Friday, July 3, 2009

On Being Married to a Man Who Is Married to Books

By

Obododimma Oha

I have heard it said that an intellectual is a polygamist, for s/he may not just be wedded to a human being whose needs and desires must be given some consideration, but also be similarly attached to books, to academic activities, to the endless pursuit of knowledge. These two commitments do not always submit to each other peacefully and may become the cause of serious agony for the married intellectual. As it is for men who are academics, so it is for their female counterparts. Perhaps, viewed from the perspective of women who are academics, the conflicting demands are more intense in their own case than in the case of men who are academics. In spite of the changes brought into the family by gender sensitization in modern life, women still have to make the home, catering for their husbands and children. And this does not excuse them from living up to the demands of their jobs: as academics they still have to carry out research, read books, teach students, supervise projects, publish articles or books, and engage in other professional activities. Indeed, as Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own the woman as a (literary artist) needs a space of her own, economic freedom, and freedom to use her mind, in order to function productively and meaningfully. It is certainly not an easy thing for her to have a “room of her own” in the space of her husband when she functions as a scholar. As a male scholar, I imagine, therefore, that it is not very easy for my female colleagues.

As a male scholar married to a woman and to my books, what does my “polygamy” orchestrate for me in my family life? Am I not like the man invited by his chi and his father-in-law to work on their farms on the same day at the same time? If I ignore my father-in-law and decide to work on my chi’s farm, my father-in-law would be mad with me and withdraw his daughter (at least, as culturally permitted in the Igbo society in which I was born and raised). If I ignore my chi and decide to work on my father-in-law’s farm, my chi would also be mad with me and take my life. So, my tragedy is located somewhere between the possible loss of a wife and the loss of my life. And, being a faithful husband (oh yes I am!) I don’t want to lose my wife I swear, neither do I want to lose my life and leave her a widow!

It is 2.00 am and I am in my study, working at the computer again, fighting back the hands of sleep that have been trying to shut my eyes for me. I have to finish reading an article sent to me for assessment and feed in my report on the e-page of an electronic journal. Deadlines are deadlines, especially for electronic gatekeepers. Moreover, I have to prove to the editor of the journal that scholars based in Africa are not as “dead” as the world is made to believe. So, I am here, not really in my study anymore, but in cyberspace, mutually hallucinating with other cyborgs (thanks to Mel Gibson for that idea). I don’t know whether I am asleep or awake again, just as I can’t say whether I am really Here or There, whether I am real or unreal! Well, in my nowhereness, I see her on the screen of my laptop, first as a pop-up, then as an emoticon. She is snoring and her snores are angry words. A software now, she jumps out of the screen and gets installed on my mind the real computer. I am browsing my mind now, my laptop has vanished and my mind is saying to me …

Are you real? Are you really here? Are you really unreal? OK, she is your art now, she that you cannot browse. She is the message now the medium , she that cannot give you a deadline. Are you not just another brand of falsehood? Sometimes when she needs your attention, you have a book in your hand or you are sitting before a computer, and you must chase that idea through the paragraphs and pages of some fields of thought. Sometimes she is kept waiting in the bedroom, and you are trying to finish writing that article to beat a deadline. Sometimes the food kept for you on the dining table – because you could not join the family at mealtime – gets cold and you have to eat it quietly like a dog, afraid to complain, so as not to start a war. After all, if you didn’t want it cold, you should have come to eat it warm!

Books and books and books everywhere. Books on the shelves. Books on the floor. Books on the table. Books in cartons. Books sitting on books. Books inside books, to mark where you have to return to, after angrily going to find out what she wants you to come and see. Books in the study. Books in the bedroom. Books and books and more books arriving. You cannot provide more money for weekend shopping, for you say the pay is low, the tax is high, and you have children’s fees to pay soon, but you can’t remove your eyes from books. You buy more and more books and smuggle them into the house! Sometimes you claim you got the books for free, even before she accuses you with her eyes. You keep buying books, sometimes three or four copies of the same book. Some copies for yourself; some copies for your students to borrow and disfigure through photocopying or sheer carelessness.

This conference and that seminar and those workshops … where you shop for ideas on how to stay away from her! Absentee husband, you nickname is Professor Awayness, for you are busy providing awareness away from her and the children. Sometimes a week. Sometimes two weeks. And when you are returning from this one, you are leaving for that one. Sometimes you trans-conference or trans-seminar, after all, what’s the point coming home to say you are leaving soon?

