Nigerian Literature

Reaper-Sensation: Children Of Blood And Bone

By Niki

 

One of the most anticipated reads of 2018 and Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show 2018 Summer Read, Tomi Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone is an Afro-mystical re-awakening.

Covers: Macmillan Publishers and Ouida Books. Image: Elena Seibert via Macmillan Publishers.

 
They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.
NOW WE RISE.
 

I

have been a part of many conversations about diversity and representation, and thought I understood what it meant to be represented until a few pages into Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel. The opening scene, presided over by a character called Mama Agba, is reminiscent of a female elder authority that shaped my childhood. As per tradition, I would sit around her whilst she wove tales of culture and folklore. To see this fictionalised in Children Of Blood And Bone was thus nostalgic.

The story follows a young girl: Zélie. She is haunted by the murder of her mother and the subjugation of her Reaper clan - one of the ten Maji clans that suffer abuse from corporal powers and are oppressed by the ruling class of Orïsha. Circumstances see her journeying and fighting alongside her brother and an escaped princess to restore magic to the land and allow her clan and the nine other Maji clans in the land, a fighting chance.


In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities.

The quest takes Zélie, Amari, Inan and Tzain and their pursuants from city to floating villages, up mountains and into sacred underground lairs. They sleep in tents in the deserts, fight in arenas, meet shady characters in caves and sail over walls on the back of mythical creatures. Adeyemi’s debut novel takes place across different terrains and climates, all within a singular imagined country. What is most striking about the multifaceted terrains in the book is Adeyemi’s mirroring of natural phenoms to Nigeria’s topography.

As with many Young Adult novels, Children Of Blood And Bone is also love story—in the romantic and familial sense—as well as a story of self discovery. The added beauty of this narrative is its Afro-mysticism: a genre that is finally getting its deserved spotlight after existing off the fringes of literary discourse, and being conflated with magic-realism. In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities. These deities are pointedly inspired by the Yoruba tradition.

 

Names Mean Things

The deities in Adeyemi’s novel are pointedly inspired by the Nigerian, Yoruba tradition. This influence is similarly evident in the naming of places and characters within the novel. For one, the entire province is called Orïsha1—representative of the head of all divinity in the Yoruba tradition. This anchoring of the overall location of the narrative to the divine through naming, makes it a great playing field for a journey to restore lost magic.

Particularly in Ilorin—the fishing town where Zélie and her family reside—the older generation are given the respect of Mama and Baba. This naming, the people and the town are, again, based on Yoruba culture. For this reason, I was very disappointed by the ambiguity of the names given to the major characters. If anything, these names stand out for the wrong reasons; they felt like a pandering to a wider Western audience, and an attempt to create a space for them to relate to the characters at base level.

In Yoruba tradition, children are named to reflect the circumstance of birth, or, as prophecy into their destinies. The names given to a child usually holds weight both on paper and when sounded out. In both reading and sounding out the names particularly of the four central characters, I felt no depth. On the other hand, as a friend suggests, the ambiguity of the names could be seen as representative of the loss of and disdain for magic across Orïsha. In this sense, Zélie and Tzain’s names can be seen to reflect the new Maji existence under their tyrannical, magic-hating ruler, and displacement from their true identity. Though this perspective is equally valid, it is with one exception: the novel’s time frame.

The young sojourners in the novel were born to parents who wielded or fought against magic. Zélie is a replica of her powerful Reaper mother—murdered by the oppressive authority in a bid to eradicate all who had tasted magic. Zélie’s survival stemmed from the fact that Maji children only come into their powers at the age of thirteen - she was six when her mother was murdered and magic ceased to exist in Orïsha. However, her birth and that of her brother, Tzain, occurred in a period where parents expected Maji children to grow into their divine destinies and, as such, their names should reflect this.

 

Lagos Under A Microscope

Lagos, the place the King, royalty and the wealthy flock to and the most densely populated city with a great deal of slum-living is the centre of Orïsha. In many ways, Adeyemi’s presentation of Lagos, Orïsha is very similar to the reality of Lagos, Nigeria. Early in the story, the reader follows Zélie’s singular visit to Lagos and the picture of gross wealth disparities, market haggling and abuse of corporal power is very reminiscent of Lagos. However, the language of discourse in these scenes keeps the Lagos in Children Of Blood And Bone distinct.

