They Live Rent-Free in My Head
Blessing Evaleni Lawson
If you ask me what my problem is, I will give you a scroll listing things I wish to change about myself. I will tell you what they are, my lips turning downwards as I give you a familiar name, and say, “These are my imperfections.” You will argue that they are beautiful and tell me I beat myself down too much. I will laugh, a brittle sound so nasally it itches my throat and shrug with a mutter, “Suit yourself.”
I am used to the cycle, the personal dialogues with lines reminiscent of those. I argue with the voices in my head just as I argue with you, slam my phone against my bed as internal and external voices continue to merge, clamp my teeth hard and yank at my hair in a bid to pull them out, praying that maybe my violent pleadings will draw my attention from the whispers. Yet the violence fuels them.
My family and I moved within Lagos a lot, and each time, Mother would choose a quiet neighbourhood buried in the deepest part of a suburban settlement. Mother would say, “I no wan make my pikins dem spoil.” Father is a police officer, and we, his ever-growing family, suffered whenever his superiors transferred him to an entirely different locale.
The first time I remember moving was from Iba to Akesan, and I was small. I only recall Dad’s hand squeezing my shoulder reassuringly, my older siblings moving things around gruffly, and the long, bumpy ride that left me sore-bottomed. The house had no furniture or wall paint. It was a rough grey shack with three rooms – kitchen, living room, and bedroom – and a bathroom, with a high veranda void of railings (my youngest sibling was almost picked by the wind here one stormy day). My earliest memories were the invasion of ants and singeing my legs with burning plastic as we tried to chase them off, catching one of our notorious teenage neighbours, Gaff Aru, doing a rhythmic dance against a fair-skinned girl’s backside with his crotch, and having my clanspeople pay visits on Sundays. During those visits, Mother would unearth George wrappers from her suitcase, put wide benches in front of our house so that these people – who talked a little too much and with effusive gestures – were comfortable, chat with them in the brisk, energetic way characteristic of Legbo speakers, and entertain them with Oxford or Cabin biscuits, garden eggs, kola nut and mineral. I was told to socialise and hang out with the other Legbo children in the neighbourhood. But, after minutes of running around, I would retreat into my shell, open a fresh leaf in one of my books, and crouch on the floor to write.
There and then, a writer was born.
I was a sullen child with a tight circle of friends and a penchant for writing. I wrote to escape the worlds in my brain, to usher light through the black threads that formed a web inside my head. My teachers took a keen interest in me. I passed spellings easily, composed good sentences, excelled in drawing and handwriting.
Soon, my classmates would troop around me while I wrote fresh stories to help them with illustrations for the stories they were copying from English textbooks. Had I been business-minded, I would have made some money from it. But I have always been benevolent – and that is one of my biggest flaws.
By the time the voices crystallised and became one with me, I turned 11 – a preteen. Have you heard the voices too? The voices that tap you awake, beckon you to rise while you’re still groggy-eyed, sit you up on a wide table, speak in your head, while the world struts and works and is wide awake behind you. They told me then that I was not beautiful. That I was ugly, a weakling, totally not part of the family. I was foolish to believe it. I had plaque in my teeth, yellow plaques turning to rotten green, large eyes, and I was not as big as the other kids. I thought I was the least favourite of all my six siblings, so I acted like it. I was a free bird outside my house walls, laughing and talking about literature with anyone who cared to hear me speak. But at home, I went straight into my and my sisters’ room and folded myself into a foetal position, thinking of how to write myself out of my mental cage or listen to my sisters talk in loud voices. Sometimes, I joined them. Sometimes I didn’t.
No boys crushed on me. As a Christian child too, I did not want anyone to. I would squeeze my tearing eyes shut and tell myself,
“You don’t need a boy, Eva. You’re not even that beautiful for one. Just focus on books and good grades. I doubt you’ll ever get married.”
I think God was saying something when he made me me. He was like, “I want to show them you. I want to show them you can be a woman and still be who you are.”
