The thunderous applause that ushered Tasia Achebe back to her seat was unexpected. It meant that indeed, her speech had torn at the people's hearts.
Earlier that night, the hall quietened when the presenter roared her name. The prolonged silence buzzed in Tasia's ears, akin to the soft drone of electric current. For some seconds, Tasia was sucked into a void as she struggled to process the presenter's words.
Amanda Achebe repeated, the previous energy drained from her voice. 'And the winner of The Women's Prize for Fiction is... Tasia Achebe!' Some people clapped this time, though they did so as if their hands were lead. Tasia remained rooted to her seat, sweat coating her evening dress. The persons around her jammed their hands in her direction to stir her into action. Their efforts yielded no fruit. As a result— or lack thereof— her boyfriend shoved her, but with the force of a feather. Even at that, she jolted the way a victim of electrocution would. Worry lines appeared on Matthew's forehead.
'Are you okay? Your sister has called you twice now.'
Tasia tried to swallow past the block in her throat. She rose, Matthew's pale hand resting at the small of her back. 'I am fine. Just... a little surprised.'
Worry lines became laugh lines on each side of his mouth. He traced circles on her skin. 'You should not be. You have worked like a beaver for many years. It is only natural that your... construction is recognized as nothing less than perfect.'
They weaved their way through countless tables, the audience gaping at them. Tasia fingered her cornrows. Frankly, she did not blame them. In this gathering, she was the last person people expected to win, especially with her controversial Christian novel.
Goosebumps dotted her ebony skin as they neared the stage. The fluorescents burned her eyes. Or was it tears threatening to fall?
Her legs were heavy metal as she ascended the podium. The microphone almost slid through her palms when she took it from her sister. She imagined Amanda's rosy lips tasting the salt from her sweat as they kissed each other's cheeks. She knew her sister would nag about her stage fright when they got home.
Tasia's mind was a blank sheet. Words were buried beneath her tongue under the scrutiny of over a thousand pair of eyes. She would have to address these people, in as much as they did not expect— or even want— her to speak to them. She patted her head.
Warm tears stung her eyes, but she shut them with the speed of light before any liquid could escape down her cheek. She bent her head, images of her past flashing behind her lids.
Tasia recalled her childhood, when her love for reading and writing was discovered, nurtured and mocked by the Nigerian society. Memories of her early teenage years rushed through her mind, when her works were rejected by several publishing companies. She remembered her late teens, when she travelled to the land of opportunities, only to be told on a regular basis that the world ending the next day had more chances of happening than a Nigerian becoming a successful writer in America.
Unfortunately, Tasia's adult years were not any better in England. When her novel debuted, it hardly received any love from the majority. Four-fifth of its reviews nearly stopped her heart the times she bothered to skim through them. People criticized her writing style, her black characters and her depiction of Christianity. Even her publishers regretted giving her a shot. So, her hope was sullied. She abandoned her first work, not imagining— even in her wildest dreams— it was her ticket to success.
In the blur that was Tasia's thoughts, the words she needed to say emerged as clear as day. She rose her head and cleared her throat. With glassy eyes, she began her speech.
'Through my years of heartbreak, struggle, and sacrifice, only the dream of standing here, receiving this award— well, not this one particularly— kept my momentum. My dream was my drive, despite the many who called it a dumb fantasy, a cold comfort.'
She examined the crowd. Some people avoided her gaze like her eyes were laser beams. Her lips curled up.
'I have learnt some lessons on my path to success. One being... every person in one's life is important. Even an alleged enemy. Trust me, I have many of them. Some are present.' The audience dissolved into laughter. She gave them time, noting how forced their cackles were. After all, they were still recovering from the shock of having the hitherto hopeless girl speak to them with a voice of hope. Matthew squeezed her hand. Tasia continued.
'They said a lot of awful things, yes, but it ignited a fire, the desire to prove them wrong.' Liquid clogged her throat; she gulped. 'And here I am now, thanking you all for this beautiful award...'
The words flowed like the river of joy in her heart. Tasia was as eloquent as any motivational speaker. She subtly pinched herself at intervals, hoping she was not in some alternate universe living her dream. She appreciated her parents in their physical absence for being her biggest fans since day one. She thanked Amanda for giving her profound big-sister advice. She thanked Matthew for being with her through thick and thin, ever since college. Tasia appreciated her publishers for never tossing her aside even when her novel seemed to bring more losses than gain. She thanked both known and unknown readers of her works, promising the release of more enticing stories. Finally, she acknowledged the group of people contemporary teens called haters, for fanning the embers of her passion. She concluded.
'My father always said, "When life gives you shite, you convert it to biofuel". This is my wisdom for any aspiring writer listening to me tonight.'
Tasia Achebe left the awards ceremony afterwards, feeling more accomplished than she had ever felt in all twenty seven years of her life.