OLUFEMI TERRY has published fiction, poetry and nonfiction in several publications, among them Chimurenga, New Contrast and Guernica. His short story “Stickfighting Days” won the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing. He lives in Southwest Germany and is at work on a novel. A version of this story will appear in the forthcoming Caine Anthology to be published in August 2011. You can find another wonderful story of his, “Digitalis Lust,” in the Caine Prize anthology in 2008.
From the bedroom window, an arc of the city is in view: squat towers serried in uneven, slanting rows. Far below are streets like ribbons of light, filled with slow-going cars. The air is icy clear. In his journal, Ebanks writes, An old, settled city, plain, inscrutable facades: Europe. It had not been apparent when he alighted from the taxi that they’d fetched up near the brow of a hill. The city forms a bowl rimmed by four or five such peaks. He sees unimpeded all the way down into the basin, the city’s heart, where street lanterns blend and blur into an amber haze, and he hunts for a word that will cap his sense of the place. He knows this already: it’s not right for the next project, which will be an installation. Somewhere in the world is an inchoate city, some new Berlin or a Buenos Aires. All is stale in London, in Paris, nothing untried.
“Yann, do you want some of this?”
Samia’s in the living room. Chopped out on the coffee table in front of her are four lines of cocaine.
“Where did you get that?” Ebanks says.
“Tewodros left it for me.” The flat has been loaned them by Tewodros, who he’s never met, for as long as Samia needs it. “Did you think I brought it with me on the flight?” Samia’s not a frequent user but a social one; in the last six or seven months, the duration, more or less of the relationship, she’s invited him to snort a line perhaps eight times. He turns away. He doesn’t care much for cocaine. In an unfamiliar city, on a shivering cold night, it’s the last thing he wants. From Tewodros’ living room, his view is obstructed by a residential building a few hundred yards down slope. Samia snorts a line and another. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at the city,” he says and, opening his leather back journal, he scans what’s written there about Aleppo, about Oran. Tomorrow, or the day after perhaps, he’ll begin an exploration on foot, tracing the streets with his notebook and cameras.
“The taxi driver’s probably downstairs.” Samia tips the rest of the powder back into her wrap. “You ready?”
Ebanks goes to find a t-shirt that suits his mood. He owns nearly seventy t-shirts, all seditious or ironic. He looks over one he printed up himself, green cotton with yellow lettering: Baal shoots… On the back are the words: Jesus saves. Serifs on the B and the S connote Hebraic script. Ebanks possesses another one which invokes Mammon rather than Baal, but in either case the joke does not seem so clever as a year ago. He chooses at last a different shirt, one given him by Samia, an ironic gift; Dark Triad is blazoned on it in a small unembellished font. A fine irony.
“Let’s go, Yann.” Samia’s wearing a short coat, balloon pant, boots that reach her calves. Ebanks slides his journal into the pocket of his jacket.
There will be six other guests; this is all Samia knows, or is willing to disclose, about the dinner party to which they’re invited. She gives the taxi driver a slip of paper with an address on it, written in an unfamiliar hand. The roads are lonely, narrow; seen from a taxi, the town has a provincial look, low-walled, iron gated, with stands of tall leaf-less spruce trees.
A man opens the front door to admit them. “Good to see you again.” In the warm foyer of a grand house, he kisses Samia’s cheeks. “Call me sir,” he tells Ebanks, who has no answer to this advice. Sir? He’s tall, the stranger, very tall with fine, dark skin. And something about him is familiar. The man seems to know Ebanks, to recognize him. He looms close, Ebanks’ hand clasped in his, as if trying to see beneath the flesh. Ebanks pulls free; he’s reluctant to be known without first knowing.
The townhouse—a loft—is vast. Towering ceilings, miniature and discreet light fixtures. On the white walls are empty picture frames, man-high squares and rectangles that will never be filled. A postmodernist’s house, mocking and self-referential. Samia is already in the salon, where other guests are milling. Ebanks has an idea what to expect: voyeurs with one foot each in the worlds of art and hedonism, couching their cupidity in phrases of ennui; or else, scholars and purveyors of critical theories of kizomba or dubstep. It’s Samia’s crowd; Ebanks doesn’t have one of his own.
A Nigerian woman, a television journalist with short bleached brown dreadlocks, gives him a vicious handshake. A blond man with a reddened Adams apple is wearing a white t-shirt with two words on it: K(no)w Africa. Beneath the black letters is a stylized map of that continent. national borders delineated. Ebanks stares at the shirt and tries to decipher the paradox. He will, at the first opportunity, jot the formulation in his journal. “Howzit, man?” The t-shirt’s wearer says, taking no notice of Ebanks’ curiosity. The accent is unplaceable.
