Writing through the eye of the West: Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer

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This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer is a western perception of the African family setting where the African women are being marginalised and allocated a place of lesser importance in the scheme of things

African literature and indeed world literature would miss Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta – who had walked out of our sphere not too long ago – but even before their deaths, we have seen promising female writers ready to take their place. And these young ones seem in a hurry to surpass their predecessors. At least, the few that I have read include May Ifeoma Nwoye (Oil Cemetery), Maryam Bobi (Bongel), Molara Wood (Indigo), Grace Akpan (Spider Web), Dumebi Ezar Ehiagator (The Spider Web), Ama Darkoo (The Housemaid), Ifeoma Okoye (Chimere), Chika Unigwe, and of course, America’s very own darling, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With the exception of Molara Wood and Grace Akpan who I still find quite difficult to compartmentalize, the others are gracefully staunch feminist writers and funny enough, their brand of feminism no longer seeks a truce with patriarchy, it wants a total takeover!

So, I just finished reading Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer published in 2013 and I must say that the story is an exciting read, if not for anything at least for the setting. Most Nigerian novels in the past have had their settings in happening places like Lagos, Kano, Ibadan, Onitsha and Abuja. So, it is nice to read a novel set in Enugu and Kaduna; although I did not get to see much of physical Kaduna as I saw Enugu physically in the novel. And one cannot say she is a pacesetter in this respect; Enugu has always featured in Nigeria novels narrating the experiences of the Civil War (of which Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is not an exception). In fact, Enugu and Nsukka have appeared in most of Adichie’s stories lending credence to the fact that a writer does not usually write outside the experiences that condition his or her being, I think I also saw Enugu in Ifeoma Okoye’s Chimere. Well, the good thing is that readers now know there are more beautiful cities in Nigeria aside Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan and Kano, cities like Enugu – kai, I should visit that city once again!

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Well, Night Dancer tells the story of Ezi, a fiercely independent woman who damns her husband as a result of infidelity and went on to carve out a space for herself in a world that reserves no milk of kindness for a beautiful young woman with a daughter whose father is at large and who against all sense of propriety chooses to remain single and bring her daughter up against all odds. The story begins after the demise of Ezi, and her daughter, Mma, discovers snippets of memoirs left for her by her mother which she has to piece together through the assistance of Madam Gold, her mother’s best friend. Mma is sour with her mother for never telling her about her father, for not letting her know what it felt like to have a father as she grew up, for living the brazen life of a prostitute and subjecting her to the mockery and torture of friends and schoolmates who labeled her the daughter of a whore and would not wish to associate with her.

Mma was able to reconnect with her mother’s parents who had pushed their daughter out when she chose to abandon her husband’s home in Kaduna because he impregnated the house maid, Rapu. She would then locate her father in Kaduna also. What irked Mma was not the reunion but the fact that she had to approach these people and apologise for her mother’s misconduct and that was to her unacceptable, for her mother is the wronged one. She, it is who should be apologised to yet the Igbo culture makes it so that it is the daughter who must apologise to the parents and her husband. It is all a touchy feminist affair and has a lot of comments on the patriarchal aspects of the African culture.

You see, our young writers have gone outside the shores of Africa and have lived in societies where parents apologise to their children, where the husband accepts responsibility for his misdeeds and tenders his apologies and where women are free to walk out of a marriage at will and they want same replicated in Africa. Now, those are lofty and noble ideals and they are ideal for not just the African society but for every human society, I cannot agree more. What I am against is the way the writer joins the west to condemn these cultural practices without explaining the wisdom behind those cultural practices.

While I agree that Mike is wrong to have impregnated his house maid, I dare say Ezi gave grounds for such a relationship to occur. She is so lazy that she allows the housemaid run the affairs of her home for her. Rapu cooks all the meals, takes care of the husband and understands him better than Ezi, who is the wife. So while Ezi lost touch with her husband and left her duties as a housewife to Rapu, the girl did not hesitate to grab her chance with the boss, especially if such a chance came with the possibility of becoming a second wife and having a share of Mike’s wealth. Ezi took the whole thing too far by leaving her home after discovering that Mike has had a child with Rapu. I am not saying she should have forgiven him and let life continue but her exit was executed too quickly. She let Rapu take over her home. She should never have left without knowing what precisely she wanted to do with her daughter and their means of survival. Ezi is an egocentric person and the truth is that she hardly cares about others except herself!

