Ayodele’s life will tread a different path depending on a decision she makes on her eighteenth birthday, on the cusp of womanhood; but how will she choose?
One path will send Ayodele to Europe, to university – and to the pain of first love. Another will have her travel the globe after suffering immeasurable loss. Still another will keep her in Africa, a mother and wife in a polygamous marriage. And in each of Ayodele’s possible lives we see how the interplay of choice and fate determines the shape of our lives. What part of us would be different if we had made different decisions? And what part of us would stay the same?
An Excerpt from Reading The Ceiling
In the slit between my bedroom curtains, I see a long triangle of sky more grey than blue. The light changes with each sweep of my eyelids. At this time of year, when the harmattan blows straight off the Sahara, not even the wide expanse of the River Gambia can add enough wet to stop it in its tracks. It has coated the mosquito netting on my window with dust. Today is my birthday. It is also the day I have decided to do The Deed.
“Remember, they are only after one thing,” my mother says. She advises me to stay aware of what men want; that I need to practice light prancing, à la Mohammed Ali, keeping my butterfly just out of their reach. Keep myself. For what? At eighteen, why do I need to keep to the butterfly dance? Why exactly?
“Otherwise everyone will think you are loose, cheap.” That’s the answer my mother would give.
Osman’s radio starts a low volumed griot wailing, a sound that always seems to be around, melding with the air. The plucking of the kora strings weaves around a mellow baritone voice. I find it strangely comforting as the sound soaks into my skin. Today the singer is telling of Sunjata Keita, a warrior king whose exploits in the savannah have been erased by tropical sand and hot winds. But whose deeds are played on, retold over the years in the memories passed through mouth and ear of the people who hold our histories in their heads. The griot sings,
The Sunjata story / Is very strange and wonderful.
You see one griot, / And he gives you an account of it one way,
You see another griot, / And he gives you an account of it in another way.
The radio moves and a clanking joins it as Osman picks up his kettle. The griot continues,
Cats on the shoulder / The hunter and the lion are at Naarena.
A minute later, I hear Osman at the tap. The water gushes into the kettle, sounding hollow against the metal, then drowns itself by the weight of more water.
Osman is our family’s night protector. He is paid to watch while we sleep. Now he has to greet the day with sleep soaked eyes before getting ready for his real job, shifting sacks of rice, flour, or sugar at the Port. A few ships dock this week, conjuring jobs for men with muscles who don’t mind the work being irregular.
Both sides of this watchman deal are grateful. Osman gets extra cash for his family in Mansakonko, with additional sprinkles of tightlipped help from my mother when his unexpected emergencies arise. Such as:
#1. The new baby has malaria.
#2. The middle boy was sent home because he didn’t have his school uniform.
#3. The mama’s leg isn’t getting better from that dog bite.
In exchange, my mother gets the security of a man about the compound. Someone who can run to our rescue if a gang of toughs ever smashes its way into the house. In case any of her emergencies arise, unexpectedly or otherwise, our muscular, manly, hired Osman is around.
So, here I am awake, one in a household of four females protected in the night by a wiry thin-faced man from Mansakonko. The drumbeats of other kinds of dangers are in my ears, while the other women in the house sleep, dreaming like butterfly dancers.
The flame coloured cockerel at the Salani’s is shrieking hoarsely. Its loud nasty echoes fade into still air. My mother is soon awake. I hear her shuffle past, her bedroom slippers muffled against the tiles in the corridor. A yell out of the window,
“Ozz-maaaan. Demal jainda mburu.” Go and buy some bread.
Number of hot, stub-ended stretched loaves needed for breakfast: three. Number of unloose women left in the house: ditto.
