Warning: Long post ahead (2,500 words), read in bed. Or at your virtual beach.
This will sound mad. But do you sometimes wake up in the dead of the night and lie there, anxious that perhaps there is a book out there you will die without reading? A book that was “written for you”? No? OK, what about a play? A painting? A movie? A small movie about a boy in Basra who dreamt of a life beyond herding goats. A boy who tried to wrestle free of that life, but – tragically – never left. Wouldn’t you want to be a part of that boy’s departed dream?
Do you think of those things at 3am, when the dogs outside have out-barked themselves and the still and the blackness of the night has turned into a cliché? Aren’t you curious that out there exists some body of art that shifts, albeit a little, your whole existence? Well, I’m sure it’s out there. An undiscovered author, or musician or painter or, or, or someone who created a piece of art so profound it seems to know you exist.
I think about shit like that at 3am. When I can’t sleep. It fills me with a harrowing sense of foreboding. This question about my existence and mortality and tasks and experiences that will never cross my path. It’s just me, right? Say it.
Well I found that book. Rather, it found me.
A little background. For the longest time I read books. Then I stopped. You know the way you pull chairs for a chic you have just started dating then after a while you stop, not because you don’t fancy her anymore but just because you stopped? That’s what happened to me and books.
Then, circa 2009, I started reading magazines, because that was my new literary cool: GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Men’s Health, The New Yorker, RollingStone, Time, National Geographic…Ate them up. Then early this year I stopped pulling chairs for magazines. My lasts obsession, UK’s Sunday Times, stopped floating my steamer too. I became a literary orphan. Then last week I remembered Nick Hornby. I discovered Nick way back in 2008 and he had a large impact on me with the fluidity of his prose, his dry English wit and his crusty sentences that hardly ever went over 17 words.
So I went to that bookshop at Yaya Center to seek nostalgia. They didn’t have any of Nick’s books but the book attendant recommended some chap called Peter Biddlecombe, who sounded more like a beekeeper than a writer. But who was I to turn my nose; I was a literary orphan as it were.
So I bought one of his books called Never Feel A Stranger, which – I’m sorry to disappoint you – isn’t creepy as its title suggests. It’s actually a travel book, funny-ish, and quite sarcastic. And the clincher? It’s written in the first-person. I can’t stand books written in the third-person. This was the first book I was reading in three years. Excuse me, I’ve been busy.
On Friday I land in Zanzibar to 1) Interview this top fashion designer who is supposedly a big deal internationally and locally. Then 2) I sat down with this amiable tycoon who owns a one-month old restaurant called Six Degrees South in Stone Town, an elaborately snazzy eatery set by the sea. Over wine and honey-glazed prawns I sat with this tycoon (he’s called Saleh) and he rattled on about the restaurant and the dream preceding it. It always stems from a dream.
Then we talked about his toys- private plane and his Range Rovers and his small three door Japanese job that he uses in the island and all his glittery trappings that come with boatful of dough. Then, because I’m obsessed about opening people’s “vaults”, I asked him what money hasn’t been able to buy for him so far and he sipped his Sauvignon Blanc blithely and said simply that he “has been very lucky.” The ocean groaned.
Next morning, together with Mr. Biddlecombe and his dry wit, I hopped onto a small plane to Dar es Salaam for this Chef’s challenge thing, which Diana, Nick and the very cool cameraman, Moses, were to cover for Dstv’s Mashariki Mix.
When I got into a Wi-fi area, I saw this email, from a pal of mine called Kish. She was enquiring about my health and my miraa addiction (jokes) and informing me that she had found a writer who writes like me, a John Green. Have I read his work? I wrote back and said no. She then emailed me this e-book called “The Fault in Our Stars.” Honestly, I didn’t really care to read it. But the moment I read the first paragraph, it was like breaking my literary hymen and immediately I belonged, to, uhm, something. Like my literary bereavement ceased. Am I making sense?
