We’ll always have Ottawa – A tribute to Pius Adesanmi

Two emails in spam! The price you pay for not emailing your brother frequently. My system has forgotten you and thought you were spamming me,” Pius Adesanmi had written in September 2015, when I followed up an SMS exchange with an email. I had informed him that my son got an A in French in his GCSEs and was going to study the language as part of his A Levels; and would need a brilliant scholar in French and literary uncle such a Pius as a mentor, someday soon. Pius declared that he was looking forward to welcoming my son into the ‘French Fraternity.’The Ethiopian Airlines disaster of March 10, 2019 foreclosed that.

My relationship with Pius was characterised by a special fondness belied by our initial interactions on the great Nigerian creative listserves of yore – particularly Krazitivity and the Sentinel Poetry Bar, both on the Yahoo Groups platform. Perhaps it is only those forged in these kinds of intense and rigorous intellectual crucibles that can truly conceive of a persona such as Pius Adesanmi – a truth-teller without prejudice, whose opinions and positioning could not be bought for any price.

On the listserves, especially Krazitivity, Nigeria’s young gladiators of the mind sparred daily, sparing no one. On Sentinel, Pius and I clashed in one fractious episode. I was stung by the word “Infelicities” – as he chose to apply to a poem of mine he was unfavourably disposed to. I remember I hit back by saying that his prose struck me as having the “lumber-jack” quality of a “juddering train”.

It should have been the end for the two of us. But one enduring lesson of those listserves is this: it was never personal. Or at least, it very rarely was. It is something the Nigerian civic space could use more of: the notion that, in the contest of ideas, you can express yourself forcefully without being held in contempt for life by the opposing party to the argument. The listserves taught one early on to respect people’s rights to their considered viewpoints, and to even see some merit in them. Further, to see how, had things been a bit different, one could very well have taken the same position.

When Pius and I finally met in Ottawa in 2011, it was as though the listserve skirmishes never happened. He was that rarest of persons, his heart was filled to bursting with love and affection for those around him. He was thoughtful and insightful, brimming with kindness and decency. Had that plane not dropped out of the sky, he would have gone on to become a juggernaut of African thought. I had no doubt about this. I already had a measure of his searing intellect, his intimidating achievements. Many have spoken of his love for God and Country. But Pius Adesanmi the human being – to get a glimpse of that was a special privilege indeed.

In May 2011 I taught a seminar at Carleton University, Ottawa, where Pius was a Professor of Literature and African Studies until that last flight from Addis Ababa. It was a class comprising a mix of PhDs, MAs and – in Pius’ words – “some very advanced fourth-year students.” The book I talked through with his students was Chinua Achebe’s ‘Arrow of God’. It was Pius’ idea; he was going to be away on that day and I was the visiting lecturer taking charge of his class. He emailed ahead to say he would tell his students that an “alejo pataki” (a very important visitor) was coming. He believed that much in me. He was generous with his intellect and scholarship,and with his art and spirit. Thanks to his facilitation, encouragement and support, the seminar at Carleton was a resounding success, and I kept in touch with many of the students for a long time afterwards.

Pius was always there for you. If you were going through some personal issue and he knew about it, he would support you with candour and with sincerity. He would call, he would email, he let you know that he was there for you. He had such clarity about his role as a friend; he did not allow other affiliations to cloud his judgement concerning you. A sensitive artist, he had the ability to see through the façade of a brave face in times of personal crisis. He knew what ailed you and he held you through it. I was very grateful for his sturdy support during one of my own down times.

We shared a strong commitment to deepening the critical space for literature and ideas in Nigeria. Once, on the fringes of the Ake Arts& Book Festival in Abeokuta, we discussed with notable others about starting a literary journal, for which I would likely be the editor and he would serve as a member of the editorial board. It hadn’t been realised at the time of his passing. I was to have dropped by when he was a visiting professor in Ghana; to take up his standing invitation to return to Ottawa with my children for a visit; and to travel to the same city with his long-standing friend, Lola Shoneyin, so we could be good literary aunties to his daughter, Tise. None of these came to pass.

Seeing him on Twitter, reading reports of him shining at different fora around the world, watching him relate the ‘Parable of the Shower Head’ in his sensational talk on a live telecast of ‘The Platform’ in Lagos, it was perhaps natural to think we had another week, another month, another idyllic literary festival or conference to enact yet another enchanted reunion. There was always going to be another day, until we ran out of time.

But we’ll always have Ottawa, where I enjoyed a memorable interlude as a guest of Pius and his wife Muyiwa in their beautiful home. They had their baby on the way and they radiated so much warmth and contentment. Pius was used to giving generously of himself, and this reflected in his attention to every detail when he was your host, starting with the sumptuous food lovingly prepared and laid out – of which you could never eat enough for his satisfaction.

He and I spent radiant time in front of a prized artwork in his home as he waxed lyrical about the piece, which had been given to him years before by our artist friend, Victor Ehikhamenor. Yesterday I messaged Victor: was I correct in thinking it was a painting of an elephant? Sure enough, it was – and the creator of the work pulled out a social media post by Pius to prove it. The image of the work, so beloved by Pius, had been in my mind’s eye for nearly ten years. Now our elephant has gone to his rest.

All those years ago in Ottawa, Pius and I discovered that we were both devotees of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. I told him I hadn’t been able to watch the film since my relocation from the UK to Nigeria, so Pius connected his HDMI cable to the television set and gave me a special screening. Together we watched Morgan Freeman narrate Tim Robbins’ cinematic jailbreak as he headed off for Zihuatanejo, once more. I had written about the film years before, as published in The Guardian (Lagos) in November 2004; I sent the text of the article to Pius once I got back to Nigeria, because he wanted to read it.

After he was suddenly taken from us, I went back to read some of our email exchanges over the years, particularly those after my visit to Canada. The first email I got from him on my return to Lagos is among the kindest I have ever received. Ultimately, he left me words of comfort. He left us a world of words, to comfort, strengthen and enlighten.

He also left laughter. He could catalyse a wellspring of joy. As the terrible reality dawned on the Sunday of the plane crash, it was my memory of Pius’ laughter that finally pulled me out of the pall of despair that had enveloped me. I can see him now: Pius telling an uproariously cheeky story, his laughter erupting from his belly as he animated the outsized hilarity with highly dramatic gestures. Even now, he dares me not to laugh.