Michael Agugom was a recipient of an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018
Never is a good verse too often said
In my room, on the third floor of Hotel Reykjavik Natura, standing before the window, I am. At 8:15pm it’s still as bright as day. Back home in Lagos, one hour ahead, it would be dark already.
Outside, two baby planes are resting their tired wings in the field; there is an airstrip ahead. I keep my eyes on the planes: I want the planes in the air; I imagine lifting them into the sky with my mind—this thought is my way of stirring my mind away from the thought of saying goodbye to a lady I had fallen in love with in Iceland, a lady who’s now with child for me.
Participants of the Iceland Writers Retreat, the many I chatted with, when they talked about their experiences so far in Iceland, they often lauded the beauty of Iceland’s landscapes; I assume that is how they think of Iceland, in the context of her gorgeous sceneries. When I think about Iceland, I think about a lady.
So I’m conflicted: how do I say goodbye to a damsel that let me into her and showed me her exotic corners? How do I turn my back to her who cleared the dense cloud of fear over my head and filled me with calm?
I shut my eyes.
Behind my eyelids I see the planes lift into the air. I remain still. I think of the possibility that when I open my eyes I will see the planes gliding in the sky even as my effort at conjuring this is still hampered by thoughts of her—I’m only realising now how weak I am to beauty.
A few days earlier, it took two birds to get me to Keflavik; and a bull to get me to Reykjavik.
In the belly of the birds I felt little; and when I looked out through my right window—that moment the plane lifted up—a few lines of thought bound my head too tight: if man could make machine fly, I shouldn’t be dazzled that a man walked on water. Have we not in us the power to make miracles every day? At that moment, the ability to sit down and imagine and create became to me miracles that we often take for granted. Even my journey, as every human journey, was a miracle.
To get stamped into Paris by immigration I had to join a long queue of white travellers, whites of different shades, but Paris had enough blacks that I almost felt I was still in Lagos. In Paris, culture shock was minimal.
There I had to wait for six hours and some minutes, wait for a connecting flight to Iceland. In those six hours I chatted with home, and pondered on what awaited me in Iceland. Would I enjoy it? Would it be fun? Would I learn anything from the workshops? How would I be received there? How many Nigerians like me would be participating? Would it be worth it without Al who I so much wanted to meet? And the accents of the faculties, how thick or soft would they be to my ears? How conspicuous would I be in a room? Never in those six hours did I think I would meet a lady.
When my feet kissed the grounds of Keflavik I learnt a lesson on cross-culture work ethic. In the airport I was carried away by my desire to frame myself in an image with the bustle of Keflavik International in the background—I had taken a picture at Murtala Muhammad International and at Charles De Gaulle. I wanted to compare the background of all three airports. I walked back to a lady bearing a placard that reads, Airport Express—she had already directed me to the bus she was advertising. I pleaded with her to take a picture of me with my phone. A request like this I had made to an immigration officer on duty back home, who obliged me wholeheartedly. The lady looked me in the eye and politely said, I’m sorry, I’m working. However insignificant this experience may seem it taught me how clearly here the boundary between work and play is defined.
Iceland slapped my cheeks and froze my hands. On stepping out of the airport to the transfer bus, I realised how unprepared I was for this space. It became obvious that the jacket I had brought along to keep Iceland-cold away from me was mere singlet to the cold. It was drizzling. It didn’t help. The distance between the airport gate and the bus stand felt like walking from one country to another even though it was just a pole away. I hurried to the bus barely able to breathe. When for the first time you leave a home as scorching hot as Nigeria, even spring cold in Iceland would feel like winter cold.
I found warmth in the bus, not just from the bus’s heater but also from a warm friendship with one of the recipients of the same scholarship that brought me to Iceland. She’s the Indian: an instant recognition of her from her picture on the IWR blog. You are Puja Changoiwala, I asked. She nodded, and I introduced myself, my hands frozen; and she invited me to sit next to her. And an intercontinental friendship began. We chatted all the way to Reykjavik and I soon forgot the cold. We talked about India, we talked about Nigeria; we mused about how alike India and Nigeria are.
At the hotel lobby we were received by Elizabeth Nunberg, one of the volunteer coordinators; she would later become for me a symbol of the beauty and soul of Reykjavík. I was shown my room and welcomed to freshen up and join other participants at a hall, venue of the opening dinner.
When minutes later I walked into the hall filled wall to wall, my first instinct was to turn and dash back to my room: never before had I felt so conspicuously black; the whiteness of the crowd turned me into a kote fish out of water. And a voice in my head that often mocks me in situations as this one sniggered, Shebi you wan attend retreat, oya na, where you wan run go! I remained rooted where I stood. Eliza and Erica spotted me from the front and bounced up to me. It was the first time I would meet them in person, the minds behind the retreat. Their welcome-hug, warm with kindness, made me feel that here my colour was conspicuous only because I thought of it.
Lisa Shannen and I were introduced. She ushered me to a table that held four renowned authors and an American couple. Lisa held my attention briefly with her vibrant chitchat and I couldn’t help but picture her as one of my favourite cousins back home. At the table I felt at home. The readings from some of the authors brought upon me profound appreciation for the ability to create something on paper; and all my concerns over being so far away from where I have known all my life as home momentarily vanished.
My eyes remain shut.