Where Zélie trades in the Lagos market, her capabilities as a trader is recognised. This setting highlights how wealth gaps and abject poverty are sustained by the wealthier class. The King’s ever rising Maji tax-levies—designed to force Maji folks into prisons, slavery and to keep them poor—is what drives Zélie to Lagos. Where her father and brother hope that she can return with enough to last them through the month, Zélie is able to barter the rare fish she has in exchange for almost a year’s worth of money. That someone, desperate to eat fish to which the King has no access, can hand over enough cash to last Zélie, her father and brother a year, while Zélie and her family live day-to-day, is a travesty occurring in Adeyemi’s world, and likewise, in the real world.

Another prominent theme that comes up in the royal family is the issue of bleaching. The lighter skin is seen as a sign of royalty while darker skin is distasteful and scrubbed away with potions and creams. Princess Amari, darker than her family, is forced by her mother to undergo beauty rituals with the aim of lightening her skin. This experience leaves her with a skewed perception of her own beauty—a trajectory very similar to that of many young men and women across Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

Zélie’s interaction with the guards, on an attempt to enter Lagos, likewise reflects another societal issue: the sexual danger faced by women. Her status as Maji or “maggot,” as non-Maji individuals are hatefully labelled, presents her as fodder for the guards’ sexual desires. This perception of women as weak and easy to attack has allowed for sexual assault to be an issue women face. For the fear of being abused and murdered, she has to temper her reaction and adopt a false meekness—an all too real experience for many women.

 

Hate: A Four Letter Legacy

What takes Children Of Blood And Bone from a simple YA novel to a masterpiece is the level of complexity added by the self-loathing that drives two characters. For a particular character, the duality of being something one hates causes alliances and allegiances to shift. The internal and external conflicts these characters come against, owing to their understanding of the past and their position on the quest to restore magic, gives this story layers that are impressive for a first time author.

Tackling and sustaining the theme of deep hate—the kind that drives people to kill without mercy and teach hate to their offspring—is not an easy task, as any author could fall into the trap of presenting hate from a very linear perspective. Thankfully, Adeyemi does not. She writes characters that stay true to themselves. While there are twists and turns that make the book a fantastic read, character reactions are never implausibly outlandish or written to force excitement in the narrative. The plot and characters flow seamlessly.

The story ends on something of a cliffhanger. There is an ambiguity around the the success of the quest; creating an eagerness, post-completion of the novel, to break down theories therein. The end of Children Of Blood And Bones creates a clear path for new themes to be explored in the subsequent novel in the trilogy—Children Of Virtue And Vengeance. Adeyemi’s debut YA novel has a freshness and a simplicity that make it compelling. You may call it a must-read!



Have you read Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone? Tell us what you think about it!

 

Note

1 The word 'orisha' is related to several other Yoruba words referring to the head. It can also be spelt orixa or orisa. An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers.

In this story, the ruling class of Orïsha can be seen as a metaphor for oppressive classes or races across the world, with the Reaper clan and other formerly magic clans being forced to live in slums, work as slaves and suffer abuse from corporal power.

 

Nigeria's Military Dictatorship Through Habila and Achebe

This review titled 'Military Dictatorship In Nigerian Novels: A Study Of Helon Habila’s Waiting For An Angel and Chinua Achebe’s 'Anthills Of The Savannah' was originally written by Ikechukwu Asika. The full paper was published in the African Research Review, Vol. 5 (3), 2011: pp. 275-289.

 
 

Injustice, oppression and corruption — these are the three words that bind the bodies of work comparatively studied by Asika. Both novels, though written just over a decade apart, highlight the socioeconomic realities of people under Nigeria’s military eras. Achebe uses a fictitious country, Kanga, to paint a picture of a repressive iron-hand ‘khaki’ leadership in Anthills of the Savannah. In Waiting For An Angel, Habila similarly illustrates years of “hardship, killing, violence, brutality and imprisonment” during Abacha’s regime. Asika, through his paper, looks at both books as "social documents" from which people can learn about such a time as the military rule.

