Existential Anxiety and the Projection of Past Selves: A Dialogue with Ayotunde Olumilua
Ayotunde James Olumilua is a Nigerian writer who sometimes publishes under the alias Jay-Jay Raymond. He runs a blog where he posts creative nonfiction and short stories. His work has appeared in Agbowó Art magazine. He is a music and film enthusiast.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between the morning cold and afternoon heat of Nairobi, Kenya, and the rain-drenched ageless city of Ibadan, Nigeria, via email.
Edith: Hello Ayotunde. Thank you for allowing me the pleasure to have this conversation with you. Your work, “Every day we Quietly Fall Apart” was recently published in the Memory Issue of Agbowó Magazine and I must congratulate you for such a brilliant intriguing piece. How was the experience of writing this personal essay, as compared to your previous works, either fiction or nonfiction?
Ayotunde: This is probably the most personal thing I’ve ever written, so it involved a lot of reflection and rumination. The process of writing it really helped me to better understand what I was trying to pass across. I often say that writing can be challenging, but the feeling of having written makes it all worth it.
Edith: Yes, writing can be challenging; sometimes the words just seep out of us, but then other times, we have to continually poke the pores until there is an opening. And I agree with you, writing helps us understand better what we are trying to pass across.
Recently, I received an email from a publication saying they were going to run a piece I had sent in, and my first thought was ‘Oh no!’ Only after that acceptance did I feel the weight of what I had written. It was a nonfiction piece, and suddenly I didn’t want people to read about my past choices and regrets. And to make it worse, they said ‘please send us your picture to have alongside your work’ and I thought ‘Hell no!’ Not only had I exposed myself with words, now they wanted a picture too! I thought of asking them to give me my story back. And only after a very long meeting with myself, did I attach my picture and send, because like you’ve said, the essence of writing is ‘what am I saying?’ and as much as it is personal or painful or shameful or whatever gradations it carries, the important thing is overcoming self and helping others find, or identify, or contrast themselves through our stories.
And that’s why I love your essay, because I totally relate with it; for the questioning, the uncertainty, the beauty, the memories and the vulnerability it carries, and I’m wondering did you hesitate about writing this? Were there certain bits where you felt, ‘no I won’t write this’ or was it just a free-fall for you? And do you think revelation in nonfiction should be controlled—in deciding how much to expose?
Ayotunde: These are interesting questions. I actually used to write under the alias Jay-Jay Raymond. I still do sometimes. Even my blog is named after the alias. At some point, I just decided to use my actual name. There are times when I look back on that decision and wish I didn’t make it.
One of the advantages of fiction is that one can mask one’s own experiences or controversial opinions with characters. In nonfiction, one has to be cautious, especially if the story involves other people. There are some things that should be left unsaid. I vaguely remember Wole Soyinka implying this sentiment once or twice. Changing the names of the people involved is not a bad thing. In fact, I think it should be normalized. A writer shouldn’t have to necessarily add an asterisk in the footnotes to indicate a name change. When you write nonfiction that has problematic or controversial parts, you drag all the people who were involved in that story into the storm. They don’t have to be put out there like that in certain circumstances. As long as the story is real, it’s valid.
Edith: Yes, nonfiction involves a delicate balance, because leaving things ‘unsaid’ is about not writing them but still implying them. So that it’s not outright in text, but the reader is able to discern and realize what has been left unsaid. And that is what great writing is, I suppose.
Speaking of unsaid things, in the first paragraph of your essay, you talk about having flashbacks “from a past that increasingly feels like a self-conceived myth.” This questioning of memory, of doubting whether childhood experiences are real or figments of imagination: how is it connected to aging? My fear of growing old often makes me anxious about the future, but interestingly for you, it takes you to the past. What is for you, the relationship between childhood memories and the reality of growing old?
Ayotunde: The fact that the end is closer with each second that passes makes me want to reach into the past to retrieve and relive what was, but isn’t quite any longer.
Aging is a constant reminder that I am running out of time to find some kind of connection to my dissolving past. Maybe if I dig back into the past, I’ll create illusions of me being farther from the end than I actually am. Maybe if I find things that make my past more vivid, the illusion will feel more convincing. The older I get, the more I feel the need to explore these memories in their fullness and vibrancy; in a way that engages all the senses. This, of course, is impossible. Even virtual windows to that past are limited. I guess it’s just a feeling I’m stuck with forever.
“One of the problems with having existential anxiety, especially as a Nigerian in Nigeria, is that people don’t take the condition seriously. So, you have to take care of yourself psychologically in an environment where the only problems people validate are lack of material needs and physical health issues.”
