It was my third application. I paused a while before I typed the address into my mailbox. Twice before, 2010 and 2011, I had answered the call for entries for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. On both occasions, I got an email informing me that though I made the long list of thirty five, I unfortunately didn’t make into the final list of fifteen.
While I was saddened by the first mail, the fact that it came from Chimamanda Adichie, whose “I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading your entry – and to send my best wishes for your continued writing”, eased the disappointment. For me, that mail was a tacit stamp of approval that I was on the right path. In 2011, when I got a similar response, I was mad. How can they turn me down two years in a row? Does this mean I am not good enough or have not improved at all despite my efforts? So, I penned this.
Now, you understand the reluctance with which I applied for this year’s workshop. I felt I did not need any coaching from any writer, no matter how renowned. It was easy to learn about writing, especially with the internet. Having convinced myself that I didn't need to learn from people who turned me down twice, I tried to forget about the call for entries, to ignore the nagging urge to type a small bio, copy and paste one of my numerous short stories and send another mail to Udonandu, whoever that is.
I sent the mail. And forgot all about it. Instead, I put my effort into getting a place in the Fidelity Bank sponsored programmed headlined by Helon Habila. I didn’t get into that one and no mail came to tell me to continue writing or anything. The depression came then, followed by the usual questions: what the hell am I doing pretending to be a writer? Should I really be wasting my life struggling to write? What have I gained pretending to be a writer? Am I a fraud?
Unlike the past, the depression did not last too long as I found reasons to keep writing and to interact with my writing family—we call ourselves Nerdz 21. Through Blackberry, Nerdz 21 talk about everything; there, I got hints about the Farafina shortlist mails. First, Richard Ali announced that he was in, then Abdulaziz Abdulaziz. I was still hailing their success when an incoming mail alert beeped. I stared at the Farafina Trust address for a while, just dreading another rejection. I had just announced my own good news when Samuel Oluwatosin Kolawole, indicated that he too is in. We celebrated. 900 entries from across Africa and four people from our group of twenty five made it, worthy of some virtual champagne popping if you ask me. This post is not about Nerdz 21 or its membership, so let’s take a step back and continue along the right path.
I should tell you how I packed for the workshop, the books I took with me and how I got to Waterside Hotel in Lekki Phase 1 to find most of the participants already waiting before my Lagos-based body got there, but that won’t serve much here. Let’s skip that; what I won’t skip is the hotel room.
Richard, Abdulaziz and Tosin, my fellow Nerdz, greeted me just as I stepped into the first floor lobby. We all walked to my room near the end of the hallway and they, cheeky guys, stood back as I marvelled at the large room I would be spending ten days in. The room is almost as big as my sitting room and the mirrored wardrobe is one I was sure my wife would bug me about when she sees it, and she did when she came visiting: can’t we get something like this, it’s fine o.
I love that room, still do. I even miss it. Now I shouldn’t be talking about hotel rooms with nostalgia, but I recall us Nerdz lounging in that room that first day, planning how we would rock the ten-day holiday. That was before the classes started and the intensity of the work caught up with us.
Thinking about it now, I can’t help but wonder if the facilitators had not planned to ensure we work hard for the comfort provided. I remember complaining to a friend that the time I had spent sleeping on the large bed in my room wouldn’t have amounted to ten hours, and this was five days into the workshop. We had piles of stories to read, assignments to do and little time to do it. Ok, I am doing it again, running ahead of you.
From the first day at the workshop, preconceived notions started falling like ripe mangoes whose host branches are under the ministrations of an eager youth. First, though the introductions did not say much about the abilities of the workshop participants, once we started reviewing entry stories, the quality of each person started to emerge, and the mark for each person was astonishingly high. In the group were Nigerians, a Nigerian-American, a Ghanaian, a Cameroonian, an Indian American and a South Africa based Nigerian. We had published authors and others whose work had been accepted for publication, but then there were greenhorns whose workshop entries were their first stab at writing. We had people from the middle class and upper middleclass, with degrees from universities overseas and we had serious ajekpako types who are products of the worst Nigerian education could offer. With this mix, you would be forgiven for thinking there were underdogs in the group. Well there wasn’t, not one. At the end, I could not point to one person and say, he/she has a brighter future on the literary scene. It could be anyone, or everyone.
Second, Chimamanda defied all preconceived notions about her person, we knew we were coming to see an intellectual, but met a genius. One hour after I met her, I knew I was fooling myself thinking I only came for the networking. The lessons came, flowing through her soft words and finding willing receptacles in my hungry mind. She opened my heart to the craft in ways I never thought possible and she did it not by teaching in the conventional sense, but by talking to us as equals, as writers in our own right. After Chimamanda, it was easy to flow with the other teachers:
· Aslak Myhre, the Norwegian who showed us the dangers of allowing outsiders write what should naturally be our stories;
· Jeffery Allen, the black American that embraces his African heritage more firmly than we do, who taught the importance of writing with confidence;
· Robert Spillman, the American writer and publisher, who opened our eyes to the possibilities that exist for our writing and showed us not how, but why our writing should be worth something;
· and Binyavanga Wainaina, the force of nature, whose intellect can only be experienced, not described.
From them, we learnt valuable lessons about ourselves and our place, as writers, in our communities. Beyond lessons, we bonded. I can’t recall anyone in the group who wasn’t sad when Aslak had to go back to Norway days before the end of the workshop or who wasn’t touched by his “intelligence quotient” video that the class watched and reviewed. With the other teachers, we had our goodbyes at the literary evening that marked our graduation from Farafina Trust Writing Workshop.
It was just ten days, yet it seemed like years. In all, it took ten days to make us not just better writers, but better chroniclers of our individual realities. We have been Farafina certified, and our work henceforth will speak this truth.
Originally published by GCLF