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Richard Cumyn: Oji Decides (And More’s the Pity), A Good Name, Yejide Kilanko.

Yejide Kilanko’s latest novel, A Good Name, is a page-turner written in simple, unadorned prose. The novel moves linearly through short chapters without flashback and is so compelling that, for this reader, the writing all but disappears. The story takes on new urgency around a third of the way in, when, after her wedding, an arranged marriage, in the Nigerian village of Oji, 18-year-old Zina travels to Houston, Texas, to join her husband, Eziafa. At first, Zina is excited by the prospect of life in America. Eziafa, 37, originally from Oji, has lived in the U.S. for twelve years. Forced to leave a lover her age back home, Zina feels compelled to obey the wishes of her and Eziafa’s families. Over the course of seven years, however, Zina gradually turns away from her marriage. The novel suggests many reasons for the erosion of her affection for her husband, their age difference being the least problematic in the list.
An online search of the term “arranged marriage” will uncover a slew of romance novels with predictably salacious titles. A Good Name, no bodiceripper, is far superior in subject and execution, but it does raise two questions: What makes the idea of a woman bound against her will to a man she didn’t chose such popular reading? and Why consume a story that has been so often told? In answer to the first, I would guess that gender inequality must produce perverse pleasure in some readers. To the second, with full respect to the serious intent of A Good Name, this is uniquely a Nigerian American story that deftly dramatizes the immigrant experience.
Yejide Kilanko brings an upbeat sensibility to the telling, peppering contemporary, idiomatic English with Igbo and Nigerian pidgin phrases. One minor complaint: the glossary of Nigerian terms included at the back of the book is frustratingly incomplete, although, for the most part, this does not overly impede comprehension. More effective are the apt proverbs that serve as section titles for the three main parts of the book. “When drummers change their beats, we the dancers must change our steps,” for example, is advice from Felix, Eziafa’s best friend, about how to navigate the choppy waters of modern marriage. Another: “No one gets a mouthful of food by picking between another person’s teeth.” Eziafa, who has given a good portion of his youth (and part of a finger, in a meat-processing plant) to the pursuit of a better life, wants a governable wife, children before he gets much older, and a big house in Oji where he can accommodate his mother and sister. While he feels ever stronger the burden of expectation, as a supposedly successful transplant in the land of opportunity, to send money home, design and build a mansion, and give his mother the grandchildren whose existence will be the most tangible proof that her life has been worthwhile, Zina’s experience is the opposite. Obligation to her old life doesn’t hold her in its grip the way it does Eziafa, and therein lies the nub of their incompatibility.
The third-person, character-specific narrative of A Good Name strives to balance the central marriage’s two perspectives. Not surprisingly, Yejide Kilanko’s heart sides with Zina. This is, after all, an account of outrageous imbalance in gender relations. We are told early in the novel that in traditional Nigerian society the accepted belief (or party line, repeated as often by women as by men) is that only wives cheat on their husbands. Eziafa’s mother: “My beliefs do not matter. Oji decides. We women commit adultery. You men are the unfortunate victims of your excesses.’” During Eziafa’s return to his village, he sees a woman strip naked and act crazy in the street. This way, she can properly atone for her sin of having strayed outside her marriage. We are told that a husband who has sex with his unfaithful wife before she has undergone a “cleansing ceremony” in the village stream will go mad. Treated as lesser, faulty beings, the women of Oji and similar societies need their stories not just told but screamed angrily from the rooftops. Furthermore, smug residents of Obodo Oyibo (White man’s land) shouldn’t think that such paternalistic attitudes can’t worm their way into our lives; recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court would indicate otherwise.
Early in their marriage, when Eziafa relents and lets Zina have her own bank account, she is described as emerging from the building “with a huge smile.” She understands the extent to which a “lack of knowledge kept her in bondage.” While her husband moulders, passing long days ruminating on the living room sofa, fussing over the specifications of the outlandish Xanadu of a house he is trying to have built in Oji, Zina is a sponge for knowledge, mastering the art and science of nursing care, learning about the intricacies of love and friendship in a strange new place, and discovering the solace of personal autonomy. She doesn’t detach herself completely from traditional Nigerian beliefs, though. Feeling guilty about having had an extramarital affair, Zina thinks that if she stays in America she will be “free from retribution” because “land spirits like their ancestor, Oji, [are] unable to travel over water.”
When a co-worker, Elinma, is murdered, Zina retreats in shock to her car, where she wails a traditional dirge for the woman: “Obu onye k’anyi na ancho?” (“Who is it that we’re looking for?”) Elinma is nowhere to be found, Zina cries. Elinma “left for the land of plenty and didn’t come back home.” Zina knows that the same might be said for her. If she ever does return to Oji, she won’t be the same person who left to join the man others had chosen for her. Over the course of seven years she has matured, learned a profession, adapted to American ways, fallen in love and forged an identity separate from her husband, who has remained comparatively static. Like Emma Bovary, Zina has her ‘Oh, why, dear God, did I marry him?’ moment, but what leads to it and how it seals her fate is a much different story to capricious Emma’s, an important one that should be widely read.
— Richard Cumyn
is the author of nine books of fiction, most recently The Sign for Migrant Soul.