The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, by Lola Shoneyin is a brilliant book. After I read it, I put it down and slow clapped. I am no literary expert, but I read a lot and I don’t always have this reaction to the books I read. This particular story spoke to me.
I had a very isolated childhood, and I learned to find myself in fiction. Characters in books and film were my role models and my inspiration, the standards by which I measured myself. I read and still read a wide range of stories, from different places, authors and genres. In all this diversity, one thing consistently stood out: no one who looked like me did anything important.
As a black girl, I rarely find convincing, multidimensional, inspiring and relatable characters who look like me or who live where I live. Oh, there are books and stories about black women, but the ones that aren’t about the helpless victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are about single-mother rape-victims who seem to do nothing but struggle and struggle or worse, despondently accept their oppressive lot in life. And on the few occasions when a writer/story-teller steps away from the mould, the characters sometimes end up insipid and lazily unpleasant, like all the female characters in Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah1. I do not say this to undermine the gravity of slavery, abuse or the struggle that black women (and women and people in general) face, but is that our only story? Is it our destiny to forever be victims of whichever brutal, sadistic, uncaring, repressive system we find ourselves in?
I remember wondering as a child why only white people went on adventures. I grew up on Enid Blyton, and not even the elves, pixies and fairies who frequented her stories were coloured. And this is not an accusation; she was free to write whatever characters she pleased. However, on the few occasions when I got my hands on books written by and about black people, everyone just seemed to be suffering from someone else’s callousness and doing nothing about it. It seemed we were too poor, too unfortunate, to have exciting things happen in our lives, and it was worse for the women. So it was that at the age of ten, I wanted to be white, or a boy, or both, simply so I could be the one in charge of my life. Still, it wasn’t only books and films that were to blame: growing up female in Nigeria, you get the message pretty early on that your sole aspiration is to be the plaything/household accessory/mobile uterus of some man. For a good part of my adolescence, I didn’t identify as female, not because I thought there was anything wrong with women, but because I just didn’t want any part of their ostensible future.
Disney movies didn’t help (do they ever?). Before public backlash forced them to cough up Tangled and Brave, the only one of their female leads I cared for was Mulan; the rest of them just sort of sat around, looked pretty, sang songs and waited for the men to act.Yet, inspired as I was by Mulan, I couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling that once again, this awesome heroine was from somewhere far away from where I am, almost as if one of the prerequisites for thriving as a heroine is not being born black or African or both. This was the same way I felt about Petra Kronos2, Princess Malva3, Tiffany Aching, Eskarina Smith, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg4, Angela the Herbalist, Nasuada and Arya5. They are awe-inspiring women of contemporary fantasy stories who shaped grand events of the worlds they lived in, but who were far enough away from me that I still felt somewhat removed from their imaginary realities. Thankfully, some characters eventually came to bridge this divide. Among them was Copper Sun’s6Amari, a young African (Ghanaian?) lady captured from her home sold into slavery in the US, who, despite an overwhelmingly repressive environment, refuses to be conquered. Sometime later, I came across The Secret Life of Bees and then Belle,and realized that other black women are already on the task of overhauling our representation in fiction. And it’s not just the women: Ousmane Sembene gave us the no-nonsense Princess Dior Yacine in Ceddo, Faat Kiné, the eponymous heroine who took back control of her life despite a society that tried to crush her spirit, and a team of phenomenal women in Moolaade7.
I may be giving the impression that I would only care for a protagonist if she is black, but that is not what I am saying. In an ideal world, the colour of a person’s skin should not matter, but this is not an ideal world. If, in the grand collection of our stories, the choice of significant protagonists always excludes one group of people, and this excluded group, when present, is only ever represented as the witless, passive victim, the real-life people in this misrepresented group begin to ask themselves some very important questions about their abilities.
It was for this reason that Shoneyin’s book moved me so. In her story, the black woman, the African woman, the Yoruba woman is both hero and villain, the main actor in her own life. When she is the victim, she does not stay so for very long. Granted, most of the characters in the story are not particularly shining examples of human kindness, but it was still very refreshing to see them holding the reins of their lives, whatever situations they met. Aside from my biased (feminist?) reasons, I thought the book was a solid piece of satire, capturing in not too many pages the myriad problems in Yoruba (and Nigerian) society, especially concerning gender issues, marriage, education, power relations, child-bearing, childlessness, and sex – and all the assumptions, presumptions and hypocrisy that surround these issues. I also found the characters complex, intriguing and at times humorous. In all, I was glad I read this book and I will preach its good qualities to whoever will listen. Beyond that, I will continue reading voraciously. Maybe this way I will discover more of the heroines who seem to be carefully tucked away out of plain sight.
- Nothing personal against Chimamanda Adichie, but I’ve hated all her characters except for the protagonist of Purple Hibiscus. I gave up on her books after Americanah – I haven’t read The Thing Around Your Neck. She gives great speeches though.
- The Kronos Chronicles by Marie Rutkoski: a fantasy trilogy whose story takes place in sixteenth century Prague(and Morocco, London and India).
- The Princess and the Captain by Anne Laure Boudoux. I read this book seven years ago. It was a trip. Seriously, there is this really epic voyage fraught with betrayal, death, loss, and conspiracy. Oh, and it’s fantasy as well. The ending sucks (you might as well be prepared), but the rest of the story is a treasure.
- Several books by Terry Pratchett (I still can’t believe he’s dead) including The Wee Free Men, Witches Abroad, Carpe Jugulum and Equal Rites. If you haven’t read any Terry Pratchett books yet, you are missing out. If you have, and you haven’t read the above titles, get on it.
- The Inheritance Series: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance. They were originally intended as a trilogy, but Christopher Paolini got carried away I think. Fantasy epic inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien. I enjoyed every single book.
- Copper Sun by Sharon Draper. A narrative set in the American slavery era. It simultaneously tells a good story and educates about this particular time period without moralizing.
- Ousmane Sembene is a little-known master of Senegalese/West-African literature and film whose career spanned six decades (1956 – 2004). He died in 2007.