The Nomenclature of Things Obtained
Eziamaka looked outside her window. The drizzle of the rain had stopped now. It was evening, the sun had finally come out of the dark clouds and cast a reddish hue on the wet buildings. Eziamaka walked back into her room and grabbed her camera. After clicking, she walked to the kitchen and put a pot of rice on the stove.
She told people she moved back to Nigeria because of “xenophobia,” but it wasn’t all that really. There had been a sort of fragmentation in her soul ever since she had attended her friend’s uncle’s wedding. At the wedding, she was dismayed that she couldn’t understand what the family and guests from Nigeria were saying — of course she could understand them — but she didn’t get them, didn’t get their references, didn’t get what made them crinkle their nose and throw their head back in laughter, and when she asked, they’d say, you’re Oyinbo now, you can’t understand.
“But I’m not Oyinbo, I’m black, Oyinbo means a white person.”
“Ah, to us, all of you abroad are Oyinbo.”
That saddened her. She knew they didn’t mean anything bad, but the way they said it felt like a slap to her face.
She had always known that despite all her attempts to be “American” — whatever the word meant — she wasn’t. She didn’t mean immigrants couldn’t be American — after all what would America be if not for immigrants (inadvertent and advertent) — but she had always felt in her bones how much of an outlier she was as a person. It was as if she had started a race and she couldn’t get near the finish line no matter how hard she ran and, all the while, her starting point had slipped away into the ether.
Even though she had escaped to the United States and had become what she thought was herself, it appeared the adage was true about home being a place where you were happy.
She had painstakingly been aware of herself those years when she had first arrived America — of her Igbo accent, of her presence as a black woman with a deep voice and an afro, as a lesbian, as a photography student in classes full of white people.
So, she changed herself. She changed how she talked. She did what other people in her circles were doing. She got on Twitter. She joined Tumblr and created a project where she posted only things and pictures of things of a color à la Maggie Nelson’s Bluets: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession…” Of course it was fucking derivative. What wasn’t in those days, all those Tumblr poets copying each other’s work.
She had a website, she took pictures of people with facial scars. She got drunk, she did pot, she did coke, she did MDMA. She had an orgy. Funny that she had an orgy before she had “sex” for the first time.
She got an internship at MTV, she made zines about libraries, she moved to Brooklyn, then she moved to Harlem, then back to Brooklyn.
She was vegetarian for a while, then she was not.
She had an exhibition for a project about trauma in queer femmes titled “Dislocations.” It got her a lot of notice.
Politically, she was center-left for a while, then she was a hammer and sickle, protest attending, fuck imperialism, open border! fuck the police and the carceral state leftist, then she swung to the center again. Then she was Libertarian for a while because she had a crush on the actress Amber Heard, who was openly Libertarian, and she wanted to like what Ms. Heard liked in case they ever met. They did meet, but Eziamaka was too shy to even talk. Then she got over Amber Heard and swung center left again.
The 2012 election came and she voted for Obama, but she lied to her militant leftist roommate that she had voted Jill Stein, the write-in green party candidate.
They complained — well the girl did, Eziamaka only listened — about how Obama didn’t prosecute Wall Street, how he continued Bush’s disastrous policies, how he deported more immigrants than previous presidents, how his healthcare plan was fucking disastrous, dude.
“You would think as a black man, he’d know what to do. Cornel West was right. He’s a Republican in blackface. When he said it, all those neoliberals gasping and asphyxiating themselves. Really, he’s just like a house slave for the Democratic establishment,” the white girl said.
Then Ingrid came along, a beautiful angel who taught Eziamaka that you don’t have to fight to enter white spaces when you could make your own, center yourself. She was a columnist, fierce reader, comic obsessed, and just so cool. They had three great years together, but then they broke up. Still they continued to live together and sometimes sleep together.
The years came when it was cool to be African and, suddenly, everyone wanted to wear African things, people with African immigrant ancestry started to come out as African, actors that Africans had claimed when they were first starting out — John Boyega, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Idris Elba — reciprocated the love and started to appear in more films as continental Africans. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar. Fring dashikis mostly worn by Black Power blacks or immigrants were now worn by everybody — people even sold them on Instagram. Artists wanted Africans on their songs or, if they couldn’t get one, a West Indian.
