Reading as a Writer: “Ceiling”

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Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Ceiling” first appeared in the magazine Granta, and was selected by editor Geraldine Brooks for inclusion in the 2011 Best American Short Stories anthology.

“Ceiling” explores the effect of a single email on the interior consciousness of a newly wealthy man living in the emerging economy of Lagos, Nigeria, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The story’s principal characters–Ifemelu and Obinze–later came to be featured in Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel “Americanah,” and a version of “Ceiling,” became that novel’s second chapter.

Read “Ceiling” as a .pdf document.
View “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimanada Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk.

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”  ~Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
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Each of the five individual sections in “Ceiling” puts the character of consciousness, Obinze, in a different physical location.

  1. Obinze stuck in traffic with his driver, Gabriel. He receives an email from Ifemelu and this triggers internal thoughts and reminiscences about both Ifemelu and his current life without her. (Nine paragraphs.)
  2. Obinze arrives home to see his wife, Kosi; and his daughter, and begins dreading going to Chief’s party. (Eight paragraphs.)
  3. Obinze is at the party, talking with others about Nigerian educational systems and reflecting inwardly. Seeing Chief, he reminisces about all that Chief has done for him to help him move up in the world financially, but wonders whether he’s happy where he’s arrived. (Twenty-two paragraphs.)
  4. Obinze in the car on the drive home, Kosi tries to find out what is wrong, but Obinze deflects. (Eight paragraphs.)
  5. Obinze arrives home with his wife, thinks about the time Kosi had fired their housemaid, and sends Ifemelu a return email. (Twelve paragraphs.)

We open with Obinze stuck in traffic:

When Obinze first saw her e-mail, he was sitting in the back of his Land Rover in still Lagos traffic, his jacket slung over the front seat, a rusty-haired child beggar glued to his window, a hawker pressing colorful CDs against the other window, the radio turned on low to the pidgin English news on Wazobia FM, and the gray gloom of imminent rain all around. He stared at his BlackBerry, his body suddenly rigid. First he skimmed the e-mail, dampened that it was not longer. Ceiling, kedu? I saw Amaka yesterday in New York and she said you were doing well with work, wife–and a child! Proud Papa. Congratulations. I’m still teaching and doing some research, but seriously thinking of moving back to Nigeria soon. Let’s keep in touch? Ifemelu.

A seemingly simple opening paragraph, but look at how much information is revealed–and how the story is launched. We’re introduced to the main character–Obinze–and the inciting incident of the story: the email from Ifemelu. We’re located into Lagos, further located into the “still” traffic (and that he’s sitting in the “back,” which means he’s wealthy enough to have a driver, and wealthy enough to own a “Land Rover”), and further located through sight and sound into the world of the story: the sounds of the radio, the imminent rain. We feel the BlackBerry in his hand, which also locates us into a specific time and place, the way brand products can help us do. And then we get the text of the e-mail itself, hearing Ifemelu’s voice for ourselves–and discovering more of Obinze’s life.

The opening paragraph of any story sets the tone for everything that will follow–indeed, is why such writers as Gabriel García Márquez or Tom Robbins work on their opening paragraphs over, and over, and over, making sure it’s just right, before proceeding. (For other writers, the first paragraph is the final thing they write, not knowing the tone of the story until the rest of the story is written!)

Writing exercise: write the opening paragraph to a story. Include sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, if possible. Include geographical location. Include the weather.Show the socio-economic status of the principal character/character of consciousness.

He read it again slowly and felt the urge to smooth something, his trousers, his shaved-bald head. She had called him Ceiling. In the last e-mail from her, sent just before he got married four years ago, she had called him Obinze, wished him happiness in breezy sentences, and mentioned the black American she was living with. A gracious e-mail. He had hated it so much that he googled the black American, a lecturer at Yale, and found it infuriating that she lived with a man who referred on his blog to friends as “cats,” but it was the photo of the black American, oozing intellectual cool in distressed jeans and black-framed eyeglasses, that had tipped Obinze over, made him send her a cold reply. Thank you for the good wishes, I have never been happier in my life, he’d written. It was complete bullshit, stupid posturing, and she had to recognize this; nobody knew him as well as she did. He hoped she would write something mocking back–so unlike her, not to have been even vaguely tart–but she did not write at all, and when he e-mailed her again, after his honeymoon in Morocco, to say he wanted to keep in touch and wanted to talk sometime, she did not reply.

In this paragraph, we move even deeper: the outside world falls away and we move into Obinze’s thoughts, and into backstory. We move into his character, into the past relationship between himself and Ifemelu. We go vertically into his consciousness, as opposed to moving forward horizontally and chronologically in the story.

