Tolu Daniel is a writer and editor. His essays and short stories have appeared in Catapult, Litro Magazine and Olongo Africa, amongst others. He is currently a graduate student of English at Kansas State University where he was awarded a Seaton Fellowship and an Edwards Scholarship to study Creative Writing.
BY AISHA KABIRU MOHAMMED
This conversation is a result of notes slipped electronically between Nigeria and the United States.
Aisha: Hello Tolu. How are you doing today?
Tolu: I am doing well, Aisha. How are you?
Aisha: I am fine, thank you. Reading your piece, “What Does it Mean to Survive”, published in Barren Magazine, has got me thinking about the act of surviving, and the act of running, more than I usually do. How hard was it for you to encapsulate these very simple yet difficult acts?
Tolu: That is an interesting question to begin with, especially in a time like this, when the world as we know it is in a collective hustle for survival. It is interesting how the pandemic makes prophets of some of us, isn’t it? At the time I wrote the essay, I was thinking about running in terms of how we move through spaces, about near-death experiences, how blind we are to other options that are possibly available. I was also thinking about friends who faded with time especially in that race, friends whose bodies could not carry them fast enough to a place of safety. I was querying what that safety meant. If it is a mirage, if the running in itself is a way our minds trick our bodies into a kind of reaction when danger calls because the danger is always around us. Isn’t it funny that now, because of the pandemic, we live in a heightened awareness of that possibility of danger? So yes, it was not hard at all to translate these thoughts onto paper. It was simply, for the most of it, an act of confession.
Aisha: You are right. The pandemic has increased our awareness of the possibility of danger. It seems like we were not bothered about death until it came. What was the process of this confession like? How would you describe it?
Tolu: But that is just it. The fallacy of human existence, the pretence that we are unbothered. It is the same pretence we carry into ventures like love and relationships. We convince ourselves that we are not interested in the things we are interested in. But as I said before, death is always around us. It is part of the cycle of existence. We are aware of it. We live with that awareness every day. The pandemic has only shifted our awareness to levels bordering on paranoia. We are now more conscious than usual. To your question about the confessional process involved in the writing of the essay, it is not a direct process at all. It spans a vast period of thinking and documenting very random and unrelated thoughts. My tiny pocket notebook is my witness, or as the Christians say, my priest. It is the notebook that I confess to. When I started writing, it was like sewing a thread, or if I can use a Biblical illustration, it was like Jacob sewing his son Joseph a coat of many colours. A jumble of random wholes, coming together to form something seemingly solid.
Aisha: That is an interesting and very poetic way to talk about this very delicate process. Going back to what you talked about, particularly the pandemic and its effect on how we view survival and what we now know it to be, how would you describe survival in Nigeria, especially at the time of your writing the piece?
Tolu: Nigeria, as it is today, is a compendium of traumatic experiences for Nigerians. The pandemic showed us another side to this, how in almost one swoop, as the infamous Twitter saying goes, ‘we were all served breakfast.’ Hence being Nigerian can almost be equated to simply surviving. I do not know how else to answer your question.
Aisha: I don’t think there is any other way to answer it. Speaking of being served breakfast, there was a scene in your piece where your girlfriend left you when she heard the gunshots. While I was reading it, I laughed a little. Do you think this is the typical reaction? Leaving our loved ones when survival comes first?
Tolu: I do not know if that is a typical reaction because things escalated pretty quickly that day. Also, I don’t think people typically do that. Any story about survival in history always begins with running. This is why it was hard for me to begrudge my girlfriend at the time. Sometimes we run, not for any other reason besides the prior knowledge of what doom and death feel like.
“If you ask me where home is, I’ll tell you that home is the road. Home is wherever I can arrive at myself and usually, that is on the road.“
Aisha: Well, a lot of people wouldn’t understand the situation as you did. Would you say this sense of survival is influenced by the environment we were raised in? In her case, it would be the Nigerian environment.
Tolu: I would not think so, as I was in the scene also. I want to believe that I grew up within similar circumstances as she did; we were both from working-class homes with civil servant parents and a very Nigerian sensibility. My first instinct, unlike hers, was not to run. It was to find out what was happening. What is even more curious is the fact that I was not the most adventurous kid back then. I grew up the same way she did, in a town where tragedy knocked on people’s doors. Cult boys would massacre each other on our streets, stray bullets from the police (also known as accidental discharge) would kill some kid playing football in the neighbourhood and every day seemed to be a wait for something sinister to happen. Yet, I believe the difference in both our responses to that moment of shattered calm, is a function of how we have both learned to live with these occurrences. It is funny to think about myself now, compared to who I was back then. Now, when I hear a gunshot or a sound of similar significance, the speed at which I would run will be similar, if not more dramatic. Time seems to have altered my curiosity.
Aisha: I am sorry that you had to go through that experience growing up. I do think that because you two had different backgrounds, that’s why you both reacted differently. Do you think growing up in such an environment as you did has its toll? Do you think it sort of numbs people?
