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?