Writing exercise: follow up the opening paragraph of a story with a second paragraph that goes internal/vertical, as opposed to forward chronologically/horizontally.

The traffic was moving. A light rain was falling. The child beggar ran along, his doe-eyed expression more theatrical, his motions frantic: bringing his hand to his mouth, over and over, fingertips pursed together. Obinze rolled down the window and held out a hundred-naira note. His driver, Gabriel, watched with grave disapproval from the rearview mirror.

Moving from his thoughts, we re-enter the original scene. Traffic is moving. The imminent rain is now falling. The “child beggar” is running alongside the car, and we see him through Obinze’s eyes. An important note to consider throughout this story is that everything we see is filtered through Obinze’s eyes, and his consciousness. This story through Kosi’s point of view, or Gabriel’s, or any other character, becomes a different story. The title of the story itself, even–“Ceiling”–is Obinze’s name. This is a story about him, from his perspective.

When he hands the hundred-naira note out to the child, we see a glimpse of part of his character. When we see Gabriel’s response, we see a glimpse of part of Gabriel’s character. Not necessarily in a way that presupposes morality on the part of either (as the succeeding conversation shows, Gabriel has reasons not to want to give money to children) but we see character revealed through action.

Writing exercise: one person gives money to someone asking for it. Another person disapproves of this.

“God bless you, oga!” the child beggar said.

“Don’t be giving money to these beggars, sir,” Gabriel said. “They are all rich. They are using begging to make big money in this Lagos. I heard about one that built a block of six flats in Ikeja!”

“So why are you working as a driver instead of a beggar, Gabriel?” Obinze asked and laughed, a little too heartily. He wanted to tell Gabriel that his girlfriend from university had just e-mailed him, actually his girlfriend from university and secondary school. The first time she let him take off her bra, she lay on her back moaning softly, her hands on his head, and afterward she said, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” She was seventeen and he was eighteen and other girls would have pretended that they had never let another boy touch them, but not her, never her. There was a vivid honesty about her, which had found so disconcerting and then so irresistible. Longing for ceiling, can’t wait for my period to end, she once wrote on the back of his notebook during a lecture. Then, later, she began to call him Ceiling, in a playful way, in a suggestive way–but when they fought or when she retreated into moodiness, she called him Obinze. “Why do you call him Ceiling anyway?” his friend Chidi once asked her, one one of those languorous days after first-semester exams. She had joined a group of his classmates sitting around a filthy plastic table in a beer parlor outside campus. She drank from her bottle of Maltina, swalled, glanced at him, and said, “Because he is so tall his head touches the ceiling, can’t you see?” Her deliberate slowness, the small smile that stretched her lips, made it clear that she wanted them to know that this was not why she called him Ceiling. And he was not tall. She kicked him under the table and he kicked her back, watching his laughing friends; they were all a little afraid of her and a little in love with her. Did she see the ceiling when the black American touched her? Had she used ceiling with other men? It upset him now to think that she might have. His phone rang and for a hopeful, confused moment he thought it was Ifemelu calling from America.

To get a little deeper into “vertical” writing, as opposed to “horizontal” writing: in the present moment of the story we are in traffic, but the narrative is not simply moving forward in action, but deep into thought, and into character. Through his thoughts–and through backstory–Ngozi Adichie continues to develop the connection between him and Ifemelu. Many times as writers we think we need to advance chronologically in order to advance story, but more often than not the story itself is in the memories and recollections of our characters, the energy lying in the past and in relationships instead of simple forward movement in time.

Writing exercise: find a piece of writing you’ve written that moves forward chronologically, and find a place to go vertically into backstory or character thought.

“Darling, kedu ebe I no?” His wife, Kosi, always began her calls to him with those words: where are you? He never asked where she was when he called her, but she would tell him anyway: I’m just getting to the salon. I’m on Third Mainland Bridge. It was as if she needed the reassurance of their concrete physicality when they were not together. She had a high, girlish voice. They were supposed to be at Chief’s house for the party at 7:30 pm, and it was already past 6:00.

Having a ticking clock in a story is another technique that is often used to add tension. If someone has somewhere to be at x o’clock, and they’re running late–traffic, in this case–it adds a small, yet measurable level of tension to the story. This is a small tension, but as all fiction is fueled by tension, whether great or small, these little moments help move the pace of the story, and serve as another angle that keeps the reader intent in the world of the story.

Writing exercise: a character needs to get somewhere but is stuck in traffic. Are they  worried? Are they secretly glad?

He told her he was in traffic. “But it’s moving, and we’ve just turned into Ozumba Mbadiwe. I’m coming.”

