Culture of women's silence is coming to an end

09 Jul 2019
Karen King-Aribisala


We can only go forward as a nation; as a human race when male and female work together to realise a harmonious ideal.

Professor of English at University of Lagos, Karen King-Aribisala

Award-winning novelist and writer, Karen King-Aribisala, is a professor of English at the University of Lagos (Unilag), where she has spent over three decades as a lecturer. Her 1991 book, Our Wife and Other Stories, will be launched in Unilag on July 24th. She spoke with Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, and Martins Hile, Executive Editor, both of Financial Nigeria magazine, in this exclusive interview, which covers her writings and the impacts of literature on the individual and nation-building.  

Financial Nigeria (FN): Our Wife and Other Stories is a collection of twenty-seven short stories, which a reviewer describes as "extremely well-written, with flowing, witty and richly descriptive prose. Highly recommended." What is the provenance of your love of storytelling?

Karen King-Aribisala (KKA): Storytelling is my way of organising and structuring my thoughts, emotions and environment; and transforming these elements into a ‘workable reality’. It affords me the means of asking questions of myself and of others; of communicating with myself and others. On completion of a particular story, I am empowered to evaluate various issues from different perspectives and handle them more effectively. Storytelling is life-giving; it transforms dead reality into a vibrant living entity.

FN: To what extent does Our Wife and Other Stories introduce you?

KKA: Your question is very pertinent to my writings in particular. It is also pertinent to the often-vexed question of how much of a writer’s personal experience should be included or excised from the creative process. In Our Wife and Other Stories, I utilise my own experiences in Nigeria; from the perspective of a foreigner; and a foreign wife of a Nigerian.
The very notion of ‘our wife’ often colours the thematic thrust of the stories; ‘our wife’ is the term applied to a woman who marries a man be she a foreigner or a Nigerian. In the Yoruba culture specifically, a woman does not only marry an individual; she is married to her husband’s extended family.

This notion is in conflict with a more Western approach to marriage where a woman marries a man. One culture gives prominence to an individual union. The other to a communal union. For a Western woman, this situation often ironically gives rise to a sense of alienation. Her individuality and her individual union with her husband are subsumed by the communal patriarchal society.

The alienation attendant on this experience is, however, not confined to marriage. Nor is it restricted to cultural norms per se. On a general level, the ‘our wife’ issue provides a platform to question alienation; to pose answers to the challenges, which accompany this issue.  

Arguably, everyone has undergone some form of alienation at some time. Thus, while Our Wife introduces me as a specific example of alienation; it also questions alienation on a general level.

In essence, I imaginatively create something from what I have experienced, seen, heard, read; and transform it into another ‘form of consciousness’.

I believe that all writing is a form of fiction; one can never put all the facts into a piece of writing. I select facts to arrive at a particular premise of a story. Each fact of life becomes a kind of mosaic and all the bits are welded together to comprise a story. Some of the mosaic bits are facts and some are fictions. So Our Wife introduces me as an outsider/insider; African/Western; as a writer who utilises – as I think all writers do – her imagination to render fact into fiction.

FN: What have been your integration strategies, living with your husband, a Nigerian, in the country, for over three decades now – apart from writing this book to tell of your experience?

KKA: Integration strategies! Before coming to Nigeria, I was bombarded with horror stories of Nigerian life. But I was not afraid to come and live in Nigeria. Thankfully, my husband, Femi Aribisala, never thought of me as a foreigner; neither did I think of him as a Nigerian. I’m not saying that there are no cultural pressures to contend with in this often-patriarchal society. There are many. However, I was given the freedom to be myself; make my own friends – Nigerian and foreign.

In terms of language, Nigeria and Guyana share a British colonial heritage; English is the lingua franca of both countries. So, there was no problem on that score.

I was also fortunate that the Aribisalas – whom I first met in Italy – were not particularly ‘culture bound’. Rather, they were ‘open-handed’ and ‘open-minded’ with me. All this helped in making my stay here for the most part pleasurable. Rather than being ‘our wife’, I was to the Aribisalas ‘our Karen’.