And your way of thinking! Haven’t you been hardened by all those crazy ideas and tortured language that communicates them? So, what do we have here: a human who can really sleep when he is asleep, play when it is playtime, and do stupid things when fun demands it, without caring so much about what this or that theory says? You are discussing a point with her. Just a little argument and you take off as if you are in one of those crazy listserv debates, quoting this book and that book you have read. You see; that’s a symptom of the illness that I mentioned earlier! Can you similarly quote her, your wife? No, not all! Has she got quotable ideas? It is books that tell you what to do. It is books that are right enough to decide a little exchange between a husband and a wife!

Yes, she needs a husband, not necessarily an academic hero. But you think that being an academic hero counts much in satisfying those needs of hers. And that’s one problem: who determines her needs: you, your books, or she? She wants you to include her in your scheme of things, if not the main programme of your life. And you are uncomfortable about this, very. You think your academic life and pursuit could be hindered, if not ruined, by your focus on a human wife or family. Didn’t you even once whisper to yourself: a writer married is a writer marred? Another idea you picked from those crazy associates of yours, those apostles of aloneness!

And now you have discovered another opportunity for keeping her lonely (or another opportunity has discovered you the ready tool!): the Internet, with all those blogs you must update, those emails you must read and respond to, those chats (sometimes three or four going on simultaneously), those skirmishes on listservs you must engage in, those downloads and uploads that increase the weight of your mental luggage. So, has she not suddenly become a widow, an “Internet widow,” as Clifford Stoll calls it in Silicon Snake Oil?

At the mention of the word “widow”, I wake up and I am right on my feet. My wife opens the door of my study and walks in, fear written on her face.
“Why were you screaming?”
“Screaming? Did I scream?”
“Of course, you did! I came to find out what was wrong. And don’t you think it’s time for you to come to the bedroom and lie down?”
And, suddenly, there’s an electricity outage. 4.00 am. Indeed, it is time to go to bed.

1 comment:

dpoetrae said...

wow I can relate! I read this at New Poetry but I come here to post comments directly to you. I am shy to post there yet enjoy the dialog found there. I have no husband (widow/divorced) but I care for an ailing mother and have a household filled with my adult children and friends and grandbaby yet I retreat to my books, my computer and loose track of time and responsibilities often. As head of my household it is terribly hard to balance it all. I also have regrets in regards to my studies, my significant other died of an aneurysm a few years back and before I lost him, I ignored him during my studies. He was proud of me and would not want me feeling sad, he did nothing but encourage me (he was my inspiration to go back to school at this time of my life-late 40s-he had 2 degrees-I was a high school drop out with a GED) yet he chose his life style that led to his demise. our attachments can be painful and are necessary fuel to our writing, at times I wonder if I am dead inside or if I feel too much and that is the reason for the detachment from my attachments. It is difficult to be objective. I appreciate that you realize the difficulty that women have in carving out space in the academic/literary world. But I don't really see it any different then a man's; when it comes down to it we all have responsibilities to life, to people, that can build a roadblock to pursuing one's passion, often a woman who just wants to write and not be involved in academia may have more opportunity than a man because she has a man who supports her, but those roles are all up for grabs now and it is up to the individual to carve out the time to develop their passion regardless of sex. your blog made me see that clearly, yes I do think women still have to struggle for position, for that "room of their own" but that we/they have these options at all, a chance to be more is all I ask. here is a recent piece I just finished hope you like it:
July 1, 2009

Oh, my gorgeous fingernails,

I must dually apologize for doing the dishes
today
your reverse negative tips
lined with a silver crescent moon
transformed into a broken and chipped right hand
instead of a goth sheik
a war torn look
as if Afghanistan
Taliban parlayed retribution
upon the midnight horn
a response
to Obama’s recent war
as I write
a swarm of 4000 troops land
upon red poppy fields
insurgents to be wiped out
as I will have to remove
all signs of you
tonight
your black rims will smear
under soaked cotton balls cloud
this should not be
happening
your stubborn silver sparkles
will resist removal
but I have no regrets
this is Amerika ka ka
home of the red white and blue
ah yes my dear fingernails
I will make it up to you
restitution
red and blue
base
and white stars to adorn the tips
ah my sweet tips
you make me cringe
as if you dragged yourself across
the chalkboard
you want
skulls not stars
why
I write white skulls
you say think
how many heads
are these hands responsible for?