The book is about this extremely witty 17yr old girl called Hazel, a stage 4 thyroid cancer patient, who carts about this oxygen concentrate tank wherever she goes. She spends her time at the cancer support group, movies with her pals and to visit this boy she likes, Augustus Waters (Gus), who is also a cancer survivor with one prosthetic leg and talks like an intern at J.P Morgan. This book is book about three or so teenagers battling cancer with admirable humour. It’s also about some book they are reading that they keep talking about, a book written by an egghead prick of an author. Look, you got to read it.
In the opening paras Hazel says:
When you read a cancer booklet or website or wherever, they always list depression as among the side effect of cancer. But in fact depression is not the side effect of cancer. Depression is the side effect of dying (Cancer is also the side effect of dying, almost everything is).
I was sold. I read it at any given possible opportune. And it drained my emotions, that book. I thought of little else than Hazel. I dove into her world full of pain and bravery and disease and oxygen tanks and the boy she likes- Gus, who in spite of his one leg, will often make your laugh out loud.
Later, I, together with Diana, Nick, Moses went to this chef’s thing, which was being held at the Southern Sun’s garden. It had stalls with lots of wine and food and cheese and folk milled about clutching on plastic cups of booze or soda and nibbling on something greasy and making small talk. The only thing louder than the music there was the MC. It was another odiero event, brimming with the glitterati of Dar; the fashionistas and all these folk who genuinely believed they were important to the eco-system. It was like Blankets and Wine rolled together with the fashion high tea. Certainly not my milieu. I feel lonely in big crowds, in places where women wear those extraordinarily large hats and large shades and the men prattle about Formula One.
Through this entire highbrow hubbub, I thought of Hazel. And her oxygen tank. And Gus and his prosthetic leg. Eventually I stepped out of the garden area and sat under an umbrella and read the book from my phone. There is this point where Hazel is saying:
There will come a time, when all of us are dead. When there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Cleopatra or Aristotle, let alone you. Everything we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all these – she gestures encompassing – will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon, maybe it’s a million years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever…and if the human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone does.
Tell me you don’t love that kid.
I told Diana I was leaving, going back to my hotel- Slipway Hotel- some 25mins away in an area that was supposed to be their Lavington. I read the book in the cab, and successfully – almost – ignored the chatty cabbie. He informed me – helpfully- that Kenyans love beer, choma and women and asked me if I wanted a girl. I grinned and told him I have one already, she is five. He laughed and went back to the road. I went back to Hazel.
At Slipway, which is this mall by the waterfront, I sat in this café called Classico Café and ordered this thing called Chicken Saltimbocca, which is chicken wrapped with bacon and fresh herbs then served with mashed potatoes, baby vegetables and cheese sauce. TSH, 18,000. Best. Meal. I. Had. In. Dar.
Hazel was talking about a time when she was in remission and the doctors had tried these drugs that weren’t working and she had fluid in her lungs and she was in ICU with pneumonia and waiting for her death and his dad was standing by her bed, trying not to cry and losing that fight and when he did she describes his cries like “am earthquake” and his mom is kneeling next to her bed, holding her hand and whispering to her, “Are you ready sweetie?” and she nods, saying she is ready to die. Then the mother breaks down in her father’s chest and whispers to him, “ I will not be a mom anymore.” And it kills her (not literally), and she says she tries to let go, to embrace death, but her cancerous lungs wouldn’t let go, and it struggles for air…
I quickly looked up. Because I felt this deep distress and sorrow flooding my system. Excruciating passage. And I felt so sad, and I looked out in the sea, at the small little boats bobbing in the sparking midafternoon sunshine and I did something I have been avoiding to think about since I stared the book; Tamms. And I think how I would handle if I had a sick terminally sick child who was in pain and shit. How that would literally create a crater the size of a stadium in my heart. And I feel a bit angry with myself for allowing those thoughts.
Then I dialed Tamm’s number and it was off. So I sent her a whatsapp message to her phone and it stayed on one tick for ages. It’s still on one tick. Kids!
