It is the Americans you blame as you struggle to craft a response to Ngozi that sounds neither bitter nor desperate; ‘something funny’ your friend said, so people would be left with no doubt about your maturity and sense of humour. You blame the Americans for organizing that workshop and putting you on the guest list where you first met Ngozi. This is what the Americans have often been guilty of: causing wars through third parties and standing back, claiming ignorance of roots and beginnings. They made you meet Ngozi. They made you love Ngozi.
This is what the love of Ngozi meant: that you ignored pride and your status as a local champion from a small town who had been told by some well meaning but not so literary friends that you didn’t need any workshop- you applied for her ten day workshop. Ten days where you could listen to her speak and stare into her big brown glassy eyes, her skin smooth like flat milk chocolate. Where you could see a shimmer as light bounced off her forehead, a sparkle as light bounced off her eyes. You imagined her skin in terms of taste. You thought it would have the consistency of small cocoyams, the ones that overcook a little in between the big hard ones, the ones that slide out of their skins when held with a little pressure with the tips of one’s fingers. It is not something you would have admitted to anyone, especially not after you discovered she was married to a handsome doctor-man. You imagined he did sixty push-ups every morning and spent an hour after work every day at the gym. Your man boobs would not even let you entertain the thought of eating small cocoyams. Not around this hunk of a husband.
This is what the love of Ngozi meant: that even when she sent you a nasty manhood-shrinking email about you tweeting negative things about natural hair –an email that shocked you because you did not read or realize she had just announced to the world that hair was political- you sent her three even more manhood-shrinking replies, first denials, then explanations, then begging and groveling in ways you would never admit to anyone whose respect you still desired. She ignored it all. The cocoyam’s skin would not come off. Not with the hot boiling water of manhood-shrinking pleas. Not with requests for intercession to a mutual friend who simply laughed at you on twitter.
This is what the love of Ngozi meant: that you remembered that she passed your stories to someone who thought they were good in New York and wanted to speak further, to see if you could make those stories into a novel. You remembered that and let it re-inflate your manhood. You erased words like: I am disappointed in you. It didn’t matter anymore. She was a small cooked cocoyam again, even if she wasn’t talking to you anymore. The love of Ngozi meant you swallowed your cocoyam in silence and didn’t send back an email saying, Ngozi, you are too big for this, this is beneath you.
She sends you a two line mail many weeks after you are nominated for a literary prize. It makes you sad instead of happy: it dries out the cocoyam in your mouth instead of adding palm oil to it. You cannot swallow. The second line is a phrase: ‘Very well deserved’. This is not how she speaks to you, not in brief impersonal phrases that could have been sent by a secretary. Not phrases that you later found out were sent to another person who was shortlisted, without editing. It brought back that manhood-shrinking feeling when you learnt. Some words of congratulations feel like warm spit in the face instead of a gentle pat on the back. Still, this is what the love of Ngozi meant: that you found your own palm oil to lubricate the drying cocoyam in your mouth and only complained to a few friends you thought could understand.
Your name ends up in the Boston Review where she gives an interview about race and her new book- the first page of which you have read and like very much. She sounds irritated when they ask her about the prize you were shortlisted for, which she too was once shortlisted for. She calls the prize over-privileged. She mentions your name and says that although you are her boy, and she has not quite bothered to read your work, you have not made the shortlist of ten best African fiction writers domiciled in her mailbox. You would have sent her an email to ask why. Or even joked about it. But she no longer reads or replies your emails. There is no palm oil left for this cocoyam. The cocoyam dries in your mouth. This is the first time you think of it- how silly this cocoyam analogy is. You spit it out, the cocoyam. This is the consequence of loving Ngozi: you get free publicity in the Boston Review.