Another man there, a black, may be famous but it’s hard to be sure; his eyes are hidden by silver-studded sunglasses. On his cheeks and forehead are smears like jaundice. In Guadeloupe, Basse Terre, there are countless faces marred, like this one, by hydroquinone. Skin bleach. The man’s shoes are dagger-like and upcurling; in them his feet appear inordinately long. Dubai shoes, Samia calls the style. Grand Vizier shoes. Hovering at his shoulder is a reedy woman that seems continually on the point of saying something to him and then deciding against it. Ebanks introduces himself, giving his last name and the woman inclines her head in greeting. The gesture strikes Ebanks as old-fashioned. She’s French, he guesses, or maybe Spanish; Galician. A semiotician or a deconstructionist. Ebanks experiences a faint irritation: the letters KO are stamped in yellow on her brown t-shirt. His own is not the only t-shirt bearing a legend.
He recalls no one’s name. There’s no need. He fixes people by what they say, through observation. He’s met so far a mildly hysterical journalist; the man, K(no)w Africa. The semiotician, who he’s named Ms KO and her companion, yellow fever. Ebanks comes up behind Samia—she is, for the moment, alone—and asks, “Why did that guy tell me to call him sir?” He means the one that opened the door, who seems now to have vanished.
Samia regards him with pinprick eyes. “It’s a shortening of his first name, Tamsir.” Her nostrils flare. “That’s Tamsir daSouza-Jones.” She’s gone before Ebanks has a chance to admit he doesn’t recognize the name. how does Samia know these people? Parties, in Samia’s view, are for meeting new people, not for sticking close to one’s partner.
There’s a fourth woman, wearing a laced peasant blouse, whom Ebanks has not yet met. She’s tall, with a domineering, determined face and a complexion a few shades lighter than his own. He takes her for a lecturer in a conventional discipline: English or History. He does not introduce himself, instead ducking into the bathroom so he can take notes undisturbed. Artificially eclectic dinner party crowd, he writes on a fresh page. Samia’s milieu: Academics and wealthy pseudo-artists. And yet these people—yellow fever comes to mind—do not really correspond to his expectations of Samia’s milieu, members of which he finds tiresome. Who is Ms KO? Dasouza-Jones (sp?) resembles a cultivated pimp. His poison: Ayahuasca or datura? He does not write that he perceives something of the shaman in daSouza-Jones’ long dark face, an occult tendency concealed beneath an anglophile facade.
He resurfaces and finds the others have taken seats at the high, round table in a dining room adjacent to the salon. Having absented himself a while, daSouza-Jones has reappeared and is seated between Samia and the English professor. Like rowdy schoolchildren, several guests talk at once, and under cover of the pretence of disinhibition, of being at ease, each scrutinizes the others. Couples, it seems, are discouraged from sitting together. Ebanks slips into the sole available place, between the Nigerian journalist and Ms KO. On her right is the blond man, K(no)w Africa. Yellow fever sits at Samia’s right hand, sunglasses in place. He’s so unresponsive to the shouts, to the faint tension, he might as well be deaf and blind.
A server circles the table, pouring wine. Samia, eyes downcast, accepts only water. In a minute, Ebanks predicts, she will get up, go to the bathroom and ingest another line of cocaine. “What the hell,” wonders the Nigerian woman, looking at no one, “is a Dark Triad?” She has a voice that will penetrate any chatter.
“It’s a cluster of personality traits, typically but not exclusively found in men.” Ms KO is the one who answers. “The main elements are narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Women find the combination irresistible, apparently.” Samia opens her mouth and closes it. Like Ebanks, she prefers to remain inconspicuous. Even if narcissism is a subject on which she’s able to speak at length.
“Interesting.” The journalist eyes Ebanks with a hint of reassessment. He ignores her. He wants to ask Ms KO, Are you an analyst? but he hesitates and the opportunity is lost.
“Tell me,” Ms KO is turning to the man at her right, “What exactly is Know Africa?
K(no)w Africa sits up straight. “It’s an NGO I founded to help people think differently about the continent.”
“The African continent?” wonders the TV journalist. A server enters the room, steps over daSouza-Jones’ outstretched legs and begins ladling soup into bowls.
“Our continent, yes,” K(no)w Africa’s nodding. “I’m South African.” It sounds like Sairth Effrican. “We all have broad and fuzzy ideas but no one seems to know or care much about the individual countries, hey? Hence the parentheses.” He glances at the shirt with a furtive satisfaction. “The name invites the world to know the continent and at the same time to refuse to perceive it as an undifferentiated mass of suffering and disease.”
“Intriguing,” says Ms KO, not at all intrigued. She watches yellow fever in much the same way daSouza-Jones peered at Ebanks while shaking his hand.
Samia smiles, mouths ‘Excuse me’ to daSouza-Jones and stands up. Ebanks tries to catch her eye. Into the silence, K(no)w Africa asks, “Do you know who the Wodaabe are?”
