With acknowledgment from Prof. Wole Soyinka (Aug 2022):
– An intriguing literary generic
No thanks to Sörgel for his dreaded curse.
Words are hard.
Memory is a burden.
I bear the weight of Soyinka’s memory, real and imagined. The unwritten dialogue, the conversations unvoiced, relegated to the recesses with the stroke of a red pen. The silly, the profound, the extreme and the incendiary. I wade through them all, feet thick in the mire, a mangrove of death, a memory like fire. Enlightened but burning; consuming itself. A star dying, as I keep it aflame.
Is my memory sound? It is a cacophony. Oh, for my voice to be a blade of grass to tickle the armpit of the past. But my memory needs no prodding, rather a plugging.
Sörgel had it easy with Shakespeare. Me? I’ve got the memories of a still-living legend. My memory is like a basket when I haven’t even had a few beers.
My first predicament: If I don’t do something with everything swirling in my head, then I am nowhere near to being even a hack writer. And it’s not like I need to have a storyline. I simply have to sit down and write a sentence, and it would be Soyinka’s. In my mind at least. The world may just shrug, oblivious to the significance of the words, and where they really come from.
This brings me to the next predicament: am I insignificant to the world, regardless of whose memories and words I wield? So, do you have to slam bam your prose in the face of the world to get noticed, to make sales, to grow your legend, to write, to write anything?
I cannot just write anything. I have to write Soyinka. Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the significance of my words and my stories if they are not Soyinka’s to the world?
Sörgel was given his. Not gifted. Given.
I asked the Nobel laureate for his memory. And I was granted it. That is how it works, my final predicament: someone has to ask for it. It cannot be given, unsolicited. I cannot gift my memory, or rather unburden it, even if I wanted to. Which I do.
I laid out my pitch, made my case. I wanted his episodic memory, not his learned memory. I didn’t want his bank accounts and passwords. I didn’t want his clutter. I have no use for rote and clogged up gunk. I wanted the inspirations and the moments, the terror and the triumph. The creative compost, but without the stench of suffering. I bear the weight of his memory, without the language, without the understanding, and barely a comprehension.
So, what would it be worth to you?
I needed to be assured of the future. I had to know that I had the substance to make a difference with my words and ideas. Not about predicting, like some time machine, but with the knowledge of a person, nearly nine decades of lived experiences, to cast a different perspective on my life ahead. They say you always become the person you were meant to be when you reach old age. Damnit. I wanted that Me now. I wanted to look out at the world, this monstrosity of polarised extremes, and feel something other than insecure, disconnected and detached. I am bang in the middle.
I remember a period, no less than a decade ago, feeling like Time was limitless. And I don’t mean life time, I mean getting-kak-done time. That experience of entering the zone every single day, and emerging hours later with a sense of having done a week’s worth of work. Immensely productive. Mind racing. Body ready for the next task. Weaving magic like it was effortless and unencumbered by a tremendous weight of thoughts, knee-to-the-groin life experiences, and mind-numbing fears from the same. That’s midlife: PTSD from life. Show me the end, now. Please.
I don’t want to dissect the world, to fix it, and solve the world’s problems. I’ve learned the world does not give a crap about my point of view. It doesn’t give a kak what an eighty-five-year-old’s point of view is, either, unless you’re Soyinka. That’s what I wanted. I wanted the point of view, the perspective, the calm “fuck you, I’ll do what I want” attitude of maturity to help me see clearly. I didn’t want to be looking at the world that way when my vision is milky and my body is failing more than it is right now.
No. Let me write with that attitude today. Not a last gasp in four decades. Or ever. I wanted all those memories, all those experiences, to roll up tight like unrecyclable plastic bags, and put it to the heat of rage and outrage, to melt it tighter, to roll it thinner, to compact that fervour, and taper that rubbery whip into a stinging tongue, a lashing sjambok to the world.
My name is Stephen Embleton. Readers on the fringe may know me from my smattering of short stories and a couple of novels. Needless to say, surviving as an author is not a survival strategy but a calling, like a call to arms, where you will inevitably die an excruciating death in the mud. Alone.
I came to Oxford with Soyinka, Head, Achebe, Gordimer, Ngũgĩ, and Plaatje on my lips, and Africa in my heart. I’ve never seen the grass greener elsewhere, but the ancestors compelled an opportunity, after obliterating every other avenue, livelihood and possession, to be the only lifeline.
Rather, January’s grass was brownish-green in this honey-coloured city of dreaming spires. Thank God. Because, if I had morphed into one of those rose-tinted glasses wearing ex-pats, decrying the state of South Africa, while sipping their goddamned gin and tonic from a two-by-two verkrampte flat in Manchester, I would’ve hatched a plan like Hemingway and Plath, baked something, or laden a frock with stones, before I devolved into a ghommid. For when you’ve been in a deep dark hole, far too regularly, sometimes you imagine the only rope that can pull you out to the light is the hangman’s.
I took that other lifeline.
