06/06/2024

“How are you?” A friend asked me recently. 

“Do you want the short or long version?” I asked in return 

(1 point for the Nigerian in me!)

“Fine,” is the short version. She chooses. But you would most likely get the long version, if you are close to me. 

Hold on, there is an even longer version which is shared over voice notes long enough to be podcasts or over long phone conversations. 

This essay is a summary of that account.

Charles Dickens must have peeped into the future, into my life when he wrote– “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”. 

This paradoxical extract from Hard Times captures my life now. Maybe the book title is even more apt. 

One cold December night, in the heat of winter, as my younger son likes to say, my family arrived, our entire lives packed in eight Ghana-must-go bags to start afresh in Birmingham, United Kingdom. The year was 2022.

“Why did you decide to come during winter?” Many asked. 

“If we don’t see the winter now, it will wait in front for us,” I told them. 

But did the cold that year show me shege? It did. And my Nigerian pepper soup was not spicy enough to face it as the cold smacked me down with catarrh. Soon, I realised that this coldness isn’t limited to the weather. 

Beyond the winter, other reasons make Dickens’ words quite apt for our arrival. The UK was considered by many to be in dire straits after its so-called Brexit from the European Union. It was like a child roughly yanked from its mother’s breast. It was seething; its politicians scurrying around looking for alternatives to keep the ‘hangry’ child alive. Hence, the Global Talent Visa, my pass into the country–to fill whatever gaps Brexit might have dug into the heart of the nation’s arts and culture sector. 

Now, I am in the land of opportunities. A land with a well-defined publishing industry, where libraries work, and writers earn (they say it is not as great as I imagined!) and NEPA is no longer an excuse. No month passes by when I do not see new opportunities: calls for funding, calls for submissions, just to mention a few. However, I am writhing under the weight of survival. 

By survival, I mean sticking to the bird at hand, my editing job, while I try to farm the bush for other juicy birds. Getting the juicy birds has been tough. It has felt like searching for a needle in a haystack, praying that the needle does not drill a hole in your hand. That means that I write down the deadline for applications, keep hope alive that I will ‘somehow’ have the time between my editing job, mastering a new city and raising children, who are also getting to know a new city, to actually apply.  

After an initial three months of applying for roles, attending job fairs, yet with no job to show for it, I began to realise that my over ten years experience in the publishing industry does not count in the UK space. You need the UK experience, they tell me, but how do you get the UK experience if they wont offer you a job?

It almost feels like starting all over again. Like learning to walk when all the earth under your feet is shifting; as if the terra is not firm(a)  enough. You begin to wonder if you really have any legs at all. 

So, I think that maybe I’m applying for the ‘big’ jobs. When hit by a tornado of ‘unfortunatelys’, I tell myself ‘maybe I should lower my expectations’. Then, I apply for everything. Not much changes. I  tweak my CV this way and that like a demented panel beater at the Ladipo spare parts market in Lagos.

‘Remove any affiliations to Nigeria.” But pray how do you write University of Lagos without Lagos? How do you write Obafemi Awolowo University without you being outed as the ‘other’?

“Use the key words in the vacancy,” they say. I do just that. 

“Personalise your cover letter,” another person suggests over one of such job phone calls. I attended quite many in the first few months. I am the queen of letters but either I’m a joke to the HR people or my tiara has turned to  dust, I don’t know. Or is this tiara bowing to the god of unfortunately? 

Dusts and polishes tiara gingerly for some shine.

Well, I did what I know best. Start a business. Didn’t you all say do it afraid? Well, that is what I am doing. Soaking-wet-with-fear in a room so cold. Again, starting from scratch. Learning to adapt as we go along the way. 

I am also adapting my creative practice. I figured that it may be tougher for me to get a novel down in this world – but you never know, maybe I will succeed at using material from my non-fiction work as material – but I am looking at other possible ways of expressing my creativity. 

Enter, writing for the stage. There are more theatres here. Writing for the stage feels like a more collaborative experience than the solitude of writing a novel. There have been a few trainings and I am enjoying it. 

Don’t even get me started with networking. 

After adding my extra 30minutes–call it my ‘getting lost time’ as I always get lost–sometimes, I go round and round my destination the way Tony Hastings took the ladies around in She Stoops to Conquer. Sometimes, it is not my fault, the building has multiple doors (Birmingham Hippodrome, I am judging you!). 

Then, when I eventually make it in, tell me why am I looking at the faces carefully, doing eeny-meeny-miny-moe in my mind and asking myself: who should I say hello to?

But before I begin to sound like some Nigerian japa influencers, let me say it is not all negative.

I have made a few friends who are constantly checking up on me and making sure I am placing my foot on the right rung of the  ladder. There is the comfort of the local library where I can get good books, hence I buy books that I really really really love.  I have gotten on a few writing opportunities. I have gotten one gig here and there.  I am grateful for the gift of words and what it has brought my way.  It’s a joy to have a blank slate, to fill with a string of alphabets even when it comes with a lot of sacrifice. 

This first year feels like a new child in school. New shoes. New uniforms. New everything. Everything she thought would win her new friends. But she gets to the playground and realises to her shock: all the cliques are already formed. All that she is left with is her ‘newness’. She has to get used to, and enjoy the smell of her new shoes. 

I smell the new shoes when I sit in my son’s class to learn new methods of multiplication so I can teach him at home. I smell the new shoes when I struggle to find my way around. I smell the new shoes when I hold myself back from breaking into a dance as I try to make meaning out of the sing-song of the shopkeeper’s Brumie accent. Temitayo, she’s talking to you, it is not a concert. 

I listen to experienced writers on BBCMaestro so I can master the ways of the publishing industry. I seek out opportunities that can make me a better writer and editor. Yet, daily, it does not feel as if it is counting much. These drops of water just seem like mud, not a puddle that will make an ocean. 

People say it gets easier with time. 

You will study the system and master it but what seems to be happening is the system mastering me, instead. 

Because why does it just feel like I am stuck in the ‘reception’ lobby when I should be taking my seat in a corner office?

**Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning writer and editor.

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