a fifty-year-old Odala tree have begun creeping underneath the house, winding their way through the walls, creating long crevices like veins against the walls, the door, and even the concrete floor. The next year when we visit, his eyes water as we watch the local farmers chop the tree down, unripe odala fruit scatters to the floor, the local children run after the ripe ones they were unable to reach due to their elevation, the birds squawk and fly into nearby trees. Where the tree is cut, an ugly scar remains on the trunk with tree rings that have latched onto each other. He turns away and walks back to the main house without saying a word to any of us. The trunk eventually rots and the local children use it as a stool when they play in the evenings. His mother planted the tree when he was a boy, and for as long as he was away, during the war, it had grown.
Our life here in the village were my father grew up is a double, a suspension bridge, hinging the two worlds we straddled in adolescence and now adulthood. A living room with Baker Street style furniture he lifted from the old house in Twickenham, photos of all his children, and his mother. There is no intimacy in this room, the curation here is tired, and whoever sits here knows the setup is just to appease one for the purpose of functionality. This room leads to another one where every piece, fabric, sculpture, is pre-meditated, weaving all the pieces of family history and tradition together. There are Ivory elephant tusks standing beside a regal chair lined with leopard skin. The traditional family clan crest is etched on the marble floor. Brown bowls filled with kolanut sit on tables next to alligator peppers and cow horns through which local palm wine is drank.
This house with its duality, its Igbo character and its Anglo-American discomfort, is one we now refer to as the “Obi.” It is built in front of my deceased grandmother’s home, a towering castle over a thatched hut where my father lived as a boy. He walks passed it every morning, and stares at it from the front porch at night. The grandeur is intoxicating, but the story that leads here isn’t. It is one entrenched in a deep home-sickness, a brutal civil war, alienation in a foreign land suffering from racial hate and prejudice, an unexpected American education, and a homecoming mired by extreme responsibility and a deep loss.
There is a house, and a palm kernel factory, a symbol of my father’s need to create value in our village. The mornings smell like palm oil and coconuts. At night when the industrial generators have shut down, the crickets whisper, the frogs bellow in the swimming pool at the back and one can still smell the faint scent of palm in the air right before sleep. Giant birds swoop from the mahogany trees, diving occasionally to clasp unto chicks and chickens. There is an empty swimming pool behind the house, where hundreds of frogs have gathered because it is the rainy season. The pool is filled with rainwater. The water is a lime green, and my siblings, in our reel of adolescence, wielding catapults given to us by our father and stones picked from the ground, we have shooting matches to see who can kill how many frogs easily. When you kill a frog, it turns upside down, and sometimes its white belly ruptures. The second swimming pool is filled with dry leaves, and we stopped going in there, someone said something about rattlesnakes.
What is home really? Is it the place you feel most at peace, a special comfort? Or where your family resides? I want to say that my father found home with us, somewhere in our house in Lagos, on an island where people lived side by side despite their heterogeneous ethnic and economic backgrounds. A city where the bananas were smaller, the feeling was metropolitan, the sun did not tint to a light red while it set in the evenings, people did not ride bicycles as much as they drove cars, the songs at the local parish where not chanted in a demurred Igbo with tints of Latin; where the air did not become chilly as it passed over the hills; and the rain did not fall as if God was weeping over his own inability to decide. I did not want to accept that despite his education here in the U.S. and the years of service he had accumulated all over the world as a banker, that he was most comfortable in a place where he felt most at home, the village. And many years before this one, we jokingly taunted him about this choice, to return ever so often, to a place we regarded as “backward.”
These thing we carried, these things that we said to him, came not out of cruelty but a deep misunderstanding of what is civilized and what is modern. He often asked us where the profit lay, in embracing modernity or what is “civilized, when all he wanted was to be at home.
He was alive in the village, woke up early in the mornings, took long walks, visited elders who asked us questions in Igbo, while we replied with splinters of Igbo-English that seemed to dig into his side when we tried. And because we were so far removed, every visit was intentional, a way to bring us closer. We went to farms he worked on, walked to the rivers he used to swim in, ate on the floor of the Obi with cousins whose relation to us we were unsure of, eating ubeh and awka and soon enough the roots began to break into the concrete. We began to understand. We took all those moments for granted, but I suppose that they make these moments in passing much easier to confront.
While the cars drive off, and we pass rivers and the deep gullies mired by erosion that is very common in the southeastern part of Nigeria, I look at him through the mirrors and what I see is a crippling sadness. The hands of incoming nostalgia that paralyzes him when he is in Lagos are coming back, creeping into his skin, holding him close as he grips the steering wheel, and we all know that soon enough, while we are in school, he will return here.