Mother said I was handed to her as a gift. I was little when she looked me in the eyes, her voice taut, “I wan tell you how I born you.”
Mother is a storyteller. I loved sitting a few feet from her, the smell of palm oil and onions faint on her wrapper, as she reiterated these stories repeatedly. I remember when she first told me how I was born. She was smiling wistfully, her hands peeling egusi (melon seeds) out of their yellow husks in quick motions.
“One day, erm, as I bin dey pray for church, I see one person enter with white clot. I bin no fii see him face, but I sabi say e hold some tin, some tin wey dem wrap like package…”
I settled at her feet, dragging the small bowl of egusi to myself. To admit it, I felt funny. I still feel funny any time she says this same story with this vacant look on her face. It is as if she sees something I do not.
“E waka pass me,” Mum continued, sotto voce, “kon waka turn back three times. My spirit tell me say e dey find person but e look like d person no bin dey. So him turn, kon look me. I comot face. Fear don start to catch me. Who be dis? I look around. People still dey pray. Person no dey see am? Na so I hear am call me by name. I turn look am sharp sharp. When he ask me question, him voice gentle. I kon learn say e dey find dis elderly couple wey don dey knock heaven for pikin for years. Finally, God don visit dem with pikin but dem no dey.”
My mum sighed, reminded me of the efficacy of prayers and availability for God, and then continued.
“E tell me. ‘I be God. My words dem no dey return to me empty. I be promise keeper…’ The man talk say him no fii carry the package go back house, kon give me am even when I no gree collect. E say na pikin, na God gift. Na blessing. But I still no wan touch am. I don get three pikin already and I never turn tati! Wetin I wan use extra pikin do when things dey hard? When my husband just finish school? Eh?”
“Did you collect it?” I asked, wide-eyed, egusi chaff pouring from between my skirted lap.
“He force me to. I no get choice.”
That day, and even this day, I felt a gamut of emotions, the most poignant being resentment. I loathed my supposed parents for abandoning me. What was more important that they missed their appointment at the church?
Mother dropped the bowl of melon and smiled ruefully. “I bin ask that same question too. But I neva finish. I bin wan flush you,” she said matter-of-factly, closing her eyes briefly. “But as I tink about am, God show me tree coffin. If I try am, I go suffa regret for the rest of my life and my older children go die, tree of them.” Her face crumpled into wreathed sheets of pain. “U bin give me complications sha, bin stubborn well, well. Na only you I born for hospital and you take hours before you finally come out. But you are a gift, God’s gift.”
Have you spent a good number of your days in a love-hate relationship with your bodily containment? Do you feel like you were not supposed to be here, in this body, but have grown to love this body that you are forced to keep?
Yes. I felt more like a boy in childhood. It was safer. Safer to pretend I was a boy and save the world without being shifted aside. I wanted a lean body and a commanding face, arched brows and smaller lips. I wanted to wear baggy jeans low on the waist and thin T-shirts without worrying about the cold or my pubescent breasts pushing against the stretchy fabric. I was a girl in every sense; a small figure, a mouth that stretched easily into smiles, dreamy eyes and a soft body.
I read books to find out why I felt that way, why I found being a girl disturbing, why I wanted to wrap my arms around the women in my life and protect them from the world. I found out about trans-people and didn’t want to believe I was one. So I slammed the book shut, my vision blurring with tears.
“I don’t like this!” I spat hoarsely the day I saw my first period. I don’t like the stares, I don’t like this body! I don’t like this. Why don’t you give me a choice? Why didn’t you let me choose if I wanted to live or stay or be… this? The answer echoed. It was a whisper, but it was there still.
God created genders. He knows what he wants. He has a plan.
Of course, this answer never satisfied me.
“God bin want make you be boy,” Mum said one day, when I was 12. I stopped shovelling my spaghetti. “I feel am for how my body bin dey. You see, you go know when you go get ghel pikin. Your body go talk am. I bin know say you be boy.”
