Throwback Tuesday: Who am I as a writer in English?

In my junior year at University, I took a peer tutoring course and one of our first assignments was to write an essay on “Who am I as a writer in English?” I remember initially being perplexed as to what to write but once my fingers touched the keyboard, the words came flowing. I liked the end product and my professor did as well, because I got full marks on the paper. I was going through my documents when I came across it and thought to share it on here.

Because I can

8th grade French class: the professor walked in one fine day and asked us to write an essay on le jour le plus hereuse de ma vie. Le what? After the cries of ‘uh…what?” died down and the raised eyebrows were put back in their places, she explained that she wanted us to write an essay on the happiest day of our lives. My mind was blank for a second. I had no idea what the happiest day of my life was. For a day to be termed the happiest day of a person’s life it has to be really special and no day came to my mind. Not to worry, my trusty imagination quickly sprang up several wonderful scenarios. Nobody ever said it had to be true, and how would the teacher find out anyway? I could write about that one time I went to Paris or when I met Nelson Mandela and he shook my hand.

I was quickly brought back to earth when I remembered I was in French class and my English-French dictionary could only take me so far. How could I possibly capture these events in French? So I bottled up my imagination and settled on something basic. My essay ended up sounding like this. “I woke up. I went to the zoo. It was the happiest day of my life.” Oh yes, the emotions were just flowing out of the paper.

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9th grade Yoruba final exam: the theory question asked for a thousand word essay on ina monamona. The entire class looked around for someone who had an idea what this meant, but we were all as stumped as the other. Ina monamona? I had never heard my parents or aunts say anything about ina monamona. Where did the teacher dig up this word from? Eventually he brought us out of our misery by informing us that ina monamona meant electricity. I waited for the wave of relief, there was none. If my grade didn’t depend on the exam, I would have laughed. An essay on electricity? In Yoruba? A language where a simple essay about myself would require the teacher to arm himself with a couple packs of Advil. A language where a simple word like oko could mean, husband, car, farm or penis. Sound marks are used to differentiate the words; sound marks which I never learned to use. I wanted to write about how electricity was generated. I wanted to write on the good and bad sides of electricity. I wanted to touch on the epileptic power supply in Nigeria and possibly propose several solutions. I ended up writing an essay that was more English than Yoruba. I did not have the heart to check my grade afterwards.

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4th grade English composition class: we had to write an essay on how we spent the summer holiday. This was an easy enough assignment. I had spent the summer at home with my family and friends, watching movies and going out. I could have written about that but instead I decided to write about how I spent it in the United States, even though at that point I had never been there. But I used my imagination and wrote a wonderful essay, my friends who read it marveled at how much fun I had. My imagination went wild as I described New York and LA; the statue of liberty and the palm trees. I remember hiding the essay from my mum because I didn’t want her to catch me lying. She did eventually see it and my fears were baseless as she was quite impressed.

As a writer in English, my ever active imagination is used and I have no limitations. I can write about the forest of Narnia and the castle of Hogwarts. In English I can be poetic. I can write a love poem filled with soulful words and images. I can write a poem filled with hate and yet another filled with anguish and pain. This would never have been possible in French or Yoruba. I am a lot more wooden and in a box when it comes to those languages. As a person I am very imaginative and this spills out into my writing. But in a language other than English, my imagination is like a genie that has been banished to the dusty lamp. It’s still there, but it is trapped by my inability to flow well in Yoruba or French.

I am a very private and secretive person. My thoughts and emotions are mine and I guard them fiercely. But keeping things inside can be very frustrating. Everything builds up and it feels like I’m going to explode, I have to get things off my chest. The only time I let my feelings out is on paper. Emotions that I do not understand and do not want to tell anybody go down in writing. As I let the pen flow over the book, or in some cases my fingers over the keypad, I feel my sadness evaporating, almost like a therapy session. My phone is filled with notes of moments I keep to myself; the time my crush walked past and shot me a smile and my heart skipped a beat. Frustrations at exams that didn’t go well, relief when I eventually got the exam results, wishes, fears, that one time I was in a strange place and didn’t know anybody there and I felt so lonely, my feelings of pride and hopelessness. Sometimes I get a sudden inspiration and I whip out my journal and scribble in a poem. Because I can.

Maybe I would write more in Yoruba or French if I was fluent in them. I think in English and all of my brain processes are done in English as well. So writing in another language requires me to first translate my thoughts from English. I can’t imagine having to write an essay on ‘Who am I as a writer in Yoruba” ha! I would probably drop the course. I do really want to learn a lot more languages, but for now English is my trusty steed; my source of release.

I still cannot pinpoint a moment in my life that is my happiest, but if I had to write an English essay on that, I would have no problem. I could use my imagination to create a wonderful scenario and put it down on paper with ease. There are no restrictions. I could keep it simple and write about a rainy night spent cooped up under the warm sheets with my sisters and friends watching funny movies and sharing stories. Or I could go deeper (and a bit cliché) and write about falling in love in Paris. I would describe his face and the tiny scar on his left eyelid. I would write about his smile and tousled hair and how he made me all tingly. I would talk about our first kiss and the way it left me feeling like I was filled with helium.

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