Even if I was born for a life destined to surprise the unworthy and uplift the underserving, it would still be a rare good fortune that I knew Nadine Gordimer closely, that she adopted me as her friend, that I benefitted from her support as a writer. That I was not born for such a life makes my privilege more special, my gratitude more profound. I was introduced to Nadine on May 26, 2008, by the South African culture activist Raks Morakabe Seakhoa. He organised the celebration of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at 50 in Johannesburg and invited me to take part in a panel discussion and as a performance poet and arranged my meeting Nadine on the side.
With a book-length manuscript of The Heresiad, my unpublished anti-censorship epic meant as a gift for Nadine, we arrived her house in the company of Phakama Mbonambi, a close associate of Raks. For such a revered writer and global figure, I was surprised that she would keep me completely at ease for the nearly two hours’ duration of our meeting. Not hers the airs I had sometimes noticed from some far less accomplished writers. I could hardly believe that such a great figure could embody such humility. “Poetry is closer to the essence,” she said, comparing the purity of the literary genres after she offered me a seat on a settee and sat right next to me. Then she opened my manuscript and proposed a reading game. She requested that we took turns reading from the poem, a line at a time. She reciprocated to my gift of the manuscript after the reading with a gift of her collection of short stories, Beethoven was One-sixteenth Black, autographed “For Ikeogu Oke – To mark the pleasure of our meeting…”, a pleasure she made far more mine.
Before we left she told me how she cherished the memory of her visit to my country to take part in an event held in honour of Wole Soyinka. Then she took me to a secluded corner and showed me a handwritten birthday message Soyinka had sent her, her eyes radiant with pleasure, in which Soyinka apologised for his unavoidable physical absence to celebrate with her and added with touching humour that if she heard “a glug” at the stroke of midnight it was him drinking to her health. For me it was an unforgettable initiation into literati privilege. She was a gracious and untiring mentor. When I called her after my return to Nigeria she would regularly ask me “What are you writing now?” and say “Send it to me!” after I have told her. Following the publication of my second book of poems, Salutes Without Guns, I sent her a copy through Raks. I was surprised by her letter thanking me for the book and praising the poems. But a greater surprise from her awaited me: Later, the Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi notified me of her selection of the book as her Book of the Year (2010) for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) – jointly with the novel Point Omega by the American writer Don DeLillo. Tolu then sent me a copy of the TLS in which the selection was published. I couldn’t believe that a writer of her galactic stature would remark of a struggling writer like me (and stake her reputation with the remark by having it published in the TLS): “Here is a writer who finds the metaphor for what has happened and continues, evolves, not often the way we want in our lives in Africa and the world. He does so timelessly and tellingly, as perhaps only a poet can.” Her life, marked by such extraordinary gestures, was an eloquent testimony of grace.
“What are you writing now,” she asked me again during a telephone conversation about a year later. “Send it to me,” she said enthusiastically after I told her that I had just finished work on a new collection of poems, In the Wings of Waiting. I sent her the manuscript with a letter requesting her to write a Foreword for the collection; and I would have understood if she ignored or turned down the request. She called me a few weeks later. “I have read your manuscript,” she said excitedly. “I love the poems. I will write you the Foreword on one condition.” “What condition?” I wondered, concerned that I may be unable to meet her condition. “Remove the two poems you dedicated to me in the connection. I will not write a Foreword for a collection in which poems are dedicated to me. There is nothing wrong with your dedicating poems to me. I am grateful. But I do not want anyone to think that I wrote the Foreword in exchange for the dedication. Your works merit it. Your erotic poems are some of the best I have read. I do not say things I don’t believe in. I will send you the Foreword in two weeks,” she said, riveting me to a spot as I marvelled at her unique way with integrity, evident in her insistence that I excised the poems dedicated to her in the collection as her condition for writing the Foreword. I received the Foreword in the post with her handwritten note dated exactly two weeks from the date of that conversation. She kept her word with precision! Unstinting in her appreciation of other writers regardless of stature, one phrase stuck out most memorably from the Foreword: “No end to the wide illumination in the protean gifts of this man.”