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Answer truly, if only for a moment and to yourself: how are you in the home of your body?
In the home of my body, there is silence. A loud silence perhaps. One I have begun and ceased to write to you from.
Here, it is morning and in my new home, prayers are in the air before most people draw their waking breath. A prophetess’ voice cuts through the pre-dawn dark, calling the women keeping vigil to prayer. When their roar quiets, an Arabic song pours out of a distant speaker and the sun peaks into the sky—recognising its name nested within the call.
I am writing to you after scrapping several mental notes and questions and thoughts and answers. A few days ago, my dear university finally fixed a date for physical resumption, which translates to a date for physical examinations and since then I have felt a scarcity of time I cannot shake off. I debated within myself over and over again, if I could spend hours with you. If I could make the time; yet, what is this letter but an answer? Again, I have chosen you.
In the final weeks of this month, I will have an essay titled On pain as a Nigerian desire forthcoming with Vagabond City in their 60th Issue. The essay explores the Nigerian relationship with pain, with difficulty, and the ways we find solace in our scars. I trust you will enjoy the essay and even more than that, catch a glimpse of yourself or a familiar face.
Around the same time, I will have two poems featured in two anthologies edited by the poets Oyindamola Shoola and Jide Badmus; and Wale Ayinla and Kanyinsola Olorunnisola respectively.
And just when the month begins to glow like a silver lining; exams arrive.
On Nostalgia and other thoughts
Once, in a daydream I amused myself with, I wondered if my nostalgia was so apparent that I could be identified by it; that a voice could say, there in the corner, that man—the dark and nostalgic one.
“What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.”
Excerpt from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red
What then does it mean for nostalgia to latch unto a being? An attempt to answer this reminds me of a remark made by the American theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer after witnessing the effect of the atomic bomb. He remarked the experience brought to mind the words of the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. As such, in a similar yet less consequential way, Now I am become Nostalgia, the mourner of pasts.
"I remember therefore I grief."
Excerpt from Rose Petals, a poem in my just-completed manuscript
"You remember too much,
My mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?"
Excerpt from Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay
To trace the history of nostalgia—an act you could call nostalgic in itself—we arrive in the year 1688 when Johannes Hofer—a Swiss medical student at the time—coined the term to describe the malady he had observed among young Swiss people who were in foreign regions—almost exclusively mercenaries as they were one of Switzerland's prime exports at the time; before the economic policies that replaced them with watches and chocolates. From its Greek roots of nostos—home—and algos—pain; nostalgia literally means pain associated with home, alternatively, homesickness. However, the original term is French, maladie du pays, which does not only refer to the tendency of the Swiss to powerfully miss their home country as it precedes Hofer's coinage by at least thirty years. Yet, Hofer's coinage gave nostalgia a medical dimension—one of a disease longing for a cure.
In his text On Nostalgia, David Berry further describes the implications of Hofer's coinage:
“First, Hofer recognized that nostalgia was less about whatever the nostalgic claimed to be missing than about the strength of the imagination alone: it seemed to have less to do with any material differences in the patient's circumstances than with the collective weight of their memories, even though those were centered on a very real and specific place. Hofer's final, curiously potent observation is his suggested cure, which he meant quite sincerely, but which elegantly captures the futility of trying to tame nostalgia, disease or otherwise: "Nostalgia admits no remedy other than a return to the Homeland."
It becomes apt at this point to bring to light Hofer’s blind spot. In speaking of a cure for nostalgia, Hofer’s appreciation of nostalgia is not full, for much of nostalgia rests on impossibility. The impossibility of returning. The impossibility of answering the question of where can I put it down? It is this understanding that runs through Safia Elhillo’s title Home is not a country and the line home is a place in time from her poem date night with adbelhalim hafez.
In this vein, David Berry writes of nostalgia as having elusive profundity. Alternatively:
“Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition so long because naming it doesn't help resolve anything anyway.”
All this is to emphasize the strength of the imagination. The strength of memory. The weight of remembering. The grief of remembering too much. But then, the question: how strong, how reliable, how grief-worthy is memory?