Using actual, specific geographical place names (“Third Mainland Bridge,” “Ozumba Mbadiwe,” “Lekki Expressway”) can help contextualize a place. It’s a way to help bring it alive on the page, but also a source of delight for readers who recognize the place names. Sometimes, if the real roads or buildings don’t serve, fictional place names can stand alongside real ones–whatever you need, as an artist!

Writing exercise: put a character into a city or town you know well. Have them pass specific, real landmarks. Add a fictional landmark, as well.

On Lekki Expressway the traffic moved swiftly in the waning rain, and soon Gabriel was sounding his horn in front of the high black gates of his home. Mohammed, the gateman, wiry in his dirty white kaftan, flung open the gates and raised a hand in greeting. Obinze looked at the yellow colonnaded house. Inside was his furniture, imported from Italy, his wife, his two-year-old daughter, Buchi, the nanny, Christiana, his wife’s sister, Chioma, who was on a forced holiday because university lecturers were on strike yet again, and the new housegirl, Marie, who had been brought from Benin Republic after his wife decided that Nigerian housegirls were unsuitable. There would be the smell of cooking, the television downstairs would be showing a film on the Africa Magic channel, and pervading it all the still air of well-being. He climbed out of the car. His gait was stiff, his legs difficult to lift. He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired–the family, the house, the other properties in Ikoyi and Abuja, the cars, the bank accounts in Dubai and London–and he would be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

The tension of the story starts to become clearer, in this paragraph: despite his external success, Obinze is unhappy in his life, and the email from Ifemelu is serving as a catalyst to force him to re-examine his life. His current life is juxtaposed with Ifemelu, in his mind, and he considers all the things that displease him about his life. Note that we end this paragraph with abstractions, which we as writers are generally warned against. However, in the cliche parlance of creative writing, these abstractions are “earned” by the writer through all the specific, concrete detail that has come earlier. We understand how Obinze is arriving at these abstract judgments.

Writing exercise: a character arrives home. What do they smell, see, hear, touch–and possibly taste? What do these details show about their home, and their emotional reponse to that home?

“Darling,” Kosi said, opening the door before he got to it. Her dress was cinched at the waist and made her figure look very hour-glassy.

“Daddy-daddy!” Buchi said.

He swung her up and then hugged his wife, carefully avoiding her lips, painted pink and lined in a darker pink. “You look beautiful, babe,” he said. “Asa! Ugo!

She laughed. The same way she laughed, with an open, accepting enjoyment, when people asked her, “Is your mother white? Are you a half-caste?” because she was so fair-skinned. It had always discomfited him, the pleasure she took in being mistaken for mixed-race.

Throughout the story, we’ll see all the small details that make Obinze uncomfortable and unhappy in his marriage. The external pressure from Ifemelu’s email acts as a catylist into his life, forcing himself to confront all the things that don’t fulfill him–and that the idealized memory of Ifemelu might.

Writing exercise: a person is unhappy in their marriage, and a message from a past relationship reinforces that unhappiness.

“Will you bathe or just change? I brought out your new blue kaftan. I knew you’d want to wear traditional,” she said, following him upstairs. “Do you want to eat before we go? You know Chief will have nice food.”

“I’ll just change and we can go,” he said.

He was tired. It was not a physical fatigue–he used his treadmill regularly and felt better than he had in years–but a draining lassitude that numbed the margins of his mind. He went out every day, he made money, he came home, he played with his daughter, he watched television, he ate, he read books, he slept with his wife. He did things because he did them.

This section shows the strength of using the third-person-limited point of view. The narration is close to Obinze’s consciousness throughout the story, but the author, Ngozi Adichie, can leave his consciousness when she chooses. It’s not clear (nor does it necessarily have to be) whether these lines “He went out every day, he made money, he came home, he played with his daughter, he watched television, he ate, he read books, he slept with his wife. He did things because he did them” are thoughts Obinze is having or whether it is outside narration that the author is giving us as the reader. Because this is a third-person narration, she can do both, as necessary, when she sees fit. Sometimes we will experience Obinze from inside his consciousness through internal thought and specific detail; sometimes we will experience Obinze from outside his consciousness, through explanation and description.

Writing exercise: using a limited-third-person point of view, present a character from both inside their consciousness, from their point of view, and external to their consciousness, giving us an outside view through your own narration.

Chief’s party would bore him, as usual, but he went because he went to to all of Chief’s parties and perhaps because Kosi liked going. She enjoyed being surrounded by glittery people, hugging women she barely knew, calling the older ones Ma with exaggerated respect, soaking up their compliments, dispensing hers, basking in being so beautiful but flattening her personality so that her beauty was nonthreatening. He had always been struck by this, how important it was to her to be a wholesomly agreeable person, to have sharp angles sticking out. On Sundays, she would invite his relatives for pounded yam and onugbu soup and then watch over to make sure everyone was suitably overfed. Uncle, you must eat oh! There is more meat in the kitchen! Let me bring you another Guinness! When they visited his mother’s house in Enugu, she always flew up to help with serving the food, and when his mother made to clean up afterward, she would get up, offended, and say, “Mummy, how can I be here and you will be cleaning?” She ended every sentence she spoke to his uncles with “sir.” She put ribbons in the hair of his cousins’ daughters. There was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself.

