by Veit-Wild. The book takes a look at writers in Africa and how being
on the fringes of their given nations' governments (be it colonial or
post) pushed them towards madness and forced them to write to deal with it (I'm not doing it any justice here, but there is a great explanation in the book on how people who are in the fringes of any society are indeed mad—driven there, or
considered as such, or otherwise).
Of course, I didn't expect to have a world-shifting read when I started
the book. I only wanted to read it to hear an expert give me a handful
of further readings from African Authors who didn't necessarily come
vetted through the normal channels such as the NY times. To that end, I
found several strong writers listed; including one, Marechera, with a
story collection, Scrapiron Blues (African Writers Library).
The main gist is that the book got me thinking about how madness can be
seen in everyday life and how we ignore it. Living in New York one sees
plenty of homeless people. Some seem to be going about their daily
business, though others are notably "out of it", or mad. The vast
majority are with the former; one homeless man I've seen promises to
write poems for a set amount of money. It's these ones who stir the most
inside me since they seem only slightly removed from a person in a
home. I always wonder what they did to gain such a lot in life.
I see the same thing with artists in the past who were talented but not recognized. Some like Zamyatin died in obscurity after they were exiled for their creations, while others were never even recognized until much later. In a way they were
in the fringes. In a way that is a sort of madness.
All this thinking about madness led my mind to dwell on madness within
my family. In that sense many families are much the same, with their own
quirks, each bordering on madness. Most families are safe from complete
madness (something that tends to limit a family's ability to continue
the bloodline), but they have a little of it due to the diversity
inherent in our biology; and since most people I know aren't rich enough
to completely hide that madness, stories about one mad relative or
What follows is a story from a friend of mine (update, feb2015, this
is a story with many links that will only add to it and create a world
all of its own), Gerad , who never lies. He hails from a family that is only just off the boat, from a country which I cannot pronounce or place on a map. He also is a graduate of a highly respected institute of higher education and is currently pursuing a tenure at a smaller college. That, however, might make him truly the
madman of his family, especially when one considers how rigged the
tenure track is towards having cheap labor (he's still a lecturer). All
that follows is exactly as Gerad said (with his permission):
I have a cousin, Tim, whom I had to babysit once. Not so much babysit, for the young man was nearing an age where he could care for his own food and water and what
not, but more that he was not trusted by his parents for reasons I'll explain. I was not privy to these matters. You see my parents and Tim’s parents were from a
I don't like this. But perhaps when the moment comes to divulge family
secrets to my children (of which I have none) I too will hesitate;
either because I don’t trust them, or I will feel the weight of the
secrets and imagine that any other being made of at least 50% me
wouldn’t be able to bear such a burden.
I was wary that they would speak ill of the Tim, who had always seemed
bright and somewhat kind. Most of the other stories about the madmen in
my family were filled with harsh, mean men (it was always men, though
sometimes spinsters would get the same treatment) and their foolhardy
attempted conquests of intellectual or real lands that were ultimately
unconquerable. None of these people brought good to the family name, and
were usually mental and financial burdens on all around them.
The night of babysitting, I walked into the house, bid the young Tim hi and settled down to get some work done. Tim, not yet in his teens, but achieving awkwardness with eyes that wouldn’t stay on anyone speaking to him, decided to play video games in the room next to me. He asked me to look. I watched as his avatar stalked grown men from rooftops in some long ago past, while a knife in his hand turned on
guard’s throats and they screamed out in half-muffled and a-tad-too-realistic cries. I nodded, smiled, and decided that I should get to know this Tim of my family. I asked him if he was enjoying school—a horridly unimaginative question that I hated as a child and teen, but now that the roles were reversed, I couldn’t see anything else
that would make sense as a question.
He talked about a couple classes which he found to be somewhat
interesting: math and something or the other. I observed him a little
too much as he talked, he squirmed. I laid my eyes on the TV instead,
but that only increased his nervousness.
From his outside looks, baby-faced with a black mop on top, he seemed
normal. But there was something in his eyes that reminded me of
dreamers. We’d had a few dreamers in my family, both sides from what I
hear, and none of their stories had ever ended well. Usually, they’re
looked at with a mix of romanticism—at least the beginning of their
stories—and disdain, for what they failed to achieve: never anything in
the name of technical weighable achievements, which our
technocratic family demanded.
Tim then asked me about what it was I was doing. I told him that I was
writing, and could see his face fill with dread and worry. Which meant
he was possibly normal for our family. I went back to what I was doing.
I looked up periodically, to see that Tim was staring at the pause
screen of the video game. After some time, I looked up and he was gone,
the screen still paused with a man leaping from a rooftop, a dark
medieval skyline stretching out in the distance, and a guard on the
bottom of the screen about to turn around. I could smell macaroni and
cheese cooking, and I decided that Tim was perfectly fine for this
Funnily enough, my mother called, and after she asked, hushed and
worried, about how Tim was doing, I scolded her for worrying about the
kid, and possibly warping him with that worry. The pause and sigh that
followed told me that she was disappointed in me, again. Then she
started to worry about me, asking what I was doing to gain a real career
or push my bosses for a promotion and all. I hung up after my mother
grew tired of analyzing what I had done wrong, and went back to my
Except now I couldn’t write anything because I could feel, sense, a
discomfort churning up my guts. I realized that it was quieter than
normal. I looked up and saw Tim staring straight at me from another room. At first I was disturbed, then a waft of pride came over me, then worry. I asked him what he was doing.
He blinked then disappeared. I thought about going after him, but yelled
instead. He didn’t return an answer. I went back to trying to write. My
mind was darting about: on the conversation with my mother, on the
myriad of things that could have gone wrong in my life, on things that I
couldn’t ever control (but the ones that I could control it would
appear that I did incorrectly). I decided to read Borges,
Ficciones to be exact. For a few moments I lost my place in that Argentinian's world and was taken away.
