Florence Welch sang briefly in ‘No Choir’ that it was hard to write about being happy because “happiness is an extremely uneventful subject”. At first I didn’t agree with that line but then I remembered that in the many romance novels I read as a teenager, the heroines went through such hell that the reader was grateful for what little forbidden (and it was always forbidden) sexual thrills she’d find with Mr. Dashing. Better to be grateful that they ended up together, in that hasty forever-after in the final lines of the book.
Is Florence saying that happiness is not marketable? In reading these lyrics, “…no choirs would come in about two people sitting doing nothing…” I find truth: an accurate portrait of happiness; occupation of space with no agenda, no end goal. It is fulfillment in itself, happiness for happiness’s sake, which to the outsider, may appear idle. A Nigerian parent would scold “don’t you have something better with your time? Will what you are doing help you pass your exams?”
But you don’t have to abide by my definition…
“…happiness is an extremely uneventful subject.”
It’s generally believed that for a plot to hold a reader’s attention there must be conflict. Google searches for “Story definition” retrieve multiple links with instructions on how to kill off your character. Does this mean no happy story is successful? I checked the internet for statistics and found no conclusive data; throughout time, editors tended to match the taste or mood of their readers, so one can conclude that sad stories do sell. In one article, the author sought to use the study of literature published over the last two centuries to deduce the general mood of mankind, to answer the important question; have we grown any happier in 200 years?
In Richard Lea’s oped for the Guardian, ‘Literary fiction has a problem with happy endings’, he posed the question, “Do serious novels have to be so bleak? Even sad movies perform better with audiences. The Lion King, Titanic and even recently, Avengers-Endgame, entered the lists of highest-grossing films of all time, and all thanks to the demise of key characters and the trauma this caused viewers. Is there any happy literature in the world? And more to the point, is it good literature?
I will try to do a difficult thing in this essay. I will try to make it a happy one.
Loss is a language humanity understands. Perhaps this is why sad stories do so well, because we too lose something along with the characters — on paper and on screen — when they suffer a loss; we are confronted with our own past losses or anticipate potential future ones.. Loss and grief isolate us in reality, however briefly, but when we read books and watch films, we are together with these characters, and we are not alone when we grieve for them.
I was in a kitchen slicing onions midyear 2015, serving my country in a safe zone of a war-torn state when I mistakenly sliced into my finger. I’d been teaching children who’d just escaped being massacred by Fulani Herdsmen, children who watched their parents macheted to pieces. It was lonely there, and removed from the country which I was familiar with — the country I’d read about in the news — but still, I loved my brave children, I loved my dilapidated apartment in the old staff quarters in Donga , I loved the thick forests. So that afternoon, a market day, I cut my finger while slicing onions for my tomato paste and watched the blood bloom. Just an ordinary cut, I told myself, fighting tears. Just a simple cut, I said out loud, alone in the empty kitchen, debating whether to use a kitchen rag or salt.
My paternal grandmother kept salt for these kinds of things. There was salt from Jerusalem to cure mysterious inflammations, stone salts to extract the venom from scorpion stings and simple kitchen salt for everyday wounds. That afternoon it would take me half an hour of lying crumpled on the kitchen floor, bawling my eyes out, to discover why. My tears were about the wound and not about the wound. About the wound because it was a metaphor for how I’d come to see myself: as a wound in the world. My parent’s old friends and neighbors disguise their flinch with conviviality, but they’re not quick enough. They look at my face — the place where my parent’s faces meet — and I can see the grief in their eyes, no matter how wide their smiles. Yet they are drawn to me. Why are we drawn to that which hurts us?
Does the body remember grief? My maternal grandmother believes it is. She says that grief is stored in the tissues of the flesh. That it only takes a single trigger to awaken years of pain in the body.. I succumbed to seasonal fevers throughout my teens, and this was my grandmother’s proof. “Have you forgotten?” she’d ask me on the phone, “You may not know the date, but you still fall sick on the anniversaries of your parent’s deaths!” In ‘Hunger’, Florence Welch sings “forget anything bad ever happened to you.” This seems only possible for the mind. Does the body remember happiness as much as it does grief? Did the perfume of a deceased loved one evoke as much joy when they were still alive?
The body’s recollection of pain informs our behavior in a way that is crucial for our survival. When nociceptors sense damage to our bodies, they send electrical impulses to our brain which in turn tells us that an area is in pain. Our brain stores this event as memory, which is perhaps why I am reluctant to slice onions too quickly or why I am hesitant to drive.
I don’t know how to drive because I am a coward. I don’t know how to drive because Serena Van Der Woodsen once told Dan that her mother said “driving was for drivers” during their first date on Gossip Girl. I don’t know how to drive because I have survived three fatal car accidents. I don’t know how to drive because I am not confident in my sense of direction. I don’t know how to drive and the only reason I am now comfortable in a speeding car is because I always expect the worst: and with this, a terrifying calm envelops me. In subsequent near-death situations — in swerving cars and falling planes — many an older Nigerian woman would stop her screaming and prayers for Jesus or Allah to glare at me in a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. My nociceptors have either fallen asleep or they are thirsty for my blood.
