I wonder where in the discussion of the condition of books (particularly fiction) in contemporary Nigeria would Karen King-Aribisala's Our Wife and Other Stories fit? The collection of short stories was published in 1990-91 by Malthouse Press (in Nigeria, according to my copy), and won Best First Book (Africa region) in the Commonwealth Writers Prize competition in 1991. King-Aribisala, born in Guyana, was at the time living and teaching in Nigeria. The collection of stories is currently out of print and that may be an unfortunate but understandable case of a publisher's decision not to print copies of a book that is not in demand. But might there be other reasons for its absence from the international online "shelves," some of which perhaps concern its most recognizable theme of cultural alienation, and the nationality of the author?
Before that last question can be fully answered or considered, another factor should be addressed. For it is quite possible that though Our Wife and Other Stories is not available to us in the US for purchase, it still enjoys a healthy shelf life in Nigeria, but copyright issues may be preventing its publisher from making it available online. The owners of Cassava Republic, a publisher based in Nigeria, pointed out that though there has been a lot of international demand for the books they publish, they only have "Africa rights," which present territorial boundaries for their books. [Read full article here]. If some of Malthouse Press's books (Our Wife and Other Stories included) are barred from international shelves because of copyright issues, then this essay would lean towards a completely other culturally alienated world, so to speak--a much less interesting world for a lit blogger, I confess. So back I go to the more arbitrary and abstract.
At the heart of Our Wife and Other Stories, as King-Aribisala describes in a brief introduction, is the theme of cultural alienation--an abstraction which nevertheless has concrete resonance for her protagonists, who are immigrants in Nigeria, and who feel (real or imagined) they are outsiders, cultural and otherwise. King-Aribisala's protagonists are all female--Nigerian, West Indian, and European--and their stories are compact, short explorations of the theme, and perhaps best show how a close look at the dynamics of their marriages can be useful for examining some of the complexities of their condition of alienation. But King-Aribisala's protagonists aren't all married women; some are researchers and academics and there is no mention of their marital status. Their experiences outside of marriage give a broader range of culture clashes in the collection.
The first story in the collection is appropriately (for an optimistic start on a "marriage" of cultures) one about an engagement ceremony between a West Indian woman and a Nigerian man. The West Indians (The Brownlows) are unfamiliar with the details of the traditional Nigerian ceremony, and are tense and anxious to please. They are described as a "worthy family of good taste and fortune," but the narrator / bride-to-be adds, "It was true that as West Indians we did not have a cultural leg to stand on." The West Indian family has nevertheless put on a spread for the ceremony, which takes place in Rome:
Heavy curtains of beige hung from the windows. In one corner of the room, cabinets of teak and mahogany gleamed with crystal and the finest bone-china. And a carpet had been newly purchased by my mother for the occasion. All her savings were poured into it. It was Persian, with beautiful circular and octagonal designs, full of Eastern mystery. Hardly the setting for a traditional Yoruba engagement ceremony.
The nervous, anxious mother-of-the-bride is horrified when at the end of the ceremony (and the story) the Adelabu elder performing the ceremony spills an entire bottle of good wine all over the fine Persian rug. This first story works structurally as the opening "engagement" with the subject of culture clashes and presumably an opening attempt to engage the reader as well--Rome, Nigeria, West Indians of good fortune, any guesses who? In this initial moment of engagement, the awkward tensions between the two families, caused by a lack of knowledge, are masked by pretensions, and the spilled wine on the expensive rug (possibly deliberate), followed by Mrs Brownlow's reaction are a typical mix of the attitudes and tones--mocking, jocular, anxious, disruptive--used to describe culture clashes throughout the collection.
Once they are married and living in Nigeria with their husbands, King-Aribisala's foreign female protagonists experience many forms of cultural barriers and try to identify them. They are not always successful at making identifications. One wife identifies (as her barrier) the man who guards her home and whose job it is to protect her from possible intruders. She is unsettled by his actions--he frequently ignores her calls, he shaves his head in the yard, he pees in public--and sums it up as the general problem with Nigeria: "There's no bloody order here. Nothing. No one knows his rightful place. No wonder the country's a mess." In her adversarial stance, even the landscape --"...so vulgar . . . No subtlety..."--is an opponent. That she is a white woman and possibly sexually attracted to the man she finds so despicable, and he to her, gives the story an additional layer of complexity. But when she attempts to resolve her problem by asking her husband to fire the guard, he thinks she has misjudged the man and refuses to do so. Her story ends with her in an unresolved, agitated, powerless condition.
