Writings of the general word's body

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Adichie on Ekwensi

In the Review section of today's Guardian, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers Cyprian Ekwensi, who died recently.
In the testosterone-fuelled political and cultural scene of 1960s Nigeria, Ekwensi wrote novels that looked at the world through female eyes. The women did a lot of hip-swinging (and in People of the City, one is described as "a real danger to men's moral loyalties") but they were often wonderfully bold. The Igbo character Lilia in Iska, for example, confronts her Hausa husband's Igbo killer much to everyone's surprise: "Why do you young men go about spreading hate, allowing politicians to use you? They are in their mansions . . . you are sleeping in your own excrement."

In my favourite of his novels, the eponymous Jagua Nana (nicknamed for the English luxury car) is an ageing sex worker whose exaggerated sexuality is of the brassy, chain-smoking, body- baring sort; she helps her ambitious boyfriend get his education in England, she houses a homeless girl at the club, gives away most of the money she finds, makes peace between two feuding families. She is also full of contradictions and always interesting, by turns confident and self-questioning, gentle, resentful, hateful, clever and humane. The liberal use of her sexual charms to get what she wants verges on caricature - in Ekwensi's novels, women endlessly place the hands of men on their breasts to great success - as we follow her picaresque journey. Ekwensi's engagement with sexuality is refreshing, though, because it lacks the pursed-lip restraint of much of the Nigerian fiction of his time and, even more remarkable, has female characters acting as sexual initiators. Men are often helpless in the face of this, bringing about much unintended humour, such as when Jagua's lover seriously muses about liking being "molested by her" and another lover is described as "mumbling incoherently and sucking at her lips like a child of six months".

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