Wake Me When I'm Gone

By Husseina

A review of Wake Me When I'm Gone by Odafe Atogun.

 Image: Canongate Books.

Image: Canongate Books.

 

B

eing the most beautiful woman in the region, every man, including the chief of her village, sought Ese’s hand in marriage. Ese, refusing all their advances, chooses instead to marry Tanto - the man with she was in love with. This decision to follow her heart is, however, seen as an act of defiance against the chief, costing Ese her family who disown her. The protagonist’s insistence on following her heart gets her in trouble throughout Atogun’s second novel - Wake Me When I’m Gone.

Very early on, Tanto dies from a tragic accident on his farm, leaving Ese and their young son, Noah. Distraught, Ese closes her stall in the market on Main street in order to spend more time with her son. On finding out that Ese had closed her stall, the merchants - who all loved her - stopped coming to the market. Despite pleas from the villagers, Ese refuses. As a result, business drastically declines, causing the village to go into a recession. Adamant to not return, Ese is then turned against by the whole village.

Simultaneously, the protagonist battles a custom in the village which mandates widows to remarry six months after the death of their spouse, lest they give up custody of their child(ren) to the husband’s eldest male sibling. Again, the chief and other young men in the village flock around her, in the bid for her hand in marriage. Ese, however, refuses; standing by her decision to marry only for love. Here, the reader is introduced to Ese’s strong personality and the consequences she faces on the path to fulfil her destiny.

 

Tradition And Modernity: Parallels or Binary Opposites?

An underlying theme throughout Atogun’s story is the contrast between tradition and modernity. In the village, the people adhere to many superstitions cum customs which are enforced by the high priests. Ese, on the other hand, despite being a product of the same environment, is shown to think progressively. She is able to distinguish between what is right and wrong, can make objective assessments and come to her own conclusion.

What is interesting about how the author portrays the contrast is his approach, which strays from the conventional equation of progressive thinking exclusively to exposure or modernisation. It brings to mind, though in juxtaposition, a quote by Aristotle, who once said: “it is the mark of an educated mind to hold a thought without accepting it.” In Wake Me When I’m Gone, Ese has never received any form of education yet she exhibits the traits of an educated mind.

This forces one to rethink how an ‘educated’ person is defined; who is excluded from these definitions and the consequences of that follow. In this, I choose to look at Ese’s story as a metaphor for progress in Africa, and a critique of the modernisation theory of development. We, as Africans, can think of our own organic solutions, and do not need the validation from the West. Just like Ese, we also have the ability to be progressive, and to question what has come to be seen and accepted as the norm in our societies.

 

Tradition As A Tool Of Oppression

Conversely, Atogun explores tradition as a regressive tool. In Ese’s village, orphans are seen as bad luck, and treated very badly. If not taken in by a relative, as in the case of the group of orphan boys Noah meets, they are exiled. Sadly, this idea of the ‘cursed’ child - specifically the orphan child - is no different from existing superstitions upheld in places around the world like India and Nigeria. The belief is that these evil children are responsible for the misfortune that (often) befalls their parents. Thus, they are treated as outcasts and in other cases, killed.

Defiant, Ese takes in the orphans who live outside the village into her house as her own children. As a result of this, she has to flee for her life from the village or face death. On moving to another village after her exile, Ese finds tradition transcends her village. Nonetheless, she cares for an orphan, and this act of kindness results to yet another tragedy. This further fuels Ese in her fight to overturn this custom. With the support of a progressive chief, the villagers and a visiting professor, she is able to banish this custom despite threats of madness, blindness and death by the high priests.

The visiting professor’s contribution was particularly notable as he himself was an orphan that had be exiled from the same village, yet was luckily adopted by a loving couple. The professor, his travels and his accomplishments served as a testimony against the belief of orphans; showing that love and humanity, if given a chance, can go a long way.

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“You see, the gods the priests they worship are a creation of their evil minds, which they use to put fear in people in order to control them. Such gods do not exist. And the laws they make are the wicked lies of a very ignorant people... there is God up in heaven to whom all power belongs. He is not a god you can access through tradition but through love and it is that love that is lacking in the heart of the priests and all who uphold their laws."

– The Professor.

Atogun, through his protagonist, encourages us to always question the norm, as opposed to accepting things because they have ‘always’ been. Sometimes, culture can be toxic and harmful, and can stand in the way of progress and development.

From honour killings to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), there are many traditions all over the world which are very backwards yet some refuse to let go of them despite how detrimental. Just like the high priests, people all over the world also use religion, culture and tradition to justify all sorts of horrific and unjust acts. Atogun, through his protagonist, encourages us to always question the norm, as opposed to accepting things because they have ‘always’ been. Sometimes, culture can be toxic and harmful, and can stand in the way of progress and development. Atogun highlights this.

 

The Representation Of The Nigerian Woman

I was highly impressed with Atogun’s construction and representation of the Nigerian woman, especially for one who lives in a village. Ese is a very progressive character who is constantly questioning and challenging the norm. She refuses to accept things in the name of tradition, customs and/or systems. This narrative subverts the conventional narrative surrounding women who live in the rural parts of third world countries. The stereotypes that surround such women include – ignorant, backwards and uneducated.

Postcolonial feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty perfectly articulates the way in which women, third world women especially are generalised and stereotypes as backwards, ignorant and waiting to be saved by the superior being (men or white people) in ‘Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism’. Mohanty critiques representation of ‘third world’ women as a singular monolithic subject. Ese, despite never going to school or visiting a city can be described as a feminist on all accounts. Despite growing up in a deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society, she advocates for equality without ever being formally taught about the concept. So, you who is ‘educated’, what then is your excuse?

Ese’s character makes the reader rethink their assumptions about the regular woman from the village — or any woman, in fact. She is a woman who personifies fortitude, bravery and resilience, yet kind and loving. She is strong yet gentle; she is a beautiful woman of substance. Through her, the idea of beauty and substance is normalised, subverting the misconception that beautiful women are only that, and lack substance. She shows that women are dynamic, and should not be essentialised and fixed to a few simplistic characteristics.

 

Folktale Nostalgia

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed reading Wake Me When I’m Gone. I say surprisingly, because it is not a book I will traditionally pick up. I usually go for the more complex stories with less obvious lessons. This book, however, proves that there can be beauty in simplicity. Reading it brought back memories of my childhood days: watching tales by moonlight and listening to older aunties, parents and grandparents tell folktales. Atogun’s minimalist approach to writing makes it a book all age groups can read. His writing is very accessible with simple and direct sentences reminiscent of that of Ernest Hemingway.

Perhaps for the sake of telling a simple story or spotlighting Ese, the author applies this sense of minimalism to all other characters but Noah. As a result, I found that his characters were undeveloped. Though this does not take away much from the story, it would have been a plus to have more rounded characters. Nonetheless, Atogun's writing and use of magical realism, Leila Aboulela avers, can be likened to Ben Okri and Elechi Amadi.

In order to savour this novel in its enterity, the reader should allow one's self to be swallowed by fiction and be immersed the world the author creates. All in all, Wake Me When I’m Gone is a story that challenges yet embraces tradition. It reminds one that the path to one’s destiny is hardly ever linear but filled with questioning moments. For as long as one keeps his/her eye on the goal and works hard with purpose, even the most impossible is attainable.

 

An Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Odafe Atogun's Wake Me When I'm Gone was kindly sent to The Book Banque by the author, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Husseina. Odafe Atogun's Wake Me When I'm Gone was published in the UK by Canongate in August 2017, and will be published by Ouida Books in 2018.