Fiction

Writing Against Erasure: Black Intellectualism In The c.19th

By Niki

A pocket review of Esi Edugyan's Washington Black — a finalist for the 2018 Manbooker Prize and The Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Cover: Serpent’s Tail. Image: Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press via National Post.

 

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a voyage narrative that sees the protagonist—for whom the narrative is named—work towards attaining the status of freeman both physically and mentally. Having been born a slave on a plantation in the West Indies, the idea of individuality or agency is a luxury not afforded by Washington Black. The irony of his name1 speaks to the twisted cruelty of his plantation owner who is stated as having named all his “property.” Despite initially being chosen to serve his master's eclectic brother because of his small, unassuming size, it is Black’s discovered skill as an artist that sees him become a trained assistant, changing the course of his life.

I approached this novel with some apprehension; wary of delving into a story that would undoubtedly explore black pain. This anxiety was in part due to the constant exposure to black pain, courtesy of social media, and the emotional weariness comes with being exposed, repeatedly, to trauma inflicted on bodies that look like mine. While the pain exists—making the novel an emotionally difficult read—it is not the sum of the story. The focal point of Edugyan's story, instead, explores the complexity of defining self post-bondage. Washington Black is thus also a coming of age story. The protagonist, raised in slavery characterised by abandonment and fear, comes into manhood having escaped enslavement.

The novel is told from a retrospective perspective, and follows periods in the protagonist's life. Black narrates his own life story, beginning from age ten up to adulthood. The point of view used in this story allows for an added reflectiveness, as Black tries to deduce how certain experiences shaped the man he had become. There is, however no certainty that his ending is good; that he attains either complete mental or physical freedom. In masterfully keeping the reader in suspense, Edugyan’s genius as a writer is evident.

 

Black In Science

One of the more fascinating aspects of Washington Black is the multi-faceted scientific discourse. Edugyan’s novel looks at aeronautical discourse, marine biology, the science of paint development, amongst other developing scientific fields of study in the 1800s. The language of discourse is very much rooted in the period in which the novel is set. This authenticity of language means that the reader is never yanked from the novel’s setting. Yet, the reader gets a glimpse into the early stages of discoveries which, today, is taken for granted. It was humorous to come across past theories that have been debunked by further research, particularly around understanding of sea creatures.

Having a black man who was born into slavery at the centre of so much scientific discovery adds a beauty to this story and also serves as a reminder as to the historic erasure of black people. Black learns, contributes and engages with scientific work, and scientists in capacities that affirm his humanity—something life at the plantation aimed to strip from him. There is, at times, wonder in the retrospective voice, as he recounts and relives the ingenuity with which he crafted experiments borne from scientific curiosity. This awe, still evident in the older voice, illustrates the lasting damage of slavery on the psyche of black people.

Washington Black is a beautifully layered tale. The flow of Edugyan's writing makes it - despite being written to reflect speech in the 19th century - an easy read. However, it has an emotional weight that stems from the pain of existing as a black man in a very cruel period, the fear that comes with seeking freedom and the mixed emotions that come with the discovery of self. Edugyan’s novel, currently shortlisted for the 2018 Manbooker Prize is rightfully deserving of the nomination.



Notes

1 Washington is named after the first president of the Americas - George Washington. The irony of naming a slave after a leader is dark humour at its finest especially given that slaves were seen as property rather than people with any agency or ability to think for themselves.

 

A review copy of Esi Edugyan's novel, Washington Black, was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Serpernt's Tail, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Niki. Washington Black was published in 2018.

 

Chasing Butterflies: When Love Hurts

By Ráyò

What do you do when love hurts? A pocket review of Yejide Kilanko's Chasing Butterflies.

 

Y

ejide Kilanko’s first book, Daughters Who Walk This Path, was a thoroughly enjoyable read for me—albeit a sad one. Thus, when I picked Chasing Butterflies, I tried to prepare for another emotional rollercoaster. Like the former, this novella, though set in the United States, revolves around family issues and the lasting effects of childhood traumas. Kilanko, as with the first, focuses on abuse—this time, however, domestic violence as opposed to sexual abuse.

Titilope’s 45-year-old husband, Tomide, is quick with his fists and has terrorised her into believing his violence is her fault. Titilope hides her scars, and all that goes on in their marriage, from even her closest friends. Kilanko writes from both main characters’ points of view, so that one is as keenly aware of Tomide’s motivations as one is of Titilope’s traumas. Tomide, himself raised by a physically abusive father, believes that, "early on in their marriage, it became evident that Titilope didn't need him or respect him the way he deserved. Even when he was forced to hit her, she would just stand there and take it as if he was nothing."

