I’ve become a proper little fantasy whore to the lamentable detriment of all other types of fiction. I just don’t feel like reading the sober, reality-bound stuff. I can’t bring myself to finish Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, once claimed among my pantheon of favourite writers. An excursion into any of these ‘normal’ books currently gives me the sensation of sticking my head into a miasma of mind-numbing emotions and the dreadful tedium of reality. I want to be like (bourgeois remark coming up) those people who watch senseless Bollywood films to vicariously to see the world through the eyes of others whose lives they deem exciting but out of reach. I too want to escape the miasma. Thankfully, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s was a breath of fresh air. These Nigerian writers are remarkably talented; I’ve blogged about how much I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work. Lola Shoneyin comes from illustrious pedigree. Her father-in-law is the Nobel Prize winning writer, Wole Soyinka (I vaguely remember reading Season of Anomy in school although I never thought Soyinka as good as Chinua Achebe).
The subject of Shoneyin’s first novel is simultaneously contentious and curious. Bolanle, a university graduate in her twenties marries Baba Segi, a prosperous businessman, casting aside criticism from her ever-acerbic mother. The problem is that Baba Segi is an impervious polygamist, already married to three other women, all living under one roof with their seven children in the Nigerian city of Ibadan. His first and third wife, Iya Segi and Iya Femi, draw out daggers to welcome their husband’s newest acquisition. The status quo is very dear to them and the viciousness with which they attack Bolanle would put a Hindi soap opera mother-in-law to shame. The second wife, Iya Tope, beats Bolanle in stoic passivity. It’s perplexing to see someone as intelligent as Bolanle inertly subject herself to Baga Segi’s chauvinism and the other wives’ cruelty. We find out later that she has phantoms to deal with and she explains that Baba Segi’s household gives her some kind of refuge although it’s still hard for me to understand how the caustic environment she finds herself in, could be anything but healing.
The way in which Shoneyin breaks up the story and presents it to us through the perspectives of all the wives, Baba Segi and even the driver Taju, is key to this novel’s success. The wives who we first see as monsters transform into ordinary women with wretched pasts, foregone ambitions, present insecurities and of course their secret lives. Iya Femi is a particularly complex character who finds solace in Evangelical Christianity which she lauds for offering damnation to those who have wronged her. “I have suffered too much in my life to let that rat (Bolanle) spoil it all for me. So what if she is a graduate? When we stand before God on the last day, will He ask whether we went to university? No! But He will want to know if we were as wise as serpents because that’s what the Bible says we should be.” I only wish Shoneyin clarified in whose voice each chapter was narrated because this is not always made explicit. Only two pages in would you, for example, infer that this was the ever-submissive tone of Iya Tope. It’s fascinating how, besides Bolanle, we don’t even know the names of these women and that they are simply named after their first-born. Their identities become subsumed into those of their children although this is also true for Baba Segi (father of Segi) but I think that appellation has different implications for women.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives seems so light and effortless that you almost forget that the gravity of its subject. You begin reading with an image of the oppression of African women and you conclude the book, surprised at their ingenuity and dynamism. Shoneyin proves her extraordinary skill in the details, in the simplicity of perceptive turns of phrase like when Iya Tope remarks on her first (and last) trip out of her village, “So this was Ibadan – the big city where all our secondhand clothes enjoyed their first outings.” This was a wonderful detour from all the fantasy and science fiction I’ve been reading and a great segue into Nigerian fantasy writer, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death which I’ve just started reading.