Women

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.

 

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.