Kilanko’s novella explores how cultural expectations of women—to be subservient to the man—foster abuse, especially when met with the slightest resistance. The irrationality of Tomide’s violence is highlighted in how visceral his reactions are to mentions or memories of his father. Yet, the memories of his mother’s sufferings do not keep him from inflicting pain. When his wife offers him the chance to get help through therapy, Tomide balks, showing how equally toxic cultural expectations of masculinity can be.

In Chasing Butterflies, domestic violence runs through the generations, encouraged by dangerous clichés like, “a good mother does not run from her child's home. She always stays, and she fights.” The memory of those words, said by her mother about a neighbour’s abuse, keeps Titilope in Tomide’s house and life longer than she should have been; painting a picture of how often survivors are psychologically embattled and shamed into returning or remaining. Not even finding out that he was abusive in his previous marriage makes her rethink.

As Titilope deals with her physical and emotional wounds, she also has to deal with the hopes of family members back in Nigeria, especially her mother and his. Sentiments as 'Do not break your marriage.' 'How will I hold my head up?' 'What kind of woman sends her man to jail?' spout in the face of conflict. When things then come to a head and he beats her so close to death, their 4-year-old son, TJ, calls the police. Even then, the sentiments still remain. Here, the book paints a familiar picture of the prevalent attitudes towards domestic abuse and victimhood amongst Nigerians.

A quick and easy read, Chasing Butterflies tells a good story. The novella could, however, have dwelt more on the lives of the characters beyond the aspects directly connected to the focal theme. There is barely any learning of Titilope before her marriage to Tomide nor of the couple's childhood. Nonetheless, Yejide Kilanko's work is an important addition to the conversation on domestic violence. She does not shy away from the less spoken about issues—she tackles them head-on.



Have you read any of Kilanko's books? What did you think?

 

A review copy of Yejide Kilanko's novella, Chasing Butterflies, was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Quramo Publishing Limited, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Ráyò. Chasing Butterflies was published in 2018.

 

What The World Does To Daughters

 

A review of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Cover image: Farafina Books; Art: Victor Ehikhamenor.

I

n 2014, a friend sent me a link to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story The Future Looks Good, published in Pank Magazine. I read it twice, then I put my tablet away and waited for my heart to stop racing. For a while, it did not. A mix of wonder and envy sluiced through me, pooling into a question: just how did she do it? Four years later, with the publication of her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, Arimah has again stunned me with the radiance of her prose.

In this collection of twelve sharply humorous and sometimes heartbreaking stories, Arimah tells myriad miniature stories about the lives of women. The author flits across continents and realities, gathering threads to weave a brilliant tapestry of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, both home and abroad. Shying away from the stereotypical sympathetic female protagonist, her stories portray girls and women in their varied and complex selves.

Arimah gives us girls as manageably pretty; girls who demand and take more than they are offered; wild and disappointing daughters; those who have learned to protect themselves from their mothers; those who must learn how to mother; mothers who hoard love and those who suffocate; and mothers who do not know how to love at all. In all these women, the author finds a way to subvert societal notions of what it means to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother, or a good woman.

 

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

In an interview with The Rumpus, Lesley Nneka Arimah revealed that in writing her collection of stories, she found herself drawn to the “many different ways family dynamics can manifest.” One familial relation that this collection seems to focus on is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Generally, the mother-daughter relationship can be fraught with tensions. In this collection, magnified under strict societal rules and pressure to be ‘good’ mothers who raise ‘good’ daughters, the relationships become landmines, a source of worry and disappointment to the mothers, and painful pressure to the daughters. Many of the daughters in the stories share a similarity: the propensity to disappoint their mothers.

Bibi, in The Future Looks Good, earns her mother’s ire by ignoring her advice. When Bibi realises her mistake and returns home, her reunion with her mother is not tender and loving. Neither is the one between Uche and her back-from-the-dead mother in Second Chances. In Wild, War Stories and Light, mothers try to smoothen the rougher edges of their teenage daughters, so that they can better fit into the mold that society has pre-designed for good daughters, good girls. To do this, they try to flatten their daughters, make them fold themselves away and subdue the bright flames of their personality by convincing them that the world needs them to be less.

We teach girls shame ... They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

To paint an accurate portrait of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, Arimah addresses the culture of shame and the ways it manifests. In Buchi’s Girls, Buchi struggles, in the wake of a heavy tragedy, to do what she thinks a good mother must do, and realises too late that she is hurting her relationship with her daughter Louisa. Glory, the eponymous protagonist of Glory, despite her forceful personality and tendency to blurt out exactly what is on her mind, finds herself biting her tongue when she has sex with her boyfriend, Thomas.