Another wife imagines her concrete foe in the borrowed cultural clothing she wears. At a celebration for the dead, she suffers under the wrapper of heavy woven material (asoke): "It zagged and cut its edge into my alien unaccustomed flesh, until every movement was agony," she says. But for her, there is some comfort in knowing the senior wives in the family, who view her as a foreigner, do not mind her reluctance to join in the dancing and food serving required of her in the celebration. It gives her a chance to rest her damaged heels for some time and to observe her surroundings. She eventually gets up and participates in the ceremony despite her pain because she recognizes a similar kind of suffering in the eyes of the woman whose husband had died. And as she dances and serves dutifully, she imagines she too is bravely enduring her pain.
Other foreign wives fear the local woman and are constantly made aware of the maxim that "Nigerian women will do their utmost to steal your husband from you . . . Nigerian women don't like foreign women. Especially those married to Nigerian men." Some of the foreign wives in the stories accept this as an inevitable truth and permit polygamous marriages or accept their husbands' extramarital affairs. The foreign wives who refuse to believe the maxim are forced into its truth nevertheless. One initially jealous wife embraces the trio of companionship she experiences as a result of her husband's affair with a Nigerian woman. Another, who tries to prevent her husband from having a mistress by becoming a "good Christian wife," eventually realizes that even faith couldn't move "mountains of buttocks" (her view of her husband's mistress, I might add).
The foreign women who enter Nigeria with views of love as adventure or with romantic notions of the country's (continent's really) capabilities for yielding cultural riches, or for individual self-discovery are rudely awakened and are forced to realize they didn't come equipped for the emotional and physical warfare which they encounter. The women who are most likely to survive are the ones who, as wives, find ways to negotiate within the possessive culture of marriage. They do so mostly by forming connections with other women and by maintaining a contemplative space between their initial romantic view of the place and their newly discovered reality. The same attitude is required for survival by the women who enter Nigeria as researchers desirous of making cultural connections and / or of self-discovery.
For the cultural researcher, the realm of the supernatural presents one area of distancing between cultures. A Guyanese woman compares her cultural obeah with Nigerian Ju-ju in a half serious manner as she acknowledges the importance of the supernatural in certain cultures:
...Their brand of black magic might be more potent than ours, I reflected. The West Indian variety is probably watered down. After all, it's quite possible that over the years, we West Indians forgot crucial ingredients in our obeah. Our black magic was only a branch, a by-way; they were the source, the main road.
This idea that one culture is a weaker (subset) of the other--the West Indian one a branch, the Nigerian one the main road--occurs elsewhere in the collection. A West Indian woman is questioned by airport officials in Nigeria as she seeks entrance based on her academic status:
The officials are relentless. "Where are you from?"
"Ikeja," I say stupidly, gazing at my African brothers.
"This is no time for nonsense. What country?"
"I'm West Indian. My ancestors are from Africa."
"Are they now? Well Miss West Indian of African ancestry, you can't go in. We cannot allow aliens to come in here just like that."
The woman contemplating the differences between obeah and Ju-ju, and the woman mocked for her claim to African ancestry are both mostly dismissive of the cultural comparisons which relegate them to a lesser position. They choose to remain attached to their common, but uneasy "brotherhood" with "African" people. One of the women describes the forged anguish of her condition: "I feel manacled to these brothers. Soldered, sewn with ancestral wing of ancestral tissue and blood..."
The author makes two appearances in the collection (both times as a writer / researcher), which may serve to drive home the idea about maintaining a creative space (so to speak) in order to negotiate as someone who is / feels culturally alienated. In one appearance, she talks to a black American woman (also living in Nigeria), a woman, she says, who thought she had "magicked herself into African woman," but who is considered Oyinbodudu skin by African brothers--a term indicating Atlantic difference and divide. The woman's particular "magic" act appears to be that she is accepting of polygamy because "there are so few black men around it only makes sense to share our men with other women," she explains. The narrator / author responds, "My Karenesian eyebrows raised. Share my man with another sister? Not this sister. I'm not that black." It is, thematically speaking, a point of negotiation between buying wholesale, and maintaining a safe, reflective distance. And as if to show why her skeptical distancing is necessary, the narrator relates a Nigerian woman's comment on their conversation: "Yes. You people come over here thinking you can be more African than the Africans."
In another appearance, the author is in a cab and is confronted by a Nigerian man, a "soothsayer" of sorts, who tells her she will die in seven days. He offers her a chance to change that inevitability which requires her to spit in her hands. She is skeptical:
My thoughts mused. I spat in my hands. I, Karen King, spitting in my hands? For what purpose? To write a short story? To get to the bottom of fears and superstition? To unravel the knot of ju-ju, of evil forces in the world which I could not, did not, ultimately want to know about? Man is evil. That is the only indelible fact I need to know. Never mind how the West was won. Those exploring Europeans also decimated several Amerindians to win the West. That was the degradation of the human spirit. Their spirit.
This lowereing of my spirit could not result in anything positive. And so I shouted at the top of my voice, "I don't believe a word you're saying."
