I recently got stuck in a lift with a lady in an abaya and a child with cheeks that reminded me of naan bread. I was off to have a very difficult meeting with someone who hates being mentioned in “that blog of yours.” The disdain she has for this platform is Leviathan. I only use the word leviathan because I haven’t used it in a long while.
The day started off as most days start—remarkably normal, even unmemorable. I woke up, read a story on the Pulitzer website about a lady bus driver during the Covid period. Then I rolled off the bed, did some writing, did my 28-Day Calisthenics exercise, which is a scam, don’t pay for it, then stood at the balcony and texted the said person who doesn’t think much of “that blog of yours” to confirm the 11:30 am. I stood there waiting for her to text back while I looked at how sad one of my plants had become while I was caught up in my life. You water them, but they need more, these plants because they identify as human. And they remind you of their displeasure.
She texted back with “OK” which drives me mad when people do. You write a full-bodied message, complete with salutations, and the curt reply just says, “OK.” I get it, people are busy with very important jobs in tall, important buildings.
I wore all black because, yes, it was a mournful meeting but also because I love black. When you wear black you disappear. You are a shadow. You are a flicker of imagination, a flash in the pan. You move faster when you are in black. Black is contemplative, immersive.
I packed in Basement Two. I could hear the earth breathe down there.
Waiting for the lifts were a clutch of relatives manning an elderly, and obviously sick, Asian man in a wheelchair. He was covered with a beautifully knitted quilt. His head bobbed on his veiny neck. Once in a while a relative, a daughter I supposed, would wipe off his drool with a white face towel. The matriarch, round like a plum, stood stoically behind his left shoulder. She had a red mark on her forehead, the Bindi, the third-eye chakra. There were two young ladies, apart from the one on drool duty, and two men wearing various expressions on their thin faces. Mostly, they were sombre. When the doors of one of the lifts sighed open, I let them use it. I figured they would have preferred to take that ride up alone, as a family.
I was in no particular hurry, I was early anyway.
As I waited for the next lift, I was joined by the abaya lady and the naan boy. They were bickering. The boy was pouty and in a foul mood and the mother was telling him off in their language, admonishing him. Maybe he had expressed interest in moving out because he couldn’t bear the rules of the house, the strict sleeping times, and having to do homework and not eat whatever the hell he wanted to eat. Maybe he wanted to move in with his friends, Ali and Mohammed, and play his Playstation whenever he damn pleased, not just on Saturdays. He wanted his freedom. Everybody wants their freedom. But the mom wasn’t having any of it. She was doing what moms do, make you feel ungrateful and insensitive. Oh, you want to move out? You want to leave me and your sister alone? So that thieves can come in the night and steal us? Eh? You want to go on and be with your friends? You don’t care about family, people who have been there for you your whole life. Because you only think about yourself. When you wanted Air Jordans, who sacrificed to get them? Who stopped eating lunch for two months, saving for your shoes? When was the last time you saw me in new shoes? Er? Ahmed, I’m talking to you!
The lifts opened.
They filed in first. He was holding his mommy’s hand, and seriously pouting. Cheeks puffed up like garlic naan. I pressed 13th. The 10th button was already lit. The car jerked gently and we started moving. They were standing inside the left corner, my shoulders were to the door, facing the floor buttons. Dull elevator music trickled above us. The walls of the elevator gleamed. It was a new building with new elevators. I could feel Ahmed’s energy. It was saying, screw this! I bet he was dreaming of things he would do once he became an adult and left home. When I was young I thought if I became an adult I would fill one room with Cerelac and have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’d eat Cerelac all the time. Ahmed was probably thinking he’d wake up and play FIFA the whole day, the whole month and the whole year, just eating chips and chicken nuggets, with nobody to tell him to go shower. Because he’s grown.
Somewhere on the 8th floor, the lift jerked violently and stopped. The lady let out a scream. A sharp scream that pierced me and went right through the elevator wall. The lift went momentarily dark before lighting up again, but a duller light this time. Ahmed’s mum looked at me frantically with saucer eyes, as if this was all my doing. She had dark eyes and long eyelashes and some freckles on her cheeks. I recognised those cheeks from somewhere as the same cheek as Ahmed’s. She looked around frantically, and asked, what is that? What has happened, are we moving? I could only answer the second question authoritatively. I said we weren’t moving. She went apeshit. She started blubbering stuff in what sounded like Arabic, something that sounded like a prayer, while holding her son tight.
Ahmed, on the other hand, seemed delighted by this turn of events. Finally, something exciting was happening in his life. Something he’d tell his friends at school. Or write in a composition.
I was a bit nervous, but not scared, because I have been stuck in an elevator before but I also know that it takes a lot for the car to plunge, what with all that cables holding it together. And even if Satan was working overtime and all of those cables snapped, there is the braking system of the car. If that also failed because Satan asked for reinforcement and the car started plummeting down, there is the compressed air at the bottom of the shaft that will cushion the fall. I just knew I was not going to die in that elevator. Not in that lift. But that jerking thing, oh that really makes your heart skip a beat.