Who should I choose from the four on my list? It’s scary to think through the options knowing I have to decide on one. My possibilities begin with Reuben. Why is he on the list at all? If the idea comes creeping that I need him as a fallback, my failsafe option in case it turns out that the others don’t want to be chosen, I will swat it away. He’s there because, well I guess, because he fancies me. I’m not exactly breathless with desire, but a list is a list and it therefore needs entries. So he stays. With one of his front teeth showing bigger than the rest, jutting halfway up his gum. With his thick framed glasses that darken whenever the sun casts shadows over his even toned, blunted oval of a face. Reuben has a plank-flat bottom and wears brown crimplene trousers. An ex-Boy Scout, not ugly, but not what you could call a catch. Reuben does not seem to know how to angle his body properly as he lounges on the short school wall. He’s not yet safe in his own body. I wonder how he’ll be about touching someone else’s. But how can I ever know that kind of thing about someone, without trying him out?
Another option is Yuan Chen. Last term, everyone at school kept saying he was my boyfriend because we were always together during break, but he’s not really. He can seem sexy if I try. His Chinese father came over to teach our farmers how to grow paddy rice. Then he stayed and his wife eventually came over and they stayed some more. When our government got tired of Mao style paddy farms, his parents started a restaurant called Green Bamboo where they cook a lot of white rice.
Last year, he asked my friend Remi and me over to his parents’ restaurant as my birthday treat and he made sure we got a platterful of freshly fried springrolls which are my favourite. I watched his lips form the words: “Good springrolls need the pastry rolled so thin you can see through it. The filling has to be cold so it doesn’t stretch the pastry and make it tear.”
Maybe it was then that he started to creep into my consciousness as a Possible. Remi protested that those instructions were not clear enough: “They never turn out right, even if I leave the stuff in the fridge overnight.”
He laughed, eyes bending up at the corners, his floppy black hair brushing his eyebrows,
“To cook, the oil has to be really, really hot so it singes brown almost as soon as it reaches the pan.”
I think he’d be gentle. When we were at the beach after Tunji’s party, Yuan and I were leaning against his car as we waited for the others. It was quite dark as the moon was not yet up and the stars pinpricked the sky’s velvet. There was a bit of a breeze off the sea and when I said I was cold he took his sweat top off and put it around me in my strappy dress. He tucked me in under his shoulder and it felt kind of cozy.
I don’t want to wait for this falling in love business, or aim for passion, even though it sounds attractive enough in Mills and Boons romances. I want to get this sex thing over and done with so my life can move on. Among the girls I know, some already have done it. Amina and Mahmoud did it behind the school kitchens when we were still in the third form. She needed to go to the nurse for a spare uniform as stuff had leaked onto her skirt. I remember that after school, she walked funny all the way to the bus stop. Now, when Amina talks about boys and men, she seems to be having a great time. She says sex can be mysterious or straightforward, either a fantastic experience or as simple as what dogs do. Her cheeks climb up her face, her deep dimples show as she talks. It seems as if she’s defying life itself, as if the choice has been hers all along. She’s able to brush off what my mother, and probably hers, might think. She’s started to claim life in her own way.
Moira, on the other hand, says she’s going to wait for the right one, she won’t do it until she’s sure. She has a crush on Idris, who bounces on and off my list. When we’ve talked about him, she does that “oooh, he’s so cute” thing. I can see that Idris obviously has the experience. And everyone seems to like him. Girls like Moira giggle and the Amina types look him up and down. The shape of his back, his shoulders in his white school shirt as he walks away down a corridor catches my eye. I tend to keep very still inside, not wanting to let any smoochy type of longing jump free. Sometimes I ache to be noticed by him, wanted and pursued. Yet at other times, I feel like I’d just be another pair of knickers in his drawer, taken simply because I was there.
And the largest mango in my pile? The biggest bonga on my stall? My best friend’s father, Frederick Adams, forty two years old with a pot-bellied future, a short full beard, hair closely trimmed to his head and fingers which can make the skin sing. Nothing much’s happened yet, of course. Just one leaning-over-to-open-the car-door touch. Just one let-me-introduce-this-youngster-to-Motown dance.
“I bet you youngsters don’t know about this kind of music. Want to dance?” he’d said. But he hadn’t stuck to the usual avuncular version – at arms length. He’s on the list because I think he might teach me quickly. This is so obviously one of the things that will have to remain secret, be doubly hidden and buried from my mother (and Remi), with me having to pinch my words. But just the once with him might be enough.
