Ife kwulu ife akwudobie.
My people, the Igbo, believe firmly in the duality of things; nothing stands alone – they say – something always stands beside it. The idea that there is only a single path to a destination has no place in their worldview. And also in their stories. Be it fables or stories of people. The balance of stories is something they hold dear, these people. As a child, I remember reporting fights between my siblings and me to my mother. No matter how broken or shaken I appeared or how pathetic my story was, I remember this slim woman asking me to summon the sibling I’d fought with, and when this enemy appeared, mother would ask, “What did you do to your brother?” She would quietly listen as my sibling told his or her own account of the conflict. And with these two self-serving views on her table, my mother would pass judgement. She never passed judgement without the other party speaking. Every perspective was pertinent.
This was the culture that nurtured me—a system of life that protected the views of warring factions. And then I grew up, and it seemed, to me, that the world had given this balance of stories a middle finger embodied with spikes.
A handful of years ago, a magazine published a story told from the perspective of a paedophile. I understand the writer was a prize-winner and prior to the release of the short story, the magazine gave it sufficient publicity. Eventually, the meal arrived—hot and oily – and the gates of hell were yanked open. The responses to the short story could have been written, or sponsored, by one person. Almost everyone accused the editors of the magazine of encouraging child molestation by giving voice to a pedophiliac narrator, and other writers expressed their outright repulsion by not only distancing themselves from the magazine but demanded that their works previously published on the medium be pulled down now; a quarter of reactionaries asked for a boycott. Now I had started reading this “abominable” fictitious story myself before I got distracted, and when I returned to the magazine again to finish it up, the publisher had agreed to rip it off their website, citing, I think, editorial issues. So, I never got to finish the story of the child molester. I had expected the story would be “polished” and republished. That never happened. Like all things on social media, the hailstorm lasted till everyone got tired or bored, or before a steamier controversy knocked it off the throne.
After evaluating this incident for some time, I concluded, quite painfully, that what happened within the literary community was the most profoundly unsettling example of artistic hypocrisy. There was nothing inspiring about seeing writers that campaigned, and still campaign, hard and radically for “the freedom to tell our stories” and “say no to censorship” launch a movement which squarely advocated for the destruction of a story and the cancellation of the magazine for “championing” child abuse. That single event proved that we may not be as mentally progressive as we love to tell ourselves and that censorship and threat of total cancellation are weapons we effortlessly wield in combatting narratives that make our skin crawl.
Only a man with half-roasted brains, someone of the devil’s bloodline, would raise his thumb or flash teeth at paedophiles. This is common knowledge to right-thinking people. But what happens when the storyteller decides to imagine—something they are doomed to spend all their lifetimes doing—himself in the devil’s shoes and chooses to tell the abuser’s story? Do we throw the enemy’s story to the furnace because we hate what he represents? Or do we, as the Igbo asks us to, wipe the shit off the fruit and eat it? I believe that stories have goals; designated objectives, peculiar destinies. Insisting that all stories be “decent” or “socially or morally rejuvenating” is the height of delusion. You may have heard people say that the writer’s primary duty is to save society from itself or statements to that effect. People decorate writers with wings and blades, proclaim them the forerunners of a civil community. I think that a storyteller is, first of all, a storyteller—someone who tells stories, simple. The kind of stories he decides to tell is up to him. Expecting every storyteller to tell you feel-good stories, stories that help you sleep well at night, or seek the overthrow of a corrupt regime, is ridiculous. The conception that a writer must be “one of the good guys” is a social construct which thrives on the plane of moralism. History informs us that the worst rulers to walk the earth have storytellers singing their praise. Every writer has his own agenda. Pick yours and run along with it.