Edith: This need to explore memories is something that I find myself doing too. Anytime I’m back home, I will visit the old paths, the creek, pass by my old school, visit the market and try with all that I can to absorb as much as possible of the past, in the present moment. For me it’s about affirmation: that my past is real, that the existence and familiarity of these places prove to me that I’ve been there before. But when you write about existential anxiety in your essay, you say that it ‘lodges hopelessness at the base of the spirit.’ Tell me, what answers do you seek when you go back to your past? What are you trying to find?
Ayotunde: I like your motives for visiting the past. They’re definitely not as gloomy as mine, and I also relate in a way.
I confront the past so that I may retrieve what is lost, whether in part or whole. To me, the scope of death’s meaning is broad. It is not just the death of living things. It is the loss of something that was, whether tangible or intangible. A pebble on the floor may be just a pebble to you, but it may have been a symbol of something significant to someone. To that person who treasured the pebble, the pebble is dead. What I’m trying to say is that there is more to death than the physical death we will all experience. Many things associated with us will die before we do. Things like thoughts, fragrances, random items that remind you of special people and experiences, they have life. They are life. When I lose these things or fail to recollect what connects me to them, they die to me. But some of them can come back to life. That is why I wander into the past: to get back the ones I feel the need to.
Edith: “Many things associated with us will die before we do.” That’s profound! And now I see it, differently maybe. But you make me see that even though in going back we can only relieve those things in our minds without necessarily bringing them with us into the present, going back gives us hindsight knowledge: an awareness of what we may not have seen or realized back then. And I’m thinking of when you write about the Eze-Goes-to-School haircut episode, (laughs) that’s a funny name.
Your description of the experience with your mum at the barber shop, it’s so intimate, so intense and such a beautiful memory. Reflecting on that experience now, are there things that you see differently, from the outside looking in? About her, about you, about that experience, does it take a deeper meaning or is it just what it was then: a visit to the barber shop.
Ayotunde: I see a lot of things differently. I was only a boy. It’s crazy how small I used to be in that barber’s chair. My now 6-foot-plus self marvels at the difference. Those barbershop visits are significant because they remind me of my mother’s sacrifices and what she had to go through while making them.
So much has happened since then, but my core remains the same: the boy who just wants to enjoy every day. When you’re that young, the last thing you’re thinking about is having or aligning perspectives. I just wanted to watch wrestling or football, and have fun. I do remember hoping to be a lawyer, but even that wasn’t a passion or dream. It was just something I said when people asked me what I wanted to be. But what I know that where I currently am in life is not where I’ve ever wanted to be.
Edith: I know what you are talking about. I remember being asked hundreds of times by adults what I wanted to be when I grew up. Well, it changed weekly, I think—from journalist to astronaut, spy, model, and others. Though I must say, my 7-year-old nephew has wanted to be an ice cream man for about three months now, so at least he’s consistent. I try to refrain from asking children that same thing over and over; it feels so patronizing, though I get the reason behind it. Children sometimes just want to be children, and they will figure out the future for themselves a day at a time. I don’t think many of us are where we thought we would be, as you rightly say.
I actually had to google ‘gerascophobia’, I didn’t even know it existed until I read it in your essay. My friend and I a few years ago were scared, and I mean terrified, about turning thirty. Now it’s literally a breath away from us, and we just sing ‘whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see.’ And when I read about this balance that you say we should find in order to manage existential anxiety and you talk about assessing ourselves,
“from our predilections to our tolerance levels. What do I like? What are the consequences of doing the things I like? Do I really like the things I like? Is the consequence of doing what I like worth it?”
My first thought upon reading that was, would we ever do anything if we were to constantly question ourselves like this? Have you tried it? Does it work for you?
Ayotunde: One of the problems with having existential anxiety, especially as a Nigerian in Nigeria, is that people don’t take the condition seriously. So, you have to take care of yourself psychologically in an environment where the only problems people validate are lack of material needs and physical health issues. Find ways to make yourself preoccupied and happier. Sometimes, the things that make us happier are not good for us in certain proportions, so finding a balance is crucial. You have to make informed decisions and take responsibility for the outcomes. It works for me. We all need a little pessimism in our lives.
Edith: I was going to say I don’t need any pessimism, but whether or not I need or want it, it’s always there, an unwelcome guest. And yes, finding balance is crucial. Though what works for one doesn’t always work for another. It’s just like your friend Uruemu, who said, as you wrote in the essay—that your anxieties were because you were broke and that when you found money, then everything would be smooth. In your conversation with him in the essay, and even just now, you talk about the political state you live in; Nigeria and its leadership and economic realities.
The previous generation’s writers were very politically conscious. All the way from Ngugi, Okigbo, Soyinka, Saro-Wiwa, they questioned and demanded for better through their writings. Do you think as the current crop of writers we are doing better than them, or worse? Do you see enough tackling of sociopolitical environments in Nigerian writings? And do you think it’s important that writers do so, or not?
