#Blastfromthepast A review of Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s “In Dependence” – Toni Kan
Following Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s nomination as a finalist in the Audie Award for the audio edition of her novel, In Dependence alongside heavy hitters like Alicia Keys, Danez Smith, Mikel Jollett and others, we serve you Toni kan’s review of the book which was first published in 2008 and then re-issued by Cassava Republic. Enjoy.
The opening page of a book is akin to the clothes one wears to a first date or job interview. It creates a first impression which usually dictates the tone of the rest of the encounter.
As a first impression, the early pages of Sarah Manyika’s engaging and deeply affecting first novel do the book some disservice. They are dull and uninspiring. An attempt to add local colour by taking off from the provincial city of Ibadan, leaves the book labouring like an old man trudging up a hill.
The impatient reader may well drop the book and move on which would be a great disaster for a book that actually takes off beautifully from page 13 with Tayo’s first letter from the UK. And let it be known that Sarah Manyika has a way with letters. She is a master of the epistolatory form
Sarah Manyika’s debut novel, In Dependence, which is a play on the spate of independence in Africa at the start of the book, on the one hand as well as a comment on how African nations claim independence while still remaining dependent on their former colonizers offers a fresh and stimulating perspective to the ever growing corpus of post-colonial literature
It is also on a whole different level, a commentary on how we depend on old stereotypes in judging people and influencing the actions we take or do not take.
Manyika, however, humanises the post-colonial dialectic by giving it a romantic feel thus making it markedly different from other books that address the same basic concerns of Africa as a basket case. In this case, the love story between Tayo, the son of a Nigerian civil servant and Vanessa, daughter of a British colonial officer offers a narrative that relegates the anger and rage and chronicle of Africa’s ills to the background.
True, there are coups and undemocratic changes in government, arrests and torture under a military regime, dilapidated infrastructure and comatose universities, but these stories do not obtrude to the point of stridency. Rather they form the backdrop to a personal story of love lost and found and the effect the choices we make have on us.
Tayo, young, handsome and athletic has just arrived Oxford on a scholarship and quickly wins over the establishment as a scholar and the hearts of the young and sexually liberated young women.
First is Christine whose difficult relationship with Tayo mirrors the anxieties at the heart of relationships between post-colonials. Yanked off to England as a child, Christine is African only by name and Tayo, grounded in the norms of a traditional Nigerian society, is both attracted and repelled by her independence and assertiveness. Tragedy intrudes and ends their relationship.
But it is Vanessa with whom he falls deeply in love and it is love fraught with challenges. Tayo is black and Vanessa is white and hanging over them like a shroud is the cloud of cultural differences. Vanessa’s father, a working class young man who married up and was never forgiven tells Tayo that there would be challenges to their union and even though Tayo and Vanessa charge him with racism and bigotry they are both acutely aware of the truth behind his racist views.
But while Vanessa, independent, headstrong and decisive is ready to brave it all, coming to visit Tayo in Nigeria during the war, the tentative Tayo makes a choice that denies both of them the happiness they deserve thus keeping their love in abeyance for over 20 years.
Summoned home to Nigeria by a telegram from his mother informing him that his father is sick, Tayo, who has just made a First class at Oxford abandons his graduate scholarship to return home. Back at home, things take a crazy turn. His father recovers but a war breaks out and then by the time Vanessa comes to visit, Tayo has gotten the nurse who cared for his father pregnant.
Two loveless marriages ensue and what comes across clearly is Tayo’s character flaw, his indecisiveness and inability to take action unlike his friend Yusuf who marries Joy on the spur of the moment then returns to Nigeria and makes a huge success of himself. On the night after his fight with Vanessa in Oxford, as he goes back to his digs, Tayo recognising this flaw tells himself that he would be decisive “and prove to Vanesa that he was capable of being a man of action. No one – not society, not her father – was going to stop him from proposing to her.” But then he is called back home.
This flaw is at the heart of his marriage to Miriam; his inexplicable love for and decision to stay put in a country that is asphyxiating him intellectually, physically and emotionally as well as in his inability to respond swiftly to Hawa’s “suggestion of intimacy.”
Tayo’s failures are in many ways representative of the failure of a post-colonial state like Nigeria. Full of vigour and idealism in youth, Tayo, like Nigeria, is frail and broken and dependent upon the kindness of his estranged wife and foreign nations in his old age.
He is in that sense, a fitting metaphor for Nigeria and other post-colonial states which remain tied to the apron strings of the West represented in this instance by Vanessa and it is only by returning to the West, by staying “in dependence” that Africa can make a head way.
With a story that spans the arc of about 30 years, Manyika is able to trace on a huge and multi-coloured canvas the history of Nigeria from the early post independence anxieties to the anomie and disillusionment of the late nineties where corruption, dictatorship and brain drain are the stories de jour.
The historical exploration is wide ranging; with the story moving across cities from The UK to France and Nigeria to Senegal we get different perspectives both Anglophone and Francophone to the post-colonial condition. Then there is also the connection to Nigeria’s foundation with the book throwing up characters who worked with Lord Lugard who we are told “liked our women.”
Manyika is a brutal writer who manages to write romance without overt sentimentalism. The narrative is propelled by a force that eschews sentiments. There is nothing contrived and there are no neatly tied up endings. Characters die and the story moves on while plot twists leap at you without warning as if from the shadows and there are no long explanations as Manyika leaves the reader to fill in the blank spaces.
After Tayo tells Vanessa that a woman is pregnant for him she asks a question:
“Well, it’s not going away. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know”
Vanessa flees the room and the next page drops us in the middle of Senegal, a few years later. This is the same way in which we learn that Vanessa is married, has a son and that her best friend, Salamatou had died in an accident years before.
While this works well in most cases, it doesn’t work out nicely where the Nigerian civil war is treated with almost cavalier indifference and given just a couple of lines.
“When she arrived in Lagos, the first thing she saw was men in green fatigues with fat, black belts and oversized boots patrolling the tarmac with guns slung carelessly across their chests. It brought home to her the fact that here was a war and the danger of her coming to Nigeria at such a time…”
This jars, especially in the context of the historical document that this novel is. We merely smell it but do not see it. It is like a distant echo. For a character as sensitive as Tayo, the war should have featured more.
Published in the UK by Legend Press, a new publishing concern run by a young man, In Dependence suffers from acute editorial laxity. There are typos, spelling and grammatical errors as well as anachronisms aplenty which we hope would be corrected in the forthcoming Cassava Republic edition..
Tayo receives newly minted naira notes from his Uncle Bola in 1963 when pounds are still legal tender. Bisi, Tayo’s sister lives in Ghana and works as an accountant in Abuja instead of Accra. And we also have a woman called Bayo.
These distractions aside, Sarah Manyika has written an impressive debut novel which will find a well deserved place in the pantheon of post-colonial literature.
In Dependence, Sarah Manyika, Legend Press, 2008, 271 ( Re-issued by Cassava Republic)