Beyond the Essay - Adeola Opeyemi
Last week’s edition of Ellipsis featured her personal essay In Defense of Silence: A Portable Paradise, a meditation on the power of silence in the face of life’s challenges and changes from the perspective of an immigrant navigating new cultures and realities.
“Adeola Opeyemi is a writer, editor and retired painter.”
Tolu Daniel: In your essay In Defense of Silence, you share a beautiful meditation on how silence becomes a tool for understanding the immigrant conundrum. I am interested in the idea of silence as something worth seeking, something worth having. After all, many of us when we were about to leave home in our varying quests for better, it was a form of silence we were seeking. Yet, it was silence we met on the other end, as if overrunning us. What do you think about this idea?
Adeola Opeyemi: I think silence or solitude is perhaps the last thing on an average immigrant’s mind when they leave home. In most cases, we leave home because we are in search of many other things: jobs, succor, fame, luxury, and for many creatives like you and I – in search of answers to the questions that home has become inadequate to provide for us. Silence is likely foisted on you when you leave home, an unplanned souvenir for departing the familiar. But the fact that it wasn’t actively sought or planned for does not mean it’s a curse or should be treated as one. It is imperative that we begin to make room for silence to pay for the space it occupies in our lives. And by silence, I don’t mean the average meaning which is the absence of noise. Some people migrate to loud cities and fill their days and nights with activities and new friends. I live in one of the largest cities in the world, and even in the loudest of pubs, I can hear and feel the silence around me, engulfing me. Once you leave home, the familiar has been buried and even though we try to recreate the semblance of old by holding on to those few people who represent home or make new friends in hope of burying the past; there is always that tiny dark gap between the familiar and the new that you can never close and that gap is where the silence exists.
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TD: This is such an incredible reply. I think for me, I am never sure what to make of the silence most of the time. But I appreciate this idea as you put it that “once you leave home, the familiar has been buried,” it makes room for an easy segue into my next question about the generational differences of migration. Growing up, I don't think I ever put enough thought into the ways leaving home affected my parents, yet it's all I have thought about in recent years – my dad moving from Ifoyintedo to Ilaro to Ibadan before eventually settling down in Abẹ́òkúta, ditto my mother, who journeyed from Aiyetoro, to Lagos before Abeokuta. Yet, there is resistance, so to speak, from that generation in terms of what they permit for their children. What do you think? I am asking you this question particularly because of how your essay seems to hold two distant generations in conversation with each other, your grandmother and yourself.
AO: You are so right about this. My great-grandfather moved from Ibadan to settle in Kwara state. He was a prince from a popular ruling family. There has to be a reason for a prince to leave home one day, never to return. His children never returned to Ibadan after he died and neither did their children (my father and his siblings). There is a whole story there, probably born of pain and necessity that no one ever bothered to explore or ask questions about. I visited Ibadan a lot during my undergraduate days at Ife and every time I entered that city, there was always a question trailing me – what did you do to my ancestor so bad that they never returned?
All my teenage life, I watched my parents move from one city to another in search of a better life – until they both retired to Lagos. My parents lived in separate cities for years, each trying to build their career while still married with young kids. That couldn’t have been easy on either of them; it definitely wasn’t easy on us the kids. But theirs is a generation very adept at disguising pain and trauma. So perhaps instead of telling their stories, they hide behind cautionary tales, hence their need to hold the rope a bit tighter when it comes to their children. While I was writing this essay, I didn’t know how to explore that. I didn’t think I had the arsenal to dissect what leaving home did to them. But my grandmother’s migration is a totally different one, I didn’t need anyone to tell me the story, I had watched it unfold and in a twisted way saw the similarities in my life and hers.
TD: Thank you for that response. My final question comes from an idea that is related to the last question. Both you and I, so far at least, in the history of Nigeria are from a generation whose future has been defined by our choices to leave Nigeria. Thus home for us has ceased to be just a physical place. For instance, my brother and I were taking stock of all the people we knew when we were growing up who were now scattered across the Western world as we know it – from the UK to the US and Canada, you'd find our footprints. It makes me anticipate a time when this mass migration of sorts, would have an effect on those who have the right to identify as Nigerians or people with multiple identities. And I wonder if you have, as well, thought about the possible complications of the various identities that will emerge as a result.
AO: I think the first attack or perhaps disillusionment you should expect in the next few years would be the debates on who has the right to write/talk about ‘home’ and to what extent you are allowed to explore home in your work when you or your parents have ‘betrayed’ home by fleeing. In a few years from now, you will see (because it’s already being whispered, anyways) that the debates will turn to what story is owned by those who stayed back, and what is to be spared for those who left or their descendants. That said, the exodus of Nigerians is not exactly new, a significant number of Nigerians emigrated in the early to mid-2000s, which when you look at it, is about two decades or almost ago. There is already a whole generation of self-seeking young adults and people well into their thirties out there who constantly have to face the question of identity and belonging. And perhaps this is where language comes in. It may look like a simple fix or a gaping wound, but language has a way of carrying home with it. I think the saddest thing about migration is not the loss of home, it’s the loss of language, watered down from generation to generation until nothing is left. Those who have language in their purse will always have home with them irrespective of where they lay their heads at night.
TD: That response is so insightful. Thank you so much. And again, thank you for joining us on this edition of Beyond the Essay.
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