Yejide Kilanko, whose debut novel explores the persistence of status quo in Nigeria's patriarchal society, talks to Think Africa Press.
At the heart of Daughters Who Walk This Path, the debut novel by Yejide Kilanko, there is a kind of societal inertia. In broad strokes, the novel is about the persistence of the status quo in Nigeria, of parents failing their children, and of age failing youth. Societal development is hampered by the tyranny of tradition, and each new generation suffers because of it.
Tradition plays a ubiquitous role in Morayo's life. When her sister is born an albino, members of the community make ominous prophecies and snap their fingers to ward off evil spirits. When her older cousin, Bros T, runs into trouble at home, he's welcomed into their home as a son and no-one thinks much of it when he gets a little too intimate with the younger girls in the house.
Later, after Morayo is sexually abused in the family home, she is burdened with the kind of pernicious silence that exists in societies too concerned with privacy and image. Gender politics dog her through school and into her marriage and wedding ceremony, rearing up full circle in her later career. And throughout the novel, young people literally prostrate themselves at the feet of their elders who, generation after generation, are the keepers of the status quo.
"I think sometimes tradition serves a purpose, and sometimes it doesn't," says author Kilanko in a telephone interview with Think Africa Press. "I'm not saying let's do away with everything traditional and be modern. I'm saying let's look at each one and see what it is."
The upside of old
Part of the complexity in Daughters comes not just from the conflict its characters experience with tradition, but also the ambiguities and conflicts that exist within those traditions already.
Family looms large throughout the story, especially in its extended Nigerian form in which aunties are mummies, cousins are siblings, and men lead the pack. Morayo's mother is blind to her nephew's sexual advances on her daughter. Her father is suspicious, but when the secret finally breaks, he temporarily excommunicates his daughter whom he views as primarily culpable. Meanwhile, folklore shared with Morayo in her childhood has taught her not to voice her fears and, during the period in which she is repeatedly raped by her cousin, to wonder in guilty silence why her body responds sexually even as her mind reels.
"When you raise children who have been told not to question stuff, they're going to grow into adults who don't question anything," says Kilanko, who also works as a social worker in Canada. "From the beginning, you have to let your children talk about things you don't want to talk about with them when it comes to sexual abuse and when it comes to molestation."
It is this approach to family that offers Morayo some relief in the novel. Her Aunt Morinike is a strong woman with a similar history of trauma. Raped by a chief in her youth, she was made pregnant with a child she learned to love fiercely, even though her own father sneered at the idea of a bastard son. When Morayo's mother fails to comfort her and her father seems embittered, she finds succour and maternity in Morinike. Her silence broken, and she begins to process her pain.
The permanence of patriarch
Morinike shepherds Morayo into the next phase of her life. The two put their shoulders against Nigeria's entrenched patriarchal paradigm. When they involve themselves in local politics, supporting a young candidate with fresh ideas, they are disappointed after he is trounced by Chief Omoniyi, a paragon of corruption.
"He's not willing to play dirty," says Kilanko. "(Omoniyi) brings in food to the voting centre. He's meeting your needs for that day, but this is the man, in a round-about circle, who's responsible for your poverty as well. He steals all this money that is meant for you. Then he comes and gives you just a little bit and gives you that instant gratification. Then he wins the election and you don't hear from him until the next one."
In this way, the status quo is maintained. Young politicians who play dirty will succeed in a system that rewards dirt, and they will become old politicians in a system dedicated to the same. That it depends on the participation of the very people it oppresses is no small irony, and that is an idea Kilanko puts forward in a number of ways. In Morayo's case, her rape experience leaves her with a devalued appreciation of sex, even as she chases it constantly, ultimately forcing it on a boy whose religious beliefs mean he would prefer celibacy.
"I wouldn't say I was targeting men per se," says Kilanko. "The bottom line is we're living in a very chaotic society and we need to figure it out.
"It works for the men. And there are also women who support that system because that's what they're used to. And it's so much easier to go along with the flow than change it."
The politics of Daughters
Kilanko's story spans the decades of Nigeria's most vicious military dictators, including Generals Babangida and Abacha. But Kilanko never mentions them directly, and only occasionally does she pan back to Nigeria's wider pandemonium. For example, at one point readers are directed to a pile of corpses on the roadside which Morayo describes as a typical sight.
"There have been lots of books written about that era with the military dictatorships in Nigeria," she says. "I had some reviewers say they didn't understand why I put in those parts at all and that it took away from the story. I had people say I should've left it out completely. For me, I put in what I felt was enough to tell my story. I felt my story was really about sexual abuse, in terms of how children get exploited and how the system supports it."
Kilanko is aware of the chorus of African writers who protest the glut of war narratives set on the continent and she believes her story can be particular to Nigeria without plugging directly into Western expectations of an African story.
"We do have other stories. We're getting married. We're divorced. Other things that happen in the West, we have the same problems, like network connections, my cell phone signal, Twitter. The things here that people talk about, we have those issues too. But the other things are so magnified. Even my kids, born here in North America, if they watch documentaries about Africa, they think there are lions everywhere. I get really odd questions like that. I think sometimes those things get added in because there's an expectation."
Kilanko left Nigeria in 2000. She landed in the United States and then settled in Canada. She's been back to Nigeria twice since then, once in 2005 for two weeks, and again for ten days in 2010. She says Daughters was written without an audience in mind; it was her first book and she had no idea it would be published. Now, as she wraps up her second book and looks for a publisher, the politics of her position in the diaspora are more of an issue.
"I don't want to write anything that would misrepresent what the reality is," she says. "That for me is important. People know they're books of fiction, but when we read a book and it's set somewhere else, it leaves an impression."
She calls home regularly to get the lay of the land. Even still, she was surprised by some of the African responses to her book and she carried those reactions into her second effort. The Yoruba words in Daughters are italicised, which sets them apart as a foreign language, and some readers questioned her decision to alienate her mother tongue.
"There's some African writers who believe I'm selling out. They say, 'You should write the Nigerian words, but don't put them in italics. You're the writer. If your readers want to learn more, then they should Google the words.' Or have a glossary at the end."
Caught in between
All this begs another question. Why not just set her story in North America, her home for the past twelve years? Her second novel is also about domestic abuse and although the narrative does touch North America, it's still based in Nigeria. Kilanko's professional life as a councillor puts her in awkward position, especially when viewed through the political frame of creativity in expatriate communities. Setting her story in Canada could jeopardise her profession.
"When I was working on Daughters, I was working in child protection," she says. "I didn't want it to look as if they were their stories. That would not do well with you as a therapist when you're trying to build a relationship with your clients."
Besides, Kilanko sees a more productive culture of recovery when it comes to abuse in North America. Her present in Canada doesn't efface her past in Nigeria when it comes to highlighting social problems back home.
"Here, there's a lot of support for children who have been sexually abused and for their families, but that doesn't exist back home," she says. "I thought this might be a way to talk about it."
Paul Carlucci is a Canadian writer and journalist. He's reported from Ghana and Ivory Coast for Think Africa Press, IPS Africa, Al Jazeera English, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Standard. His short fiction has been published in Canadian journals and magazines, and a collection of his stories will be published by Oberon Press in Fall 2013. Follow him on twitter @PaulCarlucci.