This is how it starts out. Twenty-three strangers sitting around a conference room in silence, waiting for her.
It is after she walks in and sits down, alone and unencumbered by protocol, that everyone begins to let up. We slowly realise it is OK to breathe; we realise it is OK to be.
She takes each of us apart, story by story. She tells us what is worth keeping and what can be improved. She teases us. She asks for opinions about a story, about any topic. Without saying so, she tells us that we can call ourselves writers, that our writing is good enough. She tells us to use details in unexpected ways, the way you might use a nail file to skin a cat. She never “teaches” us. Rather she gists. And in her gisting, she has taught us.
Slowly, like night flowering into day, I understand that it has stopped being about her and has become about other things, because this has never been about her.
It is about Chinaza Boy and the unassuming way he uses language to beautiful effect, how we sit in a Chicken Republic and talk about Chinua Achebe and the joys of reading, the way we rejoice in the mutual secret that we are both slow readers.
It is about Kunle and the way his beautiful, incendiary texts poke for trouble, and the way he pulls on my beard, testing my patience, and the way we laugh about it later. I know he wants to do it again and I will kill him if he tries.
It is about Ama and her enchanting voice, about the wisdom that appears to reside even in the sound of it, how she uses metaphor with startling originality.
It is about Fatima and the passion she exudes when she speaks and writes about justice and law, and how she manages to pull herself together and navigate this terrain of endless reading and writing even though she is smack in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.
It is about Ife and his eyes that can x-ray a story with one glance, and the persistent suspicion I have that he has read every book that was ever written; it is about the sudden kindredness I sense with him when I hear he loves Wes Anderson movies; it is about the unforgettable Baboon Buttocks.
It is about Miracle and the inventive way she writes about breasts gender, how she immediately latches on to Abimbola’s arm once he becomes the star of Binyavanga’s class, how she uses gender constructs to arm-twist me into giving up my hoodie because the AC is blowing on her.
It is about Abimbola and his freckles that all the ladies can’t seem to get over, and how he writes so eloquently about plaiting hair and stealing, how the two concepts exist in different paragraphs of the same story and still feel of a piece, how he turns phrases like they were turntables.
It is about Pamela and her wicked dry wit and her sleuthing abilities, the effortlessly gorgeous sounds of her sentences, how I wonder to myself that if she writes this well at 19, what would she be like at 25?
It is about Nneoma and her gentle calmness, and her imaginative interpretation of a Wangechi Mutu piece, and how we sit in a corner and speak deeply and openly about faith, about doubt, about Christ.
It is about Chika and his ability to convert words into money (literally), and his open-teeth smile, and the way he flirts with Aishat, and the tenderness that lurks in the corners of his stories.
It is about Chinaza Girl and how she loves Linda Ikeji and smiles as she talks about being robbed, and how she uses Zanzibar as a lens to explore racism, cultural identity, and gender in Nigeria and Africa.
It is about Grace and her experience of being in Chibok on the night of the infamous kidnapping, and how they spent the night in the hills fearing for their lives. It is about the way she writes a delicious love story we all come to suspect is about her and her husband, even though she won’t say.
It is about Akintunde and the way his vividly imagined stories examine society and how it is layered according to class and the many ways we choose to assign value to ourselves and to each other. It is about all the mothers in his stories.
It is about Lesley and her sharp insights and her generous words and her zest for life, about how she combines words like pussy and heaven to speak about gender inequality and sexuality.
It is about Funmi and her unexpected kindness when she leaves the hotel to get me some medicine for my migraine. It is about her courage in choosing to write even when she has never truly felt like a writer. How one day she will hopefully realise that no true writer ever really feels like a writer, yet they write anyway.
It is about Nnamdi, how he infects the entire class with the word kuku (as in “Kuku kill me”), his sharp tongue that makes us quiver with laughter, and his other-worldly imagination.
It is about Chisom and her hilarious retelling about turning thirteen and the way she could be an undercover agent on the level of Donnie Brasco if she wanted to.
It is about Aoiri and his camera and the way he speaks his mind bluntly without sounding blunt, the way he wakes me up with a phone call on Sunday and, much to my dismay, declares, “Let’s make a movie!” It is about the way he writes without apology, without reserve, and without affectation.
It is about Muna and the gentle poetry of his voice, both oral and written, and his multi-coloured socks, and his commitment to quietly transcending the limitations culture and society often place around us.
It is about Chioma and her crystal-clear stories that resonate on the level of myth and folklore, and her own sharp tongue that can come out of nowhere and lash you silly.
It is about Aishat and her borderless laugh. How she writes a startling story about how thunder was born. How she manages to get the best seats in all the group pictures we take with the facilitators. How I caught her trying to eavesdrop on a conversation I was having with Chimamanda.
It is about Aslak and his Scandinavian accent and blond hair and the refrain “your normal is good enough” and his encouragement to go where it hurts, because that is when it matters.
It is about Binyavanga and the burning flame in him that not even a stroke could put out, and his stinging frankness and his big, big heart, and how he says, “Don’t put a character through something you as the writer are not willing to go through.”
It is about Eghosa and the knowledge that comes spilling out of his head like coins out of a pocket, the way he edits a story into shape before your eyes, or waxes philosophically on the nuances of Pidgin English.
It is even about me and my insecurities, about the sense that I still haven’t quite figured out how to navigate this world, about my acts of cowardice as a child I am still learning to forgive myself for, about how the entire class, including Binyavanga, stands up and claps after I finish reading my story.
It is about learning to read like your life depends on it, because as a writer, it does. It is about learning to look at an issue from the outside, no matter how close it is to you. It is about learning to speak about your fears, to confront them by calling out their names until they become nameless.
As we say goodbyes and take pictures and give and receive hugs, we are no longer strangers; we have become lofty, petty, messy humans to each other, and how delicious it is.
There is still one more discovery to make, but it waits until we have reached our homes, scattered about the map like forsaken jewels.
Then it pops up: this is just the beginning.
Umar Turaki is a writer and filmmaker living in Jos, Nigeria. His short
films have screened at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Pan
African Film Festival, and the Durban International Film Festival. His most
recent short film, Salt, will also screen at the Ake Book and Arts Festival
in November 2016. He is an MFA candidate in the film program at the Vermont
College of Fine Arts, and he also participated in the Farafina Trust
Creative Writing Workshop in June, 2016. One day, he hopes to publish a