2019 Koffi Addo Prize For Creative Nonfiction Award~ Shortlisted Writer: A Dialogue With Kanyinsola Olorunnisola
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is an experimental poet, essayist and writer of fiction. He is the founder of SPRINNG, an initiative for amplifying the voices of Nigerian writers. His poetry chapbook, In My Country, We’re All Crossdressers (2018) was published by Praxis. His work has appeared in Bombay Review, Kalahari Review, Gyroscope Review, Arts and Africa, African Writer, Brittle Paper, Bodega among others. He has completed “A Pornographic Portrait of Lakunle with His Favourite Ghosts”, his first full-length poetry manuscript. He is currently on the shortlist for the Koffi Addo Prize. He is working on a yet-to-be-titled alternate history novel.
BY TSHEPO PHOKOJE
This dialogue happened between Maun, Botswana and Nigeria through an exchange of Whatsapp texts.
Tshepo: Kanyinsola, congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. The Comedian is such a great read. Take me through the inspiration behind the story and why there was a need for you to write it.
Kanyinsola: Thank you very much. Even now, it still feels unreal. It is almost an out-of-body experience, the feeling of being on the shortlist. This was something that used to seem so out-of-reach. But I am getting acclimated to it. As for the story itself, it was a sort of existential necessity, really. My father passed away in the December of 2016, during the most devastating phase of our lives. He was getting used to retirement and I was on my way out of school. There is the a belief among the Yorubas that a child eventually grows up to “pamper” their parents in return for all the years of their selfless service to raise him. In my mind, this was the time for that to happen. And then, he died. I had no frame of reference to help me categorize the pain and the anguish that took host of my body. I could not process the feeling in any way that was healthy. It was one depressive bout after another. I knew I had to write about it, because that was the only way to come home to myself but was too terrified to do so. It took me two years to finally write about my grief. That was how “The Comedian” was birthed.
Tshepo: May your father’s soul continue to rest in eternal peace.
The timing of life and death is only known to the Creator. I have over the years learnt that tomorrow is not promised. Constantly thinking about this fact gives some serious anxiety and it can make one clingy and somehow needy. I have to keep my fear of losing loved ones in check or it ends up taking up so much of my thinking time. The good side to this though, is that I tend to be mindful of how I can be a better person, better mother, sister, lover, daughter and friend.
You said that it took you some time to finally write this wonderful story. How long did you work on it? How was the process like? How many drafts did you write until the submitted version?
Kanyinsola: Weeks after my father’s death, I was tasked with writing his eulogy. I could not. Oddly enough, my creative energies were tremendously alive then, but when it came to writing about death, or my father specifically, I became deadwood-dry and infertile, ripped out from the very life source my creativity was rooted in.
His story went untold. And I, as my punishment, lived as an incomplete thing. It was not that I didn’t want to. I just couldn’t. But that changed when, two years later, I visited his mausoleum with my family. Somehow, being in presence again, and having a quasi-spiritual experience of him, awakened something. I actually wrote the conclusion right there at the mausoleum. The rest of the story came to me as it appeared: in vignettes. I had a real mental crisis afterwards. I was losing my memories of him. It was as though a force was chasing me, threatening to erase every memory of his existence unless I documented what he meant to me. I quickly wrote the story in about a week. It was only revised about three times before I sent it in.
“But that changed when, two years later, I visited his mausoleum with my family. Somehow, being in presence again, and having a quasi-spiritual experience of him, awakened something. I actually wrote the conclusion right there at the mausoleum. The rest of the story came to me as it appeared: in vignettes.“
Tshepo: The mind is such a powerful thing, the artists even more. I’ve heard from a couple of my friends who are also in the creative industry, how they went blank and their hearts numbed after their loss of a loved one. I personally know this feeling: it’s almost like running away from yourself, within yourself. Grieving is definitely a process and it needs patience. For you, it took two years, for others it can be shorter. What is important, however, is that the weight has been finally lifted. How else did you deal with his passing?
Kanyinsola: You capture this feeling in such an eloquent manner, I am certain I can’t express it in more lucid terms.
But I wouldn’t say the weight has been lifted exactly. What writing the story did for me was help me acknowledge that there is indeed a dark cloud hanging over my head, and to give a name to that darkness. You disarm your darkness whenever you name it, because the power becomes yours. Before I wrote myself to sanity, I dealt with my grief by not dealing with it. I tried to ignore it because there were too many triggers. There was a time when hearing the word “father” would kick my tear-ducts into overdrive. Those were the truly dark days.
