Life is funny, really. When I applied for the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop [which will be referred to as PHTCWW from now, as I hope you honestly don’t expect me to write that long thingy again], I’d hoped to get in but I didn’t expect to, if you know what I mean. I’d even gotten the response date mixed up so that when the ‘mixed-up date’ arrived and I received no email, I automatically assumed rejection. It was my first time after all, so how did I just expect to get in?
So it came as quite the stunner when I checked my email to confirm an online payment and I saw a reply mail from PHTCWW. I opened the email and simply stopped reading after I saw the words, ‘Dear Justin, I am pleased…’
When my mental faculties actually allowed me to finish reading the mail, I shouted at random intervals, in spaced bursts of vocal incoherence [I’m just throwing around the fact that I can write big-big words. Please, pay me no mind]. When I saw Chimamanda’s name at the end of the email, my vision had dark edges around for the rest of the day, as if I were in a dream or seeing through vignette lenses. At one point that day, as my brother and I watched a movie, I paused it just to say, “Wait, is today real?”
I was in Port Harcourt at the time I got the email and travelled to Lagos sometime later, which was about three days before we were to check in at the hotel; I actually live in Lagos.
The day I checked in, I met with two other participants and we talked in one’s room about how the workshop would be, about who would faint on seeing Chimamanda Adichie, and all other forms of Chimamanda-related panic attacks.
I went to sleep that night, with my brain processing four-sentence thoughts.
Will I faint tomorrow?
* * *
The next day, Day One, all twenty-two participants were seated in the hotel’s conference room, waiting. Personally, I believe that greatness and punctuality aren’t really good companions, that delay is a symptom of greatness [It’s what I tell myself on the days I arrive someplace at a time later than I or others anticipated. Justin, don’t worry. You will be great.] So I waited. We all did. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone was talking in whispers, and I fancy maybe even laughing in whispers [Dunno if ‘laughing in whispers’ is a thing but we’ll just assume it is. Hehehe.]
Then she came.
When the door opened and she walked in, smiling, saying, “Hello, everyone,” my thinking now reduced to three-sentence thoughts: That is Chimamanda. Chimamanda is here. Chimamanda is real. I need oxygen.
At that point, I wondered why no one had tackled Chimamanda to the floor with hugs, screaming at the top of their lungs for her autograph. Everyone was so quiet and chill, that I wondered if they’d all had a secret meeting with her last night and I was the only absentee. [Of course, I would later find out that they were all like me on the inside. People can hide emotions sha… Na wa o.]
The tables were arranged in a large ‘U,’ with Chimamanda at the ‘curve’ of it and we participants at its arms. My seat was the first in my arm, on Chimamanda’s right side and I kept thinking: Chimamanda Adichie herself, this world-famous literary giant is sitting less than a metre from me. I can reach out and actually grab her arm. Oh. My. Goodness.
Of course, if I’d followed my thoughts, I’d have been slapped with about nine-lifetime restraining orders and probably RKOed by Chimamanda herself in a way that would have made Randy Orton nod his head in vicious approval. So I didn’t listen to my head. Instead, I sat down in place as tremors ran through my jaw and my entire body quivered. Whether it was from the air-conditioner or the fact that I was seated that close to Chimamanda, I don’t know but the quivering continued and I tried to make it appear as subtle as possible.
“Why don’t we all introduce ourselves a bit? Like, say something, anything about you,” Chimamanda said. [Mon Dieu, her voice was so pellucid and mesmerizing! If I weren’t so sceptical about the supernatural, I’d have assumed juju was involved].
I had initially wanted to go first so that the tension hovering around me could dissipate as I listened to the others after. But I simply couldn’t. I sat there, quivering, staring at the container of sweets in front of me, as the others talked about themselves. And the bloody thing was that I couldn’t tell if it was the cold or Chimamanda making me shiver, no matter how much I thought about it. But honestly, that cold was mad.
“Um, Okey, could you turn down the AC?” I heard Chimamanda say. She laughed. “I know it sounds weird coming from me. Thank you.”
My sigh of relief was fucking epic. She probably didn’t know the person next to her would maybe have dropped to the floor from frostbite if the air-conditioning had been active like that for another minute. This woman is an angel, I thought and sighed again inwardly.
My shaking stopped minutes after the infernal air-conditioning was reduced, and though it may have seemed like the cold was responsible, I really don’t think it was. My room in the hotel was much colder [I think], and the only physical reaction from me would be the coldness of my fingers and toes. Certainly no shivering. Oh, well.
Anyhow, I was able to introduce myself later, and I just fixed my eyes on her for the remainder of the day.
“I remember laughing when I read your story,” she said, smiling. “I know you were writing about something serious but it was just so funny, I kept laughing and laughing.” When she said this, my whole brain was just like, “Chimamanda read my story and found it funny! I am officially famous! I have blown!”
