In The Bride Price, Buchi Emecheta is a capable surgeon; slicing right to the heart of what it meant to be a girl in Nigeria in the 1950s. With an uncompromising deftness and an artless charm, she explores the minutiae of life in South-Eastern colonial Nigeria; holding up to the light the many microaggressions that add to the framework of patriarchal oppression institutionalised as culture and tradition. Aku-nna is the conduit, and her life, as well as those of other female characters, explore the enslavement of women by traditional practices such as the payment of bride price, widowhood rites, courting games, marriage by abduction and the Osu Caste system.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Like it happens with all the books I have read and loved with a dizzying fierceness, I knew I wanted to read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me the second I heard about it. I read everything I could find online about the author, and every review of the book I could find. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was also out on Audible! I listened to this book from start to finish in two days alternating between time on the floor with the narration sped up to times two and running errands in town completely oblivious to the world at narration speed almost doubled.
This is what Stay With Me does to you: it commands your entire world to a stop. Set in 80’s Nigeria - predominantly in Ilesa, Osun State - the novel tells a story of a young couple - Yejide and her husband Akin. These two protagonists, married for four years, are accustomed to familial interference on account of Yejide’s ‘childlessness.’ On this one visit, however, the couple’s fate is thrown into a whirlwind, and their marriage is left at the bay of despair.
In what was a norm in preceding centuries, Moomi, Akin’s mother, procures a new wife for her first son; one they believe will bear Akin a child - a child they think will “call another one into the world”, be it for Yejide or the good of the (extended) family. What initially was a mother’s attempt to save face and a much-sought after proof of femininity, this becomes the beginning of Yejide’s undoing: “like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it.”
THE INADEQUACIES OF LOVE
Love, growing up, has presented itself as all powerful, all forgiving, all encompassing — and then there is the story of Akin and Yejide. Some parts of the story are told from Akin’s perspective, including his meeting and falling in love with Yejide; knowing from the first moment he saw her that he wanted to marry her. It is obvious that Akin does love his wife, in his own twisted way. He wants her to be happy, so much so that he goes extra lengths to reaffirm his love and respect for her, even after giving into his family’s request of a second wife.
Akin and Yejide’s love story is enviable at the start. Akin ends his relationship with his current lover just hours after setting his eyes on Yejide and then they are married before the year ends. Four years after marriage, their love is however stumped not just by their childlessness, but also by his initial reticence about her longing for offspring, secrets Akin keeps, and the ensuing deception he perpetrates.
The slow and heartbreaking transformation in their marriage testifies to the truth that love cannot fix certain things. It shows how love can become a burden; how this burden, if it stays too long, will see that “love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Notwithstanding, as Adébáyò writes in insightful prose, Akin and Yejide’s complex relationship shows that “even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.”
Although he tries to hold Yejide up in the dark times, Akin is not without reproach and as such, in the earlier parts of the book, the reader is more than likely to judge him. However, as the story progresses, it is plain to see that Akin’s character is compelling and human. One becomes privy to the pressures he faces and the intentions behind his decisions. Despite the weight of Yejide’s pain, one is forced to understand that Akin has his own demons to contend.
The complexity of his choices caused me anger, heartache, sorrow and confusion.
Still, I am moved to ask, what are we all if not flawed?
AIN’T I WOMAN ENOUGH
The reader discovers that Yejide is motherless; having lost her mother only minutes after her birth. The absence of a mother is life-changing for Yejide, as it should be. She is unable to call anyone else Moomi, finding the “very thought sacrilegious, a betrayal of the woman who had given up her life” for her. That is until she meets Akin’s mother - a woman whose embrace makes her heart sing the very word she never thought she would use again.
Moomi’s warmth is replaced by hostility, and it soon becomes clear that Moomi’s affection is largely dependent on Yejide’s ability to “manufacture” grandchildren. One is forced to wonder: isn't the true essence of motherhood pure, unconditional love? How much choice does a motherless child have in picking the kind of love they deserve?
Yejide’s motherlessness and subsequent childlessness bring to mind the powerful concluding sentence of Taiye Selasi’s short story:
In Stay With Me, Yejide has the misfortune of being both. Each page flipped is an affirmation that she truly is alone in the world. I am also really drawn to the way Adébáyò explores the notion that a woman is only ‘woman enough’ when she has children and no scene screams this better than when Moomi tells Yejide that “women manufacture children and if [one] can’t, [one’s] just a man. Nobody should call [one] a woman.”
It is interesting that although this story is predominantly set in 1985, childbearing is still revered in the Nigerian society as the supreme validation of womanhood; a sort of prestigious ‘accomplishment’. Also discomforting is the idea that mothering must be legitimised by suffering and toiling. Again, Moomi tells Yejide that before asking God for a child she must ask for the grace to be able to suffer for that child. I appreciate that preparation for a degree of self sacrifice should precede childbearing, but does motherhood equal suffering? Should it?
THE BURDEN OF AFRICAN ‘MANHOOD’
In telling a part of the story from Akin’s perspective, Ayòbámi Adébáyò highlights the psychological impact of societal pressures on men. As the story unfolds, it becomes easier to side with Yejide, to understand her frustrations and resentment where Akin is concerned, but by including Akin as a narrator, Adébáyò gives him a chance to tell his side. This allows the reader to step into Akin’s shoes and see things from his perspective. Thus, his actions, though unjustifiable, can be ‘understood’.
It is impossible to avoid a key reason for Akin’s deception: the insufferable fragility of African masculinity propagated by our society. Just like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo’s manliness is proved by the number of wives he possesses and his inability to confront his emotions about Ikemefuna capably, Akin’s manhood is contingent on his ability to facilitate the ‘manufacturing of children’. It is from such emotional and mental chokeholds that Adébáyò hopes for men to “liberate themselves.”
Similarly, in a TEDx talk, Ghanaian, Sangu Delle addresses this issue of being an ‘African man’ and suffering in silence. He says:
While Delle’s talk hinges more on mental illness in relation to the African man, the same thread runs through the issues faced by men like Akin. African men need not feel like they need society’s permission to express emotional turmoil or to seek help. It is important for men - and boys, alike - to understand this, as it will help to bridge the gap of double standards, and allow African men and women the freedom to be who they want to be.
From Adébáyò’s use of indigenous language to the retelling of two Yoruba folktales, this book is peppered with reminders of its origin on every (other) page. The author’s value for (her) indigenous language by the use of intonations on her name on the book cover, and Ijesa Yoruba - not just ‘mainstream’ Yoruba - through the novel also emphasises the value placed on culture, heritage and language.
The intertwining of history and prose, as the author does, I found simply enjoyable! I believe that this the easiest way to teach history - a subject that had been scrapped from the Nigerian curriculum. The story is casually and yet intently built around a constantly evolving nation from coups to democracy. It is a reminder that whether or not a country falls, life goes on; people fall in love in the midst of riots, marriages crumble as dictatorships fail, and love bends as a nation finds its feet.
Almost unmissable is the culture of polygamy - which was very popular in the setting on the novel - that hovers around the story. Though this journal notes the most popular reasons for becoming a second wife, - to include wanting a financially secure environment and parental pressures - Yejide is convinced that “women who never back down, who come with strategies under their wrappers and were never as stupid or as agreeable as they seem” become second wives. The book showed how the culture of polygamy, most of all, creates enmities among women, and no such animosity for the man who marries them all.
Above all, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me is a story of desperate longing that will leave you turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. Yejide’s story is compelling but also, most characters in this book feel complete, full and rounded. I only wish one knew more about Dotun - Akin’s brother - but perhaps the story just was not his to occupy. Hands down, one of the most engaging books I have read this year!