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A basket of nerves: My story at a writers’ workshop

  • Have you ever felt like if you step into a room full of people you will fall flat on your face by mysteriously tripping on your own flat shoes and the whole room will laugh at you? That’s what social anxiety feels like. It feels like you will fall every time you take a step into a room of strangers. You feel overdressed even in your simple clothes. You feel as if your face is oily and your lips are cracking. You lick your lips like a hungry hyena; you fix your eyes on the floor, silently begging them not to let you slip. You can’t explain it to people, so you force the words down your throat, with the hope that everything will disappear and let you be.

    That day was no exception. I woke up early for the workshop but somehow ended up taking my bath around nine o’clock even though I was supposed to be on my way by that time. I didn’t know why I decided to wash my clothes that morning, maybe it was the nerves, ripping at my organs. I didn’t even have time to dry my clothes; I gave my brother to do that for me. I was ready around 9:20 am and I begged my brother to drive me to the venue, even though Gusau Institute was a few minutes’ walk from home.

    I had almost missed the deadline for the workshop application, but thankfully, a friend reminded me, and I put aside my laziness to quickly submit a short story for consideration. And boy, was I excited to receive a mail days later telling me that I was among the sixteen people chosen to take part in the workshop which was to be facilitated by Ishmael Beah as organised by Gusau Institute and Yasmin El Rufai foundation.

    True to my nerves, I remember feeling my legs shake a little as I entered the building. A female staff there directed me to the place where the workshop was supposed to hold, my heart thumped furiously in my chest, reminding me that I am practically walking into a room full of strangers with a few familiar faces. I wrote my name on a list I was given right before I entered the room. Then holding my breath, I walked in, and everyone’s eyes looked up at me. My breathing got stuck in the walls around my throat. In my head, I had already fled, bolted out of the building. Escaping the torment of stares, I shuffled my feet in a rowdy hush and sat on one of the nearest seats. A familiar friendly face said hi out of the crowd of stares. I waved back, and my heartbeat was slowing down on the tarmac of my chest at last.

    People say it is nice to be shy; it is adorable to be socially awkward; they think it’s cute when you stumble over your words or mispronounce familiar words. They believe it is sweet when you almost trip over your long dress. But in reality, it is crippling. It is embarrassing; it makes you want to scream. It doesn’t feel okay; it doesn’t make you feel cute or adorable, and it makes you want to scream till that crippling feeling leaves you. But you usually smile and hide the embarrassment because that is what normal people do.

    In this part of the world, people do not believe in social anxiety, and you prefer it that way because you want to hide it, you want to laugh and crack jokes, but your body always seems to betray you.

    I picked up my phone and started going through my twitter feed. I am in a love-hate relationship with twitter; twitter is like the ex you can’t get back with or let go of. You laugh and you also feel like punching someone when you see a sexist or racist or any tweet that shows unfiltered bigotry. Despite the mixed feelings I buried myself in twitter to escape.

    Exiting twitter, I decided to call Angela. Angela and I have been friends for over ten years despite our differences. She is a Christian, and I am a Muslim. She is Ebira, and I am Fulani. She is from North Central Nigeria, and I am from the North East. But still we are here, still as close as ever. Sometimes, we get strange looks when we are walking down the street; maybe it is our mind playing tricks. But sometimes, I think people ask questions in their mind, especially since my head is always covered and hers is not, and we have this thing where we unconsciously always hold hands when walking. To be honest, we have stopped caring.

    Angela told me she was close by, and I felt relieved. At least, someone familiar will come. I found myself praying that no one would sit on the chair close to me. Other people chatted amongst themselves, but I sank lower into my seat and continued to scroll down my phone.

    Amongst the other participants, I met an old acquaintance. Hajara was a former chairperson of the Creative Writers’ Club, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where I schooled. I had not seen her since she graduated about two years ago. Sometimes, looking at Hajara is like looking at a mirror, she reminds me of myself in so many ways that it is scary. We talked a little, and I went back to my phone. My friends and family complain that I am way too addicted to my phone, which is true. My life depends on it; it is like the door to my own Narnia.