Furthermore, Nigeria is comprised of over three hundred ethnic groups; each with its own cultures and languages. As such, the country can be regarded as being made up of different ‘foreigners’ even though they are all Nigerians. I see myself as a foreigner among many! I guess my integration strategy, if I have any, is to be myself and continue to have sometimes a not-so-good adventure and sometimes a wonderful adventure; but always an adventure!

FN: Our Wife and Other Stories won the 1991 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region). But in the following months or years after it was published, copies of it were hard to get in the West. Do you reckon the reason for this as a type of cultural tension, which was outside the scope of the book?

KKA: I’m not too sure whether it has to do with cultural tension. Books are difficult to circulate. One has to know the mechanics of promoting the book and so forth. I’m now trying to learn this side of the ‘business.’ It involves much hard work; and a knowledge of the book publishing industry.

FN: African literature is rooted in cultural identities. But sometimes these identities induce conflicts. Does African literature provide the philosophical underpinnings to foster social cohesion?

KKA: I think identities all over the world have the capacity to induce conflicts and, ironically, to resolve those very conflicts, too. African literature provides us with many examples of these apparent conflicts. Nigeria suffered a Civil War. Arguably, the situation emanated from ‘different cultural identities’ in conflict with each other. In fact, I was living here with my parents when the war broke out.

Many novels have treated the Nigerian Civil War even to the present day. The very writing of these novels, portray different ideological beliefs and cultures, which as I have said, might have caused or led to the conflict. However, these novels provide us with a framework of evaluation, discussion and dialogue; which I think is instrumental for conflict resolution.

Cultural details also have the capacity to divide and induce harmony. The Aso Ebi cultural attire of the Yoruba ethnic group is a case in point. It is the custom of friends and family wearing the same ‘cloth’ to show unity of the wearers. In my short story, Aso Ebi, from Our Wife – I try to show that this concept can be used to sensitise other groups and the world at large towards harmony. In other words, unity in diversity is writ large even in cloth.

Karen King-Aribisala
Karen King-Aribisala

FN: There was this optimistic, ending to the short stories with the cab man returning the lost watch of one of the women in the stories. How has that squared with your experience, teaching at University of Lagos, one of Nigeria’s elite tertiary institutions, for approximately 30 years?

KKA: The short story referred to is: A Question of Time. The cab driver represents a Nigeria, which is money-grabbing; corrupt; and concerned with commerce to its detriment. But this very cab driver/Nigeria holds itself accountable and compassionate to others on a personal level. In other words, it is only a question of time before these traits manifest in the polity as a whole. I believe change begins with the self, with the individual.

With regard to the latter part of your question – as you rightly said, I have been a lecturer at the University of Lagos for over thirty years. It has been largely a positive experience. I am not only ‘our lecturer’ but ‘my lecturer’ to my students!

On one occasion I was at the airport. An airport official refused to stamp my passport. He wanted a bribe. A former student, also an airport official, introduced himself and roundly told off the said airport official saying, “Prof. Aribisala was my lecturer at Unilag.” His words had the desired effect. My passport was stamped and I was given VIP treatment. If I were to write a story on that experience, I would call it something like ‘Higher Learning’. The teacher would be the student learning about commitment to another kind of educational process. It’s a question of time.

FN: The “Me Too Movement” has been more of a scandalised iteration of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (for gender equality). How are Nigerian women to go about a push for gender justice in the country today – against the paradigm of the 1990s, which you captured in your book?

KKA: I wrote more specifically on this issue of gender injustice in my most recent publication, Bitter Leafing Woman (Malthouse, 2017). How indeed can we go forward as a nation, as a world, given the often-detrimental inferior status ascribed to women? Significantly, the ‘Me too Movement,’ as it is called, is pertinent here. Perhaps, for the first time, women the world over are voicing their abuse; speaking as individuals and groups; daring to speak without fear of the atrocities and injustices, which are our lot.