Tshepo: The blessing of being a writer is just how we can write out and to our pain to heal. Your story has humor within the sadness, you must be proud of yourself for having allowed it to make it out there. Kudos for that. Has any member of your family read it yet?
Kanyinsola: No one else has read it yet. I’m not sure I want them to. There are vulnerabilities expressed within the story which I am more comfortable sharing with people who have no stake in my grief. But for someone whose grief is cut from the same cloth as mine, it can be a truly devastating read. I want to spare them that.
Tshepo: It can also be a way for them to heal but I can understand why you would want to spare them the pain. It might also be what your family needs to embrace each other away from the silent grief. Please, open yourself to that possibility because The Comedian made it online and here we are discussing it and it has been shortlisted for an award. Maybe it’s time to allow it to serve its purpose.
Kanyinsola: You are absolutely right. I need to give it much consideration.
Tshepo: One of the stages of healing is denial and it makes you human to have tried to not face the grief. Writers have such an important role for others and for themselves. Unfortunately, they sometimes get the worst experience and have to tell a story about it because first-hand experience is laced with authenticity. May your writing keep healing you and brighten your gloomy days at a pace that will allow you to one day not hurt anymore.
Kanyinsola: Oh, thank you very much. I suppose our works can be the vehicle for other people’s truths. I must say, though, that while writing The Comedian, I did not consider any external realities beyond myself and my memories. The ‘Other’ did not exist for me. And thank God for that. If I had thought about another soul reading the essay, then I wouldn’t have penned a word.
Tshepo: And that is how it should be done, writing not for the audience, but ourselves.
Death without a warning seems to hit the hardest. What do you think one would say or do if they were given a chance to say goodbye? What would you have done differently?
Kanyinsola: I ask myself that last question a lot and am often disturbed by it. Perhaps, it is the unknowing that hurts the most, the inability to guess what your own actions would be in an alternate timeline. There I go, talking about alternate timelines. I didn’t want to do this but I guess it’s a necessity now. I am always interrogating alternate realities and trying to analyse my pattern of action, to see what would be done differently if the impending tragedy had been known beforehand. The truth is, I don’t know, really.
Tshepo: Your story has some insightful points. The questions that you have pondered on are relevant and I have asked myself the same, not in the exact order, but what would the meaning of life be if we had all the missing pieces to a lifelong puzzle?
Babátúndé, even without knowing much about the Yoruba culture, seems like a name that carries weight, earns one respect from other family members and the community. What name will you give your son to continue this powerful culture?
Kanyinsola: As for my son, if I have one, I would probably give him a variation of the same name. The general theory is that the father returns to the family so as to maintain the bloodline, or because of some sentimental necessity. I don’t entirely subscribe to that. I don’t think we name our children Babátúndé because the father returned. It is the other way around. The spirit of the ancestor returns specifically because we have called them back, because we have spoken a name that invokes their continued being. I like to think of it that way. All of this is selfish, of course. For this to work, I would need the permission of whoever I create the kid with, wouldn’t I? Haha.
Tshepo: Hahaha, there is that. Let us hope she will grant you the permission to do so.
Kanyinsola: Fingers crossed.
Tshepo: “I can’t wait to see how far your writing career goes. I cannot wait to see just how far you go in life.” These words, as said by your father, have moved me and I had to pause for a minute and breathe them in. I felt every emotion that you probably felt as you typed them. Thank God for the memories. I look forward to reading more of your amazing work. All the best with winning the prize.
Kanyinsola: Thank you very much, Tshepo. Those words, once heartbreaking, have become a remarkable source of unlimited energies which permeate everything I do. It is amazing how much impact certain words, coming at a specific time, can have on one’s life.
Tshepo: This has been fun. Thank you Kanyi.
Tshepo Phokoje is a writer from Palapye, Botswana. She writes both Fictional and Creative non-fictional short stories as well as Poetry. Her first fictional short story was published as part of 36 Kisses; an Anthology of Short stories & Poems by Botswana Society of Human Development, which was aimed at promoting commercial tourism. Her poem Battered, Bruised & Abused, is part of Silent No More, a PDF anthology about Gender Based Violence. Her poem “FEAR” has been featured in the May 2018 edition of Writers Space Africa, an international online magazine. In her spare time, she edits her fellow writers’ works. She is an overall lover of Arts and hopes to start her own blog, which will focus on Mental Health, Gender Based Violence, Loss, Motherhood, the ripple effects of unemployment and/or liquidation of mines and Survival stories