Remember that ex-gangster turned teacher I interviewed in Men and Marriage? (https://bit.ly/2JrGOsa) We often chat on Whatsapp. He’s a cool cat that’s wired very differently. He comes across as an introvert, a leopard, who wants to walk the edge of the forest, away from the bright lights. The type who soaks his biscuit in tea. And looks out open windows a little longer than the rest.
He’s an outdoorsy kind of guy. Him and his wife. They love nature and men who love nature understand the tools of nature, so they acquired a battered Land Rover from a white KC who lost his eyes when a snake spit on his face. I think he was trying to pet the snake on the head, a normal white thing to do – but the cobra was not in the mood. He was a widow and without eyes he couldn’t drive so he sold his car to our guy and relocated to the land down under to join the remaining family. It’s an old sturdy Land Rover that came with its muddy history of colonialism. It’s bowels smelled of old shoes, flowerless plants and leather. It’s a car that always had its shoes laced, ready to go.
At least once each month, they load it with their camping gear and leave their children behind to spend time alone. Just the two of them. They drive off into the horizon to look for a place less inhabited by man, places where the sun looms so large and sets so slowly. They don’t go to designated camping areas where the middle-class go to drink and play loud music from their Bluetooth speakers. Those they avoid. They go to places where they are just the two of them, a place that looks like scorched earth on Google Maps. A place like North Horr or the very navel of Maasai land. There they pitch tent. He gets a fire going, probably by rubbing a stick together as his wife stands on an anthill and squints at the emptiness and the silence of the plains.
He married up. He told me so. She can keep a home but she can also jump-start the Land Rover when they are stuck. She doesn’t mind getting camping smoke in her hair or eating meat roasted over an open fire. She can shower by the riverbed. She uses a blade of grass as a toothpick. Chews the end of a twig into a toothbrush. They are both teetotallers, so after dinner hurdled around the fire, the starless sky so close over their heads they can reach out and pet it, they sit there holding their mugs of tea in both their hands for warmth and they speak in the hushed tones of lovers. But sometimes they just sit in silence, listening to night rise with the occasional moans of strange animals.
“What’s that animal?” She may ask of a sound she has never heard of.
“It’s the mating season.” He will say while staring into the crackling fire. He loves NatGeo. “It could be a leopard.”
She will hug her maasai throw tightly around her. They will talk about someone they both knew when they first met and how sad that they are already dead. When he looks at her face in the orange light of the campfire, it will seem like she has glowing coal under her skin. Her eyes are turned into an arena of dancing flames. He will marvel at how the darkness re-frames her round facial features, creating little illusions with its shadows and tricks. When she turns to look away, he will look at her side profile, that now looks like a half-burnt Picasso art, torched by the heat of the darkness around her.
At some point he will get up to take a leak and she will warn, “Don’t go too far into the darkness,” because sometimes it’s darkness that will take away your husband. He will stand at the edge of light cast by the campfire and she will hear the sound of the stream of his urine – strong and consistent- like him.
They never play music in the bush and never speak on the phone. At 9-pm, when the darkness has fully immersed them and they have become part of it, she might on rare occasion phone home (if they have reception) and he will hear her murmur to the youngest and then murmur to the oldest and she will say “yes, you want to speak to him?” and she will hand him the phone and he will murmur to the oldest and murmur to the youngest who she will tell that, no, they haven’t seen a buffalo yet, mum. He calls her mom because she’s named after his dear mother. “OK, mum, I will bring you a baby giraffe if we find one,” he will say as his wife turns away from the fire with a warm smile, half her face now claimed by the darkness.
Later, she will read a verse from the Bible App and they will pray because they are both Born Again and are living in the light even when they have come to be a part of this beautiful darkness. Out there, in the abyss of nothingness, they will feel closer to God as they feel towards themselves. They will brush their teeth by the LandRover and slip into their warm sleeping bags in the tent. He will spoon her and fall asleep first with strands of her hair in his face.
Being out there is always a time to bond without the intrusion of modern life’s urgent (often useless) needs but it’s also metaphoric for her. She trusts him unquestionably to take care of her in this wilderness; to fix the car should it break down, to swat away a hyena should one come nosing in their tent, to constantly stand between her and danger. Out there she seems to say, I’m here with you because I still trust in the man I chose years ago. It might seem like a love story to the untrained eye but it’s mostly a life story.