The culture of female silence is being broken here, too, in Nigeria. We are being heard. We are being listened to. Action is being taken on many levels to jettison prejudice and injustice towards women. The culture of women’s silence in the face of oppression is coming to an end. Perhaps more importantly, men are part of the ‘Me Too Movement.’ As it was with such injustices of the Atlantic Slave Trade – those in authority; representatives of the powers that be are themselves taking it upon themselves to change the status quo. In other words, there is a recognition that ‘I is somebody else.’ That those very women, daughters, wives, sisters, mothers who are maltreated are their own daughters, wives, sisters and mothers. It is not a ‘we or an us against them’ situation.  

This is where literature comes in; writers imaginatively employ their writings to show through their narratives this essential truth. We can only go forward as a nation; as a human race when male and female work together to realise a harmonious ideal. This sensitisation can be effected through dialogue; by accountability; by jettisoning fear of the other whoever that other might be; both on individual and group levels.

FN: Education in Nigeria has been in a multi-faceted crisis since the last decades. In spite of the problems – which you may like to highlight – what is one of your most satisfying experiences in your decades-long academic career?

KKA: I have had many satisfying experiences in my academic career. I teach Creative Writing as one of my allocated courses. I gave the class a story to write, entitled: The Day the Fork Danced. To my chagrin, most if not all of the stories submitted revealed a lack of imagination. The students in the main, wrote stories about restaurants, called “The Day the Fork Danced.” It was as if they doggedly refused to imagine a world, a scenario where a fork could dance.

I told them about my misgivings and they submitted another set of stories; stories wherein forks quarreled with spoons; where knives were hostile and wanted to do all the carving and so on. In other words, they began to use their imaginations; they began to see life from different perspectives; they started to entertain notions of the seemingly impossible. This was most satisfying and humbling, too.

I was involved in not just teaching the rudiments of creative writing but also encouraging them to think outside of the box; to dare to imagine – as others had done and succeeded – walking on the moon, preferably with a fork dancing!

FN: As a literary scholar, how would you describe the cognitive benefits of studying literature and how can it be encouraged in a society like Nigeria where, as you already know, reading culture has considerably declined?

KKA: To my mind Literature is that one subject, which spans every discipline be it physics, economics, history and the like. The study of literature enables one to travel to different countries albeit vicariously and interact with peoples of different cultures; to examine different concepts and theories; to employ one’s imagination and to communicate what one has learnt and also add to the body of existing knowledge through research and analysis. Perhaps more importantly, it allows one to embrace different modes of expression and communication of different ideas. As such the cognitive benefits of studying literature are immense.

It’s true that the reading culture, especially in this day and age, is declining; it is a worldwide phenomenon. I believe we can encourage a more active reading culture by the standard ways of creating book groups and clubs at various levels; by encouraging students to read outside of their allocated texts, etc.

However, I think perhaps, the best way to promote a reading culture is to make it a holistic enterprise in its relation to other disciplines; by presentations – wherever possible – of people and offices, which have something to do with the text. The reading culture can also be promoted by using other media such as films to see the text in another light or from a different perspective.

In one of my courses, I teach Victorian poetry. One of the writers and writings treated were the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest. He is regarded as a difficult poet. However, on one occasion, I asked a Jesuit priest to come and talk to the class. The response of the students was enthusiastic; in other words, Hopkins beliefs, etc., were personalised.

This kind of ‘cross-cultural cross-learning interdisciplinary’ approach, I believe, stimulates reading in itself. One is not just learning about concepts but relating them to other life issues. My students are encouraged to link seemingly disparate elements, seemingly different literatures and writers; to appraise their uniqueness and their sameness.

As such, reading per se becomes exciting; essential to nation-building, individual-building and indeed world-building. It is essentially a certain sensitising of the other whether that other is an eagle or a fork or a person or a foreigner or one’s other self… the list, the joy, the communication with that other, is as nourishing of the soul and the spirit as it is endless.