In Defence of Silence: A Portable Paradise
Dearest immigrant, did you leave home or home spat you out?
Yellow thought she had defeated life in her eighties. She had fought minor battles and the big ones. Orphaned early in life, married off at sixteen to a man who had another wife, buried a child at seventeen, and widowed with six children at Twenty-nine. Yellow was a warrior. She had paid her dues, and in her eighties, she would often sit on the balcony of her home, in a little town at a forgotten corner of the Western part of Nigeria, watching the rest of life rumble past, waiting for a peaceful exit, or so she thought. Life had other plans for Yellow.
She was never a city person. She had visited big cities a handful of times to help her daughters nurse their babies: a dose of love and a bowl of complaint. Yellow hated the city, and she wasn’t going to pretend, not even for the sake of her grandchildren.
In the space of two years after her eightieth birthday, Yellow buried two daughters. Each news of loss arrived on the phone, chaperoned by over-eager acquaintances who offered their condolences before a family member could arrive to break the news to her. So, it was, of course, not hard to see why Yellow grew a phobia for phones and loud ringtones after that. But that wasn’t the only thing Yellow could no longer stand. Her family home, a refuge where Yellow would often hide from the world, had pushed her out too. She could no longer enjoy sitting on the balcony of the home where she had spent sixty-odd years of her life. The balcony where she had watched her daughters grow into women and depart for bigger cities. The balcony where she had sat waiting for their bodies to be returned home. On the days she tried to leave home and walked through the town, there were stares – Yellow said some of the stares were laced with pities, others with disdain. The stares asked the same questions: what have you done for life to treat you this way?
When she could no longer endure the pains and questions, Yellow took the one offer no one thought she would ever consider. She moved to Lagos to live with her surviving children. Perhaps she left home for a city she disliked in hope that she could give life one last fight; prevent it from taking any more of her children. Perhaps she chose Lagos because she hoped that someday, in the fast crowd of that city she despised, she would catch a glimpse of a familiar face or two – even for a nanosecond. After all, wasn’t it said that the young dead are not truly gone; they are in the crowd, hurrying to nowhere?
Norwich sat in uncomfortable silence – an old city brought to her knees by a new virus. Without the constant opening of the small businesses and the universities that were the backbones of its economy and social life, Norwich was stripped of light. And in the greyness of the city, cushioned by the early days of winter, I arrived, feeling out of place. An uninvited visitor who had arrived in a time of conflict. I felt like I should apologize for my presence. I did apologize for my presence; my voice an octave lower when I spoke, my smile quicker and uncertain; apologies at the hem of myself when I pronounced the name of an area wrong and the bored bus drivers looked at me, impatient at yet another immigrant trying to figure out how to go about the city.
Yet, it was in Norwich that I first experienced silence and all its glories. It was in that city I made room for order in the chaos of my life. Alone in a new city, a new country, I was thrust into silence so deafening, I could hear all the questions of my twenties, lined up, humming, each visiting every night, hanging on the walls of my room, companions to my insomnia.
Each month, as the world sat in its own silence, forced on it by the pandemic, I weaved the blanket of my own silence with the ample time left to me after a four-hour weekly writing workshop. There was enough time to make of silence what I desired, and of mine, I made something to protect me from the cold of the new world.
My father and I now sit in silence on our weekly calls. In the beginning, I tried to fill the silence with random chats; ask questions, but there is so much you cannot fit into your luggage when you leave home, and gradually, those things gather dust and become forgotten. The face of a cousin’s toddler, the new wife of an uncle you never met, the new neighbor with bad credit. There is so much you can no longer fit into this new space of yours, and so when you start to struggle with the new gist, or they start to struggle with the repetition of the comfortable old gist, silence becomes an appealing option.
There is silence from friends left behind too, widening as the gulf of our realities gets bigger. For me, for most immigrants, this is the first silence you encounter and try to fight. A gap between your lamentations, the mundanities of your first world and that of theirs – a fight for their life, for survival, for the basic things that are in fact huge to them. And make no mistake, this is your failure – the inability to make connecting tunnels to the parts of your life that still speaks a language you left behind. I have seen people struggle with this silence, left desperate or frustrated when the long phone calls have to end because the other person on the end of the phone has to worry about their battery dying or their weekly data subscription running out fast.
Some deal with this silence by catapulting themselves into the social media limelight. A podcast, short Tik-Tok videos; uninformed advice on migration; misogynistic and tribalistic opinions. Every day I open my phone, there is an immigrant yelling into the space, hoping to be heard; hoping to fill the hole of silence with something; anything.
There is the silence of the friends who, in fact, like me, left home too. Perhaps like me, you struggle to dismiss this the most; your realities are similar, and there isn’t always a valid excuse when the quietness descends. But Christian Wiman got it right in that famous poem of his, these friends –like you– have all found new beliefs, and now you are "finding it harder and harder to keep up with their new gods and their new loves". Perhaps you create a Whatsapp group to keep up, and someday you look back, and the group is filled with weeds and occasional butterflies. Perhaps someday, like me, you realize that when you hastily packed your bags, leaving home, you left behind the grace of easy laughter – those ones generated by the simplest of memes and the silliest of jokes. Maybe like me, you go through these weeds, hoping to find a part of you that you left behind when home sent you into exile.