But at this point I felt that same churning of my stomach, which spread
to my chest, then my head. I looked up. Again, Tim was staring at me.
This time he didn’t look away, but held my stare until I was scared. I
growled at him.
He nodded and came over, sitting across from me. After a few moments of
silence, I let out a sigh. There must have been something to worry
about, otherwise why was he acting this way? Then, like a ghost, a
memory rushed through me.
It had been a few months ago when there was an impromptu family reunion,
there had been a fight between my parents and his. During this
altercation Tim grew from that bright eyed creature full of curiosity to
one of complete dejection. He yelled out something indiscreet and
asked: "Why do I have to be here, why can’t I be there?" This statement
silenced the argument and our parents exchanged worrying looks.
Now, looking at Tim, I sensed that something about him wasn’t just wrong, it were as if a part of him wasn’t around, wasn’t
I remembered that as a young child he had an issue with craning his
neck to stare at clouds, the sky, ceilings, so much so that he had to
visit a doctor to get it fixed. Was that what my family had been
I asked him what he wanted. After he mumbled a bit, I discerned that he
looked up to me, so I acted kinder. Finally he told me he had something
to show me. He turned and walked. I got up and followed. He led me to
the basement door before pausing and looking at me. He twisted the knob
and into the darkness we descended.
Not to be completely dramatic, but we entered the basement, no lights,
except for a few lamps lighting up the top of a long pine desk. On it
were wires made into a cube-matrix. I stood across from Tim, watching as
he rested his hands on the desk, his nervousness now showing up as
tremors in his fingers. I asked what it was and with a heavy sigh he
explained the game he was inventing or at the worst bringing out from
obscurity. It was a 3-Dimensional-go game, a variation of that ancient
Chinese game that made chess look like child’s play. The 2-Dimensional
version, that is. That anyone could look at that game and think that
they needed a harder (as I would assume the 3d game would be) version
was beyond me.
Tim proceeded to explain he game and the reason he made it and how he
had made it a playable version of the 2-D original. Awkward he was, but I
decided that perhaps this one of our family wasn’t so bad, that he was
at least trying to be original and in a world like the one we’re living
in here in this 21st century and on, originality isn’t the entire death
knell that it once used to be, especially when it’s applied to something
So he went on and on about how he saw this game as an all new way to
make the mind smarter, something about how it would allow those who have
a grasp of it to program better or solve other problems because of its
multi-connectivety (its rules would be same: in that a stone when placed
down—here it would be clipped on—would be taken off if all of its free
spots were taken, and a group of stones needed two eyes; the main
difference being that a stone when placed is connected to 6 other spots
instead of 4). He explained how he had the stones (here a 3-D ball that
could be clipped into place) interact with the cube (wired up to be a
7x7x7 cube) via a small electronic switch which would light up the
adjacent connections to the immediate points nearby a placed stone via
LED lights. This allowed one to better see which groups were where.
Therefore instead of having black and white stones, he had red and blue,
so that if two stones next to each other were of opposing colors, they
would light it up and emit a green color.
I nodded my head, impressed. I asked him if he had played a game. He
said thousands. I asked with whom. He stared at his contraption until he
was sweating. I realized that I may have crushed his trust and decided
to tell him that he was brilliant, and that this was one of the more
amazing things I had seen (cutting myself off before saying for someone
of your age). It was. I asked if he wanted to play a game.
Stuttering, he rudely said that he didn’t bring me here to play games. I
held back a retort since he was too young to know that what he was
saying was offensive. I asked him what he wanted to show me. Again he
stared at his contraption.
It’s there, he said and jerked his head towards a dark corner of the
basement. I hesitated. Not one to be superstitious anymore, not at this
age, not when life throws worse things than any comic book at you, yet I
felt the grip of evil. Tim grabbed my wrist. He was stronger than he
He told me that he wasn't crazy. I knew this wasn’t going to be good.
Then he started to go into a whole confession (that's what it sounded
like) about where he got this idea for 3-D go and other such things. It
was from a peoples who were living in a world which he accessed by from
various points in the basement. That corner he pointed, and seeing a
glowing orb of light, unlike any other, I froze in place. He continued
to describe this almost alien world where the people were kind to each
other and only cared about that and maybe the ideas that one could come
up with, no matter how crazy those ideas were.
He went on to say that they may not speak a language close to what he
spoke, but it was a perfect place to escape and that he could get away
from the pressures that his parents placed on him. Not only this, but
the cities where these aliens lived, alien furnaces provided the only
light as their original planet had been burned out by a supernova long
ago and they were forced to live on a dark rock in the corner of our
galaxy. The trees in these cities were crystal and extended farther than
the eye could see.
And I knew then that I had been wrong to accuse my parents and his
parents of having been overly-worried. Memories and pieces of knowledge
I'd suppressed floated to the top. Our family had had a handful of
people who had nearly been institutionalized. Every generation had had
one. I felt fear for this relative who was out in the fringes, amazing
game invented, or not.
I respectfully declined to see the magic corner of his. Why? Because I
too had a handful of the same quirks he did. What if I saw what he did?
So I did what any normal person would. I was as nice to him as possible
and in the end I decided to ignore that wing of the family for as long
as possible, only helping to feed the rumors so that something would be
done about Tim. I knew then what madness was. It was a decrepit disease,
not some inherent trait, and I would have to try my hardest to keep it
out of my system. I also understood that the fight with madness was the
fight for the preservation of civilization. That's when I switched my
field of study from literature to computer science.
And that's the story. I never heard any updates from Gerad about what became of his cousin.