At the party, he watched her, gold shimmer on her eyelids, as she greeted Mrs. Akin-Cole, curtsying and smiling, and he thought about the day their baby, slippery, curly-haired Buchi, was born at the Portland Hospital in London, how she had turned to him while he was still fiddling with his latex gloves and said, with something like apology, “We’ll have a boy next time.” He had recoiled. What he felt for her then was a gentle contemprt, for not knowing that he was indifferent about the gender of their child, for assuming that he would want a boy since most men wanted a boy. Perhaps he should have talked more with her, about the baby they were expecting and about everything else, because although they exchanged pleasant sounds and were good friends and shared comfortable silences, they did not really talk. Her worldview was a set of conventional options that she mulled over while he did not even consider any of those options; the questions he asked of life were entirely different than hers. Of course he knew this from the beginning, had sensed it in their first conversation after his friend Chidi introduced them at a wedding. She was wearing a lime-green bridesmaid’s dress in satin, cut low to show a cleavage he could not stop looking at, and somebody was making a speech, describing the bride as “a woman of virtue,” and Kosi nodded eagerly and whispered to him, “She is a true woman of virtue.” Even then he had felt gentle contempt that she could use the word virtue without the slightest irony, as was done in the badly written articles in the women’s section of the weekend newspapers. Still, he had wanted her, chased her with a lavish single-mindedness. He had never seen a woman with such a perfect incline to her cheekbones, that made her entire face seem so alive in an architectural way, lifting when she smiled, and he was newly disoriented from his quick wealth: one week he was squatting in his cousin’s flat and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and the next he owned a house and two cars. He felt as if his life were no longer his. It was Kosi who made it start to seem believable. She moved into his new house from her hostel at the University of Lagos and arranged her perfume bottles on his dresser, citrusy scents that he came to associate with home, and she sat in the BMW beside him as though it had always been his car, and when they showered together, she scrubbed him with a rough sponge, even betwen his toes, until he felt reborn. Until he owned his new life. A year passed before she told him her relatives were asking what his intentions were. “They just keep asking,” she said and stressed the they to exclude herself from the marriage clamor. He recognized, and disliked, her manipulation. (The same way he felt when, after months of trying to get pregnant, she began to say with sulky righteousness, “All my friends who lived very rough lives are pregnant.”) Still, he married her. Perhaps he was already on autopilot then. He felt an obligation to do so, he was not unhappy, and he imagined that she would, with time, gain a certain heft. She had not, after almost five years, except physically, in a way that he thought made her look even more beautiful, fresher, with fuller hips and breasts, like a well-watered houseplant.

Watching her now as she talked to Mrs. Akin-Cole, he felt guilty about his thoughts. She was such a devoted woman, such a well-meaning, devoted woman. He reached out and held her hand. She often told him that her friends envied her, and said he behaved like a foreign husband, the way he took her to all his social events, made her breakfast on Sundays, stayed home every night.

As much as Obinze thinks about Ifemelu, in this story, note that he thinks about Kosi even more. In these paragraphs, he thinks about the details of her–and of their current life–that don’t fulfill him. (From his perspective, which we are in, in this third-person-limited story.) The way she looks, the way she acts, the way she talks. None of the details of Kosi are off-putting in their own right. From another point of view–through the eyes of a husband in love, for example–we would see Kosi entirely differently. The strength of the writing here is that we can see Kosi as she is, and we can see Obinze as he is, for how he is judging her. Whenever we’re in the consciousness of a specific character, and seeing the world through that character, the litmus test is whether a reader can understand that any judgements being made are being made by the character only, not the author themself.

Writing exercise: write the details of one character as viewed through the consciousness of another.

Mrs. Akin-Cole was talking about sending Buchi to the French school. “They are very good, very rigorous. Of course, they teach in French, but it can only be good for the child to learn another civilized language, since she already learns English at home.”

“Okay, Auntie. I’ll go there and talk to them,” Kosi said. “I know I have to start early.”

“The French school is not bad, but I prefer Meadowland. They teach the complete British curriculum,” the othe woman, whose name Obinze had forgotten but who had made a lot of money during General Abacha’s military government, said. The story was that she had been a pimp of some sort, providing women for army officers and getting inflated supply contracts in exchange.

“Oh, yes, Meadowland. I’ll look at that one too,” Kosi said.