“So… why am I a girl now?” I asked with a frown, my head working the maths. “Why… am I a girl?”
“Them change you,” Mum said solemnly, “I dey your papa village when dem change your position inside me.”
Superstition has always followed my birth and life. At 11, I was forcefully made to cut ties with Blessing Edegbe, a girl who was believed to be sent by marine people to apply sawdust to my brain. A year later, I met Solomon, the boy who was believed to be into witchcraft, and months later, I met Gift, a seer, and one I became quite wary of. When I lost my maternal grandmother and a maternal uncle, who was her favourite child, a few weeks apart, superstition trailed their connection. I am told not to do this because it will attract this and not to do that because something could happen if I do.
Presently, I am in a phase of questioning. I choose to identify as a non-religious young woman, who believes in a Supreme Being. But I still hear the voices. I hear them say:
You can run, but you can’t hide. Fate made you this way, so return the favour.
Mum’s voice is the clearest. It floats into my ears some days, repeating this line over and over again.
“E take up to three days before we comfam your gender. It appear like a boy own, a boy, erm, penis, without foreskin. Then after I press am hot water for three days, I kon see am. You be another girl.”
And I know that I am only another character in the Supreme Being’s fucked up play.
African, Writer, Eighteen.
Eighteen, student journalist, OAP, lazy songwriter and manic creative – that is me, Evaleni Lawson. I spend my days in the school cafeteria, perched on my favourite table with books and boys, creating mock interviews for my blog, alteéverve. I have five problems: I am too bright for the world, too exuberant for the labour market, too lazy to consider taking up physical work, have lips that are too expressive and a truckload of insecurities. I am constantly in a blinding world of madness, chasing this dream and that dream. In 2018, Carey told me I was too ambitious when I told her how I wanted my future to look like, all the things I wanted to be, and all the money I wanted to earn from being a creative.
The day I turned 18, I made a big bucket list: learn how to drive a car, go on a book date, make alteéverve standard, start earning money, take a step with submissions, talk to more people, read more books, own an apartment, and cut ties with my online ex.
My bucket list for nineteen is even bigger. I will love to japa eventually.
Good morning. Man! You know how to write!
This was not the first time I was told this. This was the first time it actually made sense – that is the difference. I snooped around Ubee Thompson’s Facebook timeline longer than I would want to confess. He was an editor with Fiction Niche, a website Facebook literati talked about in their discussions, while I was a random 16-year-old on the internet with no phone and two Facebook accounts. In those accounts, I wrote down my thoughts through Direct Messages.
I sent Ubee a friend request and waited but it pended for months. So, I gave up, moved on with my life, got myself a phone and started rewriting all the pieces I had written in my message box.
One day, after I submitted to, and was accepted by, Fiction Niche, I got a friend request from Ubee Thompson. I accepted it in the evening after screaming to my siblings that I had an editor in my friend list. The next day, this message was the first to pop on my screen when I reached for my phone. I was so happy, I cried in my palms.
After publication, the comments started pouring in. They loved my break-in! They wanted to read more from me! They wanted me!
I’m scared. I lie on my back, watching the cracks and brown stains in the ceiling, and exhale. I have been thinking too much again. The voices paid me a visit. They left in November but are back now, fanning fear into my face. I know this extinguisher. I have felt his putrid breath on my neck before. When he gripped my heart, he squeezed it tight until all my bravery seeped out through his decaying fingers.
August made and marred me.
It created and then destroyed me. It boosted my confidence, watched it grow, then pushed it off a cliff and sneered in my face. For the umpteenth time in my life, writing strutted away when I needed her! She hurled my words at my face, told me they lacked meaning and put a boulder between us. There I was with an unfinished novella, three contests I wanted to prove myself in, and family here and there. I felt insanity lurking, smirking, hanging around my neck loosely, then pressing, until I became mad with everyone and myself.
