In 2013, when I attended the first edition of the Ake Festival, I did not know what to expect beyond being excited to be taking a Fiction Master-class taught by Marlon James and Christie Watson. This year, I was a better prepared for the cultural immersion that the Festival is—or well, so I thought. I knew that, as with previous editions, there would be amazing African writers, book chats and panel sessions on different topics. There was no doubt that I would run into familiar writer and reader acquaintances from Lagos. I expected nothing short of good music, gripping theatre, and of course, sweet sweet palmwine.
The theme for this year’s Ake Festival was ‘Beneath This Skin’. The subjects ranged from displacement to prison literature and historical fiction; the speakers - from Ngugi wa Thiong’O to Teju Cole and Chinelo Okparanta - all phenomenal African writers in their own sphere. As much as I enjoyed listening to writers talk in-depth about their books and societal issues, to my surprise, the lessons that were most poignant came in reflective moments, and were about self, and self-care.
This year, I attended as a guest of the Festival - one of three panellists in a session titled ‘Our Hidden Shame: Exploring Mental Health in African Writing’. Between the trouble of perfectionism and the intensely personal nature of my work, I have barely published work over the years. Or perhaps for reasons that echo an impostor syndrome, I have rarely felt the push to send work out. The few published have invariably had a mental illness thread running through them. I almost always start out writing about myself before deciding to muddle it up with fiction as in Re-Memory or leave it be as much as possible, as in When I was Writing My Bones.
I did not feel like I had done work - at least conceivable in the eyes of the world - thus, what I had put out had been few and far between the years. Why, you may ask? Well, when it comes to writing or talking about mental health in Nigeria, I am often asked if I do not feel like I am hanging my dirty linen in public. This reasoning is due to the stigma attached to mental health in Nigeria, and a cultural exclusion - or arguably, ignorance - to an increasingly important topic.
For these reasons, I had continuously beaten myself up over if my writing will be understood by anyone. So, in this light, you can imagine what a surprise the invitation to be a guest was to me. Not only did it nullify my assumption that only established writers got invited to such festivals. Being invited to talk about mental health in African Writing on such an amazing platform as Ake showed an increasing awareness on the issue, and also invalidated my fears. Which brings me to the first lesson I learnt at Ake.
Your work has a life of its own. Trust it.
The night before the Festival was scheduled to open, my friend had asked how I was getting to Abeokuta - the capital of Ogun State, and home to Ake Festival for the last four years. On a whim, I said I would drive down if I had a companion. The next day saw us driving to Abeokuta from Lagos, in what was my first inter-state drive. I usually stick with the comfort of the familiar, so for me, driving the distance felt like a bold step. On the drive down, Bunmi and I talked about life and work and the resultant effect of work strain on our mental health. The longer we talked, the better I was able to crystallise emotions I had been feeling into thoughts and words that helped me understand my state of mind. With her, the days and conversations that followed felt like a continuous exhaling. I was thankful I had not chosen my aloneness over company. I was glad I had swallowed the fear of saying the wrong thing and accepted the invitation to be on the panel.
On the first day of the festival, alongside two other writers, I spent time at Lantoro High School speaking to the students about reading writing, and making a career in the arts. It was so heart-warming to talk with youths who had a genuine interest in the arts, and wanted to know how to navigate this thing they loved. I was somewhat heartbroken to hear they barely had books in their school library - a reality in various schools in Nigeria that The Book Banque works to alleviate. Oh, what a difference it would make for such children! For me, the memory of books were both an escape and inspiration in my childhood; one that I cherish.
That, unlike my actual panel session, is a clear memory. For most of the session, I was anxious about talking in front of people. It felt like I was out of my body and watching myself talk. One of the other panellists, Lidudumalingani - whose Caine Prize winning story, Memories We Lost, is about a character’s experience of a loved one with Schizophrenia - talked about the need to take advocacy beyond just creating the art, and find ways to translate it for impact even at the grassroots. That aside, I can barely remember what we talked about. I do however remember, later on in the session, getting ticked off as a member of the audience spewed stigma-enforcing words about the treatment of someone mentally ill in her home environment.
It was a reminder and reinforcement that conversations about mental health are important, if we are ever to change the perception of mental illnesses and aid the treatment of people dealing with them in our society. This is why panels like Ake’s ‘Our Hidden Shame: Exploring Mental Health in African Writing’ are important - they provide an avenue to discuss the less talked about issues that affect subsets of society, and also allow for new ideas to be birthed and executed from such conversations. Notwithstanding, talking about my work was hard, but I did it. I did it. And that is my second lesson from Ake.
Even if your heart is beating so fast it feels like it will burst out your chest.
Do things afraid.
Since I accepted the invitation for the festival, I imagined, for months, all the incredible conversations I would have and how I would gorge my mind on the sessions. On that front, the festival did not disappoint. What, however, betrayed me was my own life, and the things my head had carried along for the festival. The weight of an exhaustion that had dragged me to bed, with tears later rolling down one eye. An exhaustion that was not merely physical, but embodied all aspects including mental. To paint a better picture of what I am talking about, here is a journal excerpt from one of the days at Ake:
“For weeks I have been putting away important things because I have been too exhausted to give them the time and love and focus I should. I tell myself I will do it when I go away. But all of a sudden. Here I am, away, and realising that every moment from the horror of my real life spent inching forward in Lagos traffic is devoted to recovering from that exhaustion. In a state of “I am too exhausted to keep going now that I have paused”. I do not have the time and energy to be passionate about the things that ail the world, I said to Timehin [a friend] earlier during a session, thinking in that moment how horribly selfish it is. But also how important it is that I be horribly selfish in the little ways I can be to preserve my life and sanity.”
“I need to return and take my life in both hands, then shake it like an old carpet so that the dust of the things I have dragged it into will fall off. I can no longer do this slog through days hoping I make it to my destination in time for it to still matter.” I attended at least two panel sessions per day while I was there - way less than I thought I would - and spent the rest of my time breathing. More importantly, I left with a clarity about how I needed to change my life to take better care of myself. And to Lagos, I returned with the last lesson.