Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin

A couple of years ago I remember going to the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) for my first ever Nigerian movie.  The movie was titled "Abeni" and I remember being totally regaled by the spectacle: the colour, the melodrama and the sheer number of people cast in the movie!  Nigerian films are very joyous things indeed....with a LOT of dialogue from which you get a sense that the Nigerian people are a very vocal lot...also, they are sentimental with a flair for drama and exaggeration and a healthy belief in is these traits which always make for very fun movies and/or books based in that wonderful country.

Anyhow, I digress, the only reason I brought up "Abeni" is because when I picked up Lola Shoneyin's book, "The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" its big patriarchal family with the head of the household who thinks he's the big gun but whose strings are being subtly pulled by the wives ( yes,"wives", because Baba Segi, our protagonist, is a polygamist with four wives) and the entertaining theatrics of this family of 12 members immediately transported me to the excitement and drama of Nollywood.

Let me introduce you to the wives:

Iya Segi is the first wife or the Queen of Wives.  Even though she is as round as a watermelon and probably on the bad side of forty, she is wily enough to command Baba Segi's mind, if not his heart. She is the one that disperses the rations in the household and keeps all the other competing wives under control.  Iya Segi is an excellent businesswoman and loves the feel, look  and scent of money.

Iya Tope, the second wife, is meek in comparison and unable, or maybe unwilling, to take charge of anything.  She is more than happy for Iya Segi to call the shots. She is happiest at home braiding her daughters' hair or watching television. She is totally non-confrontational which makes her stick out like a sore thumb amongst this chorus of characters who seem very able to get what they want. Unfortunately this habit of not wanting to confront anything or anyone makes her unwilling to stand up for injustices in the household.

Iya Femi  is the wife I liked the least, but probably the most interesting of them all. Born a Muslim she converts to Christianity and when she arrives at Baba Segi's house she has a belly of fire and brimstone. She is the kind of person who (probably because of her miserable childhood) is happiest when plotting revenge on people. She's the kind of person who suffers from schadenfreude - happiest when someone else is miserable.

And then there is Bolanle.  It is not just her education (the other wives are uneducated) that makes Bolanle different, but it is also the fact that of all the wives, Bolonle was the only one that Baba Segi deliberately chose to marry.  The other wives were either gifted to him or they gifted themselves.  She was also the youngest and the least competitive of the lot.  You would have thought that  these characteristics would make her Baba Segi's favorite wife, but it transpires that she is barren and since children is all that Baba Segi cares about he turns against her...not for long though for there is a secret waiting to be unearthed which turns the entire household on its head....

"The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" is a treat to read with a plot and storyline that will
 alternately horrify, amuse, and bemuse its readers. But at the same time, its breezy tale urges a degree of compassion for the women of Nigeria as it is plain to see that even with economic opportunities on the rise women there are not always fully appreciated in that male-dominated society.

The novel is also is a startling but beautiful evocation of a Nigerian woman's inner world: of the little village girl whoso wanted to be literate; of the young woman filled with yearning to be loved by a young and handsome man and of the wife who comes to harbor a dangerous secret. But it is also a heartbreaking portrait of  the institution of marriage in Nigeria, especially the polygamous kind and the role women play as wives and co-wives. It also put under the magnifying glass this "obligation" to produce an heir, especially a male heir. A woman can be uneducated or ugly as sin and she will find a husband but if she's barren she may as well be a statue for no one has any need of her.

Lola Shoneyin is not just a writer to watch - she's a writer to follow.  You'll be saying the same thing once you read this fine novel.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Harper Perennial; 354 pages; $14.99 paperback

This is not a review, just a write-up:

I had never heard of Malena Watrous' "If you Follow Me" when it came to me by mail from Harpers Perennial, but its opening pages which contained a very sweet letter addressed to Malena Watrous by her Japanese minder in his charming Japlish seduced me and I knew I wanted to read more.

"Dear Miss Marina how are you? I'm fine thank you. A reason for this letter is: recently you attempt to throw away battery and jar and some kind of mushroom spaghetti and so forth, all together in one bin. Please don't try "it wasn't me." We Japanese seldom eat Gorgonzola cheese!"