Tolu: I think I mentioned that we grew up in similar circumstances and very similar backgrounds but our reaction was tailored to the choices that brought us to the place we both were. So in that vein, I do not know that anything ever really numbs a person. I believe in coping mechanisms. I do not think that humans can ever be numb, but I stand to be corrected. My opinion of this is shown in the difference between the reaction of both myself and the girlfriend of the essay. In that moment of panic, we both made decisions that suited the personality we built for ourselves. If our environment played a part in that decision or reaction, I can’t say. When my brother-in-law died in 2015, I was certainly changed by the experience, but it did not numb me from feeling the intense sadness when two years later, a very dear friend also passed on.
Aisha: Yes, you did mention that. Although you did not mention that you both grew up in the same situations and had witnessed the same violence. I was asking the question in line with the reaction to witnessing and experiencing violence, not emotional trauma. Would you say that witnessing violence numbs a person when they witness and experience it later on?
Tolu: It is certainly a possibility, but I do think it is a big cliché to assume that. People react to things in different ways and I believe this is the subjectivity that I was driving at in my earlier response. I, like many other people, sometimes categorize others with blanket definitions. The longer I live and the more I read, the more I find that there exists a subjectivity that ensures the occasional existence of events and people that defy those generalizations. So yes, I do not have a definite answer to that question either.
Aisha: Was this subjectivity a major influence when you were writing this piece?
Tolu: That is possible, but I do not believe that it was. I wrote the essay in 2018 and got it published in 2019, shortly before the world was ripped apart by the pandemic in 2020. My memory of my intention then is not very strong.
Aisha: Two years is a long time to remember certain details. Do you think you would have added anything to the piece if you wrote it during the pandemic?
Tolu: I did write something during the pandemic that sort of continues my exploration on the idea of survival. It was published in Olongo Africa. In the essay, I pushed the boundaries of my thoughts on survival.
Aisha: I was able to go through the piece and I found a slight similarity in your reference to Abẹ́òkúta. Could you talk about this?
Tolu: Which of the references are you referring to?
Tolu: I try to tie all my essays back to the same thing: seeking and trying to understand existential questions around survival.
Aisha: What makes Abẹ́òkúta special to you?
Tolu: Abẹ́òkúta is home. But not home in the way most people think of home. Abẹ́òkúta is where my parents are, where my family is. If you ask me where home is, I’ll tell you that home is the road. Home is wherever I can arrive at myself and usually, that is on the road. Whether I am on my way from Abẹ́òkúta to Lagos or a flight from Lagos to Abuja or from Manhattan to Kansas City or Chicago or Topeka or wherever.
Aisha: Does this migratory lifestyle or feeling of home affect your writing? And how? Seeing as in your pieces Abẹ́òkúta is seen as home, but you tell us that isn’t really.
Tolu: I have always favoured the travelogue and personal essay form over all else because it affords me a chance to see the world twice. The first time when I am living in that world and the second when I am writing about it. For instance, at the moment, Abẹ́òkúta belongs to memory for me. I have not lived there for 9 months, yet it is the most familiar place whenever I am in the land of dreams. I know its secrets, I have walked and bled on its soils. But it still is not home because my physical body now belongs elsewhere. This is what I mean.
Aisha: How important is Abeokuta to you?
Tolu: It is important the way most places are important because of memory, because of the hard days on the road when nostalgia is the only path to sanity.
Aisha: Did you ever have an issue trying to capture nostalgia when you were writing?
Tolu: The very act of writing can be nostalgic in itself, just the way music can evoke specific memories, writing about a place can do the same. So it is never an issue.
Aisha: What would you say is the one recurring theme in all your essays and why?
Tolu: Well, for most of my published essays, survival is the general running theme and I believe I have mentioned the reason earlier. The fact of being Nigerian is enough for one to be sentenced to that kind of endless rumination. Recently though, my thoughts have become more grounded in thinking about existence and the identities that we carry around and the ones bestowed on us.
Aisha: Has any of that changed since you moved to the US?
Tolu: Here in the US, the meaning of survival is different for me and I imagine as I continue to navigate my time here, it will continue to be.
Aisha: In what ways has it changed? Has your change in identity been a part of it?
Tolu: My identity has not changed, on the contrary, I have only become more conscious of my place in the world. Because that is what it means to move from a place where race matters little to a multiracial world. You begin to wear your identity like a coat. I am now more conscious of my nationality, my culture than I have ever been, but the core of myself remains the same. I am still the little boy wandering the streets of Ijeja those years ago. I am only now navigating another place. Now more conscious about how I am seen, what I do. How my individual choices can be easily misconstrued because of my proximity to power.
Aisha: I think this must have had some effect on some of your work?
Tolu: It probably does. But we will have to wait till I publish something new, won’t we?
Aisha: Yes, we will have to. I will be on the lookout. Thank you for joining us.
Tolu: Thank you for having me and more importantly, I am grateful for your patience.
Aisha: You’re welcome.
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Aisha Kabiru Mohammed is a law student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Kaduna state is her home town. Aisha is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her pieces revolve around identity, feminism, and the African mind and body as political and spiritual entities. In 2019, Aisha won the inaugural Andrew Nok Poetry Prize, awarded by YELF. She later judged the 2020 edition of the prize. When she isn’t studying law and writing, you can find her drinking tea, reading, stroking cats and volunteering to spread mental health awareness and to end SGBV. Aisha currently hosts a podcast segment for Ayamba LitCast called Poet Box Series.