And now, a guest post from gifted writer, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, author of the new novel, Warrior of the Wind.
In the peak days of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, I ordered a bike-in-a-box from Walmart. It arrived stealthily at the front door of my one-room-one-bathroom casita in Tucson, the delivery worker gone before I could offer a tip. I pulled it into the backyard I shared with a student couple and their exuberant border collie. With the toolbox I’d borrowed from my landlord, I put the bike together, tested its sturdiness, and rolled it out into the empty streets.
I had never ridden a bike before. As a child growing up in 90’s Benin City, my parents were not well-off enough to buy one, so I went over thirty years before getting on my first bike. I could say it was great timing that Tucson’s streets were populated only by javelinas and coyotes by the time I got on one, but that’ll be diminishing the devastating effect of the pandemic conditions that made it possible.
Like institutions of education everywhere, the graduate program I was attending at the time had shut down, and for the first time since I moved to the US, I wasn’t teaching a summer class. I spent most days working hard on the first draft of Warrior of the Wind,my second novel under contract for my Nameless Republic trilogy (Son of the Storm, the first, launched in 2021). I took breaks only to call my spouse back home in Nigeria and to take my permitted evening walk or the long hike for a grocery run at Fry’s during the three daily hours they were open with essential staff.
The bike was to be my salvation. I just had to learn how to ride it.
I was having similar challenges with my novel. Second books in a trilogy are infamously difficult to get right, and mine wasn’t any different. Digging into the state of mind of characters who had just found a bit of freedom only to realise they were still being hunted was not something I’d say I had experience with (even though, like most of us during the pandemic, survival was on my mind every day). But I had to find a way to ride this bike, even though I’d never been on one before. My survival—mental, physical, economic—depended on it.
My first few tries on the saddle—bike and book both—were disappointing. I went again. Little difference. I tried each day, hoping for some spark to light the path ahead. Finally, when a spark did arrive—for book and bike both—it was not the one I expected.
On May 25, 2020, news broke that local Minnesotan, George Floyd, was murdered by police action during an attempted arrest.
What followed was a summer of protests fuelled by the discontent felt by Black people in the United States (and allies sympathetic to the experience of living while Black in America), extending to raising awareness to the state of Blackness as a global concept, reverberating with Black people existing everywhere in the world. The feeling of having tried so hard to escape generations of torment, the weight of it passed down (if not physically, then mentally, socioeconomically, and otherwise), only to come out on the other side still being hunted. Alone at home, avoiding the protests downtown (as a non-American, I was concerned about the damage an arrest could do to my immigration status), I channeled my rage and discontent into my sequel novel, realising that I finally understood what these characters were going through. My complicated, messy, too-much feelings were the exact same as those of my protagonists. My path ahead was finally lit, and so was theirs.
I would go on to encounter three more such sparks in the two-ish years it took me to complete writing Warrior of the Wind. After opting not to renew the lease on my casita in Tucson, I left the US for Nigeria in October 2020 for a brief family visit. I was still in the enforced three-day post-travel quarantine in Lagos when the whole country erupted in a weeks-long anti-police-brutality protest now collectively known as #EndSARS. From my quarantine perch, I watched young Nigerians pour into the streets—some crowds were so close to home that I could hear their chants and smell the pungent smoke of burning tyres. Yet another synapse came alight in my brain. Just like the characters in my book—just like the summer I had recently emerged from—they were saying: Enough is enough.
In Son of the Storm, the first book in the trilogy, Danso, a scholar, uncovers long-hidden secrets about the empire in which he serves. His quest for truth inadvertently opens up a can of worms. These exposed truths are received differently. Rightfully, many are aghast, and wish to set their nation right. Rebellion coalitions become on the upswing. But there remain other actors who see these new truths as opportunities to gain power, to plant lies that promise freedom and liberty, yet offer anything but.
Upon returning to the US in January of 2021, I was still unpacking in my new apartment when I watched, with horror, as misguided and malicious US citizens attempted to overthrow a democratic procedure. Sitting there in that empty apartment—surrounded by unopened boxes, new mattress still in its wrapping, TV plugged in on the floor—it felt so surreal, life imitating art like that. My art, in particular. In Son of the Storm, a specific bad actor, who I will not name for spoiler-y purposes, hijacks emergent truths for personal gain, culminating in an uprising that wears the veneer of common good, but rots inside with selfish desire.
My discombobulation and annoyance that all previous attempts to educate had clearly been for nothing was a frustration I shared with my protagonists. In Warrior of the Wind, while being literally pursued by the consequences of truths rightfully exposed, each protagonist begins to consider how to stand up to their assailants. Multiple approaches emerge: Danso, being a scholar, wants to employ stories in service of enlightenment; Lilong, a warrior, wants to hit back where it hurts hardest. Others have different ideas. However, all agree on one thing: always running solves nothing. Standing up, in the small way you can, even against behemoth forces that seem impossible to counter, counts.
Only a year later, I had moved to Canada, and yet again, had barely settled in my new city, Ottawa, when a convoy of Canadians drove trucks into the city and occupied it, blaring ten-wheeler horns throughout the night. I lived downtown, close to the epicenter of it all, and my spouse and I were welcoming a new child into our family. Like Lilong, I was furious, maddened. But like Danso, whose father had once told him, Stories are like knives; weapons, or tools, depending on who is wielding them, I understood why stories mattered—for ill, but also for good. So when I walked those streets, sidling between parked semis, I thought of Danso and Lilong teaching each other a different kind of fighting skill: word and sword. There and then, I decided: This is what I want this book to be for me and anyone out there who needs it. Word and sword.
But I still needed to learn how to ride a bike.
The bike of this book, in particular. Second books in a trilogy are hard for a good reason—you want them to connect the first to the third, but stand in their own right. I remember turning in the first draft of Warrior of the Wind and getting a lengthy editorial note from my editor that amounted to: I know you can do better. As a formerly-touted gifted kid, that was more of a punch in the gut than a flat out, “This sucks.” So I threw myself back, elbow-deep, into the trenches.
Luckily, I did not have to labor for long. These sparks and moments of clarity, albeit on the back of alarming and disconcerting events, arrived at just the right times. They allowed me to, for lack of better parlance, feel my feelings. In opening myself up to feel what I needed to feel in order to work through what was happening in the real world—even when they happened in spaces in which I was still new, still a foreigner in many ways—I could finally open up to what my protagonists were similarly feeling in their own world. When my protagonists turned to darker tendencies, like I sometimes did (Fucking burn it all down!), I felt free to let it happen, to allow them follow their feelings to ends that I wouldn’t. When they struggled to do the right thing, when they failed at it, I let them navigate, because I understood that such impulses are just as human as doing the right thing. I had to let these characters go, to find their own way in the same way I had found mine.
Letting go is the first step to taking control. This was a lesson I learned from bike and book both.
Back in that summer of 2020, after trying and continuously failing to remain balanced on the bike, I entered into YouTube’s search bar: How to learn to ride a bike on your own. One of the video results suggested I take off the bike’s pedals, find a slope, and learn to balance the bike by letting go. Focus on steering, staying upright, and braking at the end of the slope. Focus on what you can control. In a world where things are designed to make you fall, taking control requires first trusting in yourself and letting go.
That evening, despite the city of Tucson’s curfews, I grabbed my new pedal-less bike, went to the top of my street, got on, and let go.