What could I do but grip it tight and go!
But this is a tale, of a second lifeline. One meant to be about hope. Though I don’t wish my circumstances on anyone, no matter the outcome, it was better than dying in Tshwane. Or dying, generally.
I stood in this cordially stylish history and imposing knowledge, avenues and eateries of the renowned and the celebrated. I walked the bridges, both back and forth. I looked at the domes and the spires and the steeples. I found continuity and consistency. Wonderland to the left, Narnia to the right, and in the middle, Earth and the children of men enjoying afternoons and coffee spoons. I emerged, as if from under a net, carrying his The Interpreters hoping to make sense of my world.
But, if there’s one thing Soyinka taught me, one thing I know to be true: there is zero assuredness of success.
I came at the behest of my gods, to make peace with them and to trust they held me safe. If not, and if the ancestors proved useless, I would disbelieve in the lot. I was willing to take all the pity from the gods that I could get. Weep in my coffee. Muddy my path. Just get me relief.
As I reflect on the past few months, with the blossoms blooming, as the sun reddens my patchy pink skin, I mull over the last few weeks.
I had asked Onyeka for Soyinka’s email, and I composed my proposal, my pitch.
Dear Professor Soyinka. Would you consider…
When you reach out to someone at that status in life, and allowing for a degree of tech-illiteracy, the last thing you expect is a curt reply an hour later.
“Yes. My ‘memory’ is under strain.
10AM tomorrow, Lagos time.”
Though I personally would have wanted to be sitting with the man, maybe over a drink, getting my copy of his book signed, technology allowed the space between us to narrow in minutes. It was an oddly cordial video chat for something as preposterous as copying Soyinka’s memory. Like a large media folder, but without a semblance of order, it would turn out.
Apart from the usual pleasantries, and without me being foolish enough to question his motives, and thus potentially stuff it all up, I asked him what in particular from my original email stood out.
“As I said, my memory is under strain.I don’t have the stamina to write any more down. And if I don’t expel the ideas from my mind, I will go mad. This is the near intolerable burden of memory. I need quiet. I need the memories to leave, and to leave their bitter aftertaste. Have I not felt enough for the memory of my remaining life?” He sighed, and added, “But, they cannot be forgotten. Must my memory be a casualty of time? So, here we are, Stephen.”
I went on to reassure that nothing would be removed. Nothing would suddenly vanish, to be erased or dissolved from memory.
“This is no Well of Attenuation, Professor. The memories will not fade. Transferal is not diminishing. This is not a colonising of your mind. It is picking up a monumental tome, peeling back each layer of pages, to look inside the world you have experienced, created and catalogued in your memories. I am sharing without consuming. It allows only for you to let go. Forget of your own accord, if forgetting is possible. It is for you to forget, and for the world to forever remember.”
He looked how I felt. Bemused. I wasn’t going to show him that right then. I had no idea anymore. Would this work? Finally, he nodded and said, “I can begin the forgetting, at least. Forgetting what isn’t necessary, and knowing it is somewhere, rather than burdening me. A people who do not preserve their memory are a people who have forfeited their history.”
There was a moment of quiet. My anticipation was palpable. I should’ve sensed then that the extent of what lay ahead of me was immense, unwieldy, as Soyinka continued. But I was naive and overeager.
“Why must I have all of this in my memory? What use do I have for what I had for lunch yesterday? What colour my shirt was for the first day of school? Whether I bought underwear ten years ago. And my memories lie. Bitterness has clouded over the splendour of those original ‘new’ memories, blocked out the horrors, but not completely. Reflexive enough to pull up a protective screen when I think of something traumatic, and quick enough so I don’t relive it fully. The brief stomach lurch of remembrance, rather than the full gut-wrenching, vomit of suffering. And those are the obvious ones. Habits have to change when memory becomes unbearable.
“Bitterness and horror are not assigned to only those memories of pain. Every memory. Everything. My mother passing me an apple on a sticky, humid afternoon eighty years ago. Delight. Pleasure. Love. Now it is clouded with loss and grief. Because with a memory comes the interconnected memories, connected by time. A moment lived in isolation, with no future attached to it yet, is a memory that becomes part of a collective. Time collapses in on itself and memories collide. Volatile, incendiary. Your universe was harmonious, your solar system made sense. But moments come, like a celestial body off kilter. Some fly off into deep dark space. Others explode with devastating force.”
What could I say to that?
It was then that I noticed a strange expression on his face. If I was not mistaken, he had begun to re-read his memories, sifting them carefully, thrown back to some far distant past, plucking the faintest ones.
He cleared his throat.
“I no longer look at old photographs, you know. The shoeboxes have been passed on to family. I’ve taken down the picture frames.”
I nodded. “Mine were looted and burned last July. Those memories are gone. A century of memories, mostly not mine, gone in a frenzy-filled night.” My stomach knotted. “Desperate times. Desperate kids.”
