Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a virtuoso at offering the gentle word that can break a bone. Her defiance in written words is as dense and mined as rich fruitcake.
Her publishers, Cassava Republic Press urge us to read her new book Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun for the protagonist, Dr. Morayo’s easy going fabulousness, for her zest for life and her road trips in her vintage Porsche called Buttercup, chatting to strangers and reminiscing about characters in her favorite novels. The disingenuousness of the spiel is exposed on brisk reading of the slim book and is stripped away and made preposterous by Ladipo Manyika’s riptide of multi-layered meaning in prose. Either the book’s contents are being seductively hidden from us or the book’s marketers and sellers are suffering from defensiveness and feel somehow pressured to sell the book as a hygienic adult bedtime story packaged in a bright yellow dripping sun book cover that will make you feel lovely and warm inside.
I am going to unapologetically fall to the other untrendy side of judging the book by its layers. Disregard the spiel as my advice. Read Like a Mule for no other reason but for the fit and feel of good prose.
I know that whether we like it or not, we (writers simply or controversially bound to the identification of African) are caught in a protracted political moment in time that began to tick away very loudly when Ben Okri accused us of being incarcerated by mental tyranny. We are in the travails of proving to ourselves that our stories are universal, human, and universally-human. A year and a quarter ago, Okri said that African writers were only considered for their subjects, more precisely, their never ending “issues” of colonialism, poverty, civil wars and slavery. African writing is never just about living. The accusation is not new or unwarranted. In response we lambasted Okri with unbridled exasperation. “We’ll write what we like Ben. Get off your opinionated high horse. If life is poverty, civil wars and slavery, should we lie that it is otherwise?”
Ben Okri in my opinion is right in pointing out that we are too self-conscious about the contemporaneousness of our writing, about ticking off a list of African-ness. Our need to prim and pose for global acceptability and readership often achieved by sprinkling disaster and “African scandal” in our writing, is barefaced and self-defeating. He is right that we are not so sure of ourselves, of how well rounded and full bodied the efforts of our vinification is; how fully formed the body of representation of our realities is articulated by a stressed-out and inadequately personified literary culture. It is mostly our fault that we are an unfortunate newborn literary culture. “Newborn” mind in-our-own-words, not- in-fact newborn. We say we are writing what we like, but are we? Does Ladipo Manyika have our wholehearted blessing to write a story that runs purely on the petrol of good prose? Are we really going to read her purely for the pleasure of consuming great prose? Sarah writes a good story. And all the parts of our literary culture should be moving in the direction of these kinds of stories, but we are still lauding the African story that puts ticks against all the boxes we are defending as our collective experience.
The proverbial road to hell is paved with all our beloved intentions.
In order to avoid “the issues” and the long worn dirty diaper Ladipo-Manyika’s publishers embraced the far side of the road until they fell into the gutters of ice-cream terms of references like “delightfully uplifting.” But telling us an onion only has one layer will never ever improve the edibility or delectableness of the allusive possibilities of a quiet story that is Like a Mule. The problems of the African literary scene not only concern the writer and her approach of subject matter, they have everything to do with the sophistication of the reader as well—with the conscientious reader of narrative being told from the mouth of “the African horse.”
I read Sarah Ladipo Manyika for the defiance running through her work. She writes what she likes. I haven’t yet read In Dependence her first book. I have read her short story published in the Ankara Press 2015 Valentine Day anthology. That story is about a woman in a Cantaloupe-orange dress and a bright blue silk scarf eating dinner in a restaurant opposite a balding love interest dressed in grey. The woman’s leg taps a dance between the wooden legs of their chairs, and there are private jokes being told between her and the man in grey that we cannot hear. She has one leg by the way. The story must be absorbed not pushed around with a fork. I mean that it is for the ear, and for the hidden internal pace at which listening and eavesdropping happen. A love story with one leg and shades of grey and private jokes—that’s Ladipo Manyika. I read her for her sotto voce rendition of a story. She won’t raise her tone even one decibel higher for recognition or ease of audibility. If you want the story, you must lean in.
Dr. Morayo is not fully the gregarious happy go lucky 75 year old springing over dirty San-Francisco pavements and gliding over the roads in her Porsche that the spiel tells us. She is a woman who lives alone in a top floor apartment dreaming up eccentric survival strategies for when her apartment building collapses. She is a retired professor of literature and a former wife of an ambassador who welcomes us into 500 Belgrave and talks in highfalutin cadence about beautiful views of eucalyptus and pine forests, of green Harrods mugs and excerpts from literary books. Better our demise from many words than hers is obviously the goal. She is compensating for and covering up a brawny fear of death and dying. Its aroma pervades the stretch of the book. Dr. Morayo’s mind has been fragmenting from the lack of interdependent relationships that can mirror her true situation. Her references to her beloved books are yearning hidden under name-dropping. Her conjured up lovers, all from the past, come to her in groups dropping in without order on her daytime fantasies. Her gregariousness is also a cover for a disintegrating ampule labeled “growing old gracefully”. She must convince us at all cost of her worthiness to live, to survive the precariousness of the apartment building at 500 Belgrave and the apartment of time she has inhabited on her own for years. She is so determined to fool us, even her flash backs give nothing away, our viewpoint doctored stringently as the one we are given of her apartment. She talks about a childhood visit to the optometrist at Kano eye Hospital—“I preferred to look at my own eyes reflected in his where they appeared shiny and beautiful, like strawberry jam drops.”