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I must also say that I find it against societal moral standards that she should prostitute herself to get rich. Feminist critics are always quick to point out to African male writers that the stereotype of successful single African women in their stories are usually paramours and not women who have succeeded via stints of hard work and perseverance – these critics find it difficult to forgive Cyprian Ekwensi for the depiction of women in his stories and Emecheta condemns such women through the character of Adaku in her novel, The Joys of Motherhood. Given this fact, why then do feminist writers persist in encouraging such image in their novels or is it only right when the writer is a female? Ezi has a university’s degree before she met and married her husband but she never puts it to use and she let her husband cajole her into lazing herself around the house doing nothing. When she left her husband’s house, I expect that she would tough it out, get down into the mud and get dirty seeking a job and making her success from there but no, she went borrowing and the pressure to pay back made her succumb to trading her flesh for her survival as well as that of her daughter. It is obvious she could not endure a life of penury for too long. What worries me is that literature often influences life and such characters as Ezi are hardly what one can encourage modern young ladies to be like.

Now in every African society, respect and age is not to be joked with. Chika Unigwe made it appear as if it is only the female child who apologies to her parents and seeks forgiveness from them even when it is them who have wronged her but nothing could be further from the truth. It applies to both sexes as a man does not expect an elder or father to say to his son “I am sorry,” the son must save the parents’ ego by initiating the move first, he must seek forgiveness and expect them to forgive him not because he is wrong but in difference to their age and out of respect.

The same applies in marriage also. While I agree that a husband and wife are equal, I also know that two captains cannot control a ship at the same time. My people would say that when two irons hit each other, one must bend for the other. There is nothing wrong if the woman initiates the peace move even when she feels she is not wrong and when the man says “I am sorry” the woman must know that he is performing a greater miracle than that of moving mountains! The wife should believe him, work towards avoidance of such mistakes in the future and learn to forgive. We hurt ourselves more by not learning to forgive and this is the case with Ezi, she might have had all the money she wanted but she had no one to stand by her, even as she died. The yoke of divorces and broken homes hanging over our societies need to be broken and I do not see this happening when both partners see themselves as equals. There should be respect for each other, yes, and the man must also learn to make the first move for peace but if he does not, the woman should. There are things we should learn from our aged parents concerning marriage and living together that we are obviously not learning!

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Chika Unigwe’s Night Dancer is glossed all over with the western perception of the African cosmology without making any attempt to explain the philosophy behind such ideals or even defending it as Grace Akpan does in Spider Web. She painted the African world as a world that has no respect for the female gender. Unigwe purposely killed Ezi’s mother before the family’s reunion with Mma and painted Mike as an unfeeling husband and father to justify the western theory of the African women being marginalised and allocated a place of lesser importance in the scheme of things.

It is an irony that after everything, the character of Mma, just as that of the eponymous character in Ifeoma Okoye’s Chimere, seeks solace in the system which the writer writes against (patriarchy) in order to be confirmed an accepted member of the human society. Mma was tired of not knowing her father and family and she really wanted a father figure who would at least stand in for her on her wedding day when people began asking whose daughter and from which family she hails from.

On the structure, I think I like the memoir style and would have loved it even better had the story been more structured on the memoirs, instead the story was narrated in the third person narrative point of view through the eyes of Mma, then that of Rapu and then back to that of Mma. You will also agree with me that the novel needs another round of editing to eliminate the typographical errors which hampers a smooth reading of the text.

Despite all, Chika Unigwe is a writer I would like to read again, if I find another book of hers. For now, she is not yet a match for Adichie but let us see if she would come up with something else to impress me.

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturdays!

Series Navigation<< One day in the life of one man: A review of E. C. Michaels’ Dawn to DuskBiafra must be conquered: Olusegun Obasanjo’s My Command >>

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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