It is December now, a month after I appeared on Brittle Paper three times. I do not lose myself in writing like others do because losing oneself is a myth. I find myself, instead, painfully shedding the masks I wear with people. The exams have gotten to and extracted my last drop of creativity. Helplessly, I reach for one of my dog-eared books, scrawl some words across the half-full page, and push the sneering voices lower with my quiet sobs. At first, the words fail me. They are everywhere, yet not within my reach. I write blindly, my tears drying on my lids, then reach for my phone and continue writing. After scribbling for minutes, a sliver of light snaps through my brain, and fresh words start to rush in from the gash. I drink, my throat bubbling with rich laughter, and I unravel myself in the warmth of finding myself. The brilliance of these words is psychedelic. They explode. New life is formed. A new character bursts from the gash, a skinny caricature incapable of movement. I pick him up and nurture him, watching with glee as he begins to touch, to feel, to sense. Other voices shrink into the shadows and I feel… Something akin to anger washes over me when Dad snaps me out of my passion-induced state by saying:
‘Every day, phone, phone, phone! You no dey tire?’
I stop writing. Words are still zipping past in my brain, but I can not grab them anymore. They just run rampant, spilling back to the well they came from. I start to rise to my feet, dropping my phone on the bed, when the voices pounce again.
We’re back, Leni. You missed us.
“I didn’t. I was too busy to notice you weren’t in my head, damn it!” I say under my breath, falling back onto the bed. Outside, my youngest sister, Goodness screams at Evalsam to stop pinching her. I roll my eyes and pick up my phone to read the story I had been writing.
Let’s see what has kept you busy.
I look at my own words critically, my brows gathering in a frown. Oh no.
Illogical stories again? The voices taunt. Don’t you learn, Leni? These aren’t good enough. They’ll throw these out!
“Oh, shut up…” I mutter, rubbing my fingers against my temple. “Evaleni! Evaleni oh!”Mother calls from the kitchen, and I cuss under my breath, my head picking off from where we stopped.
Afritondo needs stories about ALIENS? Hmm, tell me something, Leni. Don’t you remember the contests you lost? You wrote the shittiest ALIEN FICTION! No one’s gonna read these, child. You’re rambling. It’s incoherent. It’s stupid and inconsistent! IT IS TRASH!
Trash. The word tastes like rubber. I help Mum peel yams half-heartedly. It boils on a steady heat, and I watch the gas cooker, my back heavy against the peeling walls. Soon, shouts of NEPA ripple through the air, and my siblings – Rejoice, Goodness, Evalsam – all rush in, struggle for the remote, and then end up putting on Nickelodeon to watch Henry Danger for the umpteenth time.
But the word trash won’t let me see it with them.
Nights later, I text Will.
[26 December 2022, 9.17pm] Evaleni Lawson: Did you submit to Afritondo?
[26 December 2022, 9.18pm] Will Essien: Sure did. Did you?
[26 December 2022, 9.19pm] Evaleni Lawson: Nope, I didn’t. You know I didn’t.
[26 December 2022, 9.19pm] Evaleni Lawson: I’ve been scarred by alien pieces.
[26 December 2022, 9.20pm] Will Essien: I had trouble recollecting.
[26 December 2022, 9.20pm] Evaleni Lawson: Wait, Will. Do you remember that Contest I was in in August this year? The one where we were supposed to write alien pieces?
[26 December 2022, 9.21pm] Evaleni Lawson: Yess. That one. That one just made me really scared of trying to write anything about aliens.
[26 December 2022, 9.21pm] Evaleni Lawson: I messed up.
[26 December 2022, 9.21pm] Evaleni Lawson: Big time.
[26 December 2022, 9.21pm] Will Essien: How?
[26 December 2022, 9.22pm] Will Essien: I thought it was nice.
[26 December 2022, 9.22pm] Evaleni Lawson: That wasn’t mine. My story was the other one.
[26 December 2022, 9.22pm] Will Essien: Get a grip.
