Jude Dibia is on the Writer’s Block
…In My Head!
I have been thinking lately. Thinking about when it was I knew I wanted to write. I guess its normal I dwell on this now, especially as I’m constantly asked this during interviews and with chats with the media. What I find funny is that I never consciously chose to want to write. I used to hate books at a time—schoolbooks and anything that forced me to think. But alas, I could never escape books. Books surrounded me as a child; father had a library in the house. I wasn’t particularly a clever child. Writers are supposed to be clever beings. Quiet I was and extremely shy. I lacked the confidence my brothers had and found that I spent an increasing amount of time alone. I did not have many friends. My best time was spent either in front of a television soaking up tons of images or alone…locked up in the bedroom. Nothing escaped me. I was always looking, staring and like a camcorder, recording the happenings around me. These images stayed locked in my head and later I would spend hours on end over-analysing them. I think it was on my 7th birthday that my father gave me (bought me, actually) the unabridged edition of ‘Great Expectation’ by Charles Dickens. It was a huge book, over 500 pages (I think) and I thought I would never read this. I did, eventually and I loved it. This was noted. Soon after, I got ‘Oliver Twist’ and the Penguin classics collection of Jane Austen’s novels. I loved being alone. This is a trait I still have up to this day. I would stay in my room and read huge volumes. I was soon carrying conversations with myself. Some years ago, before my parents retired and moved out of the mad city, I stumbled on a huge dusty file with my name scrawled across it in my father’s almost unreadable handwriting. Inside was the testament of my life as a child. My old report cards from primary school to high school rested in there. In this file were my exam sheets and test scores, teachers’ remarks and lots of red ink. The red ink I feared because it told my parents I was not a bright kid. One of the teachers’ report said: Chukwuma always seems lost in class. He is not very social and he daydreams a lot. I remember drifting away in class while the teacher attempted to teach. My attention span was very low then but my imagination was wild and untamed. There was always an adventure in my head, a story to be told. And I escaped into my imagination anytime I got bored. Books are fascinating things. They take you anywhere you want to go, if they are well written. Before I ever travelled to Europe or the United States, I had been there. In my head. I knew the places, the people, their histories and cultures. I have managed to have been to many places without even stepping foot on their soil. This was the case with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Cancer Ward’. I was in scary Soviet Uzbekistan and I felt a deep connection to most of the characters.
Another fascinating book I read as a child was ‘Nigger at Eton’ by Dillibe Onyeama. I found myself in a British boarding school, dealing with all the issues of race, identity and prejudice. I travelled and travelled. In my head. Soon I had a collection of characters in my head. I spoke to them and when I slept, I was lost in their world. How do I tell their stories? I was not very clever or good with words (you have to talk a lot to be good with them, right?). I was always good at sketching. My stick figures were not so bad looking. I started with drawing my stories. The central characters were always white. A prince. A princess. A kingdom far far away… I drew complete comic-book stories, sacrificing my exercise books on the altar of my wild imagination. For that, my buttocks became close friends with Mr. Cane. My dad who resembled a fierce wrestler when upset would shout, threaten and eventually flog me relentlessly for destroying my exercise books, but I could not stop. I had visited so many places and its people were all crawling out of my head and taking shape on my exercise books. Black characters found their way inside my head after my encounter with African novels. I have to admit that they wandered in almost reluctantly and only after pricks of jealousy. I was jealous that black Africans were writing books. At first, I could not relate with their stories. I did not know rural villages or customs but soon found all these intriguing. Beyond the tales of villages and old ways, I stumbled on contemporary stories by writers like Buchi Emecheta, Cyprian Ekwensi and a handful of others. There was a slow shift of paradigms in my head, a gentle coup d’état and soon the colony of black characters took over. In high school, I gave up drawing my stories. I found drawing took up more space and if I ran out of notebooks, there was no one there to replace them for me. I believe I wrote my first non-graphical story in high school. Everyone thought I was keeping a diary and one day another student stole my notebook. For two days, I cried. I felt lost, as if a part of me had gone missing. After two days, he returned my book and said; “You are a writer.”
I will never forget those words. He loved my stories and made me share it with my friends and other students. I was no genius. I’m sure those stories were riddled with countless mistakes and grammatical errors, but these were things they were willing to overlook (not because they liked me) as long as they found the stories engaging and somewhat relatable. By sharing my stories, I learnt an important lesson: A good writer must first be an expert storyteller. The stories make a writer. I wonder now if it was then I knew I would write…write novels that people read and love and hate! I’m not sure. I never really knew that writing would be a thing I would do. In my head, I’m still dreaming…
Jude Dibia is the author of WALKING WITH SHADOWS, UNBRIDLED & BLACKBIRD.
He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.