It’s almost as if I can see a list of names in my head, with mini head shots alongside, each taken in a studio with a full glare of lights, so that as I peer into each photo, I can see the pimple above Reuben’s eyebrow, notice that Yuan’s eyes are set slightly too close together, linger over the pout in Idris’ lips, observe the sheen on Frederick Adams’ face. I can choose whether to put a tick, a question mark or an x against each name on my list. It’s in my power, it’s up to me.
The story behind the book
“How do you think your life would have been different if you had stayed in The Gambia?” This chance remark made by a friend and my interest in mathematics led me to thinking about how to conceive a novel around alternative lives.
I drew up a tree, which I vaguely based on Boolean logic, of a choice that could only have two outcomes. Then I devised a series of choices and picked out episodes in a life of a created character, Ayodele, which would meander to each choice and, sometimes be linked to another chapter further on. I also used an all-knowing voice, representing some higher-order intelligence, that would be able to see through the entire tree of her life, and intoned about the vagaries of fate at various points.
In a rush of energy I wrote the first draft in four months, each chapter being a day in the life of Ayodele, at the end of which she had to make a choice which would lead to one or the other branch of the Boolean tree. However, the structure only worked to a point. It was unwieldly and rather difficult to understand. A year later, I had abandoned it, not knowing how to improve it. I reworked the first chapter into a short story, which was accepted for publication.
Armed with new ideas and strongly supported by new found literary friends, I completely reworked the novel, and made the structure subject to the story. I simplified it to having a single choice at the beginning of the novel, and restricted myself to working with three lives, which had to tell individual yet complementary stories of the protagonist. I strung together various existing chapters into coherent lives but found huge gaps in each. As I shifted the focus to story telling, only a third of the original draft stayed … and the elaborate mathematical structure receded in the background.
Hopefully, some of the mathematical ambition is still retained in the final story, for readers to stumble into.
I started the novel in 2001 and finished it in 2005.
About the Author
I was born in The Gambia, a tiny strip of a country in West Africa’s coast. We lived in a house that overlooked a medical research centre which contained huge cashew trees. A taste for tree climbing and adventure developed in order to go cashew hunting on the other side of the fence. As a much younger sibling among five, I was known to spend hours in the bathroom – the only secure place to escape household chores – either reading, or staring at the floor, which had speckled grey grains embedded in white tiles. I used to daydream patterns and pictures in my head, as one does looking at clouds – or the ceiling, as my protagonist in Reading the Ceiling does. Our house was close to the ocean, and I could always hear the sea at night as a child, crashing away against the rock cliffs jutting out into the Atlantic.
My family is one of a group of Krio speakers who emigrated from Sierra Leone into the Gambia during colonial times. As a child, our extended family was large, and also included a host of friends of our parents who we called ‘aunt this’ or ‘uncle that’.
When I was eighteen, I left home for university. As there were no universities in The Gambia at the time, everyone who aspired to one had to leave to study overseas. I studied statistics and computing at the London School of Economics.
Although I have always been a keen reader, my interest in writing was mostly restricted to a series of teenage diaries, chronicling life, friends and daily intrigue. During a brief flare of interest in the student college magazine, I published a single article in the Beaver, a review of some sort.
I took up writing aged 35, while living in America, essentially to figure out a way of expressing opinions and publishing essays on various topics. I stumbled into fiction while attending a writing workshop. The optional assignment was to extend a character in a story someone else had written. I tried it – and was bowled over by the power of virtual reality – the ability to create someone else’s world and be able to view everything through that person’s eyes. And to feel God-like, able to make things happen, yet be sensitive enough to continue to inhabit a character’s skin.
I attempted various kinds of pieces, essays, biographical pieces, the occasional short story, a couple of abandoned novel ideas. It was at this time that I started working on Reading the Ceiling.
I have since published a short story in Kwani?, a Kenyan literary magazine, and have participated in the 2006 Caine Prize Writer’s Workshop, during which I produced a new story, which was published in an anthology, The Obituary Tango.