“Maybe I am a writer” – Recollections From the 2019 Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop by Theophilus Sokuma

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Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop

I got to Awka late into the night, after a tiring trip from Lagos. It was my first time in Awka and I didn’t know anyone there but had lied to my mother that I did. That was the only reason she allowed me travel. She was worried, just like every parent would and I wasn’t ready to tell her the truth, wasn’t ready to let her stop my dreams of meeting The Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whom, all of her books I’ve read, and watched almost all her speeches on YouTube. I’d get to know at the workshop that almost all the participants were like me, obsessive stalkers of the literary goddess.

On getting to Awka, I kept staring through the window, hoping I’d see the hotel in the darkness that had spread itself over the roads of Awka. It was a new city and I was anxious about asking for directions, and I did see the hotel from the window. I quickly shouted to the driver “Owa” which is the typical Lagos way of telling the driver that you were at your bus stop, but he didn’t stop, till I shouted “I wan come down”.

I dragged my bag and tired face into the hotel, walked up to the reception and told them I was there for the workshop. They asked for my name and checked for it in a list they held in their hands, and as they glanced up and down the list, a thought came into my mind, no, not a thought, two thoughts – What if your name isn’t on the list? What if you hallucinated the acceptance letter?

My name was on the list and I was taken to my room, which meant I was meant to be there, which meant I didn’t hallucinate the acceptance letter. The first thing I did was to take a picture of the room and sent to my WhatsApp status (to pepper my contacts) and to my sister who showed my mother and my mother called me to ask if I had arrived safely and to compliment the room and to tell me that I’m living the good life. She was proud of me.

I had started writing in 2018 and had applied for the workshop then, to test the waters, but sent in an attachment. At that time, I didn’t know that applicants who sent in attachment didn’t get their application read, it was disqualified and at the workshop I got to know that the reason they reject attachment is because of security reasons as someone could send a file that would pose serious threat to the recipient.

Over the duration of 5 days, instead of the usual 10 days (I still feel bitter that our experience was a shortened one) we went through several writing tasks given by the different workshop facilitators, from  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Dr. Eghosa Imasuen, to Lola Shoneyin, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.

On the first day, the class was supposed to start at 10: 00 am, but Chimamanda was held up somewhere, so we took the time to work on stories we were asked to send in, stories that would be workshopped in the workshop. Later in the afternoon, Chimamanda came in to the hotel, and we started scurrying from wherever it was we were  – the toilet, the room, the restaurant, and there she was, looking glamorous as ever, and anxiety washed over me and my imposter syndrome skyrocketed. That afternoon, we got to introduce ourselves to her and the class and also share our reaction to the acceptance mail when we got it.

The acceptance mail had come in a week later than the slated date, and that had thrown the entire literary space into pandemonium. Chimamanda had held us hostage said one twitter user, whom I later met at the workshop. I, in my signature pessimism had written on Twitter that my anxiety had told me to stop writing. I watched Chimamanda’s face as we told her these. She had the surprised and pleased look of “Oh, all these happened, and where? On Twitter? And I didn’t know “.  And in her usual humble self, apologized to the class for the delay, and for holding us hostages. I got to tell the class about the delayed reaction I experienced when I got the mail. I didn’t scream neither did I laugh, not until few minutes later when my brain had fully understood the implication of the mail, that I would be meeting with the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I screamed and my mother had looked at me as though I were crazy.

That afternoon, we had two writing tasks. The first on the show-don’t-tell rule. The Chimamanda asked us to write a description of a character showing anger without the “he slammed the door or gripped the cup” over the top dramatization. It was hard, and a lot of us still took it over the top. The second writing task was on dialogue. We were to tell a story in a dialogue of four to five lines. Did I mention that we had to read our writing out loud? That was terrifying for me, because I have an extreme anxiety about reading out loud. Chimamanda even noticed it and told me that it was fine and that I could give someone else to help me read.

