For several reasons, it’s been quite a while since my last blog. Between then and now, a fusillade of transformations has taken place. Rather than present a disjointed patchwork of events from here and there, I’ll just take a deep breath and start from the beginning, when summer was peaking and plans were forming.
In 2012, I started working on a novel. In 2013, it was completed. In 2014, it was published. The journey from the first uncertain scrawl of words to the final product was a weird, imprecise zigzag, but it’s also one I never foresaw. Back then, if you had asked me why I was writing the book, I probably would have looked at you with furrowed brows and a surprised look. Why? Why I’m writing it? Because…because…
I want to? No, not quite. I mean, yes, of course I want to write. But that’s not why. I don’t know what the why is. I don’t know why the kidnapping on the news stuck with me the way it did, why it bounced around and persisted in my head, fermenting and ripening until it suddenly felt too much to simply be contained. It just had to be written. I couldn’t say why, but it just had to be, and in the absence of words to give shape to this looming story, it persisted like a large pimple, needing immediate attention. The moment I began typing the words, it was like getting lost, vanishing into a dark cabinet where warm voices murmur and where you feel comfort despite the lack of sight. That’s why I wrote the book, and I don’t think I can articulate it any better than that.
What I do know is that I never really intended for it to be published, at least not until the later stages of the novel, a hundred thousand words into the demented lives of Joseph and Ashley. I was writing because, just because, fullstop, and the idea of publishing held the same substance that MIT once did–a height to be contemplated and admired, never grasped. But I already spoke about how dreams sometimes spring out of the boxes they reside in. I just want to talk about the process of bringing the published book to life.
A book needs readers, right? So the publishing press put together a small planning committee. We upturned every rock, burnt the midnight oil, trying to figure out how to promote the book. Ultimately, we decided on a pre-sales book launch that would bring together students, parents, friends, government personnel and the media into a whirlwind of publicity.
The launch took place on the nineteenth of June. Teachers from my high school showed up with students. My friends trickled in, all of them looking so much more different than I remembered. Government ministries were represented, of education, of power. So were companies I suppose were curious about the book, and about whatever waves it was stirring. I think a lot of the unexpectedly profound publicity had a lot to do with my age juxtaposed against the sheer size of the book.
Prior to the launch, I went around a lot, meeting people, introducing the book, giving summaries and free copies and autographs. Whenever they saw it for the first time, there was a certain way their eyes popped open. Sure, they knew I’d written something, but it was so…big. I found this near-universal surprise a little amusing. They’d ask how I’d done it, and it would seem a bit weird because I had had a year and I wrote all the time, and the daily hours of investment, which I guess accumulated pretty fast, seemed sort of normal at the time. I write with every chance I get. And like anything, it just piles up.
Anyway, for the launch, I was dressed in a spiffy red suit, which made me feel claustrophobic. I was also nervous as hell. I remember diving into a bathroom moments before everything began, just breathing in and out, staring at myself in the mirror. The cynical, consistently loud, consistently self-aware and self-criticizing part of me I think comes with writing was actually quiet that day. All of me was quiet, inside and out. I knew it was a huge day, or was supposed to be a huge day, but staring at myself, with my bent glasses hinged on my crooked nose, I couldn’t quite process anything, except the feeling of bigness, of being overwhelmed without being sure why.
Then the event started. Guests of honors were rattled out, most notably a state governor who had sent in a representative. There were a few remarks about the book, followed by an in-depth review by a professor. And I do mean in-depth. His review was long and detailed and sweeping, and brought to light his opinions on the merits and flaws of the book. For instance, to his taste, my symbolism was overdone and a lot of phrases were notably unduly complicated or odd-sounding. But overall, his review was positive. He praised the characters, the realistic nature of their depressing situations. It was actually the first official review of the book, and the first professional review I’d heard and I think I was most aware of the fact that all these people were here listening to him talk about the book, while I sat at the other side of the room, facing the crowd, still sort of shell-shocked.
After the review was over, I read a few pages from the book, somehow without hyperventilating into a nervous mess on the floor. Then the sales began. There were lots of pictures and lots of poses and lots of interviews and lots of clicking cameras. People smiling and talking and mingling and pulling me in all directions when the launch ended. But to my ears, the inner ears that no one could probe, there was only the loudness of my heartbeat, the awe. I don’t know why. I do know that the day of the launch was one of the happiest days of my life.
During the launch, most people bought the book at its normal price, but a lot of others, mostly government personnel, wanted to show support for the book and the publishers, and thus voluntarily bought copies at significantly higher amounts. As a result, the novel broke even on the first day of sale, and since then has made over forty thousand dollars.
