Daughters Who Walk This Path
by Yejide Kilanko
Pintail, Penguin Group USA
Review by Leigh Cuen
In her debut novel, Nigerian-born Yejide Kilanko conjures a family of women growing up and becoming mothers in Nigeria. A series of interwoven stories connect these women’s emotional strength, the complexities of prejudice, and the network of support between mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Kilanko manages to make this empowering feminist narrative natural and personal rather than ideological.
The story begins in Ibadan, a city in southwest Nigeria. It is the early 1980s and Morayo, the young daughter of a middle class salesman and a seamstress, welcomes her baby sister into the family. “That was the day that afin [pejorative term for albino] exploded into my life,” Kilanko writes.
Relatives accuse Morayo’s mother of allowing evil spirits to enter the womb and make baby Enjayo pale-skinned. This is Morayo’s first encounter with discrimination with in her culture. Her mother teaches her how to love her new sister, Enjayo, and ignore superstitions. As they grow, Enjayo’s companionship becomes “as familiar and welcome as the sun in the sky.” They explore all the daily adventures of childhood, peppered with the sights, smells, tastes and landscape of Ibadan, golden balls of fried akara, guava trees and brilliantly colored fabrics. Until one day an older male cousin, Bros T, sneaks into Morayo’s bedroom and rapes her with such physical and emotional brutality that Morayo feels her spirit floating away from her body and gazing down with horror at a familiar face on the bed below. “Her terror-filled eyes stared away into nothingness,” Kilanko writes, “her mouth open wide in a silent scream.”
The secret sexual abuse and the torment of her cousin’s intimidation and threats, become an invisible wall between Morayo and her family, especially her mother and sister. Morayo grows increasingly isolated. On the cusp of puberty, the once vivacious, carefree child sinks into despair. She has a miscarriage in her early teens. Later she learns that other women in her family experienced similar violence, sexually assaulted by male family friends or relatives, and one of her family members are products of these rapes.
Then the histories of different characters begin to interweave. Kilanko does a remarkable job of including multiple perspectives and narratives without losing focus or confusing the reader. Her dialogue is clever and believable. Her book is simultaneously thought provoking, incredibly complex, and yet effortless to read. The journey’s become circular, alluding to the cycles of human experience.
In one such scene, a mother tells her wounded daughter that facing the truth and surviving is remarkably courageous, that the women who came before her love her and will support her: “We are the strong women of Omu.”
Together, these valiant women navigate their way through traditional cultures in transition, war, corrupt local politics, cross-cultural relationships, lost love, workplace discrimination, motherhood, illness, and natural disasters.
Kilanko has built a narrative that transcends location and time by combining the overlapping stories of many characters, which undergo similar dramatic change in different places and distinct times across Nigeria, from urban to traditional communities, and all the grey spaces in between in post-colonial Nigeria. At the same times, all the characters are rooted in the same bloodline and the same home, forming a single braided narrative.
In this way the lives of the characters, the choices they make and the struggles they face, are constantly in immediate contact with reflective stories from the surrounding women. The book slowly adds layers until the entire plot is a kaleidoscope of eloquent memories telling a similar story, with exquisite variations. Each chapter opens with a proverb, and includes occasional quotes from books that inspire the different characters, framing her novel in an inter-textual sphere, the connections between cycles lies at the heart of her tale.