The JRB presents an excerpt from In Dependence by Nigerian author Sarah Ladipo Manyika.
In Dependence sold three million copies after it was published ten years ago in Nigeria. The novel was rereleased in a new, updated edition this month.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Cassava Republic, 2019 (originally published 2008)
Read the excerpt:
On Monday, they shared walnut cake at the Cadena; Tuesday, they ate chicken curry at the Taj Mahal restaurant; Wednesday, they drank coffee in her room, and Thursday they attended St Antony’s weekly seminar on African theatre. They’d considered going to the Moulin Rouge on Friday to see Zimmermann’s High Noon but decided instead to stay in Tayo’s room and listen to jazz. Vanessa loved the smell of his room—a comforting mix of Old Spice, Brylcreem, and Nigerian food. Occasionally, when they were not together, she would catch the scent on Tayo’s letters, or on clothing he had touched. His room was on the first floor of staircase XVI, large and sparsely furnished. In it was a bed with three neatly-folded blankets—two green and one cream—and at the far end of the room, a fireplace, boarded over and replaced with a coin-operated heater. The heater was always on when Vanessa visited and she suspected he rarely turned it off. He had told her that in his first week at Oxford he’d nearly set himself on fire by sitting too close to it. The only other items of furniture were his old oak desk by the window, the sofa where she now sat, a wardrobe and a coffee table. On the floor were his football boots and propped up against the bit of wall between the windowsill and desk was the room’s only decoration: two colour postcards of ocean liners.
Today, she’d brought him daffodils to brighten the room. ‘Women can bring men flowers too, you know.’ She smiled, sensing his hesitation as she arranged them in an empty milk bottle. Already, the buds were opening and adding a bright splash of buttery yellow to his room. She placed them next to the neat stack of books and papers and then picked up the one that was marked: A Handbook for Students from Overseas. She studied what he’d underlined and smiled as she read aloud from the section on Habits and Customs. ‘It says here that when two people meet and they wish to save themselves from the embarrassment of silence, they usually talk about the weather. Did we talk about the weather when we first met?’
‘I believe we did.’
‘No we didn’t!’ She laughed, closing the book, and picking up another. ‘A Dance of the Forests, by Wole Soyinka.’
‘SHOW-Yin-KA’ he corrected her.
‘Any good?’ she asked, watching him take the record player from its box on the floor. While his back was turned, she tugged at her skirt which, despite Pat’s reassurances was, she’d now decided, too short. ‘Where do you buy all these Nigerian newspapers?’
‘My father sends me some, and others I get from London.’
‘‘Preparations well under way for the first Negro Festival of Arts.’ she read. ‘Wouldn’t you love to go? Look!’ She held up the paper for him to see. ‘Everyone’s going: Haile Selassie, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Marpessa Dawn.’
‘So let’s go, and we’ll sail the Aureol.’
‘You know, I think I might already have sailed on that ship when mum and I came back to England. I’m sure it had a yellow funnel, just like the one in your postcard.’
‘I knew it!’
‘That you were the girl on the ship, the day I first saw the Aureol in 1951.’
‘Then it wouldn’t have been me. Not in 1951.’
‘But your mother was lifting you up like this.’ Tayo demonstrated, flexing his muscles. ‘And I waved to you. Actually no, that wasn’t it. I remember now. You blew me a kiss, and I sent you one back,’ he said, matter-of-fact, as he leant against his desk, resting the record against his knees.
‘Tell me more, then.’ Vanessa smiled.
‘Well, to set the scene, it was before the days of Father’s Morris Minor so we took the bolekaja bus from my home town in Ibadan to Lagos. These are the typical Bedford trucks, the type you find here in England carrying goods or livestock, but in Nigeria they’re fitted with benches to carry passengers. Do you remember them?’
‘No.’ She shook her head.
‘Well, the buses are not very advanced, which means that everything travels on them—people, children, goats, chickens, you name it. Combine this with hours of driving on dirt roads full of potholes, and you get some pretty irritated passengers, not to speak of the rude bus boys. That’s how the buses get their name. Bolekaja literally means, ‘Come down and let’s fight it out.’’
She laughed, picturing the scene with Tayo on one of these buses, though it was hard to imagine him ever getting angry as she watched him twirl his record in the air.
‘When we got to Lagos, my father took me straight away to the ocean, and I screamed. I never expected the sea to look so vast and to sound so loud. I thought the tide and all that foam were about to swallow us up, but somehow Baba must have calmed me and we spent hours watching the water and the ships. The next day, we watched the Aureol leave and you were on that ship, I’m sure of it. So you see, see-sea, we were destined for each other.’