Criticism has been directed at the unhappiness of the ‘African novel’. Some of these critiques are levelled at the memoirs written by writers of my generation, especially those that have been published online. One particular critique accused young Nigerian writers of not writing only trauma porn, but of a poverty of the imagination.
I carefully considered this criticism because I was guilty — my memoir was published online and it did touch on grief. I did not have any happy personal essay to fabricate at the time and that was alright. Moreover, writers exposed issues we were struggling with on the continent: from sexual abuse to poor healthcare, and these viral pieces made these issues known. For many of us, memoir writing has become a place for us to find or reaffirm our voices, connect with and learn from one another. While we can critique establishments for their editorial choices, while we can investigate why they choose to highlight certain narratives over others from a particular region, writers should not be told what to write. Every honest story, if written well, deserves space. Because some of us read and learn from others and decide ‘never again’ for ourselves. Because sharing these stories informs our behavior as humans in a way that is crucial for our survival.
I love the idea of happiness so let me share a recipe I read up online. This is a recipe I should have followed when I stood up from that kitchen floor. Stand bare-chested in front of a tall mirror, it reads. Regard yourself for a minute, and then then, slowly place your left palm on your head. Then place your right palm on your belly. Now, rub simultaneously in a circular direction without breaking eye contact with your reflection.
I must make room for happiness, even in my storytelling. A few of the authors who were accused of trauma porn did write traumatic stories, but rather than fetishize disaster or pain, the writers showed us how to laugh at it, how to cope with it; some even alluded to ways to find happiness pauses. Happiness is good for the heart. In an article for Time, Alexandra Sifferlin wrote that the heartbreak felt in the loss of a loved one is not just a metaphor: the pain can actually cause physical changes that may lead to stress cardiomyopathy. Do we learn to not love from this? Is there salt for the heart?
Had I read the wonderful excerpt from Heather Christle’s ‘The Crying Book’, published on the Paris Review website, titled ‘how to stop crying’, I might have avoided the faux pas of crying in the kitchen. Heather opened the section thus, “A kitchen is one of the best – and I mean saddest – rooms for tears. A bedroom is too easy, a bathroom too private, a living room too formal. If someone fell to pieces in the kitchen, in the space of work and nourishment, they must be truly coming undone.”
We seldom hold happiness to any worth while in its hold. Literature assures us that there is no guarantee that it will come again, that even though happiness is so often experienced in retrospect, it is still grief that we cleave to. As long as desire and want occur in life, grief will be with us, existing in continuous tense.
I am learning to pursue happy pauses, moments in my life’s journey where I stop working to breathe and enjoy the quality of the air. In recent years I have tried to be happy and maybe it has shown in my writing. I have always been capable of joy; I just didn’t know that until I started traveling in my mid-twenties, where I began to meet different aspects of myself in each new place. Travelling to old towns and cities like Ife and Takum and Jos and Ibadan gives me such joy. Then cooking. Then falling in love. Then creating. And color. I love color! When I enter this mood of joy it feels as if it will last forever. My mind reminds me that it won’t, so I stretch out my hands and flap on a speeding motorcycle or dance to music playing in my head when walking on the road, or rest my head in a friend’s lap, smiling at how happy I am to be with them.
I look for rivers and lakes in each town or city I visit. I always search for a body of water. In Lagos and Accra I find an hour to visit the ocean; there is something freeing about seeing the land end, a certain release into the void of water after being landlocked for so many months.
I told you I would try to make this a happy essay, so I’ll end it with this recent memory. Accra, the Labadi Beach. The sky is so bright and blue it’s mirrored in the waves that creep up the sand to lick my feet. This moment is a precious pause on my journey. I have left hunger and poverty and my uncertain future briefly to come here, to feel this. The beginning of an awkward self-gratifying dance begins in the bottom of my belly, the rising volume of Florence Welch’s voice singing “O Patricia, you’ve always been my north star” in my head.
I am happy.
I am happy.
TJ Benson is a Nigerian writer and visual artist whose work explores the body in the context of memory, migration, utopia and the unconscious self. His work has been exhibited and published in several journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, Saraba, SSDA Migrations, Catapult, Bakwa Magazine, Roxane Gay’sGayMagazine, Lolwe and shortlisted for awards like the Saraba Manuscript Prize.
The shortlisted manuscript We Won’t Fade into Darkness was published by Parresia in 2018 and his debut novel The Madhouse will be published in February 2021 by Penguin Random House SA and Masobe Books Nigeria. He has facilitated writing workshops for four years and is a two-time Ebedi Writer’s Residency Fellow. He currently lives in an apartment full of plants and is in danger of becoming a cat person.