Though Arimah said in The Rumpus interview that she wanted to explore the many ways family dynamics can manifest, this collection seems to focus solely on the negative, without any example of a healthy, well-balanced mother-daughter relationship to hold up as foil. This is noteworthy. Perhaps, it is impossible for such relationships to exist under the heavy cloak of shame and pressure to be ‘good’ that permeates Nigerian society.

 

HUMOUR AND THE HUMANISATION OF WOMEN

Arimah’s characters are exquisitely crafted, but one in particular struck me: Glory. Born with “a caul of misfortune hanging over her face,” Glory makes all the wrong decisions, says and does the wrong things, and cannot resist a low thrum of schadenfreude at the misfortune of others—even people she claims to care for. She is small and petty in the most ordinary ways. Yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn to this character, empathising with her, seeing myself as her. Here, Arimah turns away from that easy-to-follow route of writing likeable characters.

Instead, she creates a character who, ordinarily, should repulse the reader. Yet, I rooted for Glory. This, the author achieves through the use of delightfully droll humour. Arimah displays masterful dexterity in deploying a particular brand of humour I like to refer to as ‘Achebean.’ It is difficult to write humour into any work, but this brand is particularly troublesome. Chinua Achebe is, of course, the master of this technique as can be evinced from the timeless A Man of the People. With this collection, however, Arimah shows that she is a force to be reckoned with.

On the surface, Arimah’s use of humour serves a more mainstream purpose: introducing levity to relieve tension in the stories. The last story, Redemption, narrated by an unnamed 13-year-old girl, proves to be Arimah at her hilarious best. Though she is dealing with sexual abuse, underage domestic workers and the blossoming of forbidden feelings between two teenage girls, she makes the reader laugh with lines such as: “Mrs. Ajayi was very old, creeping on that age when life begins to lose all meaning, fifty, I think.”

On a closer look, the humour in the stories does far more. By employing deadpan humour and off-the-cuff quips which are not overly concerned with themselves, Arimah does the very necessary job of humanising women. With an unrelentingly witty internal monologue, she creates characters like Glory—not always likeable but definitely relatable. Perhaps the best thing about this collection is that Arimah imbues all her female characters with what Lilith in Marlon JamesThe Book of Night Women calls ‘true womanness:’ the freedom “to be as terrible as you wish.” She kicks away the uncomfortable pedestal of the ‘good’ woman, the ‘good’ character, and shows us, through the lens of humour, how terrible people can be in the most quotidian ways.

 

MAGICAL REALISM

Some academics and literary enthusiasts might have a problem with Arimah’s collection being labelled as magical realism. In the academic community, the term ‘magical realism’ is widely accepted as the purview of Latin-American writers, who explore colonialism and postcolonialism by drawing on mythical or fantastical elements in an otherwise mundane setting. Critics label Arimah’s work as surrealist fiction or slipstream—a term best defined by American writer, Kelly Link. Arimah herself has no problem with whatever name is given or not given to her work, “as long as what is said is understood.”

I, however, consider what Arimah does as more than ‘magical realism.’ There is a fluid blending of the fantastic and the realistic, so that the realistic stands out in stark relief. In doing this, she shows the baser side of human character. People like to believe the best of themselves. We like to think that, given the chance, we will prove ourselves as unequivocally good. However, there are stories in this collection that use fantastic elements to disprove this belief.

Stories that ask what you would do if you were given a second chance with the mother to whom you were an utter disappointment? And, what you would do if the world turned on its head and, suddenly, you were in possession of the power to relieve people of their grief, pain, and anxiety? Most would like to think that they would do the ‘right’ thing. With Uche in Second Chances and Nneoma in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, Arimah shows that there is no single right thing, and each choice made has consequences—the terrible cost of being human.

This collection is a stellar mix of singularly unique and brilliant stories. At the heart of it lies Who Will Greet You At Home—a story that deserves special mention. Using a brilliant combination of fantasy, humour and intricate world building, Arimah captures the texture of yearning—for love, belonging, and material wealth. Though all the other stories in the collection can hold their own, none quite live up to the exquisite high that is Who Will Greet You At Home. I consider this collection to be a first-rate work of literature, and a brilliant debut for an author with a sterling career ahead of her.

 

A review copy of Lesley Nneka Arimah's What It Means When A Man To Fall From The Sky was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Farafina Books (an imprint of Kachifo Limited), in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Naaki.