“Why?” Obinze asked. “Didn’t we all go to primary schools that taught the Nigerian curriculum?”

The women looked at him.

Finally Mrs. Akin-Cole said, “But things have changed, my dear Obinze,” and shook her head pitifully, as though he were an adolescent.

“I agree,” Kosi said, and Obinze wanted to ask what the fuck it was she agreed with anyway.

“If you decide to disadvantage your child by sending her to one of these schools with half-baked Nigerian teachers…” Mrs. Akin-Cole shrugged. She spoke with that unplaceable foreign accent, British and American and something else all at once, of the wealthy Nigerian who did not want the world to forget how worldly she was, how her British Airways executive card was choking with miles.

“One of my friends sent her child to St. Mary’s, and do you know, they have only five computers in the whole school. Only five!” the other woman said.

“We’ll go to the British school and French school,” Kosi said and looked at him with a plea. He shrugged. He would ordinarily not have said anything at all to Mrs. Akin-Cole, but today he wanted to pluck the sneer from her face and crumple it and hurl it back. But Chief was upon them.

Such passages as these open up this story to include its specific time and place. Through literature, we hear what upper-class Nigerians talked about in the late 2000s; what suburban Canadians talked about in the 1990s, what rural Americans talked about the 1980s, and on, and on, and on.

Thinking exercise: imagine a dinner party, picking a time and place you know well. Eavesdrop on the conversations. What are people talking about? What are they obsessed with in this time, in this place? If you were to write a story or scene set here, which of these conversations might you include, and why?

“Princess!” Chief said to Kosi and hugged her, pressing her close; Obinze wondered if Chief had propositioned her in the past. It would not surprise him. He had once been at Chief’s house when a man brought his girlfriend to visit, and when she left the room to go to the toilet, Obinze heard Chief tell the man, “I like that girl. Give her to me and I will give you a nice plot in Victoria Island.”

Character revealed through action: through this brief recollection, we see both the power of Chief, and how he uses that power.

Writing exercise: in a very brief description, let us see the power that a character has, and how they wield it.

“You look so well, Chief,” Kosi said. “Ever young!”

“Ah, my dear, I try, I try.” Chief jokingly tugged at the satin lapels of his black jacket. He did look well, spare and upright unlike many of his peers in their sixties. “My boy!” he said to Obinze.

“Good evening, Chief.” Obinze shook him with both hands, bowing slightly. He watched the other men in the party bow too, crowding around Chief, jostling to outlaugh one another when Chief made a joke. They were all men who wore conspicious watches, who had loud conversations about the things they owned, the sort of men that City People referred to as “Lagos Big Boys.” They reminded Obinze of the three men he saw in Cheif’s house the first day his cousin took him there. They had been in the living room sipping cognac while Chief pontificated about politics. “Exactly! Correct! Thank you! You have just nailed the exact problem, Chief!” they crowed from time to time. Obinze had watched, fascinated. He was only a month in Lagos after being deported from England, but his cousin Amaka had started to grumble about how he could not just stay in her flat reading and moping, how he was not the first person to be deported, after all, and how he needed to hustle. Lagos was about hustling. His mates were hustling. She was Chief’s girlfriend–he has many but I am one of the serious ones; he doesn’t buy cars for everyone, she said–and so she brought him to Chief’s house to introduce them and see if Chief would help him. Chief was a difficult man, she told him, and it was important to catch him in a good mood when he was at his most expansive. They had, apparently, because after the three men left, Chief turned to Obinze and asked, “Do you know that song ‘No One Knows Tomorrow’?” Then he proceeded to sing the song with childish gusto. No one knows tomorrow! To-mo-rrow! No one knows tomorrow! Another generous splash of cognac in his glass. “That is the principle on which the ambitious segment of the Nigerian society is based. No one knows tomorrow. Look at those big bankers with all their money and the next thing they knew, they were in prison. Look at that pauper who could not pay his rent yesterday and now because Babangida gave him an oil well, he has a private jet!” Chief always spoke with a triumphant tone, mundane observations delivered as grand discoveries. After Obinze had visited a few more times, drawn in part because Chief’s steward always served fresh pepper soup, and because Amaka told him to just keep hanging around until Chief did something for him, Chief told him, “You are hungry and honest, that is very rare in this country. Is that not so?”

“Yes,” Obinze said, even though he was not sure whether he was agreeing about his own quality or the rarity of it.

