Oluwakemi Falodun and Blessing Uche respond to 10 questions on books and reading.
- What does reading mean to you?
OF: Reading, for me, is communion. I read because it puts me in a space where I can have interaction with myself as a result of my encounters with the characters or my reflections on certain sections of the book.
BU: Reading, to my mind’s eye is multifaceted. Books are a suite of rooms — each room running into next and that one into next, a seemingly unending encountering of different, multiple worlds. Reading could possibly be the greatest subsidy toward the act of personal reflection: the bedrock of critical thinking, creating wings for the mind to soar, perch, reassess the horizon and take flight again. There is a great argument for reading being able to liberate the soul from itself. Reading is freedom. Reading allows me to explore other people’s minds, to communicate with characters to the point where their realness cannot be argued against. Reading is magical. Reading gives. Finally, in concordance with Descartes, “the reading of good books is like a conversation with the finest men of past centuries”.
- What books have influenced you the most?
OF: I like writers who can tell good stories from the mundane. This is not to say I don’t find stories with dramatic plot twists enjoyable, but more importantly, I want to be able to go through the routine of living with the characters, instead of just waiting for something extraordinary to happen to them, and that requires good writing. Nothing grand happens in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon for instance, or in My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, but they’ve both greatly influenced me. Reading The Best American Essays anthologies, especially the 2014 and 2015 series, made me attempt writing nonfiction. I remember reading Strange Beads by Wendy Brenner, and thinking, Oh, I can do this too. I can if I keep on practising. It was a real confidence boost. There’s also Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk (I’m eagerly looking forward to the third book in the trilogy) that just sort of opened my eyes to a different, unusual kind of writing, the kind that aims to really see things. Reading her makes me more aware of the little happenings around and within me. I loved The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath for the writer’s defiance, her vulnerabilities, the imagery, the thinking that must have gone into writing each poem, and everything just makes the collection precious to me. I also find it amazing how the complexities in human relationships can unfold against the backdrop of the ordinary daily activities, as skillfully done in Interpreter of Maladies and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Yiyun Li respectively.
BU: On account of being a sceptic, I would attest to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Fact of a Body: A Murder and A Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich being up among the top three. There is another category of edifying books I have in The Epic of Gilgamesh, The The Leavers by Lisa Ko and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro I am also drawn to another set of books that have enabled me to how humans can be, when possessed by unruly objectives: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut. I’ve always hated war, never minding which side is right. I’ve always hated war. There are a two books in which I have found justification for my hatred: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, and The Biafra Story: The Making of An African Legend by Frederick Forsyth.
- Elena Ferrante asserts that once they are finished, books should have no need of their authors, how would you respond to this?
OF: I think books have their own soul. They have the capacity to hold a reader’s hand as they journey through the experiences of the characters. And so, once they are out in the world, books should be able to speak and stand for themselves. I mean, we read books written by dead writers and we don’t feel they’re incomplete just because the authors are no longer here to talk about them.
BU: Diving into the world of books is like exploring the consumption of products in a world where consumers do not know what they are about to get. Writers propel us into a world, and ensorcell us with any or a combination of elegance, wit, an unflinchingly keen power of observation and recording or even a single sentence as perfect and final as the word nothing. I think of writers as sailors. If a sailor gives me an unforgettable ride I remember that sailor far ahead of the vessel in which I rode. In this same light I also think of a book as a ship. After I drop at my destination I think with regard of and to the sailor who gave me the adventure. I think writers are sailors. If I read a book—great or inexcusable, I often lay the praise or blame at the feet if its creator. I think writers make their books, long before their books come around to make them.
- What characters have stayed with you as if they were real?
OF: Several of them actually. But no character has been dear and true to me as much as Lucy Barton. Sometimes, I can almost feel myself lying beside her on her hospital bed and looking through the window alongside her, at the Chrysler Building. Perhaps there’s something very familiar about her life, her essence, and her loneliness. I hear her say to me: I see you, too. It’s remarkable how Sefi Atta moulded Enitan in Everything Good Will Come. I loved how she grew and evolved, right before my eyes, from a regular child to an icon of activism. In Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, being present in Charlie Gordon’s life before the experiment, during his process of transitioning, and everything that came afterward, draws him close to me. I loved Charlie for his childlike joy and tenderness despite the depth of his agony. Yejide in Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me has stayed with me for her courage and optimism in the face of all odds, for her suffering and despairing loneliness. You know, there’s this part where, as a child, she sits at the doorway of her stepmother’s room, listening to stories. She can’t go in to be with the other kids, she doesn’t have a mother to run to either. I often remember this, her sitting there, and I think of many children like her all over the world, and it just breaks my heart. Faye in Cusk’s Outline and Transit has always remained with me because of her deep understanding of the human condition and her ability to draw people out of themselves while remaining almost unknown. As the narrator, we see other characters through her lens, but she’s elusive. She seldom talks about herself, even during conversations, denying other characters and we the readers the opportunity to know her.
