On Saturday, 4th of May 2024, the third and final day of the 2024 edition of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival, (KABAFEST), a feeling of nostalgia about the event takes charge of me. The 2024 KABAFEST is my first, so, there is no possibility of recollection from the event’s previous editions for me. The nostalgia feels very recent.

The locked and unidentified nostalgia finally opens when Umar Abubakar Sidi answers a question regarding the absence of a substantial plot in his novel, The Incredible Dreams of Garba Dakaskus set to be released on the 10th of June 2024. The literary and legal juggernaut, Richard Ali says “In all honesty, no book has been as eagerly awaited in #NaijaLit as “The Incredible Dreams of Garba Dakaskus”, and concludes by describing it as “mesmerizing”, and “reminiscent of the brilliance of Italo Calvino”.

While responding to the question, Sidi reiterates that the novel is about books. The human characters are only there to support the story. This revelation instantly leads me to uncover the nostalgia that I am looking for. It is Teju Cole’s Tremor.

KABAFEST features book chats, poetry and music performances, stage drama, documentaries, and panel discussions of films, art, topical issues, and politics. The kind of stuff you meet in the works of Teju Cole.

In the final chapter of the book, Cole writes “We wrote to each other of ordinary things and of immortal things, of art, music, literature, and memory. And we wrote to each other of death. In retrospect, it feels mythic but at the time it was simply the texture of life”.

This short passage inadvertently reveals the entire themes explored in the book and if you were at KABAFEST, you would agree with me on the semblance of the themes in the book and those of the festival. In other words, before attending KABAFEST, I attended a similar event last year in the comfort of my room in Gboko reading Teju Cole’s Tremor.

Like his two works, Every Day is For The Thief and Open City, Teju Cole shuns plot in Tremor and this time, even by his standards, reaches an entirely new level of ingenuity. Teju Cole is pulling away from his contemporaries. Reading Cole is an eye-opener and a journey of immense discoveries. Thanks to his Open City, I have discovered and read two great Moroccan authors; Tahar Ben Jalloun (a diasporan) and Muhammad Choukri (a sedentary) and I know bed bugs are terrorizing people in New York.

Tunde is the lead narrator in this book. His wife Sadako is his greatest source of both joy and pain. The knowledge in this book is vast. In a chat with the curatorial laureate, Aisha Aliyu Bima, I told her of my past struggles with understanding paintings beyond their surface aesthetics until my encounter with the works of Teju Cole. There was a shock in her tone when I told her that Teju Cole’s review and analysis of J.M.W Turner’s Slave Ship in Tremor educated me on how history can be documented in paintings. The painting is an attempt to recollect the 1781 “rationality” of the slaver Luke Collingwood. He lost his way in the sea on a journey from West Africa to Jamaica. The journey was supposed to last six weeks but took him 18 weeks. Many of the slaves on board died of hunger, disease, and suicide on the way. To mitigate his loss, Collingwood threw the surviving slaves on the ship overboard to be killed by the sea to claim the insurance on “damaged goods”. Teju Cole lyrically and evocatively puts it “His notion was to eventually collect the insurance money for human cargo lost at sea rather than risk arriving at port with what to him would have been damaged goods. “Human cargo,” “damaged goods”: these words are difficult to say.”

Do you know about the Micronesian navigator Pius Mau Piailug? Please read about him as Teju Cole writes:

“Pius Mau Piailug died in July 2010 at the age of seventy-eight. He was Micronesian and one of the few custodians, perhaps the only one of an area of ancient knowledge: the art of navigating across vast waters without the aid of modern instruments. He sailed alone in a wooden boat in 1976 from Hawaii to Tahiti guided only by the knowledge he carried in his head and by what nature presented of itself to him: the movements of the stars by night, the position of the sun by day, the behavior of ocean-going birds, the color of the water and of the undersides of clouds, the taste of fish, the swelling of the waves. Who is to say the universe is hostile? All this information gathered by the alert navigator and subtly interpreted made the ocean a friendly and readable book. He could tell when he was near an island or archipelago, when the water was fresher or saltier, when a storm was in the offing. For Mau, the world was far more comprehensible than most people would ever know. People like him show that a deeper intimacy with nature is possible and that this intimacy does not have to rely on the obliterative arrogance of Western culture.”

Cole discusses the 1897 Benin massacre and the looting of the kingdom’s cultural artifice by the British colonial armies with heartbreaking imagery and profound poetry.

This could be my favorite passage in the book:

“Our education—I mean the kind of university education many of us here today have—has encouraged us to think of art as something requiring great care. We know not to touch objects in museums. We are all obsessed with preservation, and we revere scholarship and curation. But we have not been concurrently taught to value the life-worlds of others, their autonomy, their ancestral rights. Particularly if the people in question are from the African continent, their ingenuity can be appreciated, their artifacts can be acquired and subjected to analysis, but their actual lives cannot be valued. What does it mean to care about art but not about the people who made that art? And this brings me again to the annotation I found so memorable in the provenance note about Herri met de Bles’s painting: that “the MFA awaits communication from the interested parties.” No such invitation is appended to the provenance descriptions of the Benin works currently held in this museum. It is as though certain things might legitimately be discussed and certain others might never be thought worthy of such consideration.”

Cole educates readers on the history of scholarship and ingenuity of ancient Africans. In the book, Tunde travels to Bamako, the city of great artists in Mali. The excerpt below captures the problem of insecurity in the country and its cost regarding trourism:

“He feels healed by this journey and he doesn’t want to leave yet. He wishes he could travel northeast from Bamako through the Sahel to Timbuktu. It is a journey he would have made if the country were not in such a dangerous mood. The journey would take him through the traditional lands of Dogon people in the Bandiagara Escarpment. From their houses on the escarpment Dogon people studied the skies for centuries, carefully tracking the movements of the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and the brightest star in our sky, Sirius A. An unsolved mystery is how these ancient astronomers were able without telescopes or modern equipment to detect and theorize the existence of Sirius A’s companion star Sirius B. Orders of magnitude dimmer than Sirius A, Sirius B is invisible to the naked eye. One theory is that Dogon astronomers reasoned that a star like Sirius A could not go unaccompanied and so, sight unseen, they deduced the orbit of Sirius B. The second star is there because in accordance with their cosmological principles it has to be. Doubleness is the first condition. Says Chinua Achebe, “Wherever something stands, something else will stand by it.” Sings Ali Farka Touré, “Honey does not only taste good in one mouth.”

Teju Cole takes readers to Lagos in Chapter Six. Chapter Six is a collection of 24 short short stories about how Lagosians are coping with the madness of Lagos. A collection of short stories within a novel! Man, there is a level to this game. The pleasure of reading this book feels different. And the author says, “But no feeling is final.” 5/5.

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