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Setting helps tell dark story

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RAPE, miscarriage, shame, disease, death against a backdrop of political violence and corruption.

Ontario-based Yejide Kilanko tackles some tough subjects in her debut novel. Daughters Who Walk This Path has its weaknesses, but it presents its difficult aspects with an impressive lack of sensationalism.

Kilanko gives us the world through the eyes of her protagonist, Morayo. The story starts when she is five. Morayo grows up in modern-day Nigeria, with loving but strict traditional parents, a sister who worships her and aunts who provide a strong sense of female community.

But when her cousin Bros-T moves in, that community is shattered. Bros-T repeatedly rapes his younger cousin over the course of a year and when Morayo finally speaks out the family is torn.

Morayo's story, very simply told, reads like a memoir. It can feel a bit plodding: this happens, then this happens, then this happens -- much like a child telling a winding story before getting to the point.

Kilanko's writing lacks the insight of American Alice Sebold's memoir of the aftermath of her rape, Lucky. Kilanko attempts to explore themes similar to those in African-American Alice Walker's acclaimed novel The Color Purple, especially the idea of a woman developing her identity in a world that enforces her sense of shame and self-loathing. But she never really manages to transcend the very heavy material.

But what does work, on several levels, is the setting, Kilanko's hometown in Nigeria. Morayo's story is universal and women around the world will relate. But the choice to set it in Nigeria adds a strong metaphorical level to this story.

Nigerian proverbs set the tone for each chapter: "If one has been told that a bird can eat one's eyes, when one sees the tiniest bird, one take's to one's heels" or "It is the same moon that wanes today that will be full tomorrow."

The country Kilanko showcases is speeding down the modern highway, but is also very much tied to traditional roots. Much like Morayo's family, those roots are both comforting and constricting.

Morayo's story is set against a backdrop of family gatherings, with all the food, dancing and laughter that connect families and communities. Kilanko captures the way Nigeria is embracing the old and the new in passages such as this one describing a joyous bride:

"Adanna was stunning in her gold-laced puffed blouse and navy-blue George wrappers. The blue and gold damask head tie fanned out from the top of her head like a satellite dish."

But there is the darker side to Nigeria. Bombed-out cars sit on the side of the road. Soldiers kidnap women from markets at gunpoint.

And Kilanko offers a truly mind-boggling depiction of political corruption, which she uses to cleverly make a point about the dangers of staying silent and the power of standing up for yourself.

 

Joanne Kelly teaches journalism at Red River College. Follow her on Twitter @joannemkelly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J9

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