I met him first at the back of the hall. Before us, on the stage, a new session was about to begin. He wore blue ankara – or was it green? I don’t quite remember. The space was bustling. He didn’t look very different from the videos I’d watched on YouTube – maybe a bit shorter, but not so different. His signatory facial hair was thick and lush, like well-laid AstroTurf. He was talking to two ladies, one, light-skinned and beautiful; I didn’t get a good look at the other. I gasped. I hadn’t planned it to be loud, and I was embarrassed when the pretty light-skinned lady gasped back in mockery and smiled. ‘Teju Cole!’ It came out as a whisper, but in my mind I’d screamed it. Teju Cole. I lurched forward. He took my hand in his and pulled me closer. I think for a brief moment we hugged, but then it might just be my memory playing games. ‘How are you? What’s your name?’ he asked. ‘Atanda,’ I said, but he didn’t hear. I repeated it about three more times, then he said: ‘Oh, ma binu, mi o gbo ni.’ (Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you before.) ‘Nice meeting you, Atanda.’ His voice was loud.
17th, November, 2016. First day of Ake Festival in Kuto, Abeokuta. Abeokuta is a rocky town north of Lagos. It means literally ‘under the rock’. I’d been to the town twice earlier in the past two years, for different reasons. This was my first time at the festival.
I met him again later, after I’d returned to my seat, and the session had ended. I’d brought my copies of his books to be signed. They’re old and populated with bookmarks, and as he signed them, he fanned the pages and said: ‘Ah, beloved copies! Eyin gangan ni fans.’ (You really are a fan.) I smiled and said nothing. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Afterwards, a young lady asked me to take a photograph of him and her together. We were standing under the eaves of the building. They faced the camera, backing the sun, but instantly, he turned them around so that now they faced the sun, and gestured for me to get in front of them. ‘We were backing the light,’ he said. ‘Sorry, I’m a photographer.’ He smiled easily.
The next day, 18th, after his own session with Helon Habila, in which they’d both talked about their new books, moderated by Kadaira Ahmed, as he was signing books in the lobby, I met him again. The most striking thing about his appearance was his black hat and the pink scarf around his neck. His shoes were black and old, yet they fitted his attire well. He looked, in Nigerianspeak, frosh. I stood by him silently as he worked, noticing the politeness of his brief chats, his gap-toothed smile, the deft way he held the books in his hands as he signed them. At some point, some guy whose book he was signing at the moment tried to remind him of an earlier meeting they’d had in the U.S. He was tall, with the baritone voice that comes with increased height. He wore a plain blue long-sleeved shirt on a pair of blue jeans. His shoes must have been black, too, but I didn’t notice them. Although his Afro wasn’t quite healthy-looking, he cut an overall figure of poshness.
‘I was at (I can’t remember the event he mentioned here) …two years ago,’ he said.
Teju frowned, trying to recollect. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, it was a book reading of Open City…’
‘Oh. It was Busboys and Poets, not…’
‘Yes, yes,’ the guy said.
Teju nodded. ‘How’re you doing?’
‘Great. Erm, there’s this friend of mine (he mentioned a name here) you should know her.’
What followed was a minute or so of trying to remember, after which Teju agreed that he really did know the lady. Then, the guy said: ‘Yeah, her birthday is today. I was hoping you could write her a birthday message, you know.’
The request surprised me. Teju chuckled for a while, then shook his head, no. ‘Too busy,’ he explained.
After the guy left, I leaned in on Teju and whispered, ‘I’m waiting for you to finish, sir.’
‘Really, why?’ He didn’t take his eyes off the book he was signing.
‘There’re a few things I want to discuss with you.’
He chuckled again. ‘A few things? Will there be time? I have an interview now, you know. Anyways, we’ll see what we can do.’
When he finished and I was finally alone with him, my heart began to race; I could hear it beat in my ears. I’d totally forgotten what I was going to say. And he must have noticed my distress, because he smiled and said, ‘You do know I’m not a therapist, right.’ I laughed, louder than I’d intended. My heart calmed a bit, and I began.
‘Erm, I write, and my writing has been totally, absolutely influenced by your writing. I’ve read all your books – although I’m still yet to read Known and Strange Things. I love the way you write. I don’t know if I’ve made the dumbest discovery, but I don’t think you’re much of a story teller. There’s usually no plot in your books. It’s the writing that matters, not the story.’
He nodded, as though seriously considering what I was saying. ‘Hmm. There’s evidence to back that up.’
‘Yeah, and that’s the sort of writing I enjoy. You know, J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka. And I want to write like that. I was hoping you could…’
He smiled. ‘Erm, it comes from reading widely. Critical reading.’ He put his hand in his pocket and brought out his iPhone as he spoke. At first, I thought he was going to record our conversation, but then he opened the camera app. ‘I’m sorry, I’ll keep talking. There’s just something I have to do quickly.’
There was a group of young people just beside us, talking and laughing loudly. He took a couple of pictures of them, then returned his iPhone to his pocket. He continued. ‘See, don’t just read about people’s lives, also read about people’s books. John Berger, for instance…’
Most of what followed is now shady in my memory, but that advice, ‘don’t just read about people’s lives, also read about people’s books’ , has stayed with me ever since.
The next day, the last day of the festival, I bought a copy of Known and Strange Things and had him sign it. ‘You buy a lot of books,’ he commented. Later at night, as I was preparing to leave with my friends, I saw him in the lobby, waiting to be attended to at the counter. I walked up to him and said hi.
‘Hey, Atanda,’ he patted my shoulder. I was surprised he remembered my name. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine. Erm…I wanted to ask you for something…’
‘I was hoping you could give me your email address so I’d send you some stories I’ve written and you’d go through them.’
He smiled. Shook his head. ‘No time. Really, no time. A lot of people ask me to do that, but I’m too busy.’ My heart sank.
Just then, one of my friends came over. He smiled at her and asked for her name. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Then he turned back to me, still smiling. I forced a smile and said I understood.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Good night.’
‘Good night, Atanda.’
As I walked away with my friend, I thought of something the author Igoni Barrett said to me once when I was invited to his flat in Surulere for an interview. I’d asked what he was doing to assist young writers in Nigeria, and he’d said, ‘There’s nothing I’m doing, and there’s nothing I’m ever going to do. Writing is not a communal thing, it’s a personal thing. I always say I’m where I am today in spite of Nigeria, not because of Nigeria.’
As we walked away that night, my friend was in shock. She had an incredulous look on her face, like she’d won a lottery. ‘I can’t believe it. I was just a few inches away from Teju Cole! Teju Cole! God! I can’t believe it!’