I completed my first Nigerian fiction reading for the year 2020 in a hotel in Lagos, a continuation of a cautious self-isolation that began in London, right before the borders closed and everything shut down.
It is Ogadinma, a sophomore work from Ukamaka Olisakwe.
It was an appropriate read for the season, not quite because of any similarity in the events recounted in the story to current times, but because the rollercoaster of a story felt somewhat suited to the environment in which the reading was accomplished.
A young Nigerian girl forced into a marriage she wouldn’t have chosen but for a personal violation and other circumstances, and whose journey through the tumult of the consequences of that decision lay bare the ingrained injustices against women in a fairly modern day Nigeria. The story of Ogadinma is one that, somehow, fit the mood of a world falling apart around me. Perhaps just as well as the first novel I read earlier in the year — Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published in 1929 about World War 1 — which was by then the most disruptive event the world had ever seen.
On Thursday March 19th, I visited the British Library, where I work, for the first time since it was closed to the public a day earlier due to the coronavirus threat. All members of staff now had to work remotely. Hardly a convenient arrangement for those whose daily tasks involve the handling of physical books stored in the basement of the impressive structure in Central London and Boston Spa. Only the security at the staff entrance remained as a reminder of the erstwhile normal runnings of the institution. Everywhere else — even outside the building, where pedestrians, commuters, or cyclers in a hurry to different directions had often kept the soundscape of the city to a recognizable decibel — there was calm, and empty spaces.
At my desk on the third floor, I noticed that there was no one else around. “A ghost town,” I remarked to the Africa Curator on the phone some hours later. On a normal day, it was always possible to hear voices across the other cubicles around me. Now there was quiet, like a scene from a horror movie, or a night at the museum, where some old fossilized skeleton was about to rise and cause havoc.
I opened my desktop and wrote a poem. It was about the homeless person I had noticed still lying down in their favourite spot at the corner of the Library building facing Euston Road, seemingly oblivious to the hysteria that had now shut down the world and turned the risible hubris of humanity into a hapless jelly. Their helplessness made the uncertainty of my own situation a little more bearable. One person had been exposed to the virus at my workplace, and was in self-isolation. We did not know who else they might have spread it to. There could even have been others infected, who no one knew about. There were also some rumblings in the news that the border was about to be closed and the whole country shut down. I had not decided what I was going to do. The urgency to be with my family at the moment was weighed with the unwanted possibility of ferrying a virus over many thousand kilometres to a more vulnerable place.
The city was withering before my very eyes.
The eponymous character in Olisakwe’s book faced a different kind of an apocalypse. She grew into adulthood during the unstable military regimes of the 70s and 80s Nigeria, with recognizable characters in positions of power, running the country through a special brand of their own instability. In some way, the situations were similar. The curfews that attended each coup announcement in the 80s and 90s had a similar feel to this order to shelter in place. What was missing were the soldiers brandishing AK-47s to enforce the new order. And even without direct naming, the images of Babangida and Buhari flashed quite clearly across the fictive screen that Olisakwe set.
But the story is not about the military rulers, though the instability that their regimes caused has a significant impact on the characters’ lives. Ogadinma, after a traumatic event, finds herself as the wife of a man with whom she did not have the courage to assert herself, or be herself at all. One event after another, sometimes small, sometimes big, show her what a mistake she has made, and how late it is to make any significant changes. One crisis after another leads her, and us the reader, eventually to a place she can finally call home. But not before a lot of compromises, bold moves, heart wrenching decisions, and finally self-discovery. It is a coming of age story, and a sad one. But the ending doesn’t pack too much of a surprise. Just relief that it is all over, and she is in a better place.
I had many questions about some of the choices made by the heroine. I sent some of them to the author later, but kept others to myself to retain some author-reader distance. There will be accusations that the story takes easy, familiar, paths to the resolution of particular conflicts. While these track with what we know to be real life situations of many women around the country, a nagging expectation remains that fiction should do more than just reflect an image that is already depressing with no redemption. An expectation that, at least through the author’s imagination, we get to score some big victories against cold reality.