A lot followed the day of the launch. I still went everywhere I could, trying to promote it. My high school gave me a booth during its Class of 2014 Graduation Ceremony where I sat for several hours and talked about the book to parents. And while sales did happen all the time, they also didn’t happen a lot of times. Since I was one of several people involved in direct sales, there were times I would walk up to people to talk about the book and they would quickly shut me down—the natural fear of all salespeople, I think, wherein we all agree that they are soul-sucking time-wasting leeches. I remember in particular, approaching a bored-looking woman during the graduation ceremony, asking her if I could interest her in the book. She said “sure” and I went into a detailed explanation as to what it was all about. She nodded and smiled and after I was done, she asked, “Are you done?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” she replied. “No.” Then she got up and left.
There were other variants—“I’m not interested” and “Please I’m busy” and the noncommittal “Okay, I’ll come by later and check it out, I promise.” But the ones that did sell involved the same first step—having the courage to go up and talk to people. They didn’t come over to the booths by themselves—at least many of them didn’t. A lot of times, I had to take a breath in and walk up to them and say, “Hey, can I talk to you about this book?” I’m not very good with public speaking. Heck, people have a consistently hard time trying to figure out what I’m saying. I was too aware of this and was always nervous, but somehow always managed to slip into that neutral, controlled, traveling salesman voice whenever I had to. It was a powerful learning experience, and for each sale and each rejection that came from me reaching out to someone, I was at least proud of my effort.
The book was featured in three national newspapers, a literary magazine and a national TV channel—African Independent Television. For the TV bit, I naturally had to go up to be interviewed. On live TV. And I didn’t realize it was live until moments before the program started. I probably would have if I hadn’t been so late.
So the extensive network of offices, satellites and equipment that comprise AIT are situated on top of a hill, but this hill is shrouded by extensive high-rises of jutting rocks and sprawling vegetation, and thus making it out from the ground is impossible. There was no internet to even permit me to fool around on a GPS, and even though my parents (who were driving me there) had the address, we had no real clue where the place was. We resorted to the “Nigerian GPS” system, which means stopping continuously to ask passersby for direction. Which was fun because one would say, “Head a few miles north this way” and we would head north and ask someone else who would say, “Nope, wrong direction, head several miles south the opposite way!”
But we did end up finding the station in the nick of time. I was supposed to be featured on a live Sunday afternoon show called “Frontline”, and we were dangerously close to running late.
Thus, there was no time to prepare. The show’s host, Martin Ilo, hurried me into the newsroom. I was more or less shoved into a seat. A swarm of people surrounded me, powdering my face and my nose with all sorts of weird things that, in my disoriented state of mind, could have been anything from lotion to rat poison. Then bright halogen lights washed my face and my host’s in strange glows, and a million cameras rose like vanishing angels and Martin told me to be calm and collected and just think of him as a casual friend and then the show began. I’m still not sure how that went, but it was definitely fun.
So yeah, the book did make more waves than my mind had ever imagined (or intended) it would, but I think the smallest wave it made, at least from a grand cosmic world view or just some objective point of view, was the biggest one for me. But I’ll get to that in just a bit.
In Closing, A Few Things
From the moment I started writing the book and up to its current evolving state today, I learnt a lot. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about lessons, because they were mostly for me anyway, and they felt like the sort of lessons that imprinted themselves on you by virtue of experience, as opposed to some grand lecturing, but I do wanna say a few things.
First, people make dreams happen. Not just a person, people. And there are so many of them I’m grateful for, the wheels of the cog without whom the book would have never spun and taken flight. My parents and friends, the publishers and the salespeople, the government officials that helped out and were willing to let me engage them. So just think about that. That one idea you’ve spent harboring will not be driven to fruition in a dingy basement or a lonely lab. And that’s one of the most comforting, most relieving facts I know.
Second, we’re all capable of courage, but for the things we care most about, it really shows itself when it counts the most. Talking to people, being in the center of things, making public statements, these are the sort of things I can happily do when writing, because the words have a certain drum with which they flow to my head, and it’s rhythmic enough for me that I don’t care so much about how others perceive it. Speaking is almost the direct opposite, and having to do so much of it in such little time was far beyond my comfort zone. But that’s where our most strong-legged dreams will want to take us, beyond our comfort zones. We shouldn’t be afraid to follow them as they lead us.
And finally, make small waves. Whenever you can. I talked about the physically small wave that actually ended up meaning so much to me—and that wave was my little brother, Johnpaul, who I think represented the biggest aftermath of the book launch for me. Johnpaul had been at the book launch.
The day afterward, I found him on the house desktop, which meant the universe was still in order because he was always there playing some really old version of FIFA. But this time, he wasn’t playing a game. As I came upon what he was doing, I was pretty surprised.
“Johnpaul?” I said. “What are you doing?”
He looked up from the Microsoft Office document, where at the corner, I saw he had written seven hundred words thus far.
“I want to be like you,” he said. “I want to write my own book too.”
For me, that small wave was the biggest one.