Eziamaka started to preface her arguments with, As a Nigerian, right? And people would reply, you a Nigerian? Man, I couldn’t tell, I thought you were Jamaican or something.
It was on the wave of that, she attended the wedding.
The anxiety about how fragmented she was got much worse and sometimes, in the shower, she would start to cry. One time, on the way to a bodega, she froze and vomited on the sidewalk. She couldn’t sleep. She tried calling her friend Roland in Nigeria, but his number wasn’t working any longer, and she knew Roland didn’t exist on the internet except to intermittently post memes on Twitter about how Nigerian politicians should be guillotined.
She didn’t want to have to call her aunt in Kentucky. She just wanted to tell somebody how she felt.
A month after the sidewalk incident, she woke up to the sound of a Sunny Ade tune. This can’t really be true, she thought. I must be sleepwalking, else I’m going mad. This song cannot really be playing, can it? Who would be playing it?
After some seconds, certain she wasn’t sleepwalking, that she was absolutely awake, not dreaming — but not certain she wasn’t going mad — she walked gingerly into the living room. The music got louder. It did something to her, the way she recognized every beat, every stop, the strings and saxophone, the talking drum, the way her mind went back to her dead mother, and when they had walked the streets of Yaba shopping for her JSS1 boarding school materials, this song playing in the shops.
Ingrid was the one playing the song in the kitchen through her laptop.
“What are you doing?” Eziamaka asked.
“What do you mean what am I doing?”
“Oh, did I disturb you? It’s this project I’m curating for Vox, I’m behind on the deadline, it’s about early West African, specifically Yoruba, am I saying that right? This is what I’ve been saying about spaces and cultural exploitation, someone like you should have gotten this project but well, I still have to eat. Yoruba recordings from 1930 and onwards, through to 1980. It all sounds very Cuban-like, doesn’t it? In the drums. This is your language right? Yoruba is in Nigeria.”
“It’s Nigerian, but not my tribe, but it’s Nigerian, it’s Nigerian.”
“Yeah cool, would have checked all this with you, but you just came back from Portland, I haven’t seen you in ten days. Haven’t had sex in ten days too, come to think of it. I’m sure there’s a connection there, ha-ha. Last night you just went to crash immediately, watched you sleep for a while. Wait, what’s going on?”
Eziamaka had started crying.
“Dude! Are you okay? Did I say something wrong?”
She went to MoMA, floor five, and stood in front of the Matisse Dance (I) 259.7 × 390.1 cm oil on canvas. She saw kids locking their hands together in imitation of the painting in front of them. It reminded her of a game she played with friends while she was in primary school.
She thought of Carl Jung and the term he introduced as synchronicity — meaningful coincidences.
Joy. That was what the “dance” in the Matisse was about. She too had known joy, in Nigeria, but it was also in search of joy that she had escaped because she had felt hated.
There had been a video circulating around then, in which a man had raped two lesbian girls caught having sex in a northern boarding school. He had dug into them one after the other, saying, “After this na dick dem go they want every day.” He finished with them and stood up, fluid dripping from his penis, and held a victory fist up, the men behind the camera cheering him on — all the images latched themselves onto Eziamaka’s brain, she saw herself in the girls whimpering and scratching their faces like they wanted to claw out their souls.
Hate. She thought of how Mahmoud Darwish said he hated hatred because of the way it destroys your capacity to love simple things — for him, the smell of coffee against the backdrop of the 1982 siege of Beirut.
It was in search of joy that she now wanted to return.
As she moved away from the painting, she wondered if she was going back to Nigeria because of the country — the land, the smell of fried Akara, the way the late sun slanted on the leaves of a Mango tree — or the people?
She had no answer, yet.
On the last day of the following month, she resolved to tell Ingrid that she had made up her mind. It was as if Ingrid knew because whenever Eziamaka would say, I need to talk to you, she would reply, not now, I’m busy, I’m on a deadline.
But she finally cornered her one night in the kitchen.
“You know what Stéphane Mallarmé wrote to his friend Henri Cazalis?”
“I don’t know, girl, Mallarmé wrote a lot of things.”
“He wrote, ‘These last months have been terrifying. My Thought has thought itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during that long agony, is indescribable.’”
“What? What are you getting at?”