 

Anthills Of The Savannah

"His Excellency gets whatever he wants and suppresses the people under his tyrannical leadership...His Excellency, the military leader, wanted to be a life president..” “His government is like a den, [and] no one leaves his den unhurt...He hates anything that portrays the truth.” “[...][When] Chris wants to resign as the Commissioner for Information, he wouldn’t be allowed to do so; [instead, he would] ...be jailed for refusing to carry out his evil instructions. Chris laments thus:

So I will stay put and do you know something else; it may not be easy to leave even if I wanted, do you remember what he said, during that terrifying debate over his life presidency? I told you, didn’t I? For one brief moment he shed his pretended calmness and threatened me; if anyone thinks he can leave the cabinet on this issue he will be making a sad mistake. Anyone walking out of that door will not go home but head straight into detention.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 119

"His Excellency is hell bent on silencing anyone who says the truth about his government...Ikem Osodi, the Editor of the “National Gazette,” [takes] it upon himself to write about nothing but the truth; to expose and satirize the corruption and dictatorial nature of the military rulers. This [is seen as] ...a great threat to the government of His Excellency, and Ikem must be stopped by all means. Thus, Ikem be[comes] a victim of the truth he writes about.

"Achebe also highlights on the plight of the people who are against the dictatorial government. They are neglected and abandoned.” “Those that [stand] in defense [sic] of the truth are denied basic social amenities and economic dividends. The people of Abazon [are] abandoned to poverty and hardship, under the wreckage of erosion. They have no boreholes [nor] other amenities because they refused to support the military ruler… As a result of [the] marginalization and neglect, the people of Abazon have no [choice but]...to bow under the powers of oppression and dictatorship thus [saying]:

… so we came to Bassa to say our own yes and perhaps the work on our boreholes will start again and we will not all perish from the anger of the sun. We did not know before but we know now that yes does not cause trouble.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 127

"The kidnapping of His Excellency is [however] a medium through which Achebe demands a total eradication of military incursion in Kangan - an imaginary country that can be likened to any African state. [Through]...the characters of Elewa, Bertrice, Adamma, Emmanuel and Abdul, ...we see the despair, weariness and agony but [also] a sense of pride and cheerfulness for having survived the military era to witness a new nation – a dictator free nation. [We witness] ...a lesson they learnt, and it is a message to entire humanity.

 

Waiting For An Angel

"Habila delve[s] into the psychological disposition of many individuals, to expose the traumatic effects of military government [of General Abacha] on them.” “It was obvious that the military rulers never had democracy at heart, and so, they kept postponing the date...Students, to show their resentments [sic], organized a peaceful demonstration. Few were killed; many wounded. The military men invaded their hostels to loot and rape the girls.

"Fundamental human right[s were] ...blown into the wind. "People and things [fell] apart.""...The hopes and aspirations of the characters [were continuously] shattered due to the unending tension mounted by the army boys.”“Bola [gets] home to learn of the accident involving his mother, father and two sisters." He takes to the street to shout, and is "...arrested by the agents of the Khaki boys...beaten to coma and later dumped in a psychiatrist hospital. That [would be] the end of Bola.

...They hold us cowed with guns so that they will steal our money. This is capitalism at its most militant and aggressive. They don’t have to produce any superior goods to establish monopoly. They do it by holding guns to our heads. Let me tell you why they hanged Saro Wiwa…where is Abiola? In prison! They will continue subjugating us, killing all dissenters, one by one, sending them into exile, till there is no competition left to oppose them.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 158

"Lomba, the main character in the novel, [is] detained in the prison simply because he is a journalist who writes about the truth. The government [had] erected more prisons..[in which] innocent citizens were littered as political detainees without trial - a technique to put them away from challenging the government forever. Thus the prison superintendent tells Lomba in his archaic English:"

Do you complain? Look twenty years I have worked in prisons all over this country. Nigeria …sometimes it is better this way. How can you win a case against government? Wait, Hope’ …Now he lowered his voice, like a conspirator. ‘Maybe there, there’ll be another coup, eh? Maybe the leader will collapse and die. He is mortal, after all. Maybe a civilian government will come. Then, there will be amnesty for all political prisoners.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 14, 15

General Abacha later dies and the angel of hope, one of liberty, rescues " many citizens under the bondage of military dictatorship.” Habila remarks in closing: “In politics of Nigeria, nothing that would be said of Abacha’s and other[’s] military regime in the politics of Nigeria will be an overstatement. It is a nightmare we pray never to experience again.”


Disclaimer

The permission to feature this paper was obtained by The Book Banque directly from the author Ikechukwu Asika. The excerpts shown on this page may have been line edited for the purposes of consistency and quality management.

