Published 7 May 202116 June 2021 · Long read / literary culture Discovering Kerouac on the road to Cannibal Town Kanyinsola Olorunnisola 1. Jack Kerouac loathed his first book. Calling it unprintable names, he did not deem the work deserving of an audience. He kept it so well hidden that the public did not get its hands on it until nearly seventy years after he had written it. Granted, it was no masterpiece; like most juvenalia, its style was unrefined, the language unsophisticated. Still, even after all these years, something about the book feels timeless. Perhaps it is best captured by Kerouac’s own account of the novel during his lifetime as ‘a man’s simple revolt from society as it is, with inequalities, frustration and self-inflicted agonies’. That description captures the truth of Kerouac’s lifelong existential torment, one which would forever change the course of literature. And my life. I was born a dead man. At least, that is how the story goes. In Yoruba mythology, dead men and women would sometimes return and re-integrate themselves into the families of their descendants by taking up the bodies of new-born children. So, when I came out as a baby boy, with the exact same eyes and mouth as my grandfather who had died just a few months before, it was concluded: the patriarch had returned. While I do not give credence to this particular myth, I have spent my whole life interrogating the idea that I came to this world in a borrowed body. I imagine this is because I have always felt like a misfit, like I am incompatible with the world and the social laws by which it is governed. Growing up in Nigeria, I feared, for some reason I could not quite articulate, at the time at least, that I was a quiet danger to society who would soon be found out and expunged for my unknown sins. I was a fugitive who had committed no crime, but a fugitive nonetheless. That meant convincing myself that it was in my best interests to be as small as possible, to take up such little space that no one would have an excuse to be offended by my existence. But none of that lasted – time would later crack my shell and leave me exposed to the wonders of the dangerous world out there. I wish I could say the change came from a singular, life-altering encounter. Such stories are naturally cinematic, the purest of narratives. But my turn from a child looking to disappear to a young adult who learned to be loud about his existence was a gradual one. I remember being sixteen and identifying with Lorde’s Pure Heroine album. I remember becoming more and more fascinated with psychedelia: the music, the culture, the absolute fantasy of that experience. I remember being deliberate about consuming queer art. I remember staying up all night reading about the eccentric poets, novelists, musicians and political activists who reigned terror upon the cultural consciousness of 1950s America. They were called the Beat Generation, and at the centre of their madness was Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was a disturbed man, and he made no efforts to hide it. He reveled in it, his misery, his incompleteness. I loved him in spite of it. It was all new and exciting: his wild experimentations, his bizarre sensualities, his dangerously defiant insights, his contempt for normalcy. I wanted desperately to connect with Kerouac and the rest of his generation beyond their books and letters and remnants of surviving clips stashed on YouTube. I thirsted for a counterculture movement in my country. This thirst, seemingly unquenchable at first, led me to discover an entire sub-culture of misfits like me. And it finally allowed me to make sense of my obsessions: I hate my society and long for a radical change. 2. There is a popular joke – an unfortunate one, really – that goes thus: the best way to be a Nigerian is to be a Nigerian in the diaspora. A more direct variant of the joke is that the Nigerian Dream is to leave the country forever. I suspect, to an outsider at least, this must be less of a joke than a dismal admission of an unpatriotic conviction. But to someone who has grown up in a country so rife with corruption and terror – a country with an ever-widening class divide, a country where politicians openly admit to looting treasury with no consequences, a country that celebrates the genocide of its people, a country where speaking against a major religion could get you hanged, a country that rejects liberalism with every bone in its body, a country that hates poor people but glamorises poverty, a country where anti-government sentiment could earn you a visit by state services, a country where the police can harass you for your choice of hairstyle – it is difficult to see it as anything but a shark swimming towards you with large, bared teeth. As Nigerian essayist Ayo Sogunro puts it: ‘everything in Nigeria is going to kill you.’ Even the theatricality of that phrasing is tame compared to the reality. My story of my country is not a patriotic one. I learned a long time ago that nothing is inherently deserving of loyalty. It has to be earned. And with every passing day, Nigeria only appears intent on reminding us why we fear and loathe it. Children who grew up in the aftermath of the fall of military rule witnessed a country suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders of stifling governments, a wrecked economy, failed promises of a liberating democracy, capitalist evangelism and a complicated relationship with power. That generation is pushing back in the form of a youth culture that has no respect for political, religious and social authority. Through social media chat rooms, disillusioned Nigerian youths have accidentally created a sub-culture dedicated to the abolishment of societal rules in nearly every area: gender, sexuality, class, religion, purity culture and Western imperialism. You can experience these cultural shifts through their literature, fashion, music, policy discussions and the frankness with which they talk sex on the internet. Desperate to reject the homophobic, anti-poor and misogynistic conservatism forced on them by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, they have learned to become deliberate with their subversions. From Arinze Ifeakandu’s decidedly queer-centric fiction to the experimental sound of Fireboy DML’s music, young Nigerians are starting to embrace cultures that used to exist at the fringes of society. They are powered by a bohemian rush, a pressing need to skate down what Kerouac called the ‘senseless nightmare road’. Like Kerouac and his rowdy band of beatniks, I am part of a generation that has lost the illusion of a nationalistic ideal. Our souls in constant riot, we tend to project this need for unconventionality on cultural icons, leading in part to the popularity of Naira Marley, the formerly-incarcerated Afrobeat singer. Marley’s status as an outcast-turned-cultural-sensation earned him comparisons to Fela Kuti – perhaps the most radical music icon in Nigeria’s history – who was arrested by the government more than two hundred times in his lifetime. Marley’s music is not at all virtuosic. It is rather jejune, bordering on sonic kitsch. But its appeal, I suppose, is in its garishness, its unashamed artlessness. Nigerian intellectuals thirsting for a revolution have latched on to him as a signal of the return of Fela Kuti. While this is a woeful inaccuracy and, frankly, a disrespect to Kuti’s legacy, the comparison does make sense. It is borne of a desperate dream for the radicalisation of culture, the breaking down of our socio-cultural institutions to the point where society’s ‘rejects’ become the celebrated. 