BU: Whenever I reminisce on A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Miriam and Lilian come to heart. Their lives are heartbreaking. Miriam is a vivid demonstration of suffering and smiling. A woman who would sit, enjoy and endure pain and abuse with the calm of someone getting a spa treatment. Her life is both surreal and sadly, real. It reminded me of Beatrice in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Women, whose muteness mean more than silence because in a special delicate way, they can also be unpredictable. After having to endure long-term pain, they can kill their predator. I can only admire Lilian’s resilience. I do not ever wish to need to have it. From the moment I encountered her I knew she would do things, I knew she would validate her existence and likewise choose her own life, categorically. These women stayed with me.
Jude in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. His roles were real, he depicted for me, how a person can struggle with addiction, how life can give a person big scars that puts them in a state of persistent trauma. Jude stayed with because he treaded in the path of pain right from childhood to adulthood. He is suffering personified.
Kainene in Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because of her strength. Olanna was the central character but Kainene is who I identified with more in many ways. Her character turned out to be more pronounced, more demonstrative and even more evocative of the woman I prefer. Kainene’s strength was my allure: strength unbroken by the affects of war and it’s chaotic ordeals. Alexandria in The Fact of a Body, because of her inability to silence her past. Or let (the shame of) it silence her. She stayed with me because she braved her way into her own story and into her own healing.
- What do (or have) you enjoy (ed) most in a certain book (s)?
OF: One of the reasons I love Annie Dillard is her ability to write excellently about (almost) anything. I enjoyed reading “Living Like Weasels” and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the beautiful writing about life and nature. Although Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys was an agonising read because of the raw documentation of pain and trauma suffered by the veterans of the Afghanistan War and their relatives, I like the frankness and the fact that she gave a voice to each interviewee without letting herself get in the way. I enjoy reading Jumoke Verissimo’s poetry for her metaphors and articulation of pain, distance and the burden of memory. Gbenga Adesina’s chapbook Painter of Water is such a delight. His poems are simply honest, beautiful and lyrical. If you read them out like, it feels like music. I keep returning to their poetry. I love Clarice Lispector for how she cleverly employs internal monologue, how she presents the inner happenings and probes into the interiors of her characters in Near to the Wild Heart. I also find Somerset Maugham interesting for his well-written sentences, and insightful short stories.
BU: The stunning unabashedness of Chris Kraus in I Love Dick. Her no-holds-barred telling of the story of her infatuation and subsequent obsession… irrespective of what people will say. I think that must have taken a lot nerve.
I enjoyed the ability of Lisa Ko to give her characters situations that show how decision-making can be the antidote to certain circumstances. I also enjoyed how she was able to portray the difficulties that can come with circumstances beyond one’s powers and still highlight the power of choices and decision-making. I enjoyed the ‘Nigerianness and pidginization’ in Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. Eghosa has a way of making Nigeria beautiful with this book especially with his use of pidgins. Fine Boys tells the story of newly-admitted boys who later turned notorious in the University of Benin. Benin is popularly known for its wide-adoption of Nigerian-pidgin English, even more than the local dialect(s). In addition, I enjoyed how he was able to make his book a woman pregnant with multiple babies: its essence addresses politics, educational institutions, family and the general society. Fine Boys is water—in the way it refreshes. In A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara — a book that I consider beautiful inside-out, I enjoyed how Yanagihara told a story of a little life with several mutilations: I enjoyed the humanity of characters in this novel. I enjoyed how it made me weep. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. There are books that should be read over and over again if not because of anything else but its elegance of prose, add to that the souls revolving in it and its bluntness on silent issues. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a war story in Afghanistan steeped in the pains enforced on a world of women. I enjoyed this book because of its thoughtful way of showing that validation of any human only truly and begins from within. Commonly, most writers often sway away from some beliefs considered superstitious, choosing to face reality instead, but there are beliefs that are more powerful than reality and idealism. The African writers understand this. This is why I pick The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. I enjoyed his ability to set and connect his characters around a mad man’s prophecy. A prophecy that successfully shattered the unity of an innocent family and even resulted in bloodshed. The Fishermen also addressed failures in family settings, how families formulate legacies for their children but gradually and ultimately promote and all-round failure in implementing it. This situation is then aptly set as a riveting metaphor for Nigeria’s political system. The rest is reality.