I searched the net for reviews (something I don't usually do before I read a book) and fund them uniformly positive so  decided to give it a whirl and before I knew it I had breezed through 150 pages in a single sitting (almost unheard of for me these days!).

Here's a tiny synopsis so you get a feel for what the book's about:

Hoping to outpace her grief in the wake of her father's suicide, Marina has come to the small, rural Japanese town of Shika to teach English for a year. But in Japan, as she soon discovers, you can never really throw away your past . . . or anything else, for that matter.
"If You Follow Me" is at once a fish-out-of-water tale, a dark comedy of manners, and a strange kind of love story. Alive with vibrant and unforgettable characters--from an ambitious town matchmaker to a high school student-cum-rap artist wannabe with an addiction to self-tanning lotion--it guides readers over cultural bridges even as it celebrates the awkward, unlikely triumph of the human spirit.

The book is everything the publishers say it is and more.  It is semi-autobiographical, a love story, and a story about loss and learning to cope, but it also reads as an expat journal detailing interesting and obscure details about Japan and the Japanese that only someone living there would pick up on.  For instance, the Japanese fascination with rules.  You get the feeling that Japan is a very law-abiding country and they have little or no patience with foreigners who will not follow rules.  It took several epistolary rebukes from Marena's fellow “sensei,” or teacher, Hiroshi, who has been assigned to supervise her presence in Shika, about the "gomi rules" (garbage rules) before she caught on and started following .

What did I like about the book?  The honesty.  I felt like Watrous never tried to cover up her faux-pas or faults.  She was the tall, bumbling foreigner in Japan, who could only speak a smattering of Japanese, and she never tried to be anything else.  She has also has a wacky and dry sense of humor and is game to poke fun at herself as she  stumbles through life in Japan, but it's not a "laugh-a-minute" thing like we are used to seeing with travel writers like Bill Bryson, J. Proost.   Also, she really does want to teach the kids English but her progress is marred by the fact that she doesn't always "get" the culture, or what is or isn't acceptable in Japanese society.  Also, there is a kid (a previous hikikomori or a shut-in) who seems intent on sabotaging her time in Japan, not to mention the boys she teaches in the technical college who, because they don't see their futures improving with English, refuse to cooperate during the lessons.  They sit half-naked in class and their previous teacher left on account of sexual harassment. This brings up quite an interesting point actually....while Japan may be a country of social conformity, there are the exceptions or rebels who truly stick out like sore thumbs.

Also, while all of this is going on, Watrous is trying to cope with personal losses on two fronts:  the suicide of her father and the break up of her relationship with Carolyn, the girl she followed to Japan.   However, the book is not without its warm and funny moments like the gatherings at the "Hottorondo" or hot springs where colleagues gather and chat naked around the hot tubs.  I have heard this is similar in Finland that has a sauna culture, but as a Indo-westerner,  I am not sure I could frolic around naked with my colleagues and then work with them the next day!

Then there is the Japanese wedding she goes to:  unlike most weddings which are noisy, joyous occasions, Japanese weddings are sober and reflective in comparison.  Malena is given a long oral list of rules to follow while she is at the wedding, but, ofcourse, not belonging to the culture she finds it impossible to follow the rules and just has fun instead!

She also touches on a lot of issues currently affecting Japanese the high rate of abortions, the shut-ins and issues that are peculiar to Shika only.  Shika being a small town ......... the city is constantly losing its young people to bigger cities for work, also, Shika is the site of two nuclear power plants

This book has been reviewed by many bloggers before me and I give you some links (below).  As you will see, some have loved the book and others haven't.  Read it and decide for yourself.  I would say it would be an immensely helpful read for anyone interested in learning about Japan and especially for someone who would like to go teach there.

Malena’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS

Tuesday, March 9th: Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, March 10th: Take Me Away (and interview)
Thursday, March 11th: Life in the Thumb
Monday, March 15th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, March 17th: Stephanie’s Written Word
Thursday, March 18th: nomadreader
Monday, March 22nd: Books and Movies
Wednesday, March 24th: Book Chatter
Tuesday, March 30th: BookNAround
Wednesday, March 31st: Bookstack