Behold the Fire-spitting Woman King: A review of Oyin Olugbile’s “Sanya” — Olukorede S Yishau
In the beginning, Ajoke suddenly wakes up and thoughts of an impending journey to a seer occupy her mind. When they eventually see the seer, he tells them their next child will be a warrior.
When the child arrives, she turns out to be a girl and Aganju, her father, is disappointed. He is convinced the seer’s forecast has not been fulfilled. To him, there is almost no chance that a woman will be a warrior.
Aganju and Ajoke are characters in Sanya, Oyin Olugbile’s debut novel, and Sanya is their daughter, the one who defies death and serves as the protector of her elder brother, Dada.
Her mother, the beautiful Ajoke, is from a family of unknown pedigree. Aganju, on the other hand, is not just from a lineage of warriors but also of blue blood. Their love conquers initial family objections and, husband and wife they become.
Their first child, Dada, arrives with dreadlocks. Ill-health robs him of vigour and their attempts to have another child keep ending in stillbirths until the ninth one whom a seer claims will be a warrior. She turns out to be a girl and Aganju wonders how a girl can be a warrior. But before he gets an answer, Ajoke dies shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Sanya.
Her death shakes Aganju and he becomes a drunk and is found dead one day. It is at this point that it becomes clear that the author has only used them as means to an end.
In this tale steeped in myth, culture, tradition, fantasy and more, Olugbile takes us on an adventure, a roller-coaster on the lives of the couple’s children, but with a special slot for Sanya, the special one, the warrior.
Sanya is just different. Almost everything that interests a girl makes her uncomfortable. She hates menstrual cycles. She despises the idea of marriage. And she hates the wrapper. She likes almost everything the world claims belongs to men.
“Who says every woman must marry and give birth?” She queries her unmarried aunt who is matchmaking her with a chief’s son.
The gods play a fast one when a great tragedy compels her to leave home and from then on, her growth becomes astonishing, even to her.
Things happen at a dizzying pace thereafter and Sanya realises she is a tool in a drama sketched long before she was formed in her mother’s womb. Her new fate leads to a new identity and the identity involves taking on roles she ordinarily wouldn’t be considered for. But, she is in already and has to find a way to keep pace with the crazy speed events in her life are taking.
In Dada’s life, transformation is also taking place and he finds himself attaining feats he had seen through visions but thought impossible.
The unexpected turn of events adds to the suspense and pacing of the narrative and fuels a reader’s curiosity and the result is to keep turning the pages to find out where next Olugbile is using words to transport us.
Told in the third person and from multiple points of view, this novel, which brings to mind Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, is rich in proverbs, Yoruba wise sayings. Like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Olugbile’s prose is peppered with proverbs.
Parts of the book, especially relating to Dada’s visions, bring to mind Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Yarima Lalo in his sophomore novel, When We Were Fireflies because of both characters’ gifts of seeing tomorrow. Parts also bring to mind Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road.
The setting of the book at a period far removed from modernity gives the author the latitude to explore her fantastical beliefs.
The novel subtly screams that women should not be looked down on, that strength and greatness have little to do with gender and that women should not be hampered from reaching the zenith.
It is a story of love, love between a couple, love between siblings and love for the society. It is also a story about the role of powers beyond our control in our affairs.
One message that is likely to stay with a reader is captured in these words: “If they did not feel that her deeds were more important than her gender, then it was their own failing rather than her problem.”
Olugbile tells this tale of love lost, regained and then lost again in prose that hums, breathes and shouts purposefully.
This gem of a book will take you on a path only few mortals have trod and you will see, hear and feel things beyond this world and your soul will hum tunes of joy for being led to such a path.
Powerful. Magnificent. Page-turning. Epic. Fascinating. Brilliant. Unforgettable. These are words that aptly capture Olugbile’s achievement with this joy of a read.
She is one writer to look out for and the sky seems not enough for her to soar.
–Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales. He lives in Houston