My daughter, Yasmin died of an epileptic seizure in her flat in London in November 2011. People might wonder why in my quest to keep her memory alive I would involve myself in the promotion of creative writing. I choose to do that for a number of reasons:
• Yasmin was an avid reader and an excellent amateur literary critic. In the words of her friend Dipo, “she had a ranging loping intellect, a fierce intellect that absorbed the serious and the silly (as she put it) books and movies in equal measure. She discussed Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – one of her favourite books – with the same passion and delight as she would of Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’.
• Creative writing enabled me become close to my daughter in the last year of her life; and to discover what a wonderful, selfless and beautiful person she was. I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at the Bath Spa University in the UK while she was rounding off her masters degree at the LSE, and pursuing her law conversion at the BPP.
• I do not find it easy to communicate my emotions. Creative writing gave me a medium through which I was able to convey to my daughter how much I loved and appreciated her.
When I think of all these things, one word comes to my mind – Serendipity.
Serendipity – the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
Origin 1754: Coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’
When I went to the UK to study, it was not, because I wanted to get to know my daughter better, or to be able to tell her how much I loved her. Studying in the UK was not even my first choice. All of that happened by chance. In 2008, I was at a low point in my life as a result of certain occurrences that I do not care to go into here. I needed to engage myself with something that would make me happy. In my secondary school days I enjoyed studying literature, and I read a lot of books when I was younger. So I started reading again; and I rediscovered the power of fiction. A story can transport you to a different place; it can take you away from your troubles, even if for only a while.
Because I had many stories in my head that I felt would make interesting reading, I decided to write my own novel. One day I switched on my computer and started writing. Soon enough, however, I realised that writing fiction was not as easy as I had imagined. There is a craft to the art of writing and I needed to learn that craft. So I searched the Internet and registered with a creative writing school based in New York City. Over the course of a year I took two ten-week on-line classes and my writing improved. I enjoyed the classes so much that I decided to go the whole hog and do a masters degree. By that time I was practically living in the United States, so naturally my first choice was to do it there.
However, in addition to assessing samples of a person’s writing, most of the US universities required the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score for purposes of admission. The English part of the GRE would have been all right, but I was not prepared to subject myself to the torture of Mathematics.
So I decided to explore the universities in the UK. Once again I turned to the web and did some research. I applied to the University of East Anglia (UEA), which is the first university to start offering Creative Writing as a degree, and still the most prestigious. I also applied to the highly regarded program at the Bath Spa University. I had been to Norwich where UEA is situated, and to Bath. Both are lovely places albeit quite different. Norwich is very green with lots of trees. Bath is a beautiful, historical city with many ancient buildings, an old Roman settlement. Yasmin did her undergraduate studies at the University of Bath and she loved the town. My other daughter was at the UEA pursuing her masters degree and she loved Norwich. So a war to woo Mama ensued. Ramla’s battle was understandably rather half-hearted. What right thinking young lady would seriously encourage her mother to enroll in her university? Yasmin could afford to fight harder for Bath because she was living in London. The choice was taken out of my hands when I was politely rejected by the UEA. If I had been accepted I would gladly have gone to Norwich, far in the east. And I would have missed the chance to bond with my daughter as much as I was able to because I went to Bath, which was just a short train ride away.
Yasmin was more than a daughter to me in that last year I spent with her. She became my friend. She was involved with everything I did. She got to know many of my course mates. She attended our readings and other activities. She critiqued my writing, and what a wonderful critic she was. Every time she looked at my work she made it better.
I took poetry as one of my modules because I wanted to make my writing a little more flowery. I wanted to learn the use of metaphors and similes, and to improve my descriptions. I was the only non-poet in that class, and was immediately intimidated when they started talking about metres. As an architect the only metres I knew were the ones that could be measured with tapes and rulers: millimetres, centimetres. These people were talking about iambic pentametres and hexametres. I almost dropped the module, but I stuck it out and ended up enjoying it tremendously.
The first assignment the tutor gave us was to write a sonnet based on an exploration of some kind of memory, cherished or dreaded. Searching for inspiration I remembered something Yasmin had told me. She was walking in Bath one afternoon when she came across a drunk sprawled on the ground, bleeding. He had shoved his arm through a glass window. She had been shocked that people were just passing him by, she said. So she knelt down beside him, removed her scarf and used it to bandage him up. I was not happy with her for doing that, and I told her so. How did she know that the man was not HIV positive? How could she put herself in danger like that? That was certainly a dreaded memory, even though it was not my own. But being that it was a poetry assignment, I decided to take poetic licence and insert myself into the story. This is what I came up with:
A Sonnet To My Daughter
The smell was strong: urine and booze and gore;
the gash so deep. You dashed to him unfazed.
You pulled your scarf, to tie around his sore;
his blood painting your hands, I watched amazed.
What we both saw: a sad and broken man.
My heart flew there; my feet remained with me.
You answered your heart, ran and played your part;
I was held back by thoughts of what could be.
How did you grow to be so kind, so bold?
I saw something in you that day, my dear.
How did you get to be as good as gold?
What I had glimpsed that day was not quite clear.
But now I know what it was I had seen –
you are the me I could and should have been
I was in Yasmin’s flat when I finished writing that poem. I printed it out to give it a final reading before e-mailing it to my course mates and the tutor – I still preferred to read on paper. I then handed it over to her. I could tell from how long she held the sheet in her hands that she read the poem more than once. She then turned to me, smiled and handed it back without saying a word. But I knew she was pleased. For what better compliment can a mother pay to a daughter than to say, ‘You are what I should have been’? Indeed, what better compliment can one person pay to another?
Those of you who are familiar with poetry know that in a sonnet the last two lines, the rhyming couplet, are important. They resolve the argument or narrative of the previous lines. The last line in the sonnet I wrote to my daughter summarized everything I felt about her. I am grateful that I was able to communicate it to her.
I left the UK (and Yasmin) in October 2011, having completed my course. We, the MA course participants, had compiled an anthology of extracts from our novels and were each required to submit a short bio that would precede the extracts. Below is the last sentence of what I sent in on the 20th of November, six days before my daughter died:
Hadiza El-Rufai is now back in Nigeria where she runs creative writing workshops for children aged ten to 14 while putting finishing touches to her novel.
Of course I had not yet started conducting any workshops, but once again I had taken poetic licence.
In December last year Tunji submitted a proposal to my husband for a creative writing workshop he wanted him to sponsor. My husband handed the proposal to me. The rest is history. I had never met Tunji before, and there was no way he could have known that I was planning to start running creative writing workshops.
Serendipity. Such a lovely word.
This was read as a reflection by Mrs. Hadiza Isma El-Rufai on her daughter, Yasmin at the close of the Yasmin El-Rufai Creative Writing Workshop held at the Merit House, Maitama, Abuja on April 14th, 2013.