All views and thoughts expressed on the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the featured article are that of the author, Ikechukwu Asika, and in no way reflect the opinion nor position of The Book Banque. Assumptions, interpretations or analyses made in the paper are neither reflective of the authors - Achebe and Habila - of the works cited, nor entirely of their position.


 

Walking Characters To Life: In Conversation With Olumide Popoola

BY NIKI

In conversation with Olumide Popoola on her new novel -  When We Speak Of Nothing.

R

esidents of a certain London borough would have had the unknown pleasure of walking past Olumide Popoola taking her “character for a walk” whilst composing her novel When We Speak of Nothing. This, as with many other quirky and amusing anecdotes, Popoola shared with me over tea and cake on one of the last true sunny days of the British summer.

Other than scrumptious treats, we shared a wonderful conversation led by my admiration for When We Speak of Nothing. This novel, set in a council estate in the borough of Kings Cross in central London and oil rich city of Port Harcourt, is a story about two boys - Karl and Abu - discovering the distinct difference between having an individual voice, and making oneself heard. The theme of crossroads - unmissable throughout the book - is both a testament to the author’s research on the Yoruba God, Esu, and a metaphor for the many difficult decisions the characters come up against all through the novel.

The concept of taking characters for a walk was explained by the revelation that, amongst her many academic accolades, Popoola is also a graduate of theatre school. Doing this allows one to observe public response to the character. Specifically she says “if you put a big hoodie on, hair scraped back, no makeup, everything changes and I remember that from theatre school.” The focus then, for Popoola, is not only finding out the character identity but also situating the character in a believable environment: “the response tells you a lot about the world.” It is key that she write realistically about environments and issues tackled.

 

ON REPORTING AND VISIBILITY

The locations of the novel: inner city London with its issues regarding race and class as well as the Niger Delta - an ecological site of human rights crisis - are very realistically constructed. This is because of Popoola’s experiences in a Youth centre and a trip to the Niger Delta. Describing her trip to the Niger Delta as “great, scary and sad – mind blowing in a bad way”, the author noted this opportunity as a great way to personally “see the fumes and smell the gas and flaring” rather than through the pages of “The Guardian or National geographic.” By having an Ogoni Activist act as guide, she could also ask questions, and in turn, create the character - Nakale - whose friendship with Karl is an invaluable contribution to the novel.

Having had an experience navigating Lagos, Nigeria with a British accent and lighter complexion, myself, I was curious as to the author’s experience navigating the Niger Delta region as a visibly foreign individual. This curiosity stemmed from the freedom her protagonist, Karl, seems to have as a mixed-race, British born boy navigating Port Harcourt for the first time at age 17. Like myself, Popoola recounts that she “was very aware of being very visible, being mixed heritage and light skinned”, owing to the attention she garnered.

However, when writing Karl’s experience, she was conscious of making it “a reflection of the way you can be” and determined to show that “kidnapping and all these things happen but not all the time,” as reflected by media reporting. Popoola also explained that “as a man,” Karl’s experiences would be different from that of a woman. This is a decision she came to after comparing the treatment her brothers receive when visiting Nigeria against what she receives: “a woman could never have gone to Nigeria and walked around that free because nobody would let her.”

 

WRITING THAT EXHUMES

In London, where the focal community is working class, Popoola touches on the impact of gentrification on inner city London. Her writing on this is informed by time spent volunteering “in a Youth centre, a few streets from the location of the narrative.” The disappointment in Popoola’s voice was impossible to miss as she discussed the contrast between the “the huge gentrification project” underway in Kings Cross and the long-term residents - many of whom are forced from their home, in order to make way for capitalism.

Being able to organically observe the indigenes of these communities, and the resultant impact of gentrification, allowed for the author to strengthen her chosen plot. Popoola shares that, as of the time of our interview, “these youth centres were mostly shut down because funding was cut”, or otherwise said, reallocated to the desires of urbanism and a more prominent social class. Thus, for Popoola, writing When We Speak of Nothing provided the chance to tell “the forgotten stories.” That is, the stories that lie beneath the shiny developments and appearances of wealth.

That her time at the Youth centres was used well, not just as service to the community but as fodder for her novel, is evident in the friendship between the protagonists - Karl and Abu. In When We Speak of Nothing, there is a beautiful portrayal of male, adolescent friendship. So much that first reactions to the novel have often been regarding the friendship shared by these two teenagers, Popoola notes. Citing the novel’s copy editor, Lisa Smith as an example, Popoola reveals that Smith was so inspired by the characters’ resilience in not giving up on their friendship that she had to “reach out to an old friend.”

