Wahala by Nikki May
I was really looking forward to reading Wahala by Nikki May which was released in the US earlier this week. Having lived in Lagos and London at various points in my life, I was keen to read a piece of fiction that centered on characters who had a similar background to mine. Alas, it was not what I had excitedly expected it to be.
Don’t get me wrong…Wahala is a well-written book and an easy and enjoyable read. The story is set in London and centered around the lives of Ronke, Simi and Boo – who have been friends since their university days in Bristol. Narrated in alternating chapters from each woman’s perspective, we get to know intimate details of their lives and struggles and more importantly the fragility of their bond which is revealed when a fourth woman (Isobel) is introduced to the friend group and begins to rock the boat so effortlessly.
There is much to like about this book and a lot to question. They may be small issues to some people but as a Black African and a Nigerian, I guess I am hypersensitized to certain things.
At one point a character in the novel refers to “Nigerian slaves.” This might be a throwaway remark for some people, but I think we need to get to the point where we begin to recognize that human beings were kidnapped, traded, and enslaved, starting in the mid-17th century. Referring to them as slaves not only dehumanizes them, but it also diminishes the magnitude of the crime that was done and the impact that it continues to have centuries later.
In another scene, a character refers to Nigerian naira as ‘not proper money.’ While the naira might not be considered a heavyweight currency by global standards, it is proper money to millions of people. And then, there is a scene where one of the characters is having a conversation with her father and he refers to her as ‘ololufe’ – a Yoruba term of endearment that is reserved for lovers.
The issue of colorism is rife in this book. I must admit that others are probably better placed than I am to tackle that, but I will say this much, as someone who grew up in Lagos and subsequently lived in London, I can tell you that it is rather unusual if not incredibly odd for a group of mixed-race women of Nigerian heritage, majority of whom spent time growing up in Lagos, to be bosom buddies with only other mixed-race women. More than anything, is this the sort of thing that we should be promoting and celebrating in literature or elsewhere?
I am really pleased that an increasing number of Nigerian women writers are making their way into the mainstream literary world. Yet, like some contemporary novels that I have read in the recent past, I came away from reading Wahala with a strong conviction that while representation matters, the way we are represented in fiction and elsewhere matters even more. For a lot of people, their first introduction to our world is in fiction and I would not want anyone to go away thinking that Naira is not proper money (it is) or that it is okay to refer to our ancestors as slaves (it is not).
The issue of the lack of diversity in the publishing world is one that continues to affect the sort of books that are published. Lee & Low’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey results show that only five percent of the publishing gatekeepers are Black/Afro American/ Afro Caribbean. In 2015 when the survey was first conducted, that number was four percent. I have to pause here and say that Black Afro American / Afro Caribbean people have a different cultural orientation than Black Africans. That’s probably an issue that will have to be saved for another blog article.
As most authors are wont to do, Ms. May thanks her editors at the end of the book, I looked them up. They are both white women. I found myself thinking that perhaps if the book had benefited from a little more scrutiny from another pair of eyes that were more culturally aware and culturally sensitive, then perhaps certain things would have been nipped in the bud. I cannot imagine that a Black editor would have been comfortable with some of the things in this book. I attended one of Ms. May’s book events, as she is promoting her book and I was really drawn to her delightful spirit. If she ever reads this review, I hope she takes my comments in good faith. I am coming from a place where I really would like us to pay more attention to the small but mighty details which could have an enduring impact on the way Black Africans show up in the world.
And to end, here are The Spirituals singing Wade in the Water: