How to Liberate an Oppressed Society
Swallow grafts well into the sociopolitical context of Everything Good Will Come, and furthers its exposition of Nigeria. To demonstrate the importance of a healthy self-appreciation, Atta presents us with a character that exhibits no lack in that regard. Arike utters a surprising wish: “I want to be a widow.”36 The wish is stunning not only because of the age of the person who utters it—merely a girl—but also because of its wide-ranging implications. Why would a girl want to be a widow?
After her unsuccessful efforts to make her living in the ever difficult and corrupt city, Lagos, Tolani flees to her ancestral village, Makoku, where she reconnects with her roots by learning the history of not only her birth, but also that of the long line of strong women in her ancestry. We are taken through the backstories of Tolani’s lineage. Her mother, Arike, herself a woman with a strong character, had grown under the tutelage of another strong-willed woman, Iya Alaro, who lost her husband without bearing a child. Growing up, Arike admired Iya Alaro’s sense of freedom and responsibility, believing that Iya Alaro achieved all that because she lost her husband. This is the genesis of her childish desire to be a widow.
Atta hints at the visible and invisible obstacles in the way of women’s rights and dignities. The obstacles are not marriage or children; rather they are the expectations, norms, or mores that society has woven around the institution of marriage. Without a husband and children, Iya Alaro has no expectations/obstacles in the way of her self-fulfilment. She has time to herself, and can engage in trades that women with family obligations could not. When therefore Arike, having been influenced by Iya Alaro, utters her wish, it is not because she desires to get rid of men. Rather it is a demonstration of her longing for freedom and responsibility. These are traits of an individual who has a high self-regard. Even as a child, Arike signals her desire for agency, and in so doing placed far-reaching demands on society: the demand that she not be seen as a tool for others. She wants to relate to them on equal grounds. This is, perhaps, the most radical feminist thrust of the narrative, one that has profound implications for the liberation of society from the ideologies of tradition. It is also an important sociopolitical aspect of the novel, especially as we get to know more about the life of Iya Alaro, the woman Arike has imitated. One could also see in Arike’s wish some audacious feminist suggestion: if men stand in the way of women being who they desire to be, then it is only justified that a woman would wish to someday be rid of her husband, or possibly not to have one. Thus it is better to live alone than to be in an abusive relationship.
Like most Nigerian women, Atta is skeptical about being labeled a radical feminist.37 It is, however, to her credit that her ideas go to the roots of problems that violate women. It is safer to say that she writes with a strong sense of history; this is specifically the justification for Tolani’s going back to her ancestral home. After being assaulted by her boss in Lagos, she has nothing to fall back on but the significant people in her life: her mother, her grandmother. She goes to find out her history, and learns that it is a potent means to fight not only patriarchal but also political oppression.
When I say that Atta writes with a sense of history, I also imply that she is aware of what she is doing with the characters she locates in Yoruba cosmology. The idea of women’s agency is not foreign to the Yoruba world, and this is what Tolani has to learn. She has to know that she carries in her the blood of two generations of powerful women. We do not get Iya Alaro’s story directly; we get it filtered through Arike’s telling. Iya Alaro obviously was ahead of her time, and because of her self-confidence, people thought she had supernatural powers. In Arike’s words:
Women were not allowed to form secret societies as men did, but my aunt did as she pleased. People were afraid of her. They said she was a reincarnation of a witch who had long ago terrorized our town. The witch had no husband or children to speak of and was driven away to the forest. They claimed she’d brought bad luck, caused illness, and destroyed crops.38
When the new Oba (ruler) begins to terrorize Makoku, Iya Alaro gathers the women of the village and, using her power of oratory, reminds them of how the women of Abeokuta caused commotion for their Alake (ruler) and his chiefs. They too could cause troubles for their tyrannous Oba. Indeed the women listen to her, and they form a resistance group that is joined by farmers, fishermen, hunters, and Shango devotees. They carry tree branches and march to the palace, chanting. There they “informed the new Oba that the town would no longer tolerate the practice of forcing women into marriage.”39 They challenge the unequal power relation between the people and the Oba, and by implication that between women and men.