“I’m going to Nigeria”
“Why do I hear that as in you’re moving back for good and not you going for quick visit?”
Eziamaka smiled a terse smile.
“Holy shit! Are you serious? Are you fucking serious? You’re shitting me, right? Are you fucking serious right now?”
“Wow, are you fucking…and didn’t you tell me about the rape video and how gay people are being killed and jailed in Nigeria and how artistic expression is not even acknowledged, you said being there felt like the sword of Damocles was over your head, I remember, and I said the sword of Damocles doesn’t work like that. Remember? You said it was like hell, Christ!”
“Yes, I know, I did, I did. But staying here any longer is like death itself.”
She went to check the rice and served it onto a plate. She went to the fridge and removed her stew, she put some on a plate and warmed it in the microwave. When it was done, she poured it over the rice and put three pieces of meat on it.
Now, five months after her arrival, she still couldn’t believe she was here, in her own apartment, in her own country, breathing the air that she thought was lost to her forever, feeling the same aches, the same disappointments, the same wonder at things, basically being a millennial Nigerian.
She was listening to Max Richter and clicking through the #Lagosflood on Instagram and Twitter. It had intensified since yesterday evening when it started raining. Even this morning when she had stepped out to get something from the store, it wasn’t apocalyptic like the tweets and pictures.
She listened to different Max Richter tunes for different moods — On the Nature of Daylight for when she was feeling somber, Sarajevo when she was feeling sad, Embers when she was feeling destructive and, when she was feeling happy, a guitar cover of On the Nature of Daylight.
On the Nature of Daylight always brought up the film that was in her head, the one that she wanted to make one day — if that ever happened. A film about disasters, where the beginning is the ending.
Of course, she wanted to make films. What visual artist didn’t?
When she had stepped out this morning, she had seen Pierce Brosnan on a raft — or a white man who looked like Pierce Brosnan. The same salt and pepper beard, the same nose, the same head shape. He was on a blue raft — yes, a raft in the streets of Lagos — rowing across from the roundabout. Tan, shirt opened, she could see the stringy gray hairs on his chest. He went sailing past her, the raft moving smoothly through the brown frothy water containing the essence of Lagos itself — baby shoes of babies from single mothers, plastic waste from the mental hospital, waste from the Sheraton Hotel where rich politicians gathered, all the variety of people whom Lagos had taken things from and others it had bestowed graces upon.
Cars couldn’t move except for the Lorries and four wheelers and the buses.
She and some others had taken refuge in a shop that sold garri when the rain started up again.
She saw schoolgirls hike up their skirts, coil their socks round their necks and move through the water laughing.
She recalled that she used to do this, and how the water looked like a beverage and she and her friends would fret about snakes or worms or nails obscured underwater. Walking through the flood always used to give her a floaty feeling like she wasn’t walking but gliding.
The white man in the raft sailed towards the shops again, this time waving. She saw he had placed a bag in the raft and in it were phones and iPads. She thought only a rich person could be this careless.
He stopped right in front of her but didn’t hail her. He nodded to a man in a brown suit beside her.
This rainy season ehn, he said.
He held the red rusty pillar with one hand — to keep the raft from drifting away while he talked, she supposed — and wiped his brow with another. She thought he looked like the faded celebrities in People, snapped by paparazzi, vacationing in Aruba or somewhere.
Yes, this rain, the area is always in shambles when it rains like this, the man in the brown suit said.
A kid said, Oyinbo, that man is Oyinbo.
Yes, I be Oyinbo, I am Oyinbo, Oyinbo Pepper like the rhyme, you sabi am?
She thought his pidgin sounded Jamaican.
This is my second time experiencing stuff like this, the man said, and when it first happened, I told myself, I’ll buy a raft.
She wanted to say, you could totally pass for Pierce Brosnan in communities where people care about such things.
He said to the man in the suit, See you later, Peter.
The man in the suit replied, See you at work, Mr. Hallberg.
As he turned to row, she noticed he had a bald spot. The back of his neck looked like something prickled — the mosquitoes must have gotten to him. She could see him in her mind, wearing a white cowboy hat on CNN or Fox news, face red, screaming about the unfettered rise of socialism.
She could see him in the America she had left.
Later that evening she saw him again on a video from Instagram with the headline: OYINBO MAN ON BOAT SPEAKING PIDGIN. As she scrolled down, she saw the video shared by different accounts, with different captions, of the same variety.