[26 December 2022, 9.22pm] Evaleni Lawson: The one EVERYONE voted out.
[26 December 2022, 9.25pm] Evaleni Lawson: So. When I saw this one Afritondo posted, I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
My first boyfriend seemingly loved me. It was online, ephemeral, innocent. He was that quiet boy with a philosophy I liked. I stumbled on his profile in a group I was in, paid a visit to his timeline and stalked him for a while. Maybe he noticed me because he sent a friend request. We texted for weeks, and one day, he shyly texted: nakupenda sana. Of course, I knew what it meant, and I replied in English: I like you too. I had just turned 17 and had no phone, so I would wait till it was night time, and we would text from midnight to dawn every day.
It affected me mentally and physically until the lines on my face became so sharp, that anyone around would swear I was doing drugs. But I was not!
It was at that point that I realised I needed to prioritise myself and my time. The voices I had managed to tame lunged at me with a million criticisms.
How can you date a boy you haven’t met, eh? Imagine he has a girlfriend in real life, and they both look through your messages and laugh for hours.
See? He posts about black girls with massive ikebe. You’re just a pastime to him, an object of amusement. He’ll be disappointed when he sees you or your body, Evaleni.
The taunts intensified when I got admitted into the university. I was suffering from anorexia nervosa – which explains the amount of weight I have lost over the years – and could not bear the whispers. So I called it quits. I needed to bounce back if I was ever going to live through the university.
To tell the truth, I’ve never recovered.
[26 December 2022, 8.53pm] Evaleni Lawson: This break is doing wonders to my brain.
[26 December 2022, 8.54pm] Will Essien: Good wonders or bad?
[26 December 2022, 8.55pm] Evaleni Lawson: Good and bad. Sometimes I feel like I’ll die early. Other times, I feel so freaking creative that I want to write all my pain away and they will be immortalised forever!!
[26 December 2022, 8.55pm] Evaleni Lawson: Good wonders that make me feel invincible.
[26 December 2022, 8.56pm] Will Essien: Nice, nice.
[26 December 2022, 8.57pm] Will Essien: Ouuu. So you’re adding to your old stories or creating new ones?
[26 December 2022, 8.58pm] Evaleni Lawson: Creating new ones.
[26 December 2022, 8.58pm] Evaleni Lawson: And…retouching old ones.
[26 December 2022, 8.59pm] Will Essien: Great idea.
[26 December 2022, 9pm] Will Essien: Otherwise it’ll seem like you’re sewing so many beautiful clothes and leaving them largely undone.
[26 December 2022, 9.05pm] Evaleni Lawson: That’s exactly what I’m doing 🤦🏾♀️
[26 December 2022, 9.05pm Evaleni Lawson: Doing a number of things at the same time.
[26 December 2022, 9.05pm] Will Essien: No one pays for unfinished clothes.
[26 December 2022, 9.08pm] Evaleni Lawson: Yeah, but remember, since I’m not selling these unfinished clothes right now, I should put too much pressure on myself.
[26 December 2022, 9.09pm] Will Essien: Should? Too much? Pressure?
You’ll fracture into a million tiny pieces.
[26 December 2022, 9.09pm] Will Essien: Take it easy, one step at a time.
[26 December 2022, 9.09pm] Evaleni Lawson: Yes, yes. I will. Gotta take everything slowly.
Eva, you do this with so much ease. The brown boy with a strip of coarse moustache says with a sneer, I envy you. I want to write just like you.
I am sitting with a group who just read my two stories on Brittle Paper, ‘Crawling Things’ and ‘Drifting In Black Tea,’ in our school’s cafeteria when one of them says this. I lift my eyes to his and whisper simply, “Writing isn’t easy.”
With a scoff, he reaches for his bottle of Pepsi and chugs it down quickly. I do not talk much after that. I block it out totally, rushing home in a drunken state as soon as it is four, and bury myself in my hot room. They think it is easy, I scoff at the stiff air. They think this burden is light.