“Everybody is hungry, even the rich men are hungry, but nobody is honest. Twenty years ago I had nothing until somebody introduced me to General Babangida’s brother. He saw that I was hungry and honest and gave me some contacts. Look at me today. I have money. Even my great-grandchildren will not finish eating my money. But power? Yes, that one I work hard to have. I was Babangida’s friend. I was Abacha’s friend. Now that the military has gone, Obasanjo is my friend. The man has created opportunities in this country. Big opportunities for people like me. I know they are going to privatize the National Farm Support Corporation because they said it is bankrupt. Do you know this? No. By the time you know it, I would have taken a position and I would have benefited from the arbitrage. That is our free market!” Chief laughed. “The corporation was set up in the 1960s and it owns property everywhere. The houses are all rotten and termites are eating the roofs. But they are selling them. I’m going to buy seven properties for five million each. You know what they are listed for in the books? One million. You know what the real worth is? Fifty million.” Chief stopped again to laugh and swallow some cognac. “So I will put you in charge of that deal. They need somebody to do the evaluation consulting, and I will put you there. Amaka said you are sharp and I can see it in your face. Your first job will be to hlp me make money, but your second job will be to make your own money. You will make sure you undervalue the properties and make sure it looks as if we were all following due processes. It’s not difficult. You acquire the property, sell off half to pay your purchase price, and you are in business! You’ll build a house in Lekki and buy some cars and ask your hometown to give you some titles and your friends to put congratulatory messages into the newspapers for you and before you know, any bank you walk into, they will want to package a loan immediately and give you, beause they think you no longer need the money. Ah, Nigeria! No one knows tomorrow!” Chief paused to stare at one of his ringing cell phones–four were placed on the table next to him–and then ignored it and leaned back on his leather sofa. “And after you register your own company, you must find a white man. You had friends in England before you were deported? Find one white man. Tell everybody he is your general manager. It gives you immediate legitimacy with many idiots in this country. This is how Nigeria works, I’m telling you.”

And it was, indeed, how it worked and still worked for Obinze. The ease of it had disoriented him. The first time he took his offer letter to the bank, he had felt surreal saying “fifty” and “fifty-five” and leaving out the “million” because there was no need to state the obvious. That day he had written an e-mail to Ifemelu, which was still in the drafts folder of his old Hotmail account, unsent after six years. She was the only person who would understand, and yet he was afraid that she would feel contempt for the person he had become. He still did not understand why Chief had decided to help him; there was, after all, a trail of eager visitors to Chief’s house, people bringing relatives and friends, all of them with pleas in their eyes. He sometimes wondered if Chief would one day ask something of him, the hungry and honest boy he had groomed, and in his more melodramatic moments, he imagined Chief asking him to organize an assassination.

In addition to dialogue, backstory–particulary when filtered through the point-of-view consciousness of one of the characters–can show us the world we’re inhabiting. The details of how Obinze obtained his wealth–while specific to him–also help us see the country, in this era, as a whole: how business works behind the scenes, the role of a man like Chief, the energy and bustle of an entire nation.

Writing exercise: pick a country or society you know well, and, through the backstory of describing how a particular character gets a job, let us see the broader picture of that country or society.

The party was more crowded, suffocating. Chief was saying something to a group of men and Obinze heard the end: “But you know that was we speak, oil is flowing through illegal pipes and they sell it in bottles in Cotonou!” He was distracted. He reached into his pocket to touch his BlackBerry. Kosi was asking if he wanted more food. He didn’t. He wanted to go home. A rash eagerness had overcome him, to go into his study and reply to Ifemelu’s email, something he had unconsciously been composing in his mind. If she was considering coming back to Nigeria, then it meant she was no longer with the black American. But she might be bringing him with her; she was, after all, the kind of woman who would make a man easily uproot his life, the kind who, because she did not expect certainty, made a certain kind of sureness somehow become possible. When she held his hand during those campus days, she would squeeze until both palms becamse slick with sweat, and each time she would say, “Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s really hold hands. Because a motorcycle or car can kill us now, or I might see the real man of my dreams down the street and leave you, or you might see the real woman of your dreams and leave me.”

This line of dialogue–“Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s really hold hands. Because a motorcycle or car can kill us now, or I might see the real man of my dreams down the street and leave you, or you might see the real woman of your dreams and leave me”–not only shows us so much about the character of Ifemelu, but it also juxtaposes her opposite to the character of Kosi. We see Obinze, who has gotten what he thinks he wants, and is not currently finding that he wants it any longer.

Writing exercise: have a character say the following, filling in the blanks to reveal who they are: “Just in case this is the last time we hold hands, let’s _____________. Because a motorcycle or car can kill us now.”

Perhaps the black American would come back to Nigeria too, clinging on to her. Still, there was something about the e-mail that made him feel she was single. He brought out his BlackBerry to calculate the American time when it had been sent. In the car on the way home, Kosi asked what was wrong. He pretended not to have heard and asked Gabriel to turn off the radio and put in a Fela CD. He had introduced Ifemelu to Fela at university. She had, before then, thought of Fela as the mad weed-smoker who wore only underwear while performing, but she had come to love the Afro-beat sound, and they would lie on his mattress and listen to it and then she would leap up and make swift, slightly vulgar movements with her hips when the run-run-run chorus came on. He wondered if she remembered that.