“Who?” asks the journalist.
“Wodaabe. Nomads in Niger and Chad. They hold narcissistic mating ceremonies that last for days. The men use kohl and powder…”
“Fulanis,” the journalist kisses her teeth. “Bororo. Of course now. I covered one of their marriage festivals in my show. What’s this Wodaabe nonsense?”
“I’m Foula,” daSouza-Jones tells the room. Ebanks has a feeling he’s missing something; perhaps its no accident the talk of narcissism has resurfaced.
“You sound British,” someone else—Ebanks cannot be sure which woman it is—tells daSouza-Jones as if laying a charge.
“You’re Foula?” asks the English lecturer. “With a name like daSouza-Jones?” K(no)w Africa is assessing her, Ms KO also, as if her knowledge of Fulani names is suspicious.
“We have such names in Gambia,” he says. “Downs-Thomas, Beckley-Lines. My mother’s Foula.” The topic bores him. He’s slouched in his chair, the whiskey in his tumbler brilliant beneath the lights. The shifts in the conversation are jarring and Ebanks experiences a momentary disembodiment, a sensation like freefall in a dream. Although, it might be fatigue from the long flight. After the meal, if not sooner, he’ll return directly to Tewodros’ place and sleep.
The guests are eating soup now, and talking each to his neighbour rather than to the table at large. Ebanks remains curious about Ms KO but the Nigerian journalist snares him in a conversation. There are, she confides, too many projects on her plate. She cannot find time for friendships, let alone a romantic relationship. “The last two months, I’ve been in Mauritius, Ukraine, Sao Tome, South Africa…the conditions in rural Ukraine…not much better than the North.” She goes on without concern for whether Ebanks is listening. Swallowing careful mouthfuls of asparagus soup, he supposes she means Northern Nigeria. Fragments of other conversations filter through her words:
“It’s interesting, with the Wodaabe…”
“I actually agree with what Genet said about betraying one’s…”
“What are narcissists,” says daSouza-Jones, “but black holes, sucking everything into themselves, swallowing all light, energy, all creativity and spitting back nothing.”
“Wodaabe, Wodaabe,” the journalist complains and it startles Ebanks that she is also eavesdropping. He strains to overhear Samia’s reply to the Gambian’s remark. “As if Wodaabe are the only people worth knowing about in Africa.”
“I was sure,” the English professor says, finishing her soup, “I’d be the lone South African here, but there’s actually three of us.”
“Who’s the third?” asks K(no)w Africa.
“I think that gentleman there’s from the Western Cape.” She stares at Ebanks’ face. “Jy is van die Kaap, nê?” she says in a loud voice and the unaccustomed language cuts through all talk.
English professor makes a face of disbelief. Don’t pretend, her expression seems to say. Don’t deny. “You look like a Capetonian.”
Ebanks has heard he could be Persian, or Moroccan, even Israeli. But never this. “I’m not South African,” he says.
“What are you?” asks the English professor, causing daSouza-Jones to hike his eyebrow.
Ebanks decides to omit mention of Trinidad and Guadeloupe. “I’m a doogla,” he tells her.
“What?” The journalist says. “Whetin be doogla?”
“An Antillean of mixed Asian and African parentage,” It is, once again, Ms KO answering a question intended for Ebanks. All the while, she’s looking at Samia and Samia gazes back. Whatever passes between the two women goes almost unnoticed.
English professor tells Ebanks, “Ah, like whatshisname? Suresh.” She turns to K(no)w Africa for confirmation.
K(no)w Africa says, “What did you say your name was again?”
Suresh? Ebanks shakes his head at English Professor, signaling ignorance.
“What about you?” She is addressing Samia now. “What’s your story?” And without transition, the room’s attention has swept over Ebanks and on to a different object. His replies have been immaterial. Even whether or no he’s answered is unimportant.
Samia tilts back her head. “I’m doing research for an anthropological book.” “What field of anthropology?” Ms KO wants to know.
“I’m making a study of whiteness.”
“Whiteness?” says the English professor, K(no)w Africa repeats the word like an echo.
Ebanks makes for the bathroom. The server, a woman in an apron and tight black trousers, is gathering up soup bowls. DaSouza-Jones is appraising her figure and then he draws in his long legs and comes in an instant to his feet; he’s noticed Ebanks departing the room. “Excuse me,” he says.
The Nigerian journalist chooses this moment to ask, “What are you working on now, Tamsir?”
“Are you white?” K(no)w Africa is asking Samia.
Ebanks, at the door, hears Samia answer, “Parsi,” which is not strictly accurate.