- Concerning books as a medium to places: what memorable places have you been to by way of books?
OF: Of course, I was always present at the extravagant parties in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You know, just drinking and dancing away. Good ol’ days. Majority of the plot of Emmanuel Iduma’s Farad is set in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ilé-Ifè, where I was schooling when I read it. I could imagine little detail such as the colour a building is painted, and remember the moments I’ve spent in those spaces. When I finished reading the book, I visited some of the places mentioned afterward and imagined seeing the characters acting out their roles. This makes the book even more intimate for me. I’ve also visited a couple of interesting worlds created by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. One of the most intriguing though is this city where the inhabitants can always move to a new place when they are fed up of where they are. They leave at once, start another life, get new jobs, new lovers and no memories of their past lives remain. I wonder what it’s like, to just pack your bags, carry on, and forget everything.
BU: With regards to the transporting power of books, I’ve been to Benin by way of Fine Boys (Eghosa Imasuen). A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had took me to Afghanistan without any visa. I’ve been to Enugu many times with each rereading of Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Leavers by Lisa Ko had also took me to Florida. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, to Akure. The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut to a few places inside South Africa.
- What relationships do you have with certain books?
OF: I have relationships with certain books because of what binds me to them. Perhaps the characters, or the settings, or certain words, or the influence they’ve had on me. Most of the aforementioned books fall into this category for the reasons that I mentioned them. There’s also the title essay in Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life. I return to it often because it helps me to write when I’m stuck.
BU: This relationship is cordial—at least. A kind of mother-daughter relationship, if I can insist. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini was a book whose narration broke me and yet let me gather myself into freedom at the very end. For anyone who does not know what real pain can be like, I would recommend A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book made me hold my heart and scream into the void. This scream is symbolic. Faceless by Amma Darko, a novel that triggered my brain to think and discover the riddle of who the real killer was— as if it was my life that was dependent on it. The beauty of this book, I conject, is that Amma Darko formed the riddle to know whether readers are in the same line of thought with her or not because she left the suspect hanging while leaving the readers to decide—and conclude— the whodunit.
- What are the highlights of your reading in 2017?
OF: I re-read a couple of books this year. And I think that’s a spectacular thing, you know, returning to something you once read and discovering new things and knowing that if you pick it up again, there’ll be more. There’s always more.
BU: This is the first year I have been able to hold myself to a consistent reading habit so reading itself is the highlight. Reading this year has been self-rewarding; Autotelic. It is amazing: The degree of pleasure reading suffuses me in. Reading some sixty books yearlong, in-between the tedium of university work and ‘living’ as a task, is a personal milestone for me.
- In what ways is reading ‘essential’ to you?
OF: Firstly, I enjoy reading. It also gives me the privilege to empathise with other people’s experiences. And, by being situated in the other people’s worlds, I can see beyond the familiar and the immediate. Also, reading is a form of emotional and mental exchange. As much as I’m taking in something, I’m also letting go of other things, which could be freeing.
BU: Reading is like this in how I see it as essential: not done in a day, that day is incomplete. My introduction to places and cultures, to the beauties of language and to stories oft-ignored, way outside the comfort my home country and culture, partaking in experiences I could never reenact and the gift of reflecting on certain issues without having to do so from a place of being the victim.
- What significant books/authors are you still yet to read?
OF: I’m not proud to admit this, but I still haven’t read Wole Soyinka.
BU: Authors: Zadie Smith & Nnedi Okorafor. Books: June 12: The Struggle for Power in Nigeria, The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor, The Bell Jar and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Kemi Falodun is a lover of words and fine sentences. She is a short story writer and was recently shortlisted for the The 2016 Awele Creative Trust Award chaired by Brian Chikwava for her short story titled ‘Waiting’. Also, she is an associate editor for Sarabamag. Her work explores themes on loss, memory and relationships. She lives in Nigeria.
This is the tenth of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.