kathy thai Reviews Novels From Farzana Doctor and Francesca Ekwuyasi for EVENT 50/1
kathy thai Reviews:
Farzana Doctor, Seven, Dundurn Press, 2020
Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
Thoroughly intersectional, honest and reflective, Francesca Ekwuyasi’s Butter Honey Pig Bread and Farzana Doctor’s Seven tackle trauma and healing in their respective diasporas and communities. Both novels are decidedly contemporary, featuring complex, genuine characters who navigate past and present issues, hopeful for a better future. These are educational, liberating and affirming reads.
While the events of Butter Honey Pig Bread take place in Lagos, Paris, London, New York, Montreal and Halifax, it is the unbearable silence following a number of traumatic events that becomes the catalyst for so much physical displacement. Ekwuyasi grounds her exploration of trauma and healing primarily within interpersonal and familial relationships, depicting protagonists who are plagued by their inability to discuss ‘the bad thing.’ Attaching itself to Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Taiye and Kehinde, this silence drifts across oceans and continents, morphing into neglect, loneliness, longing and regret.
Kambirinachi is born to a mother who has lost every child who came before her. Kambirinachi comes to believe that she must be an Ogbanje, a spirit that dies in childhood, leaving sorrow and anguish in its wake. Her desire to remain in the world of the living is at odds with the voices of her Kin, who taunt her throughout her life. They remind her that they too ‘desired to heal the wound of her leaving, and this healing required her return.’ Though she tries to prevent the misfortunes that continually fall upon her and her loved ones, Kambirinachi nevertheless becomes estranged from her daughters after they endure their own traumatic experience in childhood. Nearly a decade later, they return home with too much left unsaid.
Chapters alternate in perspective and oscillate between past and present. As the twins grow up and move out of Lagos, they learn more of themselves, their bodies, faith, art, food and the consequences of exclusion and seclusion. Taiye reaches out, often in the form of letters never sent. Kehinde withdraws, her hurt and indignation evident. Both seek out new homes, families, distractions and love—romantic, sexual, platonic, queer and/or straight. Meanwhile, Kambirinachi fights an internal battle for lucidity, straining to speak in her true voice. As the novel switches between narratives, we witness the ebb and flow of these characters’ physical and emotional proximity to each other and yearn for them to close the gap.
Seamlessly weaving historical fact and modern analysis into her novel, Ekwuyasi points readers in the direction of increased political and cultural awareness without overshadowing character development. Kehinde struggles to motivate herself to complete her undergrad degree in a program entrenched in neocolonialism. Taiye attends a conference where a land acknowledgement is given to recognize the unceded Mi’kmaq territory on which characters are discussing topics from ‘race and space in Nova Scotia to queering Indigeneity.’ Kambirinachi’s husband, Banji, works for an Austrian expat who founded a microfinance company to assuage his and his wife’s guilt. While they live in extreme comfort, Nigeria cycles through leaders who resign or are deposed, assassinated or replaced by military regimes. Details such as these are shared briefly, but expressed so poignantly as to make a lasting impression on the reader.
Ekwuyasi endears us to her cast of fully realized characters, lovers and friends with ease and has a talent for conjuring in us the same loneliness and longing that afflict her protagonists. Kambirinachi, Taiye and Kehinde possess distinct voices and personalities, which are established immediately. Perhaps it is because we get such a strong sense of these characters so soon that their portrayals in some later chapters felt somewhat formulaic. When provoked, Kehinde’s insecurities and resentment inevitably lead her to compare herself to, or feel suspicious of, her sister. Examples of Taiye’s innate magnetism are neutralized by her reluctance to take relationships beyond hedonistic pleasure. Rather than becoming significantly more nuanced toward the end, their behaviours remain relatively predictable, especially since they are consistently so self-aware and generous with their realizations.
Even so, the familiarity is comforting. We are welcomed into the minds of these characters and made to feel we know just what makes them tick. The prose that discloses their inner workings is consistently impassioned and moving. And as much as it is intent on investigating everything that can make a person feel hollow, Butter Honey Pig Bread is, as the title suggests, a decadent text abundant with meals and music. The book is divided into sections: ‘Butter,’ ‘Honey,’ ‘Pig’ and ‘Bread,’ with love and the methodic preparation of food being prevalent in each portion. Food serves as a device for recollection, a reason to gather, a way to feel full. Ekwuyasi’s striking debut novel enables us to experience ‘The kind of kinship established due to a common sadness, shared loneliness that becomes bearable through laughter and food and the good company of one who understands.’
Farzana Doctor’s Seven widens the scope, addressing the harms of silence, silencing and compliance as responses to trauma in the political sphere as well as within the personal, familial and communal. It does so gradually, coming from a place of learning and caution.
Seven focuses on Sharifa, a South Asian woman in her mid 30s who resigned from her high school teaching job to join her husband, Murtuza, and daughter, Zee, on a trip to India. Initially intending to spend this time homeschooling Zee and researching the history of the family patriarch, Abdoolally, Sharifa finds herself in the middle of a heated debate regarding khatna, the practice of female genital mutilation (FMG), taking place within the Dawoodi Bohra community. The novel opens in Mumbai, 2016, as Sharifa sits with her favourite aunt, Tasnim Maasi. They pour hot tea into their saucers, a tradition the two have shared since Sharifa was a little girl. Tension palpable, the scene introduces readers to a feeling that weighs on Sharifa throughout the book. It is a tangled desire to cling to one’s loyalties and the goodness of tradition while uneasily doubting this tradition and the strongly held convictions of loved ones. ‘I inhale courage and wishfully think that I can be loyal to Maasi and my mother, my cousin-sisters, and our daughters all at the same time,’ she laments. Her husband, Murtuza, later asks, ‘What’s being loyal to you?’
In line with the original intentions of Carol Hanisch’s popularization of the slogan ‘The personal is political,’ Seven grapples with deeply personal, sensitive issues regarding sexuality and FGM, progressively questioning the institutions, patriarchs and matriarchs that perpetuate the act. Sharifa laments that ‘while the men might have made the rules, it is the women, women I’ve loved, who’ve enforced them.’ While fiction addressing contemporary political issues risks being overly didactic, Doctor attempts a subtle approach, writing her protagonist as someone who is politically moderate and hesitant to engage with controversy. Shafira is busy maintaining her personal relationships; in particular, she and her husband are recovering from infidelity within the marriage. At most, she is able to skim and ‘like’ a post on Facebook to indicate her support for a cause.
Khatna is mentioned sparingly throughout the beginning of the novel, but is clearly positioned to be a central issue. There are hints—Sharifa is unable to enjoy sex, has nightmares about being devoured and feels that something is wrong with her—that make the numerous journeys from place to place to inquire about Abdoolally feel like they’re prolonging the inevitable. A reader who is quick to make connections might find it frustrating that Sharifa ignores the possibility that FGM could have happened to her. But this is not unlike real life. How many seemingly meaningless events and encounters must pass before we realize, sometimes too late, that they have culminated into something major? The reader might have an impulse to rush Sharifa through these stages of realization so that she may sooner find a way to heal, to take action.
Seven is largely effective in depicting a journey toward accepting that the personal is political, that societal oppression of women can lead to personal distrust and dysfunction. The book underscores how achieving personal liberation requires acting in unison for social change. Even the arguably weaker sections of the book pertaining to Abdoolally provide the reader with some access into the lives of his wives. This enables Doctor to connect the endeavours of women of the past with those of the present and future. The novel asks, how have women navigated the constraints of their societies to survive and perhaps liberate themselves and each other? If grief can be inherited, passed down through generations, can the same be true of joy? Of resilience and strength?