But there is also a happiness, the realization that we are also a bit confused by this new found experience, that this place is changing us, too, and suddenly we are connecting. He knows now that we like the food here, we know the names of our cousins, we respond better to Igbo, we are curious, and this is the opening in the deep wall of city life he has tried to create. Like the Odala tree, its root permeating a deep concrete, who we are, what we know of ourselves is becoming more than what we have learned from our time on an island off the coast of Lagos. Home could be anywhere, but where your parents grow up? It is a different kind of magic that takes space in your memory. You see who they were as children, how little things like cracks in a thatched roof, an Iroko or Odala tree have created something deeply etched into who they are. You become them. My father is a village man, this is the place where his mother lived, his father ruled, his sisters gave birth and where he thought about when he was far away. He is free here, broken from the strong ties of alienation and loss that seem to hold him when he is in Lagos or driving on the highway in California. He knows that we understand now.
“Never forget where you come from,” he says holding me on my shoulders. We are in Muritala Mohammed Airport, and I am about to board a plane to the U.S. I know he doesn’t mean Lagos. To him Lagos can be found everywhere, but the village where he grew up, the things we learned there can only be found there in a place where the earth was a deep red, men in their 80s still climbed on trees to tap palm wine, people rose at 6 a.m. chanting incantations and speaking deeply of what our ancestors had said before them, and where the food made your tongue feel as though you were a new born, and had just tasted food for the first time. I hug him back and tell him that I will not forget.
The last time we were in Hoboken a place you called ” New York’s ugly step sister” . We walked so close to the river, lay our hands down on the rusted railings, shuffling them back and forth, feeling our palms smoothen at the touch of flaky metal. We spent time staring at New York city in the distance. At that moment I knew what it felt like to be someone peripheral. On the edge of something great, but not truly experiencing it. This was the running joke here in New Jersey, how we were so angry because we were so close to the big apple, and yet we could not reach her. The city looked beautiful and quiet, its numerous lights reflecting on the Hudson river. A comforting lie it was, to stare at her and know that this was a mirage, a falsity. I knew that as soon as we hopped out of the Newport street station PATH on our way to 33rd street, the lie would become a memory. Nothing about her was as pure from the Hoboken or Jersey City vantage point. There was no innocence here in New York. Everyone here was a Samson, and the city was Delilah masquerading as a woman pure at heart. But when you slept at night, she crept up on you , seduced your will with stealth and cut off your strength.
We picked up stray stones and tossed them into the river, yelling at each other over whose ripples were the farthest. Whose ripples were the farthest… between the both of us, who had made more of an impact.. My reliance on you had exceeded outings, concerts and TV show reflections. It was now a codependency for intellectual sustenance. I had not known anyone who read and experienced so much, that I clung to you as a source. I could call at 3am to talk about the random dream I had the other day, and you could tell me shit about Freud or Jung and how they would interpret it. On the day I had bumped into you at a house party on Lewis Street, we sat on a stranger’s kitchen counter, amidst red cups ,strobe lights and pita chips , talking about how we wanted to scratch our names into the fabric of the world. It was ambition, motivation and a desire to live that made us friends. We wanted to be somebodies.We still did, but like everything else , the time was different . You were now teaching me how to detach.
” Look at her…., such a tease, so inviting, and when you get there it’s a fucking emotional roller coaster” you said gesturing towards the city like it was a magic show. My teeth were chattering. It was so cold, and after drinking at the bar, you with your blue moons and me with gin and tonics watching you comically articulate your thoughts as you tried to straddle between the blurred lines of drunk and sober. We walked as far as our legs could carry, huddled under jackets and woolen scarves. I suggested that we watch the New York City lights from the park benches.
” I’m no longer infatuated with New York” I say. ” She doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is, people come here with too many expectations. There’s this quote by some guy who says Woody Allen makes manhattan look too easy, he was right”. I can see your eyes lingering on the horizon. “Sucks though… cause im moving, i’m really going to miss this place… the east coast.. I always thought I would live my life here in New York or Boston.” you say slyly. You had never talked about moving before , to me, to anyone, I could feel my brow crease.
“wait what?..your moving where?” I stutter. My mind is racing fast now, I have already begun to imagine a life where you are not there, and what it would mean for our other friends, to repair a group dynamic that was already suffering at the hands of life and responsibility.
” I want to further myself you know, do the things I have always wanted to do.. Im ready to move on . Plus I got into physical theraphy school in Texas .” You reply.
” Dude Texas? seriously ?”I ask. It was difficult to imagine him , who liked to walk on the Brooklyn bridge late at night , eating Japanese in the East Village, sitting on park benches complaining about the city heat in the summer, walking into book stores in Chelsea and spending $40 on books he would never read, moving to Texas.
” Yeah man… seriously.. Austin to be precise, I hear it’s a great place to be at our age” You were about to go on and on about this new place you were going to move to.But I had to stop you.
” It’s New York, we knew what we signed up for, at least you did when you moved to Brooklyn!!” I shriek. We were both leaning so close to the railing now, I could see our dark reflections on the water surface. Every ripple from the stones we threw changed our shadows into beautiful and grotesque like figures. It was so easy to be something else when the tide turned, I felt myself becoming extremely annoyed with you.
” You’re going against the plan D”
” You know that is some college shit we made up, there is no plan!” You reply.
