Finding Form

Writing fiction hadn’t been false, for nonfiction isn’t truer than fiction; but I’d seemed to row at the shallowest region of the narrative stream, where the water wouldn’t reveal its deepest enchantments. I needed to allow the subject to change the form as I progressed. Where I began with curiosity about my uncle’s fate, my travels made me aware of how little of the war had been monumentalized in the Nigerian landscape, ultimately making it necessary for me to define the shape of my work as a reconciliation with the fragmented nature of the past.

I turned away from abstraction

Demas Nwoko, Children on Cycles. Oil on board.

Most mornings in Lagos, at about 7:15 AM, I go on a brisk walk. I turn south from a road linking to the Lekki-Epe expressway and enter a wide pedestrian walkway, where, after I get to a bus stop at a junction, I head back home. I am almost often in an interregnum as I walk, the moment between waking up—attending to the rituals that shake me awake—and getting on with work on a manuscript. I am not groggy, but it is early enough for me to feel I am still at anchor. The walk is my ferry, a portal to that day’s clutch of words.

Considering that I walk forty minutes each weekday, I am on that road, on aggregate, for 200 minutes. The minutes become, like keystrokes, units for measuring what might yet be written. I take note of what I see, or better to say my eyes rove without prescription. I realize that what my senses recorded are liminal, hidden from me.

After I return home, I take a shower, eat breakfast, and, depending on how long it takes me to attend to chores, I come to my desk at about 10:30 AM. For as long as an hour afterward, it is difficult to temper the cacophony of the crowd of faces and gestures bubbling up in my subconscious from the walk.

In those long moments between a decent sentence and several attempts to write one, I am often looking at my computer keyboard, at the space bar in particular. It is the longest key of all and can be touched from both ends at once. Its function is of similar specificity: as the only key that creates spaces or rhythm or cadence or pauses. It is the key that stands for the in-between, the yet-to-be. I look at it and know that I must learn to work with patience.

There are four fauvist figures in Children on Cycles, a circa 1961 painting by the Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko. They are on bicycles. A lorry approaches. The two figures at the leftmost edge of the frame, atop the same bicycle, are out of the lorry’s path. The other two turn their front wheels in opposite directions to clear the road. Most descriptions of the figures call them girls, perhaps because of their yellow and mint green gowns. They reach for the handlebars of the bicycles, and pedal standing up. Seen from behind, one child’s head appears almost ovoidal, but the others are made parabolic with two-dimensional hair. It is a slice of cacophonous life: one afternoon, a group of barefoot girls are leaving a playground or going to one. Or they are riding their bicycles home from school, racing one another. They enter a major thoroughfare. A lorry approaches, but they are confident enough to outmaneuver it.

I note the formal excellence of the painting: the exactness of Nwoko’s lines, how he flattens the human figure without eliminating dimension. Nwoko made the painting in 1961, right after he graduated from art school. I love this painting, but hesitate, too, with its focus on an undramatic scene. I can sense in the painting a burst of talent yet to find an urgent thematic focus. Or, no. It is not that Nwoko’s talent was yet to find its thematic thrust, as much as the possibility that he struggled to find a form of art-making fitting to his concerns. I estimate this because of another painting Nwoko completed a year or so before Children on Cycles.

The earlier painting, Nigeria in 1959, shows three fair-skinned men sitting in the foreground, and, in the background, five standing dark-skinned men. The man sitting in the middle is arguably the most distinguished of the Europeans, with a bright red band across his torso. His face is drawn, his eyes shut, and his demeanor languorous. So is the man on the left. With the base of his face cradled against an angular palm, and his legs crossed, his pose seems most quintessential as a gesture of resignation. The third European has turned to the side, and a snowy crop of hair is lidded by a dark hat. The five men behind, surely junior in rank, are erect, dour, and shadowy figures. One, who is wearing a sleeveless shirt, carries an umbrella, the rim of which is almost entirely out of the frame. The other four are dressed in alternate attires: two in navy blue cassock-styled garments, and two in green garments. They are outfitted with wider sashes than the most distinguished European.

Nigeria in 1959.

Nigeria in 1959 is “perhaps the most poignant comment by any Nigerian artist on the tension, anxiety, and disquiet between colonial officers and their Nigerian subordinates on the eve of political independence,” writes art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu. I agree. Nwoko’s foresight was to render his countrymen as numinous, deadpan, and dwellers of the dark—highlighted in the dark blotches he painted in place of eyes and mouths. Within a year they were to emerge into the limelight from the shadows. But they brought forth that dense, unsettled darkness, replacing the evil of colonialism with rivalrous ethnic politics. This painterly engagement with politics, I imagine, sparked in Nwoko a restlessness that culminated in an unexpected turn in his trajectory. In the late 1960s he stopped making work as a fine artist, and turned exclusively to architecture and furniture, which he remains better known for.

Nwoko could be said to have turned to functional art as a response to the milieu, to think of a more helpful use of his time during a time of crises. Or perhaps it was that his paintings and sculptures, in the ways they often required him to work out his subjects and their demeanor, heightened the apathy he felt towards Nigeria. Whatever the case, his trajectory is a lesson on the mutability of form.

In 2017, I experienced my own period of creative restlessness. I had just completed a travelogue, due for publication the following year, but I itched to work on a more comprehensive narrative project: a novel. During the research period for the travelogue, I had traveled with a group and then alone for a noncontinuous period of four years. The longest I stayed in any one of the two dozen places I visited on the African continent was six weeks. In recounting my experiences, I wrote in fragments, developing the form of the book in tandem with my asynchronous journeying. But in order to work on a novel, I had to shirk the habits of intermittence. It was, put simply, a question of learning how to tell a plot-driven story from start to end.

