Once it was announced that there would be restriction of movement following the escalating disease crisis, I left family and travelled by train to my new home in Kaduna with a copy of Ted Chiang’s new ‘Exhalation’. I was ignorant of what was happening in the world, or at least the degree of it. Anything that can make you drop your phone in 2020 is a solid read and Ted Chiang is simply that good; Exhalation swallowed my mind. Chiang’s time-traveling sheiks and category-defying robots made me immune to world news. I wasn’t prepared for a well-researched story set in my father’s tribe land in the 1940s. Ted Chiang used an encounter between Christian missionaries and my father’s Tiv ancestors to illustrate how language shapes memory and the implication of this in the future. By the time I climbed out of the collection, a man had flown into Nigeria from Italy with the virus and the governor of my city had invoked a full lockdown, making it the first city to go into quarantine in Africa.
After some panic attacks I tried to go out and do some last-minute shopping but shops were locked, streets were empty. I lost all language, I couldn’t write or edit anything, so I picked up Sulaiman Addonia’s ‘Silence is my Mother Tongue’. Addonia’s language painted confinement, not just in the refugee camp where most events in the novel occur, but also of expression. Even though I was in quarantine and not a refugee camp, that resonated with me. The way his characters tried to occupy what little space they had forced me to occupy mine, so I started making some decisions in my apartment, like recycling my bedframes into a bookshelf since they hurt my back and thinking about what I wanted the rooms to smell like. I had already gotten scented candles from my friends in the capital city, but I wanted a perfume I couldn’t name and it would be in Othuke Ominiabohs’ ‘Aviara’ that I would find it. The fragrance of the trees and wet sand and grass in the titular town wafted from the pages and the general rainforest ambience of the novel felt like dreaming in water.
At this point my travels had been cancelled indefinitely and some of my literary events were moving online. Reading Arundhati Roy’s meditation on global events titled ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ gave me some grounding. My city started opening two days a week for shopping. I didn’t join the global baking syndrome but I started getting house plants. I still couldn’t write. I read even less. Everything I tried to do had this question waiting: ‘to what end?’
There were three episodes I was certain I had Covid-19 and each hardened my resolve to finish reading all the books I had purchased in 2019. I was not going to die and haunt my apartment as a Tsukundo ghost.
I started reading ‘The Black Book’ by Orhan Pamuk but I stopped halfway because Celal’s brilliant meditations on national life were making me cynical about governments in the real world. My country would lay claim to me if I become a successful writer but until then it will do all in its power to make sure that doesn’t happen. As for the Galip who looked for his ‘dream garden’, well I already knew he won’t find her, for what romance survives in a nationalist state? But Pamuk’s writing is enchanting enough to assure me I would return to find out.
I cannot remember all the books I read in my efforts to not become a Tsukundo ghost, but most vividly, I remember Nnamdi Oguike’s ‘Do Not Say It Is Not Your Country’. As a short story person at heart, this collection was a true treat. The writer used stories showing characters struggling for better to show us the beauty, humor and preciousness of ordinary life. I found Zaina Arafat’s excerpt from her novel ‘You Exist Too Much’ published on Guernica startling and deeply satisfying.
Quarantine was over by this point but it was Eloghosa Osunde’s triumphant ‘Good Boy’ published on The Paris Review that jarred me awake from the lethargy of the past months, reminded me how to feel fiction. I found Christine Ochs-Naderer’s ‘I Professed Love at Mile 15…But to my husband’ more chaotic than the title suggested, the perfect reminder of the complexities of human relationships after months of being locked away.
TJ Benson is a writer and visual artist who explores the body in the context of memory, migration, utopia and the unconscious self. His works have been exhibited, published in several journals, and shortlisted for awards; he won the Amab-HBF Prize in 2015 and was the first runner-up for the Short Story Day Africa Prize.
His first novel, ‘The Madhouse’, was published by Masobe Books in February 2021 and his new novel, ‘People Live Here’ was published by Masobe Books in the third quarter of 2022.
He currently lives in an apartment full of plants in Kaduna, Nigeria and is on the verge of becoming a cat person. He tweets @tjbenson_