She was in the video. She saw herself. The person who made it must have been so close to her because it was her side profile. She looked like someone who was dreaming, and it was now she realized, watching the video, that she had been trying not to look the raft man in the face. She saw herself looking above him. She wondered what people would think about her, the girl in the white shirt with glistening waist-length braids she had made the day before. Would they think she was weird? That she seemed like a person who was not present when other people are?
Did they know that she had recently, since returning, began to dream in lines? In grids? That on other nights she saw opposite of that? That she saw ripples and psychedelic swellings?
Her theory was that she forced herself into these dreams because she didn’t want to dream about the video with the girls — as she had for many years.
She drank Fanta and ate bread. She danced in front of the mirror, contemplating her new braids — noticing the lines, creases, and pigmentation changes in her face that differentiated who she was and who she is now — something she wasn’t prone to doing, looking in the mirror that is. Her hair had been an Afro for the better part of five years — inspired by Angela Davis. I want to encase the locks in cowrie shells, she said out loud.
She watched a video where a popular Instagram comic on a split screen was reacting to the video of the white man on the boat speaking pidgin. He said it was disappointing to him that the man spoke pidgin better than some Nigerians who only wanted to speak British English all the time. He said it in a voice meant to be funny, in Warri Pidgin — the birthplace of pidgin. She wanted to comment that the raft man’s pidgin wasn’t even that good, that she couldn’t understand the fascination with foreigners doing Nigerian things: a foreigner eats Jollof rice, it trends, foreigner speaks Yoruba, it trends, foreigner haggles with the old women in the markets, it trends. A foreigner speaks pidgin, it trends.
But she had been thinking along those lines, etymologically, of cultural language and how it comes about. A language within a language.
I mean, now it’s a cool point, a cool thing, a fad. Everybody does it, comics, television presenters, pastors, everybody. I mean, if you’re not a Nigerian comic speaking pidgin, are you really a comic?
She was thinking these things.
She was thinking about what forced “Pidgin” into existence: colonization, globalization. Made by people who want to speak English but can’t, even though they have to because it’s the only way that they’ll survive in a society that wasn’t meant to be English in the first place.
She was thinking how she knew what Roland — a Deleuzian Marxist — would say if he was here responding to her. Well, well, welcome to the light, this is what’s going on, what there’ve been discussions about, do you want me to send you that Aimé Césaire book? I’ve got a PDF, the essence of what he’s saying, ehn? The essence is…
She took a hot bath. When she opened the door, she saw steam slithering its way out like Voldemort.
She fried eggs and put them between four pieces of wheat bread, two on each side.
She read from a book about Ousmane Sembène.
She felt like she was expanding, finally filling into herself.
She was happy about the #notodomesticviolence that had been trending for three weeks. Nigerian women sharing stories on Twitter, Instagram, on late night TV entertainment street segments.
She thought of the Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are a Changin’.”
Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I feel things in the air, she said on the phone to Roland.
Why haven’t you been online? he said.
What do you mean?
Like Instagram and stuff.
What do you mean, I’ve been on Instagram now, ahan. That’s like my tool. Are you trolling me? What are you talking about?
No, like, personal stuff, you put up your pictures, yes, portraits, landscapes. Like your recent one, men in raincoats. You go on Twitter, you retweet articles about yourself, you post stuff about life in residencies, funny things, but no personal stuff as you used to do.
I don’t…I don’t understand what you’re saying. Really.
Know what I think? I think you’re ashamed of something, maybe this country I don’t know. It’s been like this since you came back, and that’s how long now? You always used to balance that, the sharing of personal things, you know…putting yourself out there, we used to talk about this, how you did this without seeming narcissistic. I think you’re ashamed, I don’t know about what.
She went to a house party and the lights went out. She shouted, Dey don carry light again o and she laughed. She had always wanted to be that person at a gathering that shouts that. In the seconds of darkness as the host went downstairs to turn on his Mikano generator, she thought of a description of a jellyfish she had once read in her college’s Academy of Sciences exhibit: “Soft-bodied, free-swimming aquatic animals” with appendages that “defend against predators by emitting toxins in a painful sting.”
She recalled that she had decided then that she would like to be reincarnated as a jellyfish.