Ayotunde: I would love a reality where more Nigerian artists dedicate sizable parts of their art to exploring our sociopolitical realities—not only writers. But I would not want to dictate to artists what they should do. People have different motives for doing what they do. It’s hard enough for artists to survive in Nigeria when they’re not engaging the commercial crowd. But a reality where Nigerian writers take on the responsibility of poking the collective conscience of Nigeria’s elite is one I would love to see.
I must say that I have reservations about the term “political art”. Politics is something I don’t mind exploring from the outside, but it is also something I hope to never engage in. When I think of politics, I think of reason-proof bias and lack of nuance. Calling art “political” makes it seem as though art is of politics, like it’s an expression of politics. But that’s all semantics, of course. But back to your question, politics is considerably present in Nigerian writing, and I hope it continues that way. Novelist Elnathan John tries. He also does satire, even though Nigerian politics does well at satirizing itself.
Edith: Your response reminds me of South African poet Dennis Brutus when he was asked about writing (poetry) and political activity and he said,
“I believe that the poet—as a poet—has no obligation to be committed, but the man—as a man—has an obligation to be committed. What I’m saying is that I think everybody ought to be committed and the poet is just one of the many ‘everybodies.’”
So yes, a writer, as part of ‘everybody’ should decide whether or not they will engage in politics. George Orwell said “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I think as artists we should come to the awareness that through our works, we have access to people’s emotions and can influence their thoughts, and with that comes responsibility; To dignify minorities and those not in power, or even to transcend ourselves and address the realities in our society.
And on transcending ourselves; you actually do that in your story. When your memories take you back to your school experience, you write,
“He had a sad look on his face; a look foreshadowing something invisible to the older me. Finally, he waved at me and collapsed into dust so fine that I couldn’t see it. It was then I realized, for some unknown reason, that he had not been walking beside me; he had been walking with me.”
It’s such a hauntingly beautiful paragraph, and in it we get to see two versions of you.
Ayotunde: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a present self interacting with a past self. I might even throw a future self in the mix; a three-way dynamic. But at the school, I imagined the young me being sad about the state of my personal and work life, and how some things I’ve had to go through could have been avoided, and how the storms ahead are still just a mystery to me. His reaction was just a reflection of how I feel. He was a projection.
Edith: A three-way dynamic! Interesting. The result was eerily intriguing. I will definitely experiment with that. And from your blog, I see that you write within three genres; nonfiction, fiction and poetry, and a few of your works subtly take on this form. I always ask multigenre writers this question; what influences your forms: how do you decide ‘I want to express this as fiction, as poetry or just write it as a nonfiction piece.’
Ayotunde: My primary channels are the forms of essays and short stories. I also write free verse poetry and flash. As for how I choose the form to convey what I want to, it depends on how much nuance I want. When I need time to humanize characters and explore important yet seemingly mundane things, I resort to short stories. If I want to pass a message through social commentary, but I don’t want the message to be vague, I just go for essays. It’s always tempting to go for a short story if I want to do some self-exploration, especially if the topic has some embarrassing or controversial elements. Ultimately, the satisfaction comes from having conveyed what I intended to. How I do it doesn’t really matter.
Edith: Thanks for the insightful answer. Tell me, why is it important for you to have a blog? Personally, I’ve tried it twice and failed, so I know it takes massive discipline. I found more motivation in writing and submitting elsewhere as opposed to posting on my blog. You’ve had yours for about four years now. Also, how does it affect your external submissions to magazines?
Ayotunde: Getting published in a magazine takes time. The submission isn’t the hard part, it’s the wait for the acceptance email and the subsequent wait for the publication date. It can be frustrating, especially if it’s a piece you want to get out there as soon as possible. My blog is somewhere I post stuff I need to show people. There is no grand scheme to monetize it, even though that’s something I’d be open to. I think of my blog as a portfolio too, the writer’s equivalent to a rapper’s demo tape. So, yes, it definitely serves a purpose or two.
Edith: Oh yes, both are important. Being published externally introduces your work to people. And once they know it, they can always come back to your blog for more or vice versa. And there’s no problem whatsoever if you decide to monetize your blog. Writers should profit from their passion.
Thank you so much for taking your time to speak with me, Ayotunde. Your essay addresses a lot of themes that I found fascinating- I enjoyed engaging with it. And getting to know how your experiences shape your writing process has been such a joy. I look forward to reading more of your work and participating in further conversations with you in the future.
Ayotunde: I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for the opportunity.
Edith Knight Magak is a writer and editor living in Nairobi, Kenya.
Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Critical Read, Urban Ivy, Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Jalada, Six Hens, among other places. Edith writes about writing, depression, trauma, family, history and sometimes murder. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.
When she isn’t writing or working, she fills her time taking long walks, scribbling poetry, or reading short stories. Edith is a member of the African Writers Development Trust.
Edith believes that the future of African literature is creative nonfiction.