‘You underrate yourself too much, Leni. Sad to see you beat yourself down every time. It is well. The thing is: you never know until you jump. So, jump.’
6 January 2023.
I stayed out late. It was Friday, and I was walking home from my stroll to Brooks Street, talking to Bann, a character in my head. I exhaled into the cool evening breeze and closed my eyes, “I’m afraid of ZIKOKO and the other one. What if I fail?”
My friend materialised fully beside me with a scoff. “You were a goddess the other day. Don’t tell me you’re all bark and no bite?”
I smiled sadly and stopped by a roadside stall to get soft drinks. “Sadly, I am,” I said, removing the cap on my drink. “I just hope you’re not daring me. What if I fail? I can’t handle failure like a normal human.”
My friend grabbed my hand, their face blank. “Then you fail. You get to try again. No? And yes, I dare you. Apply now.”
“You owe me a large serving of smoothie if I get this,” I said in spite of the uneasiness in my chest. Sighing wearily, I rubbed my hands over the bridge of my nose. “Now I’m gonna have to draft another cover letter.”
“Good girl,” my friend smiled softly. “Stop selling yourself short.”
So, I dared.
It was evening when I sat in my room, opened Zikoko’s application form and filled each empty space as expressively as I could. It was a moment of rare energy. Nothing could stop me. I shut my eyes and clicked submit. Fot the first time, I prayed to the universe.
I told it that I was jumping.
There’s no reply yet. I feel queasy. Maybe it’s true. I’m too expressive, and that’s the problem. Look? They’ll overlook my application like the others did.
Leni. Give up. Throw all these in the air, focus on university education and work 9-6 every day.
I’ll get it, I tell myself, checking my mail for the umpteenth time. My heart drops each time I go through my mail and get no reply. The tears rush to my lids.
We told you to give up. You’re not good enough. You’re not as talented as the other writers.
Hi, I am beginning to love myself and accept the fact I am good enough. I am crazily creative; I get messages from people telling me they love my work and a few emails from Kenyans wishing to know my writing process. I will be nineteen soon, and although I do not have a well-paying job, I am content with my —
Oh, shut up. You have had this conversation with yourself a thousand times, and I will tell you the truth: you do not feel fulfilled. You feel stuck. You feel unheard. You feel caged.
Ah, yes. True. I feel like I orbit around pain, rejection, self-loathing, you name it. I have written to a number of organisations, applied for internships, read far and wide. But I feel stuck every time. It does not matter that I am a moving ball of positive energy with a bright smile, or a strong-willed person whose dreams are bigger than the legion of voices beating a hole through their head. I’ve grown accustomed to the madness. I live with it. Sometimes, I sit by myself, my palms cradling a cool bottle of Pepsi, and see what could have been, who I could have been: an eighteen year old boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and even louder voices in his head, or a rich kid who could have gotten anything she wanted from her filthy rich parents, but with a loneliness so acute that she would run to Los Angeles to find company, flirt with education, and write books. Other times, I drown the voices by talking and laughing loudly with friends and siblings.
In all my lives though, I will be a writer. My life is a story of its own, with a plot strewn loosely. I may not have eyes as bright as this one or a smile as contagious. My laughter may not still be as musical as I want it to be, my body, as big as I want. But I will still be recklessly hopeful. One day, I will submerge the voices that live rent-free somewhere in my head. I will blot them out like spilling ink and remove their blotches from my consciousness. I will make alteéverve standard and maybe, fall in love.
Blessing Evaleni Lawson is a writer, podcaster and student journalist whose works span across a spectrum of genres. Growing up, she had always wanted to express herself through literature and took particular interest in building fictional empires with words. Evaleni studies Communication Arts in the University of Uyo. She was Brittle Paper‘s November writer of the month, has been published on Brittle Paper and Fiction Niche, and is forthcoming on Nnokọ. You can find her other works on her website, alteéverve.art.blog
*Image by Cut in A Moment on Unsplash