There’s no opportunity to enter the bathroom; on the threshold daSouza-Jones catches up to Ebanks, and he tenses for violence. “Come with me,” the Gambian says and moves off in the opposite direction to the dining room. The house has been designed so that entry to it upper and lower stories is concealed. Ebanks trails him, curious. The two men traverse a storage room full of plinths and sculptures. On one wall is a string of surrealist paintings; sunsets, variations on a theme Ebanks cannot interpret. “I thought Down and Out was genius, Yannick,” daSouza-Jones tells him without looking round, a reference to Ebanks’ most recent project. His walk is a lope. “I want to show you something.”
The room daSouza-Jones steps into is dim if not entirely dark. He holds the door ajar for Ebanks, who, entering, sees a projected image on the wall facing the entryway. A minotaur, a 3D animation; the deep chest heaves with each inhalation and it turns its horned head from left to right as if hunting for a scent. At his back, Ebanks hears the door shut. For a moment, he cannot comprehend what he’s seeing. “Where did you get this?” he asks.
“Try it out,” daSouza-Jones says. There’s an undertone—amusement—in his voice. “It still works.” Ebanks gapes at the screen. DaSouza-Jones holds in his hand a visor, and he proffers it to Ebanks. A large LED has been affixed to it, the beam directed upward. Ebanks thumbs the switch and, without pulling the visor over his head, takes two darting strides forward. The LED emits a hard white gleam. The projection changes all at once and Ebanks is facing an image he’s very nearly forgotten: a labyrinth of his own design, viewed from above. Within it are two humanoid figures; one is recognizable as the minotaur. The second avatar, a man, changes its position in mimicry of Ebanks’ quick steps. And the minotaur now is hastening toward it. Ebanks sidles to his left, and the man on the screen does likewise. The minotaur appears to lose interest in pursuit. It stands motionless once more. It works still. Perhaps even better than before.
“Where did you get this,” Ebanks says, for the second time. There’s no need to inform daSouza-Jones this is his master’s thesis; the Gambian already knows it. An intricate project, assembled from many elements: the powerful LED; a video camera mounted on the ceiling and aiming downward; a FireWire cable linking the camera to a desktop computer running software capable of tracking the movement of a bright light and replicating it on screen; and a video projector. Hours and hours of coding went into the project. Curious that Ebank has done no programming since.
“Samia, of course.” daSouza-Jones turns on the light and the labyrinth pales into near-invisibility. “She keeps it here. I cleaned things up a bit, of course. A costume designer built the visor, it’s more durable than the one you made.” He says it without reproof.
Samia? Ebanks is looking at daSouza-Jones and a Trinidadian expression of his father’s occurs to him: The Gambian is trying to mamaguy him.
“You’re not at all what I expected,” daSouza-Jones stoops again over Yannick, his eyes piercing. “You know, I lived in Berlin around the same time you were making Down and Out. Funny that our paths never crossed.” He turns pensive. “What will you do? Here, I mean. It’s nothing like Berlin, let me tell you.”
Ebanks is trying to marshall his thoughts. “I’ll think about my next project. Something very different from Down and Out.” It’s true. He’ll leave Samia to her writing, her theory of embodied whiteness, of the sublimation paradox, none of which he ever understood. “I don’t expect we’ll be here long. And I’ll be traveling quite often.” He knows already the city does not fit into his plans.
“Not long?” The Gambian is laughing. “You’re mistaken, my friend. And where would you move? Buenos Aires is going the way of Paris and New York. You’ve done Berlin. And Syria, those sorts of countries aren’t ready yet for what you do.” Ebanks shakes his head in confusion. “Tell me,” daSouza-Jones is asking, “was Down and Out your idea or Samia’s?”
The question confounds Yannick. “I got it from Orwell,” he says. “You know, Down and Out in Paris.”
“Of course, but didn’t Samia give you that book? Didn’t she suggest doing a reinterpretation?”
“I can’t recall. A remark from a few moments earlier has snagged his attention. She keeps it here. He asks, “isn’t this your house?”
“It’s Samia’s.” daSouza-Jones turns off the installation and retrieves the visor from Ebanks, who’s eye is fixed on the blank wall where the minotaur had been visible. Why did he never give this project a title? At the time, Theseus seemed too obvious. “She’s the one who knows these people. Although, between you and me, I’m not convinced anyone out there is who they claim to be.” He ushers Ebanks from the room with a wave of his arm. “You’ll get used to it here. You may even decide it is right for an installation.”
Samia’s house? They are walking back to the front of the house to rejoin, presumably, the others. Ebanks’ head is swimming. DaSouza-Jones seems to know a great deal. Plans for an installation. Trips to Aleppo. He tries to dredge up memories of the sequence of events leading up to Down and Out. He knew Samia only slightly when he hit on the idea for the project. Still, without consulting his old journals he cannot be sure.
“By the way, this dark triad thing.” The Gambian seems determined to confound Ebanks, “Is it ironic or real?” And he turns around to get a look at the t-shirt.