He jumped up, causing her heart to skip a beat.
‘And now that we’ve spent an evening going to Africa and back, as Christopher Robin would say, how about this, Miss Vanessa?’
She watched as he twirled the disc on his index finger and blew imaginary dust from both sides before placing it on the record player. Little things like this, his gestures and the way he moved, had the strangest, most thrilling effect on her. And there were other things, too, that she would normally never notice and admire, but with him it was different. His tidiness, for example, the way he organised his jazz LPs in one pile and West African Highlife in another, all stowed away at the bottom of his wardrobe. Initially, it had been his gentleness and a sense that he was genuine that had attracted her, and of course there had always been his looks, but now there were these conversations, the things he was teaching her, the way he listened. She loved his attentiveness and the way he made her laugh. There he was, happily singing along with Louis Armstrong and it didn’t matter if he didn’t like Bob Dylan or the Beatles. He marched in exaggerated steps, still singing, ‘Oh Lawd I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.’
‘You do put me in a good mood, Tayo.’
‘That’s good. I’m here to please. Omotayo, remember? The man who brings joy. Come,’ he beckoned, ‘dance with me.’
She watched as he pushed up his sleeves to reveal the fine muscles in his forearms, which again set her heart aflutter.
‘I’ll just watch,’ she said, knowing there was no way she could move with his ease or flair. She would end up stepping on his feet.
‘Okay, as you please. If you don’t want to dance then I’ll just have to tell you the Satchmo story.’
‘No, stop!’ she laughed, tossing a cushion at his legs. ‘You’ve told me that story so many times that I’ve memorised it! In 1961 Satchmo played on the Ikorodu Road at Bobby Benson’s club. The place was packed and you were sooooooo proud to see a gifted American Negro inspired by the beats of Africa. So proud that you will personally write Satchmo’s biography one day.’
‘I will,’ he laughed. ‘So you see, next time you should dance and then you won’t have to listen to my stories. But, first, I’m making you coffee.’ He lifted the stylus back to the beginning of the song and marched off, humming.
Vanessa smiled to herself as she waited, remembering the first time that Tayo had talked to her about Satchmo’s visit to Nigeria and she imagined herself as the reporter. She had always wanted to be a foreign reporter in Africa, but now she wasn’t so sure—Malcolm X had been so critical of white journalists there. Tayo returned with the coffees and asked about her day, so she told him about the little things—the struggles with her work and her continuing aversion to college food.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, looking concerned and then offering more of his mother’s food.
‘You’re such a love.’ She wriggled to the edge of her seat, touched by his concern. Africans, she had noticed, were in the habit of saying sorry even if something wasn’t their fault. And then he looked down at where she had tapped his knee and she blushed.
‘What’s the essay that’s causing you all this headache?’ he asked.
‘American slavery, secession, and the old Lincoln-Douglas debates,’ she answered, clasping both hands round the mug. ‘The topic is interesting, but it’s not modern history. I keep thinking about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as everything that is happening in South Africa — you know, real modern history.’
‘So you must write about these things. Find a way of putting them in your essay, and then submit more articles to the newspapers.’
‘You think so?’ She clasped her mug a little tighter, watching the bits of cream bob up and down in the circle of coffee. She wondered what Tayo was really thinking.
‘Of course you should write, Vanessa. You have a flair for writing, and you already have your own unique voice.’
She smiled, gazing at him for a safe moment. She loved the way he pronounced her name. ‘VA-nessa’, he said, with the accent on the V, making it sound strong and exotic.
‘And now I have a new song for you.’ He took her mug and placed it next to his on the desk. ‘Listen to this.’ He shook another record out of its sleeve.
‘Who is it?’
‘Ella?’ she guessed.
‘Who then?’ She jumped up and snatched the sleeve from his hands.
‘Hey!’ He laughed, chasing her back to the chair.
‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Billie Holiday,’ she read the label, holding it up high out of his reach. ‘But it doesn’t sound like her—it’s happy,’ she said, handing it back. ‘Let’s hear it again.’
He lifted the stylus and placed it on the record. She thought he was going to join her on the sofa, but instead he moved the coffee table and brought his chair closer to hers.
- Sarah Ladipo Manyika was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, and England. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and taught literature at San Francisco State University. She is the author of the novels In Dependence (2008) and Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (2016).