Ladipo Manyika must topple Dr. Morayo to tell the story. And the integrity of her writing convinces us that the toppling is not to save Dr. Morayo. The fall rescues us from the tyranny of the too long monologue. In the coarse arms of the problematic, the story reveals Sunshine, the good-hearted South-Asian woman who adopts Dr. Morayo. We meet the homeless woman who Sarah Ladipo Manyika grants a prophetic voice; one of the very few instances where Ladipo Manyika lets the hackneyed in the door. We meet Reggie and Pearl, the couple who give Dr. Morayo courage to take firm strides towards falling/fading/rationalizing; who give her opportunity to feel and express the traumas, the boundaries, the leadenness of her body.
Touissant is the cook that Dr. Morayo safely bounces fantasy against and comes up still-lucid and refreshed.
The back and forth of the book’s presentation of these characters is not at all smooth. There are many people all talking at the same time, rushing in to speak their minds—the transitions could have been easier, or better justified. At the very least it resembles the bombardment of life experiences and emotions and is effective in telling the story of a woman whose protocol of living her life for seventy years has rarely allowed the true voicing of trauma.
It is not only Dr. Morayo’s failed attempts at outwitting unresolved trauma by creating fantasies and Ladipo Manyika’s beautiful demonstration of what it is like to have one foot in the water of irrationality bordering on insanity that touches a deep nerve; Ladipo Manyika’s specific points of defiance are notable. They intensely interest me. One almost expects Ankara print to show up in a contemporary Nigerian story as a guileless identifier of the Nigerian or African. The same can be said with regards to holding an appropriate emotional opinion on the devastations of Boko Haram.
Last but not least the guest that never needs an invitation. African identity is often substantiated or parlayed in stories written by Nigerians and Africans. It is a searing hot topic that if handled well will gain the fixation and adoration of global readers. Ladipo Manyika refreshingly disappoints expectations, or is it more accurate to say that Dr. Morayo reaches and fails in all the parameters of appropriate responses. Boko Haram is not central to the narrative of her life, and her attempt to touch the situation is bungled and discarded. She gives us an earful on African fabric, but for the sake of nostalgia and color and fantasizing about a place where she can find an apartment in Ikoyi over the internet! Her African fabric has the aroma of Lagos markets—diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood.
Dr. Morayo’s Nigerianess or Africanness isn’t enhanced by the wearing of the fabric. She is in fact Nigerian because she tells us she is. She could be anyone alive anywhere in the world. In human failings, Ladipo Manyika creates a universal woman with hopes and regrets and failures. With present fears and unspeakable traumas, and negotiations of an aging body.
I can’t pretend to understand the meaning of Ladipo Manyika’s title, nor am I invested in the metaphors of driving the Porsche all over the pages of the book. I am grateful for the simple integrity of Ladipo Manyika’s story that does not patronize the reader, and the smoothness and confidence of her prose. For those who can’t stand one more earnest anthology of African stories (in one famous African writer’s words) pretending not to table all the African issues, Like a Mule is a breath of fresh air, and a successful creation with respectable words of a human being living in the world.
A University of Lagos professor of English once gave me a firm knuckle-rapping that transformed how I read, and now I must loan it to the reader of Manyika’s work. She said to me “Don’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved with an Africa Magic mind, for violence and prurient pleasure of seeing the dead come back to settle accounts with the living. Forget all that nonsense – read her for the moral justification of brutalizing another human being. Feel in your bones the perfection of a mother taking her child’s life. Read Morrison for the honest to God rationale of obligatory violence.” I needed this advice badly – I was reading Flaubert with a “Get to the point” beat in my head. I’m talking about the education of the reader – discarding the “I am now reading/writing an African book” mindset – how vigilance in writing should extend to reading because the contamination of self-consciousness works both ways or all ways. Toni Morrison investigating violence isn’t black writing or African-American writing or slave writing. It is human writing about human issues. I don’t believe the end product of our African wine making was ever supposed to be no-issue merlot. Good wine made from good words will do.
Like a Mule Bringing Ice-cream to the Sun reminds us of the feel of a good story told for the sake of the story. The point in the first instance was the story.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s photography by James Manyika
About the Author:
Yemisi Aribisala is a writer and a lover of good food. She has written about Nigerian food for over 7 years; for 234Next, The Chimurenga Chronic, and at her personal blog, Longthroat Memoirs. Her essays on food are a lens through which the complex entity of Nigeria is observed. Yemisi has also written essays on various topics including Nigerian Christianity and identity. Her essays can be read online under Yemisi Ogbe.