by Emile DeWeaver
This month I turned 36, and realized something about the things I love: The older I get, the less time I seem to have for joys like reading. There’s certain logic to this. The less time I have left, the closer I come to failing to achieve my ambitions before I die, return reincarnated as a Chinese baby, be adopted by an actress with large assets, and begin the climb all over again.
For me, this translates into a drive to do twice as much as anyone I know in comparable circumstances. And what I do is worthwhile: you can’t convince my id that I won’t change the world and terraform new planets with my writing. Yet it feels tragic that the less time I have to live, the less time I make for the reasons I love living.
After I realized tomorrow’s demands were smothering today’s necessities, I grew excited. The reason: many things I can’t change, but this I can. So I’m reading again.
I committed to a poem a day after a friend scoured the prison library and handed me a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Collected Poems. I’d heard the name Lorca, but this would be my first read. I scanned the table of contents and settled on Little Infinite Poem because the title reminded me of the last poem I wrote. The first stanza confirmed for me that when the zombie apocalypse comes, my survival kit will include a shotgun, hacksaw, penicillin, and Lorca.
To take the wrong road
is to arrive at snow
and to arrive at snow
is to graze for several centuries on graveyard weeds.
When my life was jobs, school, and nostalgia for great stories and thrilling arguments, I walked the wrong road. I headed in the right destination, but the path I chose to get there promised a life chewing weeds in a graveyard.
As happy as I am to have found Lorca, I need stories, too. I’ve become obsessed with Nigerian authors, so I read a collection of shorts, The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her prose is smart, and her characters are ugly enough to love. Of her many talents, her ability to render worlds delights me the most. Adichie portrays a world of womanhood that is as alien and thrilling to me as China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. She opens Nigerian culture to the world, confronting harsh realities while displaying the humanity that transcends geography, and her vision of American life through intelligent immigrants’ eyes provide reflections on American idiosyncrasies that both endear my culture to me and remind me how important different perspectives are to my personal growth.
In “On Monday of Last Week,” Adichie taps into the anxieties of working parents whose children are raised by nannies. An interesting take on American parenting comes through the eyes of a Nigerian nanny named Kamara.
[Kamara] had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about…
I laughed because my throat feels scratchy anytime someone sneezes on Grey’s Anatomy. I welcomed the humor all the more because an earlier scene had shaken another realization from me, this time about the people I love.
On Kamara’s first day on the job, her charge’s father explains why Kamara can never disturb the boy’s mother:
“Tracy is an artist. She spends a lot of time in the basement for now. She’s working on a big thing, a commission. She has a deadline…” His voice trailed off.
“Oh.” Kamara looked at him, puzzled, wondering if there was something distinctly American she was supposed to understand from what he had said, something to explain why the boy’s mother was not there to meet her.
I’m an artist. There are no basements in prison—at least not ones I want to visit—but I’ve learned to build a basement from the airs I wrap around myself to gain “quiet” space amid prison’s cacophonies. I’ve passed days without having an authentic conversation with anyone.
My brother has staged no less than three interventions. See, we struggled for 17 years to get ourselves in the same prison, but in his words, I’m such a hermit that it’s as if we still live separately. We haggle about setting aside family time, and I’m generally horrible about holding up my end. It’s once again the worst kind of irony: the closer I come to life’s end, the less time I make for people who I would weep to leave behind.
Much like Tracy—at least how I imagine her—I look back on the decade-plus I’ve given my craft to step in to the lobby of the literary world, and I counsel myself that this is the cost of excellence. Then, I think about Adichie’s story about a sensitive, lonely boy who treats the rare occasion he sees his artistic mother in the daylight as if it’s Christmas, and I’m revolted by the reflections in my own habits. Revolted, yet I don’ t flinch. I don’t know another way to write except obsessively and desperately. I need to write, and writers reading this probably understand the drive.
What I’m grappling to internalize is that family and friends need to feel more important than an audience of strangers, more important than words on a page. Of course, what I write is more than words on a page.
But who except another writer understands that? When I turn 37, I’ll tell you.