Sometimes we just have to get a character from Point A to Point B. Notice how Ngozie Adichie handles the transition of them leaving the party: “In the car on the way home”. That’s it! We don’t hear their goodbyes, don’t see them putting on their coats. She just writes the one line “In the car on the way home” and we’re in the car with them, on the way home. This also funtions as a way to continue to reveal Obinze’s internal state of mind: he is so preoccupied with Ifemelu that everything happening around him happens in a kind of blur.

Writing exercise: a character is so preoccupied with something that everything happening around them happens at a distance, or they react late/slowly to it.

Kosi was asking again what was wrong.

We continue to see the delay between what is happening outside him and how it filters into his consciousness!

“Nothing,” he said.

“You didn’t eat very much,” she said.

“Too much pepper in the rice.”

“Darling, you didn’t even eat the rice. Was it Mrs. Akin-Cole?”

He shrugged and told her he was thinking about the new block of flats he had just completed in Parkview. He hoped Shell would rent it because the oil companies were always the best renters, never complaining about abrupt hikes, paying easily in American dollars so that nobody had to deal with the fluctuating naira.

“Don’t worry, God will bring Shell. We will be okay, darling,” she said and touched his shoulder.

The flats were in fact already rented by an oil company, but he sometimes told her senseless lies such as this, because a part of him hoped she would ask a question or challenge him about something, but he knew she would not, because all she wanted was to make sure the conditions of their life remained the same, and how he made that happen she left entirely to him. She had never asked him about his time in England either. Of course she knew that he was deported, but she had never asked him for details. He was no longer sure that he wanted her to, or even whether he would have told her about feeling invisible in that removal center, but it suddenly became a glaring failing of hers. Ifemelu would have asked. Ifemelu would not have been content to ignore the past as long as the present existed. He knew very well what he was doing, fashioning a perfect doll from ten-year-old memories of Ifemelu, but he could not help himself.

Having a character tell a lie is a way to reveal character. What are they lying about? For what purpose? In this case, we see that Obinze and Kosi don’t have the kind of relationship that allows them to talk on a level that Obinze wants. We see his purpose for his deflections.

Writing exercise: one character lies to another. Why? For what purpose?

At home, the housegirl, Marie, opened the door and Kosi said, “Please make food for your oga.”

“Yes, ma.”

She was slight, and Obinze was not sure whether she was timid or whether her not speaking English well made her seem so. She had been with them only a month. The last housegirl, brought by a relative of Gabriel’s, was stocky and had arrived clutching a duffel bag. He was not there when Kosi looked through it–she did that routinely with all domestic help because she wanted to know what was being brought into her home–but he came out when he heard Kosi shouting. He stood by the door and watched her, holding two packets of condoms by their very tips, swinging them in the air. “What is this for? Eh? You came to my house to be a prostitute?”

The girl looked down at first, silent, then she looked Kosi in the face and said quietly, “In my last job, my madam’s husband was always forcing me.”

Kosi’s eyes bulged. She moved forward for a moment, as though to attack the girl in some way, and then stopped.

“Please carry your bag and go now-now,” she said.

The girl shifted, looking a little surprised, and then she picked up her bag and turned to the door. After she left, Kosi said, “Ca you believe this nonsense?” She brought condoms to my house and she opened her mouth to say that rubbish. Can you believe it?”

“Her former employer raped her so she decided to protect herself this time,” Obinze said.

Kosi stared at him. “You feel sorry for her. You don’t know these housegirls. How can you feel sorry for her?”

He wanted to ask, “How can you not?” But the tentative fear in her eyes silenced him. Her insecurity was so great and so ordinary. She was not worried about his lassitude, or about their not having real conversations, or indeed about their not truly knowing each other. Instead she was worried about a housegirl whom it would never even occur to him to seduce. It was not as if he did not know what living in Lagos could do to a woman married to a young and wealthy man, how easy it was to slip into paranoia about “Lagos girls,” whose sophisticated monsters of glamour who swallowed husbands whole, slithering them down their throats. But he wished she handled her fear a little differently, pushed back a little more. Once he had told her about the attractive banker who had come to his office to tlak to him about opening an account. He had found it amusing, and said, how desperate the woman had been, in her tight pencil skirt and fitted shirt with one button that should not have been open, trying to pretend that she was in control of it all. Kosi had not been amused. “I know Lagos girls, she can do anything,” she had said, and what had struck him was that Kosi seemed no longer to see him, Obinze, and instead she saw the blurred figures who were types: a wealthy man, a female banker who had been given a target amount to bring in as deposits, an easy exchange.