London offered me nothing, and I knew not what to ask of it. Yet, I arrived with my luggage barely a year after arriving in the UK, counting my pennies, my friends, and old favors I could call in desperate times – everything fit into one palm.
What do you do when a city terrifies you and threatens to swallow you in its hasty footsteps?
Every day of my first month in London, I bought a train ticket to somewhere, anywhere. I ran my fingers through the edges of the fast city, waiting for it to slice me. It didn’t. Then I folded myself into its lap, and let it caress me. London was a monstrous hill and I was set to climb it, with my tiny backpack and AirPods rammed into my ears, even when I was listening to nothing.
Everyone thought I was insane when I said I was moving to London with no job offer. On the night before I left Norwich, I sat in a pub with brilliant female writers from my cohort, I could hear the questions they left unsaid. Someone tried to tell me of a website where I could get freelance jobs; another asked how much I had paid for my new apartment. I didn’t know how to explain to them that Norwich didn’t feel like home; that perhaps no place else would ever feel like home except for the warmth of Lagos that I left behind in search of a better there. So I let silence do the talking – for me, and for them.
I had expected more of London, practiced the eureka moments, and prepared for the worst, but the city was indifferent to me, to my presence – another delusional migrant searching for a pot of gold.
On the eve of my first birthday in London, I sat by Camden Lock Regent’s Canal, watching the endless water. Surrounded by colorful lights and tipsy lovers, a forgotten paper plate of Taiwanese fried rice beside me, I was waiting for a call that I hoped would never come. Checking my phone screen at intervals, willing it to ring, willing it to not ring, I thought again about silence in that instant. Perhaps silence, when offered in place of words, is in itself an act of kindness, to oneself, and to others.
As the night wore itself out and I prepared to welcome a new age, I came to the conclusion that silence could, in fact, offer more than succor. Silence could also be an answer, a plain fabric onto which you can weave the taestry of answers that suit you.
I am weaving a tapestry of a new life in this new city. Sometimes the images do not come out the way I’d envisioned them, but there are pictures on this fabric now, there will be more. This much, I am certain of.
As I gathered what was left of my life and began the preparation to leave Nigeria, I visited my parents’ suburban home more. Ikorodu was as rowdy as any other part of Lagos, but beyond the city centre, there was sanity on the inner streets. Streets filled with hardworking lower and middle-class residents who leave for work before dawn and often do not return until dusk.
I found every excuse to leave my city apartment and spend nights at my parents’ – a safe space away from the life I was getting ready to leave. Most of my friends had left or were leaving to start afresh in a new country. Everything they’ve worked for in their early twenties swiftly sacrificed for these new uncertainties. A bitter farewell trailed each tweet and Facebook post that announced those departures. Suddenly, there has become better than here. Home had kicked us out, and now, there offered a new dispensation. But here I was, panicking, thinking of what I could return to if there wasn’t good enough and I had to return here. Would anything be left to return to? Was leaving here the best of two terrible options? So I practiced leaving by leaving the freedom of my apartment for the watchful eyes of my parents in Ikorodu.
And it was on one of these visits, I learnt, for the first time, the importance of silence.
Yellow had moved in with her oldest surviving child, my mother. But Yellow was not the grandmother I remembered. Humbled by pain and loss, her smile was quicker and fleeting, and her speech, when she did talk, was mostly prayers and warnings for the evils of the world unknown. The Yellow, who complained about the unappealing vast city, was gone, and in her stead, there was this woman who had been forced into a shroud of silence.
Every morning, before six, when my phone rang (a call from an enthusiastic friend abroad who wanted to be briefed about my travel plan), I would hear footsteps shuffling from the next room even before the first ring was done, and I’d had a chance to open my eyes and check the caller. By the time I’d finished those calls, there would be the tiny frame of my grandmother at the doorway of my bedroom, hands akimbo, eyes searching mine.
When I asked her what her business was with my calls, why she always wanted to know who I was talking to and if everything was fine, her reply broke me.
“Ope, the whiteman has made that thing to disrupt the beauty of silence. Everyone wants to speak on it now; even eager to speak on things they haven’t contemplated on.” I had wondered then, as I do now, if she was talking about the overzealous acquaintances who had called her to break the news of her daughters’ death to her, or she was just talking about how my phone calls interrupted her morning silence.
Needless to say, my phone went into silent mode after that and for the rest of my visits to my parents. But more than that, I started to pay more attention to Yellow; to the new-found silence she had adopted. And I found out that in the middle of her silence, framed by her loss, was a deeper use of the unsaid. In a city that terrifies her, Yellow was contemplating life; seeking meaning to it. How does one begin to learn newness in old age? On the days she let me into her silence, Yellow listed the long lines of women – from my mother to her mother, women who mastered the arts of keeping embers in their mouths and moulding fire when the need arises.
And as I left home on a new journey, Silence was the one gift that Yellow offered me. That gift, like Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, that I could return to, empty on a desk, lock the doors and windows and sit with, when home and everything it represents begins to fade away.