The lady was hysterical. I assured her that it seemed like a power failure and that we would be out of here in a minute. They know we are stuck.
“How do you know?” She cried.
“They can see in their system when a lift stops. They also have those!” I pointed at what looked like a fish-eye camera at the corner. “They will get us.”
I pressed the Emergency Call button. I have always wanted to press those for a voice to bark, “WHAT?!” So that I get a chance to say in my best practised Samuel L. Jackson voice, “I’m sorry, did I interrupt your nap?” Instead a lady’s—yes, a lady!—voice said, “Hi, don’t panic. The lift will start moving again after a moment.”
I turned to give the lady, “I told you so!” look. She was a lot calmer but still distressed. Ahmed was unperturbed. I don’t know what the hell was taking the back-generator so long but we stayed there for a good five minutes while the beeping noise went on and on and the lady in the abaya kept asking, what’s taking them so long? Maybe there is another problem!
Eventually, the power came back on and the lift started moving like nothing happened. When the doors opened, she literally fled out of them, pulling Ahmed with him.
“I got stuck in a lift with a lady in an abaya and a child with cheeks that reminded me of naan bread,” I told my frosty meeting. She said, “Oh, here?” I wanted to say, “No, Mesopotamia,” but then she’d just think, “Aah, typical of a man who writes a blog.”
That’s the one exciting thing that happened to me recently.
The second thing that happened to me recently was that I finished my third book. I don’t know if exciting would be the right description to use, but it sure is relieving. Three years later. Here is the process of writing a book:
- Immediately after your second book is out, someone says “When is your next book out?” You say, “It’s just out, the one you’ve finished reading.” They say, “No, I mean the third book.”
- You explore ideas for the book. Maybe a book with a female protagonist, someone fierce in public but broken in private. Someone with childhood demons. Someone who wears something that looks like a frock with boots and keeps toothpicks in their purse. A confidant tells you, ‘No, you can’t pull off writing in a woman’s voice.” You ask indignantly, “Why not?” They say, you just can’t. It will be like TV shows about women written by men.”
- What about something based loosely on an African hero? Like Luanda Magere. You could do a spin-off, a mishmash of modern and folklore. Instead of spears you will use guns. Villain sorcerers who carry cowry shells in their man bags. It seemed brilliant but as time went by it seemed boring and dull and corny.
- A year passes. No idea worth writing about comes to mind. You take your child to Form One. A boarding school. She hates the idea. She wears a blazer and pants and she looks like a young woman. Time passes and each time you drop her off at school she says, “Will you call me?” It breaks your heart a little. You hug her and kiss her forehead and say, “Will you do your best?” You have no book idea.
- One day you get a book idea. You are excited about it. The protagonist is a man. He’s a broken man because who wants to read about well-adjusted men? You run this idea by a few trusted individuals and most say, “Sounds like good.”
- You write the first sentence. It sucks pipe. You try again and again, but it’s just not giving. You leave it alone and continue with your life. A month later you try again. The first sentence is lovely, so is the first paragraph, which opens to 1,400 words of good words and you are ecstatic.
- But then it all dries out. You lose your heart for it. A month later you get the heart for it. You bang out five more chapters under a cloud of great inspiration. You don’t know where the story is going, you just let the tail lead the dog. It’s wagging.
- Two years down the line and people keep asking you, “When is your next book?” You hate them. All of them. You want to explain to them how writing works but these people are in professions like HR, quantity survey, some bake cakes, others are in fashion or farming, so they wouldn’t get it.
- You have moments when you are writing the book beautifully and you also have moments when you can’t bear to look at the book. When you want to trash it and start a new one.
- Months come rushing at you, burying you in an avalanche of inertia, creative insecurity, self-flagellation, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You pick up running again hoping it helps with the writing and it does. Then it doesn’t. You start swimming. You love it. For months you are writing 700 words of the book daily. You are happy that you are on the wagon but you know rainy creative days are coming and they come.
- You run into someone at the bar and they ask, when is your next book? You rub your temple and recite the Lord’s Prayer. You say, you are working on it. They ask, “Does someone die in it?”
- You go home thinking, what kind of a writer am I? Do I want to be known as the writer who kills characters? Yes, you are, you decide. What’s a book where people live happily ever after? Or maybe you should try that for a change.
- There are three months where you don’t touch the book. Those are dark days. Things are happening. You are dealing with fundis in shags because you are building a keja, something with wooden floors. A place to grow old in. When that’s finally done, you take time off and tell the book, “I have ignored you for so long. I want us to leave town. I want to give you quality time. Two nights and three days. What do you say?” The book says, “That’s what you said last time, we didn’t go.”
- You go to a lovely place called Inka Gardens in Elementaita (check out the photos on my Instagram). It’s by the lake, overlooking the faded hills. The sun sets so close it colours everything orange. The book writes itself. When you write the last sentence you are left bereft.
- You wanted to finish it so badly when you do, you just sit there, relieved but empty.
- You write a blog about it.