At first I insisted on continuity. I arrived at a residency in rural Wyoming ready to begin work on the novel, but found, after regimented weeks of writing one thousand words every day, that the story I was telling seemed deficient. I scaled down, writing one hundred–word memos in response to photographs, small bursts of prose requiring no plotline. Even then, I knew I was simply biding time.

Then, every day for one month, I decided to write in a notebook, and through that exercise uncover the heart of the novel I planned to write. Besides writing each day’s date in the notebook, I had no other rule. Soon enough it became something other than impressions of what my unwritten book could be and transformed into a disjointed record of what I’d read or observed: a photocopied page from a novel, extended handwritten extracts from interviews, cutouts of postcards, drawings made from photographs, and so forth. And now, when I return to the notebook—and consider it as the basis of the book I have written—I understand what I couldn’t perceive due to a fog of restlessness, that the form of a book is as determined by the years spent drafting it as by spells of stasis.

The ethnic rivalries Nwoko foreshadowed in Nigeria in 1959 eventually culminated in a military coup, a countercoup, and then a civil war, fought between 1967 and 1970 by the secessionist Republic of Biafra and the Nigerian federal government. My book was framed, at the outset, as the narrative of an aftermath: the story of a man’s journey, just after he turns 30, to seek the burial place of his father, who had been killed during pro-Biafra riots. My protagonist was to travel as far into the Igbo heartland as he could manage, soliciting the landscape for clues of his father’s fate. After three chapters, while I worked in Wyoming, I couldn’t go on.

Hoping to inspire a design for my protagonist’s trajectory, I photocopied a set of maps from John St. Jorre’s The Brothers’ War—maps indicating the gradual diminishing of the Biafran territory during the war—then pasted them into the notebook. And right then I wondered what it would seem like if I were to make not one, but a series of travels based on these maps.

In the unfinished novel, I had written the following in the voice of my protagonist:

I was waiting in a corner of a room, for what or whom I cannot recall. I had my back to the window, and the sharp evening light had thrown an outline of my head against the adjacent wall. The light played a trick on me. My head became one of many. The illusion was so startling I swear I saw faces of all the men I had ever known for more than a casual hello. Where was my father’s face? I reached for a personality I knew for certain and found it obscure. Not just a face; a manner of appearance. Face and gesture were repressed, and I struggled with hints of his presence. How could this be? What is the memory of a face that has never been beheld?

A face that has never been beheld. It struck me after I chanced on the maps that I’d meant to write the novel for a reason other than intellectual curiosity. I had been named after my father’s older brother, my uncle Emmanuel, who never returned from the war after enlisting for the Biafran side.

Even if I hadn’t known it at the time, the novel was an attempt to create autofictional avatars of me and my uncle. I sought to tell the story of a catastrophe experienced by a generation born after the war, a novel whose characters would embody a pathos passed down secondhand. But soon, I realized that real life—the extent of what was known about the circumstances leading to my uncle’s disappearance, his ultimate fate—was sufficiently mysterious. I turned away from abstraction and chose nonfiction.

In 1967, the first year of the war, Demas Nwoko completed four paintings, two of which portrayed figures of a solitary soldier: Combatant I and Combatant II. I am drawn to the consonance between the mood of the paintings and their subject matter: the soldiers are more or less ghoulish fighters; their sunken, unlidded eyes are as red as fiery crimson, leveling to a gaze. The green uniform in Combatant II is accented by additional red, a spiky bullet vest and an automatic gun, and in Combatant I the background is an evened-out dash of bloody red.

The gaunt soldier in Combatant I, in particular, has become one with his helmet and rifle—metal and flesh fused by Nwoko’s brush. The figure’s oversized uniform and its furnishings are as exaggerated as they are comical. It is as much a painting of a soldier in a time of war as an illustration of the perversity of violence. It points invariably to the impact of such martial intensities, to the fact that a person who participates in war, whether voluntarily or not, cannot escape its arbitrary distribution of outcomes. Just as my disappeared uncle.

Combatant I (above) and Combatant II. Photographed by Chika Okeke-Agulu.

In my nonfiction account of the war’s aftermath, I sought a form that would attend to such arbitrariness and yet remain beholden to a cohesive narrative. My decision, at the outset, was to work out a linear narrative, to travel with a set of questions about the war and my family, finding answers each step of the way. Yet my trajectory was altered by the sheer improbability of finding a clear logic in the way the past affects the present—for instance, it took two trips to my hometown to realize that there was no surviving photograph of my uncle. I now sought to convey both the iterative texture of my travels and the weighted, linear histories against whose backdrop I set out.

While I wrote my book, I Am Still With You—made up eventually of tightly interwoven fragments, blending memoir, national history, and political reckoning—Nwoko’s paintings became instructive. A lesson in form. I drew a line from Children on Cycles and Nigeria in 1959 to the two Combatant paintings, and it seemed as though Nwoko’s brushstrokes became less steady as the years passed, perhaps an indication that he’d lost patience with the capabilities of painting to convey verisimilar truths.

It was by considering the collective mood of Nwoko’s paintings that I became convinced of the method with which to work out my curiosity about my uncle and the war. Writing fiction hadn’t been false, for nonfiction isn’t truer than fiction; but I’d seemed to row at the shallowest region of the narrative stream, where the water wouldn’t reveal its deepest enchantments. I needed to allow the subject to change the form as I progressed. Where I began with curiosity about my uncle’s fate, my travels made me aware of how little of the war had been monumentalized in the Nigerian landscape, ultimately making it necessary for me to define the shape of my work as a reconciliation with the fragmented nature of the past. Like moving from the relatively benign image of cycling children to the terror-clad apparition of a soldier.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author