This friendship, evident from the outset of the novel, is strengthened by the amount of time the protagonists spend together, particularly in Abu’s familial residence - where Karl, due to his mother’s health issues, spends a lot of his time, and is accepted. The setup of this friendship is such that Popoola was able to highlight male friendship as “intimate, tender and loving” - adjectives rarely used in a discourse on adolescent male friendship. It also gave Popoola the space to question our perceptions of ‘normal’ familial structures.

Through the novel, Abu silently struggles through issues like racial profiling and the emotional drama that comes with first crushes. Reading his story, I was rather drawn to his character and thus, was keen to further uncover his character with Popoola. The author, interestingly, succinctly mirrored my feelings, stating that “Abu always gets forgotten.” Explaining this, she says: “I think it was because of Karl’s family structure, so everyone always felt that he needed looking after, where Abu has more of a publicly accepted family structure.” This encapsulation of familial dynamics would have one rethinking the pity, by default, heaped on Karl.

 

LOVE BEYOND BORDERS

The way LGBTQ chracters are represented in the Niger Delta in When We Speak Of Nothing will undoubtedly challenge perspectives on Nigerian reception to LGBTQ issues. Going by the media, one may be forced to believe that LGBTQ individuals in Nigeria are the scourge of society and unacceptable by the general populace. Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, however, paints a different picture. For Popoola, exploring this theme gave her “a chance to make a point” — the point not being “that Nigeria as a society is more LGBTQ friendly than the UK, but that within any society you will find people that are accepting and do not really give a s--- but like you for who you are.”

Essentially, her writing is reflective of the LGBTQ activists and supporters present in any society, who are helping to fight discriminatory practices. Specifically, she says: “I find sometimes, we are very self-congratulatory in the UK or in the West. We think we have all these laws hence we are accepting, but any LGBTQ person will also tell you: ‘I get harassed sometimes; I am scared sometimes; I might not reveal myself because physically or emotionally, I might be scared.’” When We Speak of Nothing thus provides a narrative showing that the safety of LGBTQ individuals in any space is down to the people occupying that space with them, regardless of country.

Asked if she is worried about any backlash from this portrayal of LGBTQ discourse, specifically from the Nigerian audience, Popoola expresses more of a “curiosity.” She admits that living in the UK separates her from the reality of LGBTQ conversations on ground. A smile in her voice, however, surfaces as she shares her suspicions that many of the Facebook requests she has received of late are from “queer young guys.”

Rather, if anything, her interpretation of the Yoruba God, Esu, is something that she worries may receive backlash. Referred to as the god of crossroads, the author draws inspiration from Esu for references to crossroads the characters encounters in the novel. Where Popoola worries she will face condemnation is in her interpretation of Esu as “an androgynous and a very beautiful woman.” She believes this description could be “the Yoruba way of talking about queerness” - a position that could be interpreted as sacrilegious by some Nigerian readers.

 

CURIOSITY FED THE CAT

Unable to shake my curiosity, I made a point of inquiring about her decision to situate her novel in two disparate places at such pivotal times. The answer? Coincidence and necessity. “It was a point for me that the boys were not together if they were to develop their individualism,” Popoola candidly stated. The separation was also necessary, she explained, for the boys to learn to maintain the tenderness of their relationship when apart. The setting for them to do this came about naturally because “the riots happened just as I began writing and I wanted to learn about the Niger Delta, not just write about it but visit. So, I created a reason to visit.”

Things, however, took a turn for the weird as “we had all the burning here [with the riots] and the burning in the Niger Delta [from the oil rigs], so it would have been odd not to write about both.” The amalgamation of personal interest, research and kismet: aided, of course, by man-made violence, came together to create a thought-provoking and lyrical novel that challenges not just personal perspectives, but also the way literature is presented. If nothing else, one will remember When We Speak of Nothing for the language - one reminiscent of inner city London yet avoiding the trap of being a cheap imitation, masterfully.

 

Read Niki's review of When We Speak Of Nothing, and see pictures of Popoola and Niki below.

Purchase When We Speak Of Nothing here or from us in Nigeria here. You can also rent a copy from us!