David Berry answers that we are probably not nearly suspicious enough of how inadequate our memories really are. To further this thought, he considers the thoughts of Kingsley Davis and writes:
“Nostalgia is in a real sense dishonest—if not actively, then in that slipperier lie-by-omission way, not really giving us the whole truth about what came before. This is a more solid charge, if only for the fact that almost everyone is nostalgic about their past, even if those pasts strike us as objectively horrible: people who lived smack in the middle of the Depression, the Blitz of London, rampant civil unrest, meaningful threat of nuclear war, repressive police states—almost anything up to genocide (depending which side you were on)—will often describe those times in glowing terms, or at least pluck the tiniest shard of rose-coloured glass from the ashes and let it redeem the rest.”
This brings to mind the nature of Daniel Kahneman’s duration neglect, the concept of flashbulb memories and the research of the likes of Karim Nader which suggests that not only do we have the potential to alter our memories almost every time we recall them, but that it might actually be impossible for us to recall something without altering it in some way.
This act of imagination that births our longing, our nostalgia, is not unconnected with a lie we tell ourselves. David Berry notes that the great lie of our self-identity is its consistency. In a similar light, Kingsley Davis theorizes that nostalgia works as a way of helping us consolidate our identity, and we are especially prone to it when that sense of identity is under threat. Nostalgia is then a longing for a more authentic, more consistent self. Nostalgia then is a ripple in the present, a deepened reliance on our memory, our recollection—the most trusted, emotive and unreliable narrator.
Yet, this relationship between self-identity and nostalgia as a consolidation, could pose the question of which came first, the wound or the salve? And how best can one answer the question when nostalgia can be or is both?
Definitions of suffering
1a : [paraphrased] the desire for suffering to mean [something].
Example: […] I found that I suffer because I want my suffering to mean something. Pain is pain, the poet Randall Jarrell tells me, and I’m trying—I really am trying—to see the world for what it is and not what my heart needs it to be.
Etymology: English word suffering; an excerpt from Paul Tran speaking about their poem Hypothesis.
If an emotional arc could be drawn over my past month, it would take the shape of nostalgia. For this reason, every moment I spent reading Safia Elhillo’s Home Is Not a Country was time spent gazing at a mirror. Every time the character Nima referred to herself as, or was called nostalgia monster in jest or otherwise I saw myself—in her longing for a lost time, her mourning of a father who was fated to be gone, her reaching for a country that broke her mother’s heart. And very much like the theories suggest, her nostalgia gained its magical teleporting effect when her hold on her world was most threatened; when a character she loved had violence visited upon him for the crime of being.
In the same vein, nostalgia stood out to me in Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water. The writer does a number of ambitious things in the book, but in the spirit of my writing to you and the theories concerning memory, this paragraph stands out:
“The songs are full of nostalgia, which is to say they are full of mourning; one remembers that which came before, often with a fond sadness, a want to return, despite knowing to return to a memory is to morph it, to warp it. Every time you remember something, the memory weakens, as you’re remembering the last recollection, rather than the memory itself. Nothing can remain intact. Still, it does not stop you wanting, does not stop you longing.”
Even in my law readings, there was interaction with a lost time. A confrontation with the past in the form of foreign policy and treatises on state and diplomatic immunities. But in that confrontation, there was no longing; regret perhaps, the mourning of unrealized potential, but not longing. I could not long because the home I was given, the land I have come to know, has always been cruel. I cannot remember a lost time because I never knew it. Most of us were born in the rubble, we never saw the buildings stand tall, never witnessed flourish, and our skins are still as they were, the shade of debris.
In the time since I last wrote to you, Drake has been awarded the Billboard award for Artiste of the Decade and although there is an undeniable hindsight bias, there are a few lyrics from his tracks over the past years that foretold this certain destiny.
“Best I Ever Had seems like a decade ago // Decadent flow and I still got a decade to go” —6pm in New York. “I'm tired of hearin' 'bout // who you checkin' for now // Just give it time, we'll see who's still around a decade from now // That's real” —Tuscan Leather. “Feel like I've been here before, huh? // I still got ten years to go, huh?” —Over My Dead Body. “Who's givin' out this much return on investment? // After my run, man, how is that even a question? [..] House on both coasts, but I live on the charts” —Survival.
Enjoy listening to Jaden’s Better things, Kendrick Lamar’s Momma, Ari Lennox featuring J.Cole’s Shea Butter Baby, Blaqbonez featuring Amaarae and Buju’s Bling.
I wish you a blissful month. I hope to read from you soon.