“Youth are eager for life, and the perceived splendour of experiencing life, and creating new memories. But new experiences can be painful. So, horror comes. Pain comes. And, finally, bitterness – that bitterness festers.”
“Your work helps us process it,” I said. “You’ve shown us how to deal with it all.”
“I’m a rememberer. What I wrote is part of the remembering for everyone.”
I gave an awkward smile. He gave a curt nod.
“What are you waiting for?” he grumbled. “On with it.”
I drew in a deep breath. Gather my thoughts.
“I request your memory.”
“I grant you my memory.”
And that was that. Obviously something happened, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I think I was awaiting a burst of white light, or a moment of clarity, a quickening, even. But nothing. I went about my day, and that was that.
I reflected on the conversation, over and over. Playing it in my mind. Maybe he regretted it and recanted his grant to the universe and his gods.
I didn’t get a flash of Soyinka’s memory. Nothing. It was about to be discovered.
That night I tossed and turned. My dreams were vivid and I could hardly sleep peacefully. Before morning’s light, I startled awake, with a sheen of sweat on my skin and a realisation in my mind.
They were no dreams.
They were Soyinka’s memories.
I could awaken pain with such memories.
The cold sweat did not leave me. Rather, it came in waves like a fever. In between moments of incapacitation and collapse, overwhelmed by what felt like a massive physical weight on my mind, I had the wherewithal to drink water, and jot down notes.
At first, they were punched frantically into my phone, but after I had neglected to keep the battery powered, I was forced to scribble onto the small notepads I have randomly strewn around the flat. A number of pens are now lodged in odd places, after they refused to immediately cooperate with the enormity of my request.
As the sun peaked over the horizon, I knew it was really happening. I could feel the might of the words and imagery buffeting my senses. The cloud had burst, and the whirl of words and images leapt at me.
I woke in the late afternoon, weakened but enlivened at the possibilities before me. And yet, my body would not allow me to leap from my bed and grab my laptop. So, I tentatively stepped over paper scraps, and other detritus, and eased into the shower. I took in some moist food. And I drank some coffee.
I gathered up pockets of spent ideas and random thoughts that, even rereading indiscernible scribbles hours later, had no context or meaning for me. I had to let it all brew.
All the while my mind swelled thick, and the memories pushed themselves in and out of my perception.
This was it.
It was what? What does any of it mean?
Initially, I thought my notes on my phone were mistyped errors, fat fingers and garbled spellings. I tore at the mangled pages of notes in pen and pencil, in the kitchen rubbish bin.
All indecipherable, to me anyway. There are no errors. It would all make sense if I knew how to make sense of it all. Random memories and random thoughts with nowhere to put them.
Is this me and a meaningless thought? Or is that Soyinka, and I cannot fathom its purpose? I am in a boat, winding its way, going with the current, on a river I know nothing about, surrounded by water I know not what it contains. Heading towards what I do not know. With no rod or paddle to direct my course. Instead, I am left holding a massive tome, of gilt-edged pages and decorative lettering, sodden and torn by my briny sweat of confusion and ineptitude.
Hardest are the memories of his stories. Differentiating between his lived experience and what he put to paper in fiction have blurred. The pain he inflicted on characters for the sake of a story, for the character to grow, are now indiscernible from reality. Or are they real experiences he merely put into fiction? It is too much.
That ‘monumental tome’ is a burden to my mind; a mind not built around those moments; a mind not practiced, exercised, as any muscle from birth to old age, in the art of bearing a load. Bah! This intangible notion of memory, a thing seemingly as weightless as the light from a star, yet each part as heavy as the sun.
And so, I feel as a pack animal under a heavy yoke, in a sweltering heat, I cannot bear. How can anyone bear it?
I can have anyone’s memories, and anyone could have lived these experiences and conjured these worlds. But I grit my teeth at this realisation: it is a certain mind, with its own inner muscle, dedication and discernment, that can make sense of all the clatter and clutter; a certain mind who can make sense of their world, putting it to paper in a way the rest of us will understand and connect with.
I am not that person.
I cannot carry these memories in any useful manner. I am left to ferry them from one dim room to another, like unclaimed baggage on a conveyor belt.
I am over the thrill of the storm. I glower, and mutter and curse imprecations at the sky.
Here I am today. Desperate. I must find that well, the Well of Attenuation. I will not sip its waters, but gulp them down until I choke and splutter the memories away. But which memories deserve the peace of amnesia? And which are mine and which are Soyinka’s?
I need to unburden, but it can only be to one who requests it. And if someone should ask, would I grant the request, knowing full well they would have both Soyinka’s and mine in one fell swoop. Would they even know, right here, that ‘fell’ means terrible, cruel, savage. And would that matter to their craven mind? It would not have mattered to me. The one thing I keep asking myself: did I colonise his memory, or did he decolonise my mind?
P.S. (2022) – I dream. I remember. I cannot forget. I cannot forget that which I never saw with my own eyes. The memory is not mine…
My memory is under strain.