Category Archives: Anaele ihuoma one page reviews

A CUCKOLD’S HONOUR: Two page review of Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

A harem keeper is much like a bee keeper; enjoy the honey, but brace for the sting, one day. For Alao, a.k.a. Baba Segi, the eponymous highfalutin husband in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel, the sting did not come in a day; it happened every day of his married life. But in this well-knit social satire, it needed an unlikely help in the form of a fourth wife, for the portly polygamist to unravel it, to himself and to the reader, and that is served only in the last set of pages. Now that’s the stuff of page-turners. You emerge at the last page scared: if Bolanle, the odd ‘acada’ type among that motley harem had not happened on the scene, or if the senior wives had agreed to co-opt her into their well-guarded scheme, everyone would have lived happily ever after, and the putrid pus of the scandal might never have burst into the open!

The novel reads like Moliere except for its strong tragic echoes. Its 245 pages pack quite a punch: Baba Segi practises being dead; Segun, the ex of one of the wives goes to great length to abort someone else’s foetus he thought was his; a character enjoys reading a love letter she wrote to herself, which is the next best thing; mothers and daughters, long emotionally estranged, reunite in a Graecian dramatic setting, and much more.

The novel projects love in all its convolutions, real and pretended, sometimes a mere crush, often filial, and erotic, and, in at least one instance, LGBT compliant. But my top pick is the love that steadily grows between Bolanle and Segi, daughter of the matriarch of the family and unrepentant hater of Bolanle. The Bolanle-Segi rapprochement has enough ingredients to sideline Alao and his harem tales into a few paragraphs and generate a love story of its own – the love-across-enemy-lines variety.

For those who wish to be transported into a deeply Nigerian, nay, Yoruba, cultural milieu with locally- flavoured language, rustic mannerisms, idioms and nuances, yet conveyed with the ease of a first language user, here’s your book. The likes of Lola Shoneyin are children of Fagunwa and Tutuola in the age of linguistic sophistication. Village-bred philosophies and cultural memes are melded rather than merely built in. That was my joy as I savoured page after page until – well I don’t know if this is a female Nigerian ailment – these lines seized the rove of my eyes: ‘He emptied his testicles as deep into my womb as possible. Such graphic lines suggest not just a pandering to the goddess Erotica, but an afterthought, to satisfy the cravings of a certain readership clique – those who sit abroad with the yam and the yam prize. But Shoneyin, daughter-in-law of Soyinka, who spurns her more illustrious surname ( at least in literature terms) in favour of her maiden name partly to underscore her indebtedness to her father for his encouragement, is not just about local flavour. … The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is far more than the refined equivalent of Aluwe, Baba Sala and the Fuji House of Commotion that routinely regale Nigerian TV audience with stories of similar cultural DNA. Shoneyin writes with the ease of a first language user. The language does, in fact, on occasions, rise to hypnotising levels, as when the author imbues the wind with teeth to convey its coldness, and when ‘Iya Femi picked me up with his eyes and threw me to the floor’ .

It s equally well laced with sarcasm. Like the drop of a tiny pebble in water, it leaves you with ripples of home grown philosophies. And that includes when the characters construct maledictions.

A lineage of female writers has treated the subject of love, polygamy and childlessness (Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood, etc), but none has done so with such basket-weaver’s dexterity and flair. Perhaps a few readers may not need to be crystal ball artistes to guess how the old wives tales would finally resolve, but medoubts if any could crack the code until they get way beyond the hospital scenes where Alao is cold-bloodedly exposed to all the elements in the medical universe. The author first fattens him with delicacies from his own recipe so that the goddess of retribution would find him meat enough for her dinner. Shoneyin must have partly modelled Alao on the character of Baroka, the serial polygamist in Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, for whom, elsewhere, Shoneyin confesses a deep distaste. And so she has Alao set himself up nicely: the occasion of receiving a lab results becomes a momentous one. He is the faultless, family-supporting husband, the generous sperm donor extraordinaire who suddenly runs into the misfortune of a barren fourth wife with whom he is about to lose his patience unless she sorts herself out quickly at the hospital. By the time the medics get to the bottom of the matter, conveying the balance sheet of his sperm account to him becomes both a medical and moral dilemma. But the needful has to be done even if someone has to fall from the high horse of his self-praise. And what a thud!

Except perhaps for a hanging dependent clause [P.220], the book makes for a smooth, easily digestible read. I have issues with the manner Alao’s health matter was allegedly resolved, and with certain other threads that were rather left loosely around the nebulous character called Teacher.

The candor with which book treats the subject of family and infidelity borders on recklessness, yet the last pages are invested with a depth of sensitivity and pathos that can only come from a compassionate heart. Perhaps Alao invited his own cuckoldry. With a massive, massage-seeking ego and a lack of introspection, the wives were hard-pressed showing him any pictures other than the very one he wanted to see. It is a tribute to Shoneyin’s savoir faire that, after orchestrating that great fall, she manages to sew up Humpty Dumpty’s honour together again.

The author acknowledged that the story grew out of an anecdote told her by a friend; one wonders how much of the novel now translated into French and produced on several stages around the world actually owes its brilliance to that original anecdote and how much grew from the author’s fertile imagination.

Book: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. 

Publisher : Cassava Republic, third edition, 2015                                                            Reviewer: Anaele Ihuoma.                                                                                                         Review type: Two-page review series. One page-version available on request.

Enter The Literary Aristocrat: A review of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About this Place

Enter the Literary Aristocrat.

Review of Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write about this Place.