3. For me, the person who came the closest to being an embodiment of Kerouac is the writer I have chosen to identify as Deji, the most unconventional person I know. I do not remember when we met exactly. For years, I only remembered him as a face I saw at events and forgot about immediately after. But in 2018, something changed. We bumped into each other at one of our usual literary events. I struggled to remember his name – it was then that I realized I had never actually spoken to him. He saw me and invited me to come take a seat. There was something about his warmth, the way he called my name like we were old friends with established camaraderie. After the event, I went online to read about him. Deji had this self-announcing machismo that I had come to associate with toxic, homophobic men. Yet, there was his Facebook wall, full of aggressive attacks on homophobes and misogynists. There was his writing portfolio full of queer-centred writings. This conflicting versions of him definitely fascinated me. I decided to reach out to him via text. I was nervous at first, wondering under what pretext I was going to strike up a conversation. But his responses were swift, warm and sweet. Within a couple of weeks, we became very close. I could not help but see the parallels to Kerouac. There were the surface-level ones: a writing career and substance consumption. But there was so much more about him that reminded me of the Beat legend. His moral compass was at odds with everything we were raised to believe in. If there were a poster child for a generation that cares so little about social mores, it would be him. He was drawn to the misunderstood who are treated like the bottom-caste of society: sex workers, thugs, and the ordinary person in the street. He found glory in the mundane and situated the silenced at the center of his art. I found his spirit beautiful, his mind as free as could be. He always talked about disappearing, without as much as a warning. By that, he did not mean dying, although he had absolutely no fear of death, but an actual vanishing to some other part of the world in search of adventure, a spiritual re-awakening that can only come from being on the road. His restlessness would be infectious if I were not already restless myself. We both exist in an artistic community powered by disruption, where we create art designed to provoke, unsettle and, ultimately, destroy. Our shared scene was a monthly open mic event somewhere in Lagos, where wayward children lost to the gospel of decadence would congregate in the name of poetry and wine and cigarettes and new love affairs that lasted only as long as the night. Sometimes, in my alcohol-assisted delusions, I could picture us as reincarnates of those renegades who lived and worked in Laurel Canyon, the artistic Mecca located in the Hollywood Hills in the seventies. Or the Beat writers themselves, churning out apocalyptic poems in the lovely San Francisco heat while feasting their minds on Eastern philosophies. Of course, I am not at all oblivious to Kerouac and his community’s abysmal reputation back then, nor the complications in their legacy today. Even the most liberal thinkers of their time had little respect for the Beat Generation. Truman Capote was famously dismissive of the literature they produced: ‘[It] isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.’ In a 1979 New York Times essay, James Baldwin described the beatniks as ‘uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty.’ He thought their aesthetic, indulgences and politics too synthetic. But there is something quietly admirable about dissent that comes not from a direct, life-threatening necessity but a deliberate quest for enlightenment beyond the confines of society. Still, there is a lot that detractors could use as ammunition. Kerouac’s reckless, unconventional methods of self-expression were sometimes repugnant to the point of being misogynistic – six days after Marilyn Monroe’s tragic passing from barbiturate overdose in 1962, he described her as being ‘fucked to death’. Even I cringed at the depiction of women in On the Road, his magnum opus. Counterculture as he was, he himself was not too far from the American image of the traditionally sexist American man of his time. Clearly, idealising such a person and the subculture he helped create does come with a set of ethical problems. One is left with the option of nitpicking what part of his legacy to appreciate and emulate. And in the fight against degenerative social mores, one needs an anchor no matter how imperfect. The growing counterculture movement in my country is up against the highest reaches of power and that can be alienating. For sanity and reassurance of purpose, one has to hold on to the radical wisdom of those who have walked this same path before. I cannot think of a better person than Kerouac who famously wrote: the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ Such submission to madness affords one bravery. And is bravery not the most important requirement for a dream? The society eats its own, ready to cannibalize any of its children who dare to question it. Many who spoke up against the government during the #EndSARS protests against police brutality have been threatened, if not murdered by the state. Every day seems like a new journey to Cannibal Town, the metaphorical representation of the country’s moral and institutional wretchedness. Every day one wakes up in this country is yet another new encounter with a hellish existence. It is as though one is always on the road to a place he never wants to go. And discovering Kerouac has helped me veer off course and choose to dream – dare to dream – of a different path. While stories of hating one’s country are not at all romantic – they ruin the fantasy – they are also valid. It is a privilege to look at one’s own place in society and not feel existential rage. Nigeria is a nightmare for gays and lesbians whose existence has been criminalised by the government just to cater to the worldview of homophobes. Nigeria is a nightmare for poor people who have been chased out of their homes by government-sponsored gentrification. Nigeria is a nightmare for young girls who are legally married off, without their consent, to men to older than their fathers. To preserve my sanity in a society that wants me dead, all I can do is dream of liberation. Kerouac reminds me that such a thing is possible, that if one is daring enough you can turn your entire world upside down and lead a charge against oppressive structures. We are learning to become the most authentic versions of ourselves, unafraid to be misfits. We’re like brilliant jazz soloists, and the music of our lives is most beautiful when we branch away from the strict composition society has handed us, playing our own notes, creating chaos and magic along the way. Image: Zouzou Wizman Kanyinsola Olorunnisola Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is the recipient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant, the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature and a Truman Capote Literary Trust Scholarship. 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