Days One and Two were spent reading each other’s entry pieces to the class, having Chimamanda and other participants analyze and critique them. That was quite the experience. Having your work dissected by twenty-one other writers, plus Chimamanda herself is something that I… Honestly, I have no words on the mix of feelings I had for that. But put simply, it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Chimamanda ended Day Two by giving us two tricky assignments [Alas, if only we knew that those were the first of many]. One of them was writing a short story describing beauty without any mention of the word itself or any of its synonyms, while the other was to write another short story completely composed of dialogue.
I think because everyone had so much common ground as well as similar mindsets, it gave us the chance to relate with each other on a very unique frequency. Friendships came so easy and quick, and barriers came down more rapidly than usual. Breakfast and lunch were so enjoyable and it’s not just because I’m an unrepentant foodie [Lord, help me], but it’s because these two meals were some of our biggest social times. Everyone is eating and talking and making jokes and you are suddenly enveloped in this warm sense of complete belonging.
We read out, reviewed and critiqued our previous assignments on Day Three. Chimamanda highlighted our strengths and flaws, and interacted with us in that surreal way that only she is capable of doing [I think I’m in love]. When she pointed out the flaws in my work, something she’d noticed appeared consistently, initially I was skeptical. No one had ever said that about my writing before and I thought that somehow maybe she’s not really interpreting my stories right [Can you just imagine what my little brain was thinking?]. But by the end of that same day, I began to identify what she was referring to; what I would just unconsciously infuse into my writing. I knew I would never forget that day.
Day Three ended with two assignments once more: A short story on what it means to be an outsider, and a non-fiction story about what we like and dislike most about ourselves. [When the non-fiction assignment was announced, I tried very hard to keep my jaw from dropping. I think I still failed though]. Prior to that day, I had never written a nonfiction story in my entire life, so you can imagine how my head must have been clanging. Most of us went out for ice cream that night, and though I laughed with new friends and had great fun, some nonsense thing in my mind kept whispering, “Oga, you have to write nonfiction. What is the way forward?”
The morning of Day Four, just before breakfast, was when I brought myself to write the nonfiction piece. Initially, I’d intended to construct lyrical, saccharine lies because I didn’t want to go into things that I’ve buried or chosen to ignore about myself and my life. But the thought of reading such a piece to the class, to my friends and to Chimamanda, a story thickly embellished with falsehood made me steel my jaw and open my can of worms. I wrote. When I sent the assignment to the designated email, I gripped my pen tightly and told myself I wouldn’t fucking cry.
* * *
Day Four, taking the class, we had Lola Shoneyin [another person with a mesmerizing voice]. Where Chimamanda wanted to kill us with take-back assignments, Lola intended to do the same with in-class works. Her lecture for the day was very insightful, quite awesome and lest we forget very tasking. Lola talked about how trauma writing is a form of therapy and also taught us about the things that make a novel enjoyable and the qualities it must possess. One thing she mentioned that I really picked on was this: “Master the art of showing.” She also taught us on character development and made us all write short stories from a poem sample, grouped us and made us rewrite another poem in pidgin [I know, right?], and she made us write our individual altered forms of another poem. [After that day, I concluded that if I ever met the poets whose poems we used, I’d box their ears.] Lola later had lunch with us too!
* * *
Tash Aw was the head honcho on Day Five. Calm, and full of this wry humour, Tash’s class was centered more on ourselves than the other classes we’d had. He paired each of us and asked us to write a story about our partner, based on whatever they choose to tell about themselves. His exercise confirmed something I’d been thinking about: this workshop wasn’t simply improving a writer’s ability by impacting some hidden knowledge or so. You would learn new technical things too but I think one of this workshop’s main powers is pushing you to points you’d never imagined you had, let alone attained. It was about finding your inner writing spirit, and letting it loose. Chimamanda came later that evening [we missed her like crazy!] and with she and Tash in the same room, the atmosphere was suddenly more awesome. We read some of the pieces from the nonfiction assignment and this heavy sombreness descended on the hall. One or two of those that read theirs actually had tears running. I listened to the stories, deep, personal tales about insecurities and all, and I was suddenly thankful that I had also poured out myself into my piece; I would have felt like a traitor had I read a false story while people bared their souls to each other, to us.
We couldn’t finish reading everyone’s pieces, so we shifted them to the next class. After Chimamanda left with Tash, we spent the remainder of the night doing one of the things we usually do at night [I’m King Arthur’s age mate, so I can’t remember which one]: movies at my room, drinks and cigarettes at the bar or a hangout in someone’s room.
And sometimes, all three.
* * *
Finally, before we would just die, Day Six was a Sunday, which happened to be our free day. We had already made plans the previous day to go to a beach. So after those that went to church returned [Don’t bother thinking, I did not follow them to church], we got ourselves ready. The beach was a ten-minute boat ride from the pier and as the boat hurtled over the water, we laughed, squealed, hooted and took pictures. I made a comment on how I’ve heard of boats that stop in the middle of the waters, with no land in sight. And what do you know, abracadabra, our boat stopped. It was quite interesting to see how some of the laughter turned to funny little wails. Well, the boat started up about a minute later and we continued on our way [It still stopped once more but anyhow…] and arrived at the beach with all our body parts intact.