When Arike sits Tolani down to tell her stories of her past, we feel how Atta layers her narrative almost as a systematized social and political lecture. She seems to be telling the present-day Nigerian women (and men) that they have no reason to succumb to the tyranny of the political class. All they need in order to fight the gender and political oppression of their times is right there inside them, in their veins. Atta couples feminist concerns with those of a society under political oppression. Indeed, Atta uses fiction to enhance feminist and political arguments. Larry Diamond argues that: fiction is more than a passive reflection of society and history. It is also an active influence, reinforcing or refashioning values, beliefs, ideas, perceptions and aspirations. The teller of a story can become a powerful force in shaping the way a people think about their social and political order, and the nature, desirability and direction of change.40
I understand politics in its most fundamental usage as the art of organizing people or people taking an active part in the affairs of state. In Iya Alaro, Atta allows us to think of great black women in history who have fought oppression in their different ways. One thinks of Sojourner Truth, who believed that women had the ability to turn their world around if only they could believe in themselves. Like Sojourner Truth, Iya Alaro believes that rights are not gifts that could be handed out like candies. Rights are what they are because they are inalienable parts of every human being, and people should stand up to take what belongs to them. She used her co-op as a means of protecting women and children against the excesses of the men of Makoku, who, led by their ruler, were busy raising taxes and squandering them:
passing edicts and banning women and children from festivals, threatening even the smallest baby with a barren womb if her mother dared to break a taboo; and while people thought the royal court had all the power in our town, elders and men in that order, it was the women of my aunt’s co-op who were busy policing quietly and silently.41
In order to underline the relationship between human rights in private and public spheres, Atta has this story contrast with the modern instances of abuse of power in the city. Tolani, Iya Alaro’s great-niece, is the link between the present and the past. She too, has stories to tell about male abuse of power. In Makoku, she learns that oppression and abuse of power are not modern phenomena; they exist where humans exist. Every abuse of power, however, needs to be challenged. Arike’s stories about herself and Iya Alaro teach Tolani that women have not always been helpless. Quite to the contrary; women have agency, and they can put it to use if they believe in themselves. Arike concludes her story thus: “You see, we had our own ways of keeping our rulers in check, and they were quite effective, long before the oyinbos came along.”42 As if making a reference to Tolani’s office experience, Arike makes an incisive observation about power abuse and how it oppresses the victim. “Someone in power does something wrong to you and everyone treats you as if you are at fault. You yourself begin to feel you’re at fault. And for what? No reason. No reason at all”43 In the manner of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European writers, who ingrained the idea of human rights in the consciousness of their contemporaries, Atta uses her character to create awareness of the dignities of each individual human being, and the need to organize and fight oppression.
Fighting oppression is one thing, improving oneself in the sense of earning one’s living is another. Arike’s strength is in her ability to aim for higher goals and to be creative. She was interested in overcoming her selfdoubt. “I was consumed with creating innovative designs and trying untested methods of cloth dyeing.”44 In relating her story, Arike seeks to pass her tenacity on to her daughter. Freedom is won not merely by an act of “No” to oppression, but also by an act of “Yes” to oneself, yes to reality. The ultimate question for Tolani, as for all the women, is how to resist their erasure and assert themselves as humans with rights and dignity. Atta suggests that the first step for them in this regard is to develop love of self. Audre Lorde understands feminism as people letting free their erotic force:
The erotic is a measure between the beginning of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.45
When the group of boys rape Sheri (Everything Good), they not only inflict severe bodily pain on her; they also take her self-esteem. Sunny Taiwo achieves the same with Arinola, as does Mr Lamidi Salako with Rose and Tolani. Women react to their oppression in different ways. However, the most potent weapon against an oppressive system, in Audre Lorde’s understanding, is to discover the “kernel within myself.”46 Arike seems to be alluding to the same idea, not only in her stories to her daughter, but also in pointedly telling Tolani never to tolerate insult from any person: “If you sleep in dirt, you will eventually begin to smell like it.”47 What Arike tells her daughter applies without qualification to all Nigerians, who have accommodated themselves to indignities imposed on them by their rulers, and to all women in patriarchal cultures. Atta engages in a profound political and moral education of Nigerians. She carefully props up Tolani and Enitan as agents of feminist and sociopolitical transformations both on micro and macro levels. Though Tolani gives indications that she will take her mother’s words seriously, it is, however, in Enitan that we see a woman who is ready to discover her erotic force. She is prepared to confront her husband even if it means separating from him. Enitan’s understanding of self-respect, or love of self, to be sure, is not equal to divorce, yet she knows that if distancing herself from a husband who does not treat her with respect is all it takes for her to appreciate her life, then divorce should not be taboo.
Enitan never bases her happiness on what others think. Rather she is ethically informed and, armed with her fearless intelligence, she believes that whoever has a voice must use it “to bring about change.”48 She believes that the ability to make a change in society begins with the ability to affect a change in oneself and in the family. What Sheri and Arinola lack will be made up for in Enitan’s resolve to stand up for herself and those who look like her. She fought to get her father to transfer the house in which her mother lives to her mother’s name, and she did that with the goal of empowering her mother. In her own marriage, she maintains the same proactive stance in defence of her dignity; she insists that Niyi should change some of his patriarchal attitudes, and begin to see her as a partner in marriage.49 Niyi does not budge. But then Enitan has to move on. “Niyi was so tall,” she ruminates. “I’d always thought he deserved more space. The shrinkage I experienced was never worth it... He was fighting as though we were vying for the same cylinder of air: the more I breathed, the less there was for him.”50 It is the consciousness of the dignity of her body that grants her the courage to tell him that he is hurting her, and that she is not a mule of the earth;51 her body has the right to experience pleasure and avoid pains. At this juncture, she points to the possibilities open to oppressed people if only they could learn to appreciate their worth as human beings.
Tolani’s journey to her ancestral home not only exposes her to the strength of the women in her lineage; it also reveals to her the nature of the patriarchal order which has justified her oppression. In reconnecting with her mother, Tolani confirms the truth of what she has always suspected: that the man she had always known as her father was not her biological father because he was impotent, and that her mother did not perceive herself as a victim.52