When Hazel goes to her cancer support group, she often has to go up the light of stairs (she’s a very self sufficient young lady), and I find myself wanting to get into the book and helping her with her oxygen tank. Or her purse. I really do. I would carry Hazel’s purse from River road to Riara Road. And I’m anti-carrying-purses.
I finish lunch. Then as I wait for the bill, I think of my departed mom. Nowadays thinking of mom doesn’t strike me with that nauseating sorrow it used to, just this inexplicably profound loss. I get jealous when I see someone with their mom. Or when they look at their ringing phone and go, “let me take this, it’s madhe.” It sickens me up with jealousy.
Before I showered, I sat on the edge of my bed and read. I read slowly. I try to soak in paragraphs. I often repeat pages and sentences that impress me, or I re-read dialogues that I find sexy. I take notes on my phone. I obsess over new smart phrases. At some point the sun started to set and from the hotel room the oranges drown the room, so I Instagrammed the picture.
Then I stepped into the shower. I whatsapped Diana and excused myself to the rest from some plan to see the town by night. I wanted to find a nice bar to review, and on recommendation I took a cab to The Cape Town Fish Market along Msasani Bay. No bar comes close to this bar in Nairobi: set by the sea, it’s done in whites and blues and it serves great south African wine.
I sat at the bar, ordered this glass of pinotage called Fat Fish then I bowed my head to my phone and did some reading.
To my right was a gentleman on a first or second date. I know because he was trying so hard to be cool and likeable and he was speaking too much English, which in TZ is invariably bad English. Most Tanzanians can’t speak English to save them from gout. But one would excuse him for really digging in his oars if you cast a glance at his date; she was a stunner.
To my left were three japs having Sake. To my immediate right were two odiero ladies who looked like they came to Africa to fight Malaria. Or Poverty. Or both.
Since there was WIFI I Whatsapp Kish and thanked her for the amazing book and went on to enthuse at how this was the best book I’ve read since God was a boy blah blah blah. I went on and on about it (I can be dramatic) until I realized I was whatsapping alone because she had either slept or passed out.
Back to the book: Gus’s best mate – a cancer survivor too- loses his eyesight and his girlfriend and it gets real teary in the book. For me that angst is helped by a breeze blowing through from the ocean and then they start playing Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows. When was the last time you heard that track? Then they played John Mayer’s “Heartbreak hotel” and all these songs followed, songs that you’d hear in One Tree Hill and it set a spooky soundtrack for the book. I would frequently come up for air, to find the “English” Tanzanian guy has ordered another cocktail for the chic, the chemical warfare was on. Assad would have been proud. He spoke more than the lady, but I silently rooted for him, even though his English didn’t.
After two glasses of wine, I settle the tab, climbed off the bar stool and took a quick glance at how “English” Man was fairing. The tide didn’t look to wash for him. She was tediously supporting her head on her hand, and not in that rapt attention way, but that stoic tolerant way. And the level of her drink hadn’t gone down much. English man was at sea without a sail and as the cab pulled away into the night I prayed he had an ace up his sleeve.
This book is a nirvana. It’s a painful book – if you open yourself to pain – because really cancer is painful. But the author makes cancer charming, he almost romanticizes it. Almost. It has many laughs, but it’s a different kind of laugh, like when you were a kid and you knocked your shin and it hurt like hell but people were watching and you didn’t want to cry, so you laughed. A pain-peppered laughter. But a laugh nonetheless.
I’m on chapter 11. I dread finishing it, because then I will feel like an orphan again. Here is something Hazel wrote, that struck a chord:
…. Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird and evangelic zeal and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put together unless and until all the human beings read that book, and then there are books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection for it feels like a betrayal.
That kid is talking to me.
Notice to High Schoolers:
I’ve had the great honour of being invited to give a talk in the upcoming literary fest, The Hay Festival in Nairobi next week. I will be handling the “Creative Writing Master Class” on the Friday Sept 21st at The National Museum.
If you are interested you can sign up by registering on www.storymojahayfestival.com. The class only takes a maximum of 30 people. See you there, gang.