A favorite story of my father’s is one from his youth about how he helped a lady recover her stolen handbag at a party. In the story, the lady’s handbag, a brown one, is ripped off her shoulder while she is on the dance floor. My father witnesses the theft but does nothing. She goes hysterical when she finds her bag is missing. My father then corners the thief and reasons with him about the consequences of such bad behavior in a public place filled with high-spirited youths, collects the bag and returns it to the distressed lady.
The lady would become his wife, and my mother. But, she would always insist the bag was blue.
I was six when I lived with my grandma in Lagos, a state away from my family, a child lodged with an old woman thanks to young struggling parents finding their footing. She lived in a bungalow with single room apartments, marked by unpainted wooden doors, on either side of a long hallway that ended at a tiny kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Between the house and the one to its left sat a humongous septic tank which had a rectangular concrete cover that was about two feet above the ground. On nights when we experienced power cuts, bathing our compounds in darkness, we’d gather at a long side of the septic tank, ten or so children from the house to listen to stories from the “Ibadan villager”: me. Then, I felt a small but distinct pleasure from their eagerness to hear my folk stories that outweighed the condescension for the city I’d come from.
Earlier this year, a friend, S, whose writings I admired tweeted he was quitting writing. Before then, he told me he’d considered transferring ownership of a manuscript he had in contention for a prize to me. While I considered the thought as kind and noble, I mentally cringed at the horror of it; my name beside a piece of work I couldn’t have created at the time. About that time, during a bout of my then frequent moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, I was telling another friend how I felt like a fraud for writing stories. That night, my friend, also a writer, one whose brilliance is evident in his writings, had sent a text with words I no longer recollect but which I remember finding surprisingly inspiring coming from him. Afterwards, I applied for a prestigious and competitive creative writing workshop with a story I’d written a year earlier and got accepted alongside my brilliant friend.
A facilitator at the writing workshop I attended asked if I had a manuscript I was working on. He found my story for a difficult assignment interesting. A friend at the workshop texted me on Whatsapp at that moment from across the table: “You are now feeling proud, abi?”
A younger sibling is writing a couple of novellas for his Arts degree project. The stories are set in parallel universes. He had completed some stories and handed them to his professor. When I asked him about his work recently, he sounded worried and unsure of himself as he told me his professor, a thorough woman, had suggested he might have plagiarized the work because she couldn’t find any fault with it. I told him an English Language teacher in high school had told me the same thing when I turned in a short story assignment.
“I guess I’m in good company then,” he said afterwards.
Once, in a moment of intense empathy, I agreed to help a friend who was likely heading for chemotherapy write the story of her impending journey. In her words, she wanted to “live on on the page.” I had left her questioning my credentials. If I, who had been mostly healthy, would be able to write about pains she’d recognize as hers. Thankfully, she lived.
Curiously, I have consistently found myself drawn to the matter of the lady’s handbag whenever I add details in a story I’m writing. It holds much significance for me that a character in a story wants her story told correctly. That it is not just a matter of a bag’s theft or the love that blossomed, but that the bag that had made the story happen was blue not brown, as my father said.