In this climactic scene–in this story’s particular context, the climactic moment that leads to the greatest sense of self-realization in the story–we see that what Obinze wants is a connected, emotional partner. “She was not worried about his lassitude,” he thinks, “or about their not having real conversations, or indeed about their not truly knowing each other.” He thinks she’s only worried about surface issues: about their lifestyle, about their reputation in public, and he wants something deeper. This story becomes more than about merely his attraction to an ex-girlfriend: it becomes about his desire for depth of relationship, which he has been unable to experience.

It could also be suggested that the real climactic scene is below, when he sends the return email to Ifemelu–that that is the point of action, from which there is no return. The external action that results from an entire story of internal thought, conflict, and deliberation.

Writing exercise: what does a character really want? Through what inciting incident–if any–do they discover this want?

She had, in the years since they got married, developed an inordinate dislike of single women and an inordinate love of God. Before they got married, she went to Sunday mass once a week at the Catholic church, but afterward she had thrown her rosary in the dustbin and told him she would now go to the House of David because it was a Bible-believing and spirit-filled church. Later, when he found out that House of David had a special prayer service for Keeping Your Husband, he had been flattered and revolted. Just as he was when he once asked why her best friend from university, Elohor, hardly visited them, and Kosi said, “She’s still single,” as though that were a self-evident reason.

Even in post-realization, Obinze continues to think of the ways he differs from his wife. He retreats, alone, and in the next paragraph note the closed door–literal, as well as metaphorical–that he interposes between himself and the rest of the household. He’ll commit to the course of action, and the story will close with sensory details, and then a final sense of his interior consciousness, his current state of self.

Marie knocked on his study door and came in with a tray of rice and fried plantains. He ate slowly. He thought of the day he was frying plantains for Ifemelu in the tiny room he rented on campus, how he had insisted on washing the plantain slices even though she had asked him not to, and how hot oil from the pan came flying out and left ovals of burned skin on his neck. Perhaps he should include this memory in the e-mail. Remember the friend plantain accident? He decided not to. It would be too odd, too much a specific memory. He wrote and rewrote the e-mail, deliberately not mentioning his wife or using the first-person plural, trying for a balance between earnest and funny. He did not want to alienate her. He wanted to make sure she would reply this time. It was alarming to him how happy that e-mail had made him, how his mind had become busy with her, possessed by her. He clicked Send and then minutes later checked to see if she had replied. What was this? Was he unhappy? It was not that he was unhappy, he told himself, it was simply that he had been long enough in his new life that he had begun to think of alternative lives, people he might have become, the doors he had not opened. He got up and went out to the veranda; the sudden hot air, the roar of his neighbor’s generator, the smell of diesel exhaust fumes brought a lightness to his head. Frantic winged insects flitted around the electric bulb. He felt, looking out at the muggy darkness farther away, as if he could float, and all he needed was to let himself go.
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Additional Writing Exercises

  1. Rewrite “Ceiling” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted?
  2. Write a story using the same five-part structure that “Ceiling” uses, as listed above.
  3. Write a short story of 55 words that uses “Ceiling” as a title, using the word in a different way than this story. What is the particular resonance of the word for this specific story?
  4. Write a short story of 101 words set in a traffic jam, of some sort. Two people are in a car, unable to get out; unable to move forward. Move internally into the consciousness of one of them, as opposed to moving forward chronologically.
  5. Write a short story of 300 words in which one member of a relationship is having thoughts about someone else, outside of the relationship. What might this mean for the relationship?
  6. Write a short story of 500 words in which one character is grateful to another for their job, but also doesn’t want to be in the world in which that job has placed them.
  7. Write a short story of 750 words in which one character picks up his child, and then puts the child back down back down. Have the story take place inside the thoughts of that character, during that moment only, moving both inside and outside that character’s consciousness.
  8. Write a short story of 1,000 words told from the point of view of a child aware that one of their parents is unhappy in their life, in some way.
  9. Write a short story of 2,500 words in which one character is at a party they don’t want to have attended. What do they think about while they’re there? Do they make attempts to get away, or do they just endure it? For alternate views on this exercise, read short stories “The New Dress” by Virginia Woolf or “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield.
  10. Write a short story of 5,000 words told from the point of view of a character–a housemaid, a driver, a gardener, a cook–who works for a wealthy family. What does this point of view allow you to do as a writer that might be inaccessble through a different point of view?
  11. Write a short story of 7,500 words that opens with a character receiving an email, and closes with that same character sending a reply. What happens in-between the receiving and the sending?

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