Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
In her latest novel, A Good Name, Yejide Kilanko has delivered a fantastic view into the lives of Nigerian expatriates in America. Her narrative of the dreams of independence of a young Nigerian woman and the sense of failure and inadequacy experienced by her older husband. These are the elements of catastrophe, of violence nurtured by patriarchy, tradition and a distorted sense of honour. It is a powerful portrayal of the immigrants’ netherworld between two continents.
University-educated Eziafa Okereke’s twelve-year sojourn in the United States has brought him little more than owning his own taxi. Gone are his dreams of becoming a professional and earning great wealth. Now in his forties and still near the bottom of the ladder, he longs to settle down with a woman and start a family—a way to continue his good name. At first, he wins the affection of Jovita, a thirty-something real estate wheeler and dealer. The independent ways of the beautiful American-born Nigerian woman are in many ways fresh air for Eziafa, although her several past relationships make her less than the ideal candidate for marriage. He overcomes this prejudice and decides to marry Jovita. When he informs his ageing mother of his intentions, the latter forces him to renounce his plans because of a decades-old feud between his home village and that of Jovita’s family. Reluctantly, he also agrees to return to Nigeria to choose a bride from the young women in the village. Eziafa must go into considerable debt to pay for all the presents expected by his extended family; after all, he is an “American” and must be rich. On top of that, the bride’s price and wedding will push him even further into debt. Nonetheless, as soon as he steps onto the plane back home, there is no going back, and cowardly, he does not even inform Jovita that their engagement is off.
Among the numerous candidates vetted by his mother, eighteen-year-old Zina Nwoye is not on the list. Zina plans to go to university and marry her high-school sweetheart Ndu. Marrying a middle-aged man and leaving for America is nowhere in her hopes and dreams. But when Eziafa sees her walking in the village, his mind is set. Zina’s family is poor, and a good marriage to a “wealthy American” is economic salvation for them. So, her parents agree to the marriage in a flash, but Zena still loves Ndu. Zina’s resistance begins to falter under pressure from her parents, who would never agree to her marrying Ndu anyway; his family is even poorer than hers. When Eziafa promises Zina that he will let her go to university in America and, after that, open her own business, she relents. And Eziafa is exuberant at marrying his perfect bride.
Eziafa’s plans for family life in America are not quite what he has promised Zina. First on his agenda is educating his wife on how to behave as a proper wife, and restricting her freedom is the first step. He then leverages small doses of freedom against her agreeing to his other plans. Eziafa’s backtracks on his promise to allow Zina to attend university, and instead, coerces her into studying nursing at a community college. Her income as a nurse will play an important part in paying off his accumulated debts. Pregnancy before Zina becomes her husband’s cash cow is also definitely out of the question. So, Eziafa marches his wife off to a doctor’s office to put her on birth control. Despite Eziafa’s controlling nature, there are patches of warmth and affection between the two as Zina accustoms herself to her new life in America. Some readers might wonder at times whether the story might be headed for a happy ending after all. Such is not the destiny of our protagonists, but I won’t say more here as not to spoil the novel for its readers.
The strength of the novel is not its plot per se. Indeed, this could have been the story of many immigrant couples from traditional societies. It is the depictions of America seen through the immigrants’ eyes and of life in their home village that are really enchanting. In a word, this narrative is as authentic as it gets. The author’s skilful use of dialogue, adorned with a host of Nigerian words, also draws in the readers, even before looking up their meanings in the book’s glossary. The frequent use of hyperboles and exalted language is deftly done, perhaps because of their novelty. Indeed, Nigerian stories are hardly saturating the North American fiction market. In the end, this is a tragic story, although not one where the reader is prepared to spread the blame evenly. Long after putting the book down, this calamity of Shakespearean proportions leaves vivid images of Eziafa and Zina etched in the mind of the reader.
A Good Name is published by Guernica Editions.