    When Angela walked in minutes later, I was happy, and immediately she sat next to me, I started talking like the chatterbox I have the potential to be. I teased her about a lot of things and a book she was holding, something about personal battles, I can’t remember the title. I can remember saying if I am to choose between my two inner selves, I might end up becoming a serial killer, and she laughed. Even though it was a joke, I do wonder what part of me will win a battle, the dark or the bright side. Do I even have a dark or bright side, or a crazy and slightly normal one?

    When Ishmael Beah finally came in, he was so laid back, and he refused to sit in the middle seat as he said he doesn’t want to seem intimidating, so he chose a chair that was opposite us. And the workshop started. We had received mail days earlier in order to prepare us. In that mail, he asked us to introduce ourselves creatively, I wrote something that was more of a poem, and when people started reading their pieces, Angela and I exchanged a look – we felt we overdid ours.

    Almost all the pieces were quite simple; people told their names and date of birth and hobbies and what they do. Angela and I didn’t even mention our names. In my biography I described myself as ‘the blindfold on lady Justice’s face’ just to say I study the law, of course, I definitely overdid it. But I had to read mine anyway. And I think they liked it which made me feel less anxious.

    We spoke about writing, why we write and what it means to us. Sumayyah, one of the participants talked about the culture of silence in the North, Sadiq Dzukogi gave another perspective about how silence itself can speak volumes, and I understand that a lot. Sometimes, silence is my loudest cry. Sometimes, silence is my only cry but anyway, even though I didn’t say anything about why I write it made me realise why I do write.

    Writing for me is therapy; it is my own way of spinning straw into gold; taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, something capable of making or breaking people. Something capable of touching lives. Maybe we writers are some form of superheroes. How many times have I been saved by stories, how many times did I have my heart ripped away by many stories? It is my own way of attempting to make this world a better place even though I am not even sure if I am doing a great job. Writing is self-expression for me; it is how I tell stories about my world and my silence. It is how I found myself.

    We had a short break after that, where we went to pick up a few snacks before returning to our seats. What can I say? The organisers of that workshop did a great job. They gave us notebooks, food and pens and an opportunity, all for free. I think it was a beautiful thing to do.

    He asked us to tell him about our favourite short stories, and people started talking, I even mustered enough courage to speak, mine was the world shortest horror story, about the last man on earth hearing a knock on his door. Maybe the courage to speak came from Richard Dambo, another participant saying his favourite short story is ‘The Hall’, about a socially awkward boy in the middle of a mathematics exam where he asks questions about maths, identity and our educational system. It was a funny story; it was something I wrote in the middle of a boring class in my second year in university.

    After some discussion about language, characters, editing, plot and many other things, we were given a short writing exercise. He asked us to pick a historical event and attach ourselves to it. My mind was blank for a few seconds, and we had only ten minutes. There were so many things to write about and none of them was positive – there were the killings in Taraba, Benue, Zamfara and Adamawa; I thought of writing about the Dapchi or Chibok girls, I thought of writing about the Rann attack by Boko Haram. I closed my eyes and I became the stories.

    I began writing about Rann, but I got stuck after the first paragraph, so I started another story not knowing where I was going and I got stuck too. I had just started to give the Rann story another try when Ishmael announced that we had four minutes left, so I merged the two stories together. I wasn’t happy with what I had.

    The story ended up being about a young doctor who was caught in the Boko Haram raid and wound up dead after rescuing a little boy. I wove it around her thoughts on the events that occurred right before the attack. There had been an argument about women rights and how men in positions of privilege tell us we are not fighting hard enough as if there was nothing wrong with the fact that we have to fight for what is handed to them on a golden platter.

    When I was done, I didn’t think I did a great job, to be honest. I felt my story was forced, so when he asked who was going to read his story first I melted back into my seat.

    The first story was about Boko haram; it was heartbreaking, about how people get used to situations that they are not supposed to be exposed to in the first place. Sadiq Dzukogi read his second. He wrote about loss; about the death of his daughter and I could all feel the emotions pulsating through me, even though I had never lost a child. Angela wrote about her own experience with loss, the most personal piece I have ever seen her read out. 