She is put out of the cab for her actions, but it's another kind of bargaining moment that she wins on her own terms. And, of course, she doesn't die in seven days as he predicts.
The final story presents (for interpretation purposes) the collection's culminating idea on cultural alienation, and a heavy-handed "time is of essence" runs through it. At the start of the story, the protagonist, a foreign woman living in Nigeria, is in a hurry to meet up with her husband before he leaves on a trip. Because she's in a hurry, she enters a taxi cab she wouldn't normally travel in: Its color is the "common yellow of Lagos taxis, but its yellow was anaemic and sickly. The taxi was dying. It was only a question of time." And like his cab, the taxi driver appears "diseased . . . His cheeks were sunken and mal-nourished, throwing into sharp relief his neatly etched tribal scars." The woman's desire for speed or quick forward movement is out of her control. She is powerless as a passenger jammed in with strangers and stuck in traffic. Along the agonizingly slow journey are signs of the country's ills and ironies: the radio broadcasts ads for a "War Against Indiscipline," sponsored by the new government (by way of a military coup); the ads exhort Nigerians to avoid bribery (among other ills), meanwhile the cab is pulled over by police and the driver has to pay a bribe to get back in traffic. He overcharges her for the trip, and in her aggravated haste, she spills the contents of her purse and realizes once she gets in her house that she is not only too late to see her husband off, but her watch is missing. She is immobilized by the thought that the cab driver stole from her and goes to bed--stops time for a while, so to speak. But her sleep is interrupted by the cab driver who comes to her house to return her missing watch. He refuses her monetary award for returning it, and as he departs she notes, in a renewed view of his humanity, that the once anaemic yellow of the cab "seemed to be gradually changing into a vital healthy bloom of energetic yellow . . . sun-yellow . . . The taxi was still gagging and wheezing in its peculiarly asthmatic way, but I knew with a solid certainty that sooner or later it would see a return to health. It was only a question of time."
In this final story, as in the collection overall, the abstract and the concrete are juxtaposed: time and movement with the physical, political condition of the society; quick with slow; distance with closeness. The foreign woman's desire for quick movement to close the gap between distances (between where she begins and her home and husband) is hindered by her mode of transportation and by her physical circumstances. Her desires and frustrations are those of the collective foreign womens' experiences in Nigeria. And it all looks rather grim until the taxi cab driver returns her watch. His act is a simple but interpretively loaded moment in the story. His act changes the area between her perception of him and who he might actually be. His act also reduces the abstract notion of cultural alienation to a more concrete person to person interaction, where it is made clear that a simple act can change a mindset. The collection ends on that note, which stretches out the positive message of the small act. But by the time you get to that final moment in the collection it certainly does not feel like a simple reduction. It is--structurally, thematically speaking--a well-earned moment, a necessary return to civility.
My final note on Our Wife and Other Stories is a plea really. As I mentioned in the beginning, it is currently out of print, or at least unavailable through online shopping sites. If it is available in Nigeria, maybe it is accepted as part of the range of diverse African experiences, available through text, that local publishers claim (Cassava Republic, for example) to be aiming at providing for local readers. But perhaps its award-winning, unflinching, and still relevant fictional explorations of culture clashes and alienation are more suited to a wider (diaspora) audience. My appeal to Malthouse Press is to consider that wider audience. I'd be the first to order copies.
--cbsnews.com [Article, January 2012] : "Nigerian Authors Look West to Gain Their Fame."
"Unfortunately, no matter how well the book is written, writers who come into prominence, come into prominence because they are recognized by the West," says Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
--Langaa-rpcig.net [Article, April 2010] : "Feeding the African Imagination: Nigeria's Cassava Republic."
Bakare-Yuuf: “A lot of the books published in the West tend to apologize, in my view, for the African experiences and reality, and overemphasize the more negative aspects. We’re focused on stories about Africa, which show daily life, and we need to constantly be reflective of the diversities of our experiences.”
--The Africa Report [Article, December 2011] : "Book Ends and New Beginnings in Publishing.
"Prolonged economic stagnation means publishers are increasingly risk averse. "Five years ago, I could have got £20,000 ($31,000) for a good first novel. Today, I'd be lucky to get half that," says David Godwin, the literary agent who brought Indian author Arundati Roy to global attention – and got her a $1m advance in the process. "I think publishing is going through a rough patch. There's a loss of confidence. People are much more cautious," he says.
--signifyinguyana[Blog, April 2008] : "A Review of Karen King-Aribiala's The Hangman's Game.
"The novel makes startling and not-so-startling comparisons between a slave society, and contemporary Nigeria. But what makes it a compelling read is the narrator/writer whose anxieties over the novel she is writing, the child she is carrying, her questions about religion, her role as a wife, and her upper-class life in a sharply stratified society keep you wondering page after page if she would eventually lose it."