” You only say that because you have one foot in New Jersey and one foot in the city, you’re like one of those wall street guys, you’ve worked here so much that’s its a part of you, but you have no deeper allegiance because you can leave when you want.” His words hurt, but they were true. I had never really put both feet in New York. Like most things in life, I had dipped my toes in, and if the water got too cold, and the shivers too painful, I would simply take them out and leave. I had refused to properly commit to her, because the sacrifice was too much. Moving to New York, like the people in the movies was an ideology. I was not willing to immerse myself in it and get caught up in the fantasy.
” When did you decide this? when are you leaving? This is so weird”
” What about you, have you decided yet?” you ask
” On what?”
” Teaching in Seoul? South Korea? That was the plan right? If things didnt work out”
” Yeah, Im still considering it, that amongst other things”
” That’s the problem with you. You’re too tied to this place, to your Nigerian friends, to a life that hasn’t even happened yet. You say you want to do this and that, so fucking do it, just do it. You need to let go and experience the things you want to”
” What are you saying right now?”
“Nothing.. I just think you have a bad habit of doing things halfway.. starting shit and not completing it, committing and leaving when you lose interest”. He continued.
” Where is all this coming from?” I ask. My face now contorting in bewilderment. Why had he suppressed all these thoughts, only to unleash them on me now, at a time when he was leaving and I could not hold him in contempt. “Why didnt you say this a while ago?“
” I’ve always told you.. you’re not very good at listening”
” I have a short attention span”
” Yeah okay.” He jabs me in the shoulder.
” This isn’t one of those Henry David Thoreau or Emerson things is it? Cause yes I know, I have to go forward in the direction of my dreams and live the life I have imagined. It is so fuckign exhausting hearing all these quotes, when it really isnt that easy.” I replied. I was now exasperated by the entire ” live your life” phenomenon that had stalked me since I moved to the U.S.
“It’s not easy for me ..Because as much as it is hard for me to leave all of you, it’s harder to see you guys stay ,when I know there’s so much outside that you want to do” .
We are silent now, and I realize how right you are. It was pointless to hold onto this place. On to people, on to memories or future that had not happened yet. I hated and loved New York but my commitment to it was fleeting and I needed to figure out my next steps quickly. I would eventually have to leave at some point. Dreams were too big, and the sacrifices too painful to remain here. My relationship with the city was dialectical, a push and pull, a rolling stone meeting an immovable object. She frustrated me, made me hate her, yet I always returned , wanting to experience everything. I hated walking behind tourists on W52nd street on the way to work. I hated being pressed up against foreign bodies on the subway, pretending like my space was not violated. I hated the way people scurried like mice , crowding in front of the subway doors even before people got off. But I loved her too. I loved walking on W86th and Broadway and buying old books , where the leaves fell out after three months. I loved going to happy hour in the East Village, unlimited cheap chardonnay in Korea Town , marveling at how each portion of the city could change, supporting new life , like one giant dysfunctional self sustaining eco system. I loved how every borough was different, and you could be anyone here because everyone here were all just misfits looking for acceptance.I loved and hated her, and she wouldn’t let me go. I was to blame too, I was holding on to her too tight. I knew that the experience here would be unmatched no matter where I went- Seoul, London, Shanghai. That was what Delilah did to Samson. Even though she had cut off all his hair and taken his God given strength, he still loved her. There were too many of us here, masochists for the experience, glutens for the punishment.
” Are you upset ?”
“No , we’re fine.. you’re right.” I reply
“No matter where you go, no matter what city you are you’ll always be the same person if the things inside you don’t change. You can go everywhere , but you can’t run away from yourself” You continue.”
” Is that why you’re moving then.. to Texas for graduate school? “
” Well no. Cornell denied me, and I only applied to two schools sooooo.” We both laugh. It was either Ithaca or Austin, either way you were going to meet someone at some party and talk to them about how you no longer wanted to be a “somebody” , and when graduate school was over for you, you would leave, and do it with no apologies. I wanted to be like you, in the way that you loved deeply but you also detached easily. Not because you were afraid, but because you knew that nothing and no one truly belonged to you, that nothing was permanent except for change. Somewhere you had learned this lesson early, I am still trying to learn it.
“So did you sort out your rent situation in Austin yet?”
“Yeah. I’m going to be living in a one bedroom right on campus, my rent is $700 , it comes with a kitchen, living room, a really big closet.. its super nice.”
” Wait how much were you paying for your room in Brooklyn again?”
” 850 plus utilities anndddddd! a shared Bathroom.“
” … dude that is so brutal. you didn’t even have enough closet space.” We sit on the park bench now, our feet heavy from standing, and our hands cold from resting on metal. You start laughing, and I start laughing too. This was it. You were ready to go, to leave all of us, every memory we had created together. It was ironic that on your final week here, we would watch New York all the way from Hoboken as though she were a stranger and we had never lived it.
” Yeah I know.. New York city man, gotta love it”