    Most of us wrote about tragedy, and I could remember looking at all our faces, different people from different walks of life. Despite our differences, we could all relate to pain, to stories of heartbreak and loss. Giving thought to these stories was capable of burning out the hatred in our hearts, irrespective of our religion and tribe. We are humans, all of us, all with hearts beating underneath our clothes, all with skins serving as a map; evidence of where we are coming from.

    Some people wrote about the elections, how our hope turned into dust right before our eyes. How our hope for a better Nigeria crumbled as hundreds of our daughters and sisters where taken away by these monsters called Boko Haram, how bombs exploded and destroyed our cities, how we had stood under the sun to vote, hoping that in four years to come, our lips will tell other tales. But we are here, all of us united by loss.

    Hearing that most of us were writing about sad things made me wish for a second that I wrote something lighter, something perhaps about the Black Panther movie I had not got around to watching yet. It’s a historical event, isn’t it? But I had already written my story and all that was left was for me to read. 

    And our hearts bled as we all read our stories, some fiction, some not. Someone read the purest story of his childhood where a small boy was so eager to go to school in order to play his drums but a riot started and only after running home with his drumsticks, did he realise he had left his brother in school.

    Someone read a story of how people disappear and all he wants to do is believe that they just lost their way home; someone wrote about how loss pushed a woman to commit suicide because instead of finding peace in church, all the pastor did was bash the perpetrators and finally I read my story and they said they liked it. They said it was beautiful and I started to like the story a little. Ishmael was so impressed by it that he also asked for story’ The hall’, which Richard Dambo had said was his favourite short story. The positive feedback was elating.

    A staff of the institute kept coming in to remind us to check out the library. We made jokes about it because the man was so persistent, as though the library was the coolest in the world and perhaps it was because come on, it is a library, after all, a place I dream that one day, my legacy will also line the shelves.

    When we rounded off the workshop, we took pictures and we went up to the library. Locking our bags in cabinets at the foyer, we were welcomed by the smell of books on stepping into the room. It smelt like home; it felt even better. There were so many books that I got increasingly excited. we moved from one shelf to another, as though floating and touched the books like they were sacred, like they had a power to change us, to change the world which I believe they do.

    Angela and I couldn’t contain ourselves, we almost sprinted, we made jokes, we snapped selfies, and a guy walked up to us and offered to snap us to which we happily agreed. I requested a selfie from Hajara, and I snapped with Richard, the books serving as a background. Our pictures are evidence that we were there, one of the fortunate ones to learn how to tell their stories better.

    Angela and I went to the librarian for law books, hoping that I will find something that will aid in my research for my final year project. And I didn’t really find anything helpful, but I found books that I will be more than happy to read. We talked loudly before we realised that we were disturbing people that were studying in the library, so we lowered our voices as best as our ecstasy would allow us. We were creating a story that we will become more than happy to share someday.

    We decided to leave, collecting library forms; we will be back we promised. We wrote our names and numbers on a piece of paper, promising to keep in touch, to create a group chat.

    We met as strangers, yet we ended up leaving with parts of each other engraved in our minds, with stories that will stay with us, which we will hope to remember in years to come. Maybe we will meet again, on the streets of this large town, divided by colours of religion and ethnicity, maybe we will meet in yet another workshop and we will leave again with pieces of one another, maybe we will write about each other, maybe we will never meet again, so many possibilities.

    But right then, we were living in the moment, we were taking selfies, we were sharing moments, we had started seeing each other differently. Perhaps we are not as different as believed; perhaps we have more in common than the pain we seem to share, than the disappointment in this country, than the hope for a better future – where Boko Haram is not the stories we tell, where we do not make sad jokes about the state of our country, where we will stop being divided by the things that do not matter.

    My social anxiety and I share the same body, sometimes, we fight each other for dominance; who will take control of the situation; sometimes these fights can get really bloody. On days like these, however, I think we just coexist side by side, each taking her turn. I might not have done something extraordinary, but I think I did well. My social anxiety stood quietly in the corner, letting me enjoy my moment as I stopped a tricycle to take me home.

    Written by Hauwa Saleh from Kaduna, Nigeria

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