Out and About With Jumoke Verissimo (With Pictures)

This happened during the holidays.

Jumoke and I (just when suya was heading towards my mouth)

Jumoke and I (just when suya was heading towards my mouth)

We agreed to meet at Domino’s in GRA, Ikeja. But some random events changed our plan the affliction called Lagos traffic held Jumoke up somewhere for over an hour. I rushed to a friend’s house to retrieve my copy of her new book for an autograph, and a kind man was waiting at another venue to deliver books sent to me by writerYemisi Ogbe. I figured picking the books outweighed chatting over ice cream or pizza so when Jumoke arrived, we headed out for the books. From there, everything else took a spontaneous turn.

I announced to Jumoke that we were going nowhere in particular. “Let’s just drive around Lagos”. She agreed. The verve in her response suggested one whose creative temperament permits impromptu adventures or, maybe, she agreed because we were meeting for the first time and an objection may seem awkward. She signed my copy of her new bookThe Birth of Illusion, and we hit Lagos roads.

Jumoke held a copy of Elnathan John’s new bookBorn on a Tuesday, her finger tucked in between pages. The book became the first cue for our discussion as we drove past crazy danfo drivers. I asked about her impression of the book, so far. She praised it as remarkable. She stressed her curiosity about a character in the book whose ingenuity seems excessively weird. I don’t remember her exact words. I tilted the conversation towards my observation of a new wave of writers (and social commentators) from Northern Nigeria. Maybe Jumoke suspected an implicit discrimination in my statement because her retort seemed like repudiation. She explained how the writers aren’t writing to promote any “Northern agenda” (phrase proudly appropriated from Nigerian politics), and the universality of themes that didn’t fit into prejudicial perception. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s novelSeason of Crimson Blossoms got slotted into the conversation too, and Jumoke raved about the beauty of the book. “The writing is awesome,” she said. I had read an excerpt on Brittlepaper and I liked what I read. I wanted Jumoke to also express wonder at the book’s rather eccentric title. I joked that the title seems like a tongue-twister whereas Elnathan’s seems like it was coined to allow Twitter hashtaging. (#BOAT, book hashtags haven’t been cleverer). Well, I’m rather nerdy about these silly things.

We moved towards Third Mainland Bridge. We still didn’t have a destination. And it’s hardly a reasonable idea to roam Lagos when the country still convulsed under fuel scarcity. Jumoke told me about one of her favourite authorsJohn Steinbeck. I mentioned a few of mine (I tend to mention favourite books. I suppose their writers count as favorites too)Frank McCourt, Dave Eggers, Gabriel Marquez, etc. Later, names of her writer colleagues and friendsToni Kan, Odia Ofeimun, Benson Eluma, Lola Soneyin, Temitayo Olofinlua, Beautiful Nubia etc. slipped into the conversation.

Jumoke reads Elnathan John’s new book — Born on a Tuesday

Jumoke reads Elnathan John’s new book — Born on a Tuesday

Right before Golden Gate Restaurant in Ikoyi, I got an epiphany. The famous suya spot on Glover Road! A friend had once taken me there. It seemed a good idea to host another friend, on a lazy Lagos afternoon, so we drove into the street. From a distance, suya smoke colluded with the enthusiastic suya seller to welcome us. Jumoke seemed excited too. While placing our order and being silly with the sham Hausa I could muster, I asked what kidney was in Yoruba. Jumoke said “kidirin”, or something like that. I was startled at the similarity with its English version.

We packed our suya and left.

I wondered which should be our accompanying background song as Jumoke continued to share thoughts about writing, about copywriting (she writes for brands too), about living in Lagos versus living in Ibadan, and whatever bits we could pick. I mentally shuffled between Falzthebadtguy’s new album and Shina Peter’s Shinamania album. We settled for Shinamania and we turned into culture vultures when we discussed Shina Peter’s place in the Nigerian music industry. Jumoke emphasized his stardom in the 1990s, which I regarded as the likely forerunner of today’s showmanship, celebrity exhibitionism and blatant erotic lyrics.

Only a few minutes into our aimless adventure, dear reader, I looked to my right side to further see what I suspected was a coordinated movement of limbs. It turned out that Jumoke — writer, award-winning poet, bespectacled, wild-smiling, and all round creative person, had been dancing shoki to Shinamania. I missed the chance to record the moment for posterity; footage like this becomes cultural material worth millions or billions of Naira.

We found ourselves at Freedom Park. It seemed like a good destination. We unfurled our suya, then — Shocker! — the suya seller didn’t include toothpicks. I went to the neighbouring stalls to buy drinks and beg for toothpicks. On my way back, I saw a fellow culture and book enthusiast, and writer — Anwuli Ojogwu — with whom I’ve been friend online for over 80 years, or less. I figured the Internet has a strange way of making people less striking and less animated as they are in real life. Anwuli is fine and fun. But it was not the best time for us to connect and, more crucially, there was a suya already getting cold and a stalled conversation so I excused myself and went back.

I asked Jumoke how she became a writer. She mentioned how she was a science student but with a love for literature and a gift of storytelling. A change in academic career became necessary with support from her father. The Church, it turned out, also played a role in the making of one of Africa’s leading poets. Surprise surprise! She once considered becoming a nun, which got me laughing and made me joke that instead of her beautiful secular poems, she would have been writing hymnals in the name of the Lord.

My concentration took a dip. Some lovely juju music wafted from across the street to Freedom Park. My attention became a mess of shuffling between Jumoke and suya, Jumoke and juju, suya and juju, juju, juju, juju… until our conversation streamed into serious domains. We discussed writers and writing in the social media age, writers and personal branding, possible extinction of traditional forms of artistic expressions, e.g. agidigbo, the Lagos literati versus Abuja literati, the creative and temperamental differences between Teju Cole and Chimamanda Adichie (from their essays), Cassava Republic Press and its ambitions, and the two topics I tend to get quickly animated about — the somewhat elitist nature of art appreciation in Nigeria and why I feel most African cultural elements need to embrace an open-source system where they are tweaked — even with the help of technology, to ensure contemporary relevance. With these exchange and her brilliant thoughts, I wondered why Jumoke has not included essay writing in her writing career.

Heading home

Heading home

We packed ourselves and left.

We soon got into a light evening traffic and bought new audio CDs. I found an old Orlando Owoh album I have been looking for. Jumoke ordered Ayewa Adelakun’s Amona Tete Mabo and some oldies. She soon started to dance as we commented on the beauty of storytelling in old Nigerian music. Jumoke was amused by the old musicians’ dedication to craft and storytelling. I fawned over their instrumentals.

Farewells are difficult after a great outing, but we had to part. She gave me one of the albums she had bought. I started to wonder if she was headed home to write new poems or if she would wonder why I was stunned by her calm, charm and infectious happiness. 

Or maybe our outing would remind her about these lines from her new anthology:

 For no words can speak in details
The aggro of two bookmaniacs

(“Porcupine”, The Birth of Illusion, Fullpoint Publications, 2015)

First published in Brittlepaper