Did those people that advocated for the destruction of the story of that paedophile not realize that they are no different from those bloodthirsty extremists that burnt proscribed books at public squares? Are these individuals simply saying that the Bad Guys should not be allowed to tell their stories? You don’t destroy stories because they appal you. Even murderers caught in the act get their accounts of the event heard in court, and some of them are acquitted! The notorious Ted Bundy fired his lawyers and represented himself in court. He was allowed to speak. I read of the senior Nazi official who had been sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but the Allied forces delayed his execution because the Nazi guy—now who could be more repulsive than a champion of the Aryan race—was writing his memoir! They let him publish his book before killing him! This happened in the 40s! And sometime between 2017 and 2019, supposedly progressive thinkers were pushing for the funeral of an imagined piece of writing because it made them want to puke. Same people that say that it is unacceptable to stifle voices!
The problem with a good number of us is that we have not sensibly interrogated what we actually mean when we assert “There should be inclusive storytelling” or “No censorship to storytelling” or “Let us tell our own stories.” You can’t say you are for freedom of artistic expression and go right on to put another man’s mind in shackles.
We must stop policing stories that have been published. We must stop asking publishers to pull down stories that do not appeal to us. We must, on no account, be the same censors we abhor. You can’t have solely sane stories when you live in an insane world. I do not believe that literature is a safe house where we can only engage topics that don’t threaten our senses. Detective Robert D. Keppel wrote a book of how Ted Bundy tremendously assisted investigators in hunting down the Green River Killer; imagine the devil helping to hunt down demons! Philip Carlo wrote the biographies of Mafia hitmen and the dreaded Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez. HBO commissioned a groundbreaking documentary based on the life of Richard Kuklinsky, the Ice-man; and throughout the mini-series, we see one of the most cold-hearted murderers of the 20th century narrating, with no sense of remorse, how he blew people’s head up for money. Mein Kampf, Hitler’s memoir, isn’t yet out of bookstores. To understand the Nazi philosophy and its future intentions, Allied experts had to read it. And Hitler’s War is a book that expressly argued that Hitler never ordered the extermination of over six million Jews, that Hitler isn’t the nemesis we make him out to be. John Toland’s biography of Hitler remains peerless. Books like these abound.
And yet, an entire battalion of majorly Nigerian writers waged a war of intellectual annihilation and insisted that a magazine be castrated, be put out of business because a writer somewhere wrote something that made their eyes hurt. Writers now police the creative liberty of other writers. Writers now insist that the only stories we must read are that of heroic protagonists, of people on whose heads God poured His oil; we must give no room for the terrorist to tell his story. Because that is not “our story.”
Now there are concerns that making Bad Guys protagonists can lead to moral retrogression. These worries are valid. But the more important question is, did these serial murderers — John Wayne Gacy, Tommy Pitera, Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and the likes — in truth not derive pleasure and pride in hitting their marks? It’s analogous to describing a sex scene. If the delicious touches of a lover could be stated, and the orgasmic experience captured, or how Nazis sent Jews to gas-chambers reported, why then should pointing out the morally repulsive longings of a man towards a minor make us all jump out the window? Capturing the entirety of a crime in narrative tremendously helps if the true horror of the atrocity is to be acknowledged; sometimes we hurt ourselves by playing safe.
No single story is enough; we can’t approve of one and damn the other. No story is superior to the other. Every storyteller should stick to what works for him, and we are in no position to be the kotma of art. “Our story” is no single story of angels. The story of the man who climbed up a burning building to save a baby is “our story.” The story of the woman who walked out of a hellish marriage is “our story.” Science fiction is “our story.” The story of the man who is proud to have raped toddlers is “our story.” The killer’s story is “our story.” Chamberlain’s story is “our story.” And so is Goring’s. And Mata Hari’s. And Ray Charles’. Serena Williams’. Because these people are of flesh and blood like us. Because these events of glory and shame occur amongst us.
The right of a story to be told is akin to the fundamental human right of the individual. A man constitutionally has the right to live freely, but every man doesn’t have to be desirable to you. “You have the right to exist” does not translate to “You are entitled to my worship.” Preferences will never go out of style. A reader or listener has the right to shake his head, say this story doesn’t work for me. But any person that goes on to insist that the story be destroyed should be promptly checked into a mental asylum. I may have a big problem with the devil but I am sure there is a pretty interesting story behind those spooky horns.
Ife kwulu ife akwudobie. ✚
Eloka is an Editor at the Question Marker.