If I write about how we spent our time there… See, honestly, I don’t have that strength. Just know one thing. It was amazing.
* * *
We had Dr. Eghosa Imasuen on Day Seven. His interesting lecture focused more on the technical aspects of the literary craft. Two of the major things he covered included Points Of View and writing realistic dialogue. Before his class, he’d actually sent us six short stories to read beforehand [He had sent us these stories before we even checked in at the hotel. *sigh* Just imagine]. He pointed out the things we could learn in the technical presentation of each story, why each story is told as it is and all other things. Chimamanda showed up again as well! Eghosa ended the day by giving us an assignment… to rewrite the particularly horrible prologue of a popular novel.
* * *
Though the acceptance email had mentioned he’d be attending, I was still giddy and I consciously had to stop myself from crying out when I opened the door to the conference room that morning for classes, and saw Dave Eggers sitting at the head of the arranged tables. He turned to me and gave a little smile as I came in [probably because of the look on my face]. Even as I sat down, I wondered again why no one was actually prostrating and still sat normally, as if that weren’t Dave Eggers himself sitting in the same room with us. First Chimamanda, now Dave. I sighed inwardly and concluded:
“You all are just mad.”
Dave gave us some pretty interesting in-class works and lectured us a bit about editing our stories. Among many things, he advised us to not edit while we’re actually writing the story; we were to let the words pour out till we’d finished, before going back to edit. One of the interesting things he asked us to do was to think of who we each thought was the embodiment of evil, whether living or dead or fictional. Here comes the plot twist: we were to write a story that shows their redeeming qualities. In other words, present them in a good light. [I know, just… wow]. After the class was over, I quickly left, so that I could jam Dave on his way out. It was so worth it, I nearly died.
* * *
Day Nine already and a lot of us were thinking of the workshop’s impending end. Today was the day we were to turn in Eghosa’s prologue assignment but because of the volume of work we were swamped with, we had all decided together the previous day to collectively bypass Eghosa’s assignment [Hehehe]. But of course, every class has those people that are just academically sadistic. See the majority of us thinking that we would all forego the assignment, only to find out later that some people had already done theirs in secret [fear girls and quiet people]. I had to do mine that morning and it actually looked good, to my complete surprise. That showed me another lesson: if you really had to write something, it would come to you.
Eghosa awarded the person with the best assignment with a complete collection of Chimamanda’s novels in the lovely Ankara cover. Hmm, high blood pressure is very real.
* * *
The tenth day came finally, the literary evening being the next day. The last class was Dave too, though both Chimamanda and Eghosa came later. This was the day I finally read out my nonfiction piece [yes, reading everybody’s pieces took that long and I was among the last few]. Chimamanda was delighted with my piece and said, “Though it still has that X, X X, it now has X. This is really good, Justin.” Before he left, Dave had a chat with a few of us that had questions. I asked him if it were possible to make and sustain a living from writing, and he said something I’m sure I’ll never forget. He said, “If you take it as a job, then sure, you will definitely live off it.”
* * *
The literary evening was held in the ballroom of a magnificent hotel. We spent the better part of an hour taking pictures with each other, sipping our glasses of wine and enjoying the most of each other’s company. Ten days had come and gone. By the same time tomorrow, we would be back in our former lives. That evening, we chose to forget everything that came after; we were living the present, and we would relish every second of it, while we still could. Chimamanda presented our certificates to us that day, giving each of us individual citations as she handed us the certificates. There were talks, spoken-word performances and also music performances by Falana, Zoro and Phyno. Chimamanda returned with us to our hotel and we had a final dinner together in those midnight hours. In that space of time, a dull ache lodged in my chest at the thought that this was goodbye for all of us, that after being a part of Chimamanda’s world, even if only for ten days, we would soon go our separate ways. She stayed with us until about three a.m before we had to watch her go. I left for my room before she left, a mistake I still regret whenever I think of it; but I’d only done that because I was so tired that keeping my eyes open was a problem.
Goodbyes are painful, especially among friends of this sort. These are people you’ve shared this uncommon connection with, which for some is something never experienced before the workshop. In the midst of the farewells, I realize that the best part of the workshop isn’t actually the knowledge gained or skills sharpened. It isn’t even the fact that you are brought face to face with your idols.
Now, eight hundred plus pictures later, I realize that the best part of the workshop is the people you meet, those people who become your friends and yet are more than friends. It is this thing, this connection, that you will remember even decades after. It is this resonance of minds and characters that you will never ever forget.
Justin Clement is a talented young man who writes in the dead of night (maybe), sleeps all day and eats at ungodly hours. Writing both literary and speculative fiction, his work has appeared on AfricanWriter magazine. He is a graduate of both Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop and Goethe-Institut’s AfroYoungAdult Workshop. He is a sucker for alternative music bands with abstract-sounding names.
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