The workshop was crammed with reading assignments and this was because they were trying to do as much as they did in the 10 day workshop. On the second day, we began with a task on how to use the right details to tell a story. Chimamanda asked us to tell a true and false story using the right details and the class was to guess which was true and which was false. If you used details well, it would difficult for the class to know which is true and which is false. This went for over an hour, and then we went on break. After the break, we began workshopping the stories we had sent in the previous day, critiquing and giving constructive feedback. This session opened my eyes to how to give feedback on someone’s writing.

Dr. Eghosa on the third day took us through the business of publishing. From formatting your manuscript, to getting an agent, and to talk on copyrights. We continued workshopping our stories with Chimamanda in the afternoon session. We also got a writing assignment from Dr. Eghosa. We were to rewrite a chapter of a story, using our own words and the best rewriting would get a copy of Novuyo’s House of Stone.

On the fourth day, Lola shoneyin with her ever smiling face took us through some writing exercises which according to her, would add flair to our writing. We got to read a poem of 22 lines, and each participant was to read a line out loud. There were a total of 22 participants, so it was as though Lola Shoneyin had picked the poem because it matched the number of participants. We were also required to translate the poem into pidgin line by line. We were divided into groups of three. After we were done with the translation, we were to read the translated poem out loud one by one and this was one of my favorite parts of the workshop. Reading a poem out loud in pidgin involves performing and dramatizing it and our recital flowed with ease. Each person read their line out, putting the stress on the right syllable and stretching a particular word, just like you’d do when speaking Pidgin. There was fluidity to the recital and everything came together like water. You’d never have known that the poem was translated line by line by 22 different individuals.

We had more classes with Chimamanda, Dr. Eghosa, Lola Shoneyin and Novuyo. Novuyo took us through reimagining stories and taking perspective. We read a controversial story and voices started flying around in the class, on who was right and who was wrong. Each participant had their perspective to the story and whom they believed was in the wrong so Novuyo asked us to rewrite the story from the perspective of whom we disagreed with and that we should try our best to empathize with them and let it show in the story. After the writing task, we got to workshop our entry stories.

The final day of the workshop was the literary evening, but before then, the government of Anambra took us on a tourist ride to the Owerre-Ezukala Cave and waterfall where some of us had a swim in the water that pooled at the base of the waterfall. It was really cold. The cave was also dark and creepy, and had these intricate carvings on the interior that makes you wonder who carved them.

We returned to the hotel and got ready for the literary evening. We had vehicles that took us to the venue. At the literary evening, we got to meet the parents of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The evening ended after the presentation of certificates and we had an after party with Chimamanda. We got to dance and see her dance. Chimamanda was or is such a terrible dancer, but it was lovely to see her engage with us as her equal. Over the duration of the workshop we got to see Chimamanda in different shades. She was warm and fierce. She called us by our names and that was bliss to me, hearing her call my name and to give constructive feedback to our writing. Never would I have imagined this years before. She knew how to give her opinions in such a calm and soft way, without breaking your heart. She was a mother to us in those five days. We had amazing photo sessions with her during the workshop. We saw her act goofy. We saw her bite. She laughed a lot and made jokes. She tells amazing jokes. There was something Chimamanda said, something that stayed with me, a pact she made with the late Binyavainga Wainana – that if a day comes when either of them stops being insecure about their writing is the day they stop writing. A little bit of insecurity is needed to be a good writer. It should push you to always be better, instead of crippling you.

The after party ended, and we had dinner with her. It was a buffet as usual. There at the dinner, we all got to say a word of thanks each to her. Tears flowed. Hearts broke. We got to see her shed a tear or two. It was the end. We’d be returning to out different destinations in the morning. We all got a hug from her. But it had to end, even though we didn’t want it to. The workshop created a family of 22 writers, who each in their own way was influenced and motivated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by her brilliance, fierceness, warmth, honesty and humanity.  We had grown to bond with ourselves over that 5 day period. By the end of the workshop, I had grown from an individual who didn’t consider himself a writer to an individual who was a bit more confident about his writing.

Theophilus Sokuma’s bio

Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop

Sokuma Theophilus is a Nigerian. A graduate of Psychology from the University of Lagos. He loves thinking and contemplating the human existence. He writes in his spare time, and his works have been published in several literary journals.

You can connect with him here

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