The other day we were chatting. He asked, “Godfather, [He calls me “Godfather” because I call him “Soprano”, from “Tony” Gandolfini from the Sopranos], how do you start writing a piece? I don’t know how to start writing this particular piece. It has refused.”
I told him what I tell everyone else – and it’s so simple it’s annoying, almost insulting: “you start writing by writing one word.” I told him. He sent that face-palm emoji and said, he knew I’d say that. Which meant, I was as great help as a broken clock. I said it’s true. The hardest part of writing is starting to write. “Hell, it seems so easy for you.” He wrote. I said it’s not, it’s often a struggle. Here is an example of the writing process I have been going through lately in this time of quarantine.
I have taken to waking up much later than I usually do. It still confuses my system. I’m used to waking up hours before the sun comes out, now I wake up to find the sun in the bedroom, on the bed, in my eyes, on the walls. I often can breathe it before I open my eyes. It’s disorienting because I’m used to ushering in the sun, drawing the curtains for it, holding the windows open for it. I’m not used to the sun finding me on my back. Now I find it already inside, like an unwelcome guest who isn’t about to leave. I usually lie in for a bit and think of rubbish things, things that don’t seem to have a bearing to whatever I’m writing in any way. Like bananas. I have some banana trees in shags that are matured now. I think of them. I think that perhaps I should give them names. Like children. But then if times comes to eat them, won’t I be eating my children? I think of such useless things, just lying there without a pillow. Banana trees grow fast, again like children. Only they never talk back. Eventually I will get up and stumble to the bathroom naked, whereupon I will pee while seated, like a lady. And from the toilet seat I will read something – mostly the Times UK. Or The Newyorker. Or BBC. Or I will reread an old story I had bookmarked, from a Pulitzer winner. Like Paul Salopek.
By this time of course I have three pending articles I’m supposed to be writing and writing starts from the mind – you start writing by thinking about writing. And you think about it without realizing you are thinking about it. It’s in your head, just sitting there acting harmless but it bothers you. Like a pebble in your shoe. Of course I will ignore the impending task. I will pretend that I don’t need to write it now, today. Procrastination. Guilt will eventually sit me at my desk at some point, maybe 10am, and face an open Word document, which is a writer’s guillotine.
I will then write one sentence. For example:
“The Bible refuses to tell us where Hannah came from.”
I will sigh and look at that sentence and find it very bland. I will ask myself, “What the hell is this, a composition? Will it be marked over 40?” It also sounds accusatory. Refuses. I will stare at that word for a while then leave that page and open Rollingstone.com and read a story by Robert Greenfield. Halfway through I will stop reading it and go to Ronny Chieng’s website and admire his reviews written in short sentences. Or something by Jay Rayner from the Guardian, then leave that halfway and reread Whistling in The Dark, the beautifully written story of OJ Simpson by Celia Farber. I will be stuck on particular sections of the story, refusing to read further, just sitting on their stone of beauty and art. Carelessly or perhaps courageously, I will eventually revisit my Word document and stare at the flaccid sentence.
“The Bible refuses to tell us where Hannah came from.”
I will Google where Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, hailed from, a place called Ephraim, a hill country. On images Google doesn’t show much. I will sit back and think of a hill country and Hannah and what she wore and if she had any accessories. I will give up and take my children to ride their bikes. Meanwhile, I will occasionally think about Hannah and that sentence; “The Bible refuses to tell us where Hannah came from.” I will realise that I’m embarrassed by it. Kim will say pointing, “Can I go like that and then go like that and then come down like this?” I will say, “Sure, but keep left. Do you know where left is?” He will say, “Yeah,” and I will ask him to show me and he will raise his left hand like it’s a banner and say, “This one?” I will say, “smart boy.”
I will sit outside someone’s gate, in the shade of a palm-tree and think of other things; if I’m working out tomorrow, or where I can buy pawpaw, or make a mental note to one day drive out to Olepolos side and see if the hills have changed. In the afternoon try again and approach the bench of the sentence because this is now my destiny and I will attempt another rewrite. You must be wondering, why the hell can’t you just write the rest of the story and write the introduction later? Because the introduction is foreplay; it determines how the rest will play out. You screw the foreplay the whole thing flops on its face.