The blurb describes the book as “a modern feminist classic in the making” and one could ask whether it is thus recommending that this particular way of resolving the crisis is the only feminist response. I mean, the point of the tag is obvious. When Ogadinma gets married, the most notable commentary on the event is summed up in the sentence: “She knew she had finally brought honour to her father’s name” (page 93). Everything she faces afterwards is defined by that pursuit of a state of perfection. And later in the novel, when all was said and done, someone had remarked, as a pithy commentary on surrender: “Everything with a penis between its legs will want to break you” (211).
The question that arises is how one differentiates between finding one’s voice, backbone, and identity after a lifetime of hurt and oppression from a blanket cover of true feminism, which is something else: achieving and advocating for true equality in a society where it is not given on a platter of gold, a boyfriend’s generosity, or even a friend’s eternal support — which can all be taken away. And how do we celebrate the triumph of one person in the face of abuse without making it an archetype of feminist success? What is the danger of sending a novel to do one job while insisting that it does the other? Does it breed complacency or a false satisfaction? And does this give a misleading view of the challenges ahead and the ways to take them on? I also wondered if I was asking too much of a novel whose job is not to solve societal issues, but to provide escape.
The writing in this novel is crisp, the pace is measured, and the prose is beautiful. Olisakwe has had plenty of experience in this genre, such that the writing appears effortless though one knows that a lot of effort would have gone to the writing. The expert pacing of the story made it easy to read over many days, in my room with quiet and disquiet all around, through London’s emptying streets, through flights filled with restless, antsy, passengers on their way to beat their country’s border closure curfew, and eventually on my self-isolation hotel bed.
In Lagos, I looked at notes I had made while reading, and found that other things I loved about Ogadinma includes the copious use of Nigerian English: “street touts”, “squeezing her face”; and many Nigerian words from Igbo to even contrived modern Yorùbá spelling common in social media: “jor” (63). There were also some homage paid to earlier works of fiction by other Nigerians: Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn, Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Trial of Brother Jero, and Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood, books that characters in the novel read at different times.
In my bed, I thought back to the many people at the desolate airports I passed through, some who stared furtively at the cover of the book I was reading. Upon landing in Lagos, we had all dispersed into the country, likely the last batch of people allowed in before the borders were shut. In the line snaking towards customs, someone had asked to use my phone. His wife was waiting outside to take him home. He wanted to assure her that he would be out soon. There was no indication that any of the people there were heading into recommended isolation in an abundance of caution to slow the spread of the contagion that had likely herded us all home. There was no mandatory quarantine by authorities either. A state with so much to lose by an overwhelming spread of a deadly virus suddenly appeared less committed to an outcome it had boasted about in media releases. I wondered about what would happen in three weeks, when the folly of this gross incompetence would return to stare us in the face, and when it would already be too late. Then, it wouldn’t matter that one person had been responsible and chosen to self isolate.
The day I drove alone to Yaba to get tested for the virus, I thought about Ogadinma on the first trip out of her husband’s house to where she thought freedom was: Kano, where her father lived. The city around me did not seem too perturbed. Except for the elaborate medical costume of the medical officials who stuck a swab in my throat and in my sinus, everything went on as it often did — with high energy and noise. Still, like that unexpected disappointment that led to a rollercoaster of a plot in the novel, I thought about what lay ahead here. While there are books like Ogadinma to take the mind off the panic and disquiet, the pandemic doesn’t seem to be near its peak just yet. The UK has finally been shut down, as has the Nigerian border, as has the college accommodation where I used to live. The Prince of Wales, the Nigerian chief of staff, The British Prime Minister, and several world leaders and celebrities have been confirmed Covid-19 positive.
My Research Fellowship I am on continues now from a distance, while we ride out the contagion. Maybe like Ogadinma’s name suggests, as did the eventual resolution of her ordeal, everything will be alright in the end. Or maybe not. The question is whether, like the brave heroine of the story, we end up with far fewer regrets when it is all over.
Ogadinma is published by The Indigo Press (UK) in January 2020. The Nigerian edition will be published by Masobe Books later in the year. 249 pages.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is the author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He’s currently a Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library in London.