When we board our final, one-way flight out of this earth,  we leave a cute, epitaph-adorned gravestone; if when we are born, we come  with a futurologist’s  ‘birthstones’, Binyavanga Wainaina’s might read: “Enter, riding on the redolence of the Rift Valley, Binyavanga, the literary aristocrat.”

Maybe he has such a birthstone in his name ‘Binyavanga’ which, in the Kinyarwanda language of his Ugandan mother, approximates to, ‘mixing things up.’

He flaunts all the free radicals, traits from which a restless writer is stitched together: hedonism, restlessness, irreverence,  a voracious reading appetite that has made his  RAM [read-all-memory] the size of a huge library; brilliance, and, according to some blurb writers, a tinge of lunacy.

But it’s the brilliance that shines through, the most part, in One day I will write About This Place, his memoir debut. The title itself is a red herring; the actual fulfillment of  its own promise.

Generally, reading a memoir is like watching a soccer match you already knew the result: your adrenaline is immune to the twists and turns. Otherwise, at a point in the book, after the author  has returned to South Africa to try and complete his abandoned schooling only to, after just one week,  finally walk away from schooling and into bar life, one is tempted to see the author as the archetypal prodigal.  But you know, from hindsight, that this would be a hasty verdict.

Wainaina’s  language is bold, it catches you napping with its spontaneity; you do not get a sense of someone searching for words; he just flows like the Limpopo, or the Hudson, rivers whose banks have nurtured his creative élan.  The imagery is cute, quaint: “The wind swoops down, God breathes, and across the lake a million flamingoes rise, the edges of Lake Nakuru lift, like pink skirts swollen by petticoats, now showing bits of blue panties, and God gasps,…”. There are a few grim paragraphs too: the tribal warlord wipes the blood off the blade of the machete he has just wielded on his own wife       [because she’s from another tribe], and moves to the next room in search of her daughter…

You will have gone very far before you realize that what you’re reading is, stripped of its appurtenances, a travelogue. You reconstruct  the journey:  Nakuru   – Nairobi – Umtata  – Jo’bourg  – Kampala – Entebbe – Bufumbira – Lagos – Accra – Lome – New York. Of course it’s a more convoluted itinerary, with detours and repeat journeys. It’s a peculiar middle class Kenyan flight path, part of the broader boy-to-man journey. But  what is he searching for? If he knew, the book would cease to be an adventure. But he found things: the soul of Kenya, in close-up, larger than the sum total of the country’s high tribal egos: Gikuyu’s, Luo’s, Maasai’s, Kalejins, etc. Having branded the tribes, the author is hard-pressed trying to live his life outside the [tribal] box. West Africa is sized up in a tourist’s lens before he returns to Mandelaland, and to how the songs of the unhealable and irrepressible –  the one you scoff at, sometimes,  but always love her music: Brenda Fassie  – how her rhythms heal  a transiting but still socially gun-powdered nation.  You learn, too, that Okot p’Bitek bought a Rolls-Royce for ‘next to nothing’ from refugees fleeing the Congo crisis in the 1960’s. Graceless, rather unpoetic act from my revered Ife teacher

But Wainaina  also found something  treasureable:  in his own words ‘a touching story about the reunion of a family torn apart by civil war and the genocide in Rwanda.’ It’s a tale that will move any heart. And it did.   South Africa’s Sunday Times snapped it up, the very next Sunday, with a handsome pay. That was the beginning of a publishing spiral, that has taken the story, sometimes in various outer garments but always with the same soul, through the Caine Prize holy grail and made it, arguably, the showpiece of the current accomplishment One Day I Will Write... In a nutshell, it is the prodigal’s rehabilitation, the turning point in his becoming a literary aristocrat: the one who is given a blank cheque [you can take it literal] to write a story on Sudan or elsewhere and gets to keep the cash  even when the story is dropped for breaching the code of he-who-pays-the-piper ….

For the sub-genre of creative nonfiction, we just don’t know the limits of the author’s creative latitude. The alleged discussion in a Frankfurt hotel between Wainaina and ‘the bodyguard of the Nigerian President’ seems to be nothing but the author  exercising his ‘creative’ options.

But the fact that the novel rises to sublime heights of language and imagery shouldn’t mean it should get away with beer-drenched ramblings: we see  correspondents looking for the story with “The Most Macheteing Deathest, Most Treasury Corruptest, Most Entrail-eating Civil Warest, Most Crocodile-Grinning Dictatorest…”  The context is compelled to admit them, and the editors are helpless, applauding, star-struck. Being a literary aristocrat does have its rewards.  There are also a few over-kills: the word ‘fluent’ is rather flaunted. “If we fail to be fluent in the language of MTV and London…”. Fine and de rigueur when it first drops on us, but when you see it for the fourth or fifth time, it begins to feel like licking the finger that once held the sweet. Also, we see a segment where a planes “ altitude changes rapidly from three thousand meters above sea level to eight thousand feet.” Hey, Bwana, did you try the maths conversion yourself?

But you only found these questionable entries with an examiner’s hard determination; the book  is actually a magnificent  cruise in a language love boat.

Wainaina’s voracious reading had made  him build  up a vast repertory of unwritten stories in his subconscious, awaiting a trigger to be pulled by a benevolent Muse. With the beaut of a story of the family reunion in Uganda, he has fulfilled the promise of One Day...     Perhaps there’s still the promise of another day.

Anaele Ihuoma.

NOTE:

 I make this two-page exception to my usual  one-page review series, subject, however, to  a 1,000-word limit.