So I rewrite:
“Hannah, like all women in the bible, comes formed, at the feet of a man.”
I stare at the sentence. I like it. I like it more than the first one. But it’s not perfect. It needs to be perfect. The first sentence has to be perfect, it has to be accepted fully and wholly by my heart. I look at the bolts and nuts of it, shake it around. I ask myself if I can rewrite that sentence without the parenthesis. Because I don’t like commas in my introductions, if I can help it. It has to be one smooth precise slice, that way it doesn’t bleed out on the page. Because when the intro bleeds it messes up its paragraph and blots the page. You don’t want that. Nobody needs gore and blood.
“Then there was Hannah and she was there a full woman at the feet of Elkanah.”
No parenthesis, yes, but it doesn’t have context. There are many people who will not know who the hell those two characters are. You want a sentence that if it broke from the main paragraph, like a piece of old dead wood from a ship, and it drifted out in the ocean and was picked up on the shores of a small island by a barefoot fisherman it would make sense if he held it up in the light and read it out loud, to the gathered islanders. This second introduction would confuse them. So I say, “F*K it” and I go and open the fridge, not because I’m looking for something in particular therein, but because what else do you do in the house if you aren’t opening the fridge? It always seems like some of life’s answers may be found in a fridge.
Evening will get here fast and soon dusk will fall and the curtains will be drawn to keep out the darkness. When I eventually go to bed, I will lie there looking at social media, reading accounts of the world crumbling with the virus or acts of kindness and buffoonery and selfishness, of death, and maybe stare at a brush/makeup challenge. I will ask my young hip friends what that song is and they will say, “That’s Don’t Rush by Young T and Bugsey, old man.” I will not take offense at the old man expression because I go high when they go low. I will find it on my iTunes and download it, then I will fetch my headphones from the living room and listen to it. It has a very nice beat but it doesn’t make sense the things they say, “Boy got Ps / now she hopping in the pod /
Man in real life / sugar gyal them haffi get wopped (yeah)/.
But what makes sense anymore? I will think. I will then read my book. I won’t remember falling asleep, but I will remember waking up, another day, with light in the room and in my ears and that sentence waiting on my Word document. Because sentences don’t go anywhere, they don’t write themselves.
The thing is sometimes I read a sentence the following day and I can’t believe I even wrote it, that I even remotely liked it. It’s like waking up to a strange woman in your bed. That’s why Stephen King advises that you have to let your work sleep. You never know, you might love or hate it the following day but it’s also an opportunity to make it better.
This can go on for days, this literary impasse, until I get the perfect opening and when that happens, the article will open itself and breath like a beautiful bottle of red wine. But get this; even when the story is done, it can never be termed as perfect. It always seems to grow weeds of flaws around it. It will never be perfect. The perfect sentence is yet to be written and you have to accept great imperfection because that is the driver to write better sentences. This is why I never read what I have written once it’s out. The self flagellation is not worth it. I was invited for a book reading last year for my book Drunk and I remember a distinct feeling of embarrassment reading passages from it. Embarrassed because these sentences seemed tepid, like a baby’s bathwater and I wanted to throw the baby out- with the water.
But it’s not all doom. Often you will write lovely paragraphs. Days that words ooze out of you. Days that everything flows. Moments when you have written and those lovely words are still yours, you haven’t opened the door for the outsiders (the reader) to get in and sit by their warmth. It’s a special moment when you have time alone with those words, when the introduction was your my heart all along, had been there for ages and you feel like you were born with it and all you have to do is transfer it on an open Word and when it sits there, on the cot of the page, like a flawless baby, you know in your heart that it’s right, not perfect, but right and you don’t want to change a word or even remove a comma from it. Deep down you are comfortable with the realization that it’s no longer yours, you just birthed it and it will soon find a home in other hearts out there. In hearts that accept it, because also not all hearts will accept your words. They should never. They will say things like, “Biko, that didn’t sound like you.”
So, to my friend, Soprano. Write one word. Start.