The Golden Circle Tour is what it is: a tour of the jewels of Iceland. It was drizzling the following morning of my and some other participants tour, and without a good coat to wall me from the cold, my tour could as well turn into a suicide trip. The American couple I had met at the opening dinner whispered to each other. Their whispering was about me: they could sense my discomfort. The husband offered me a spare coat and I accepted it. I couldn’t thank them enough. In my borrowed blue coat, which miraculously was an excellent fit, my tour of the bosom of Iceland began.
At Skalholt, our first stop, Fatin Abbas and I got acquainted properly. She and I had a brief but enriching conversation at the Chapel. The drizzle and the cold did not stop us from musing about Lagos and Khartoum. She told me how she’d love to visit Lagos; I told her how I’d love to read books from Khartoum. We got so lost in our chat we kept the bus waiting outside.
The Geysir Geothermal area, the Gullfoss Waterfall, the Pingvellir National Park. All held so much wonders to me that telling someone about them would be like giving up a sumptuous and delicious meal.
At Gljufrasteinn, home and work place of Nobel Prize winning author Halldor Laxness, our last stop, I literarily wanted to own the dead laureate’s space and just write in it. The urge to write was so strong I wrote a few lines that captured what I felt in that house. I was reluctant to leave. But the thought of meeting the president of Iceland a few hours later moved my feet.
Meeting Mr Gudni Th. Johannesson was memorable. I had for a few years been paying too much attention to my craft to have spare time for sports, so it was the president who brought it to my attention that Nigeria would be playing against Iceland in the World Cup in Russia few months away. I wanted to ask the president if he thought Iceland had a chance of defeating Nigeria but dropped the thought of asking that: the lovely feeling of meeting such a gracious man was too rich to be whittled down with football talks.
The following morning, I was ready to soak in wisdom on literary crafts. It would be three days of soaking in. The workshops.
Gwendoline Riley’s voice reminded me of the soothing breeze of Elegunsi Beach back home in Lagos; she taught me to shut my eyes and listen, to let my ears pick out the music of nature—writing entails rhythm. Her voice is still with me.
Terry Fallis reminded me of the hardworking construction workers that erect monuments on Lagos Island; he advised me to set out with an outline of my novel manuscript. But he also emphasised that ultimately I will have to find the path that works best for me on how to write. His words were sincere.
Craig Davidson’s eyes reminded me of the narrow entrance into the hallow hall of Ogbunike Cave; he showed me the wonders of captivating imagery. Hook your reader early on with visual, he seemed to emphasis. His awe reaction to my exercise piece remains with me.
The rest of my workshop classes were lost hours to me: my mind was in turmoil over news of trouble from home.
Lost in my mind’s labyrinth, laughter still found my lips—during the pub night. Thanks to Jon Gnarr. When he read to us from his book, I laughed till my belly was filled to its brim. A man who can seamlessly make another man laugh with his craft regardless of geographical and/or racial differences is a comic genius. Jon will find Nigeria—where her people possess remarkable capacity to laugh even in the face of adversities—a lucrative market, if he’d venture.
Reykjavik offered me friends and I accepted them with both hands: Puja Changoiwala, a beautiful soul—her winks at me will remain fresh in my mind, her composure reminded me of the calm Niger River; Fatin Abbas’s sparkling white dentition whenever she smiles is a picture I would hold close to my chest; Roberta Bajada’s resonant voice would remain to me a symbol of a vibrant Malta; Naila Zahin Ana’s vivaciousness and generosity was unrivalled; and Noha’s quick and smooth laughter I would work hard to emulate. No doubt I would miss all these beautiful minds, however I didn’t say goodbye to any one of them: goodbye is to me a sad word, too sad to be exchanged by two living beings. I wished them safe journeys back home, and took consolation in the thought that I would have every one of them in my hands soon—a copy of their craftsmanship, I mean—a slice of their geniuses.
Empathy cushioned with kindness is a language understood by mankind, a language limited by neither race nor creed, not even social status. Elizabeth Nunberg’s kindness is the souvenir I will take with me and preserve for a long long time. She gifted me reason to hope and worry less at the time I needed it most.
My eyes are still shut.
Earlier this evening, Roberta, Puja and I walked the streets of Reykjavík.
We were hungry for more sights and sounds of this capital that I learnt to pronounce properly in her space; we were hungry for her cuisine too. From downtown to the city centre there was never enough time to take in the sensual shape of Reykjavik—she is a lady you love anew every morning. We stopped at a restaurant to eat and were served by a pretty lady who I thought had no business working in a restaurant: I felt like Paris Hilton was serving us pizza—her courteousness lacked knowledge of her beauty, beauty devoid of arrogance.
Almost as the beauty of Iceland’s landscapes, the tenderness of Icelanders and of the many participants of the retreat I rubbed minds with is a precious gift to me.
I open my eyes.
The baby planes are still in their resting position. Nothing of my immediate view has changed except that night is heavy and slow upon Reykjavík, like a woman with child. From this window I can see the nightlights coming on over this city; they are diamonds of varying shades of gold on a crown. I fell in love with a lady; her name is Reykjavik, she is in Iceland—together we shall have twins: a pen and a paper, they shall bear proof of the lovely time she and I spent together.
Now I have to pack. I turn away from the window to my luggage lying on the bed. I have a plane to catch in the morning—no, a bird to catch.
Born in Nigeria, Michael Agugom, has had fiction published in The Capra Review, Referential Magazine, Courtship of Wind, Hypertext Magazine, Queer Africa 2: New Stories (Ma Thoko’s Books), The Cantabrigian Magazine, and Your Impossible Voice. He is a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award.