Title: Night Dancer
Author: Chika Unigwe
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Number of pages: 263
Year of publication: 2012
Reviewer: Emeka Ugwu
‘If you wanted the sexes to be equal, you would erode women’s power, not the power of men.’—Yemisi Aribisala
‘Mothers use their cradle power in the strategic interest of female power.’—Anatomy of Female Power, Chinweizu Ibekwe
Recently, Chika Unigwe’s novel Night Dancer caused a bit of a stir on social media, when it was announced that it had made the long list of The Nigeria Prize for Literature. The reason for the controversy was that Unigwe – not her book – won the prize in 2012. Of course, it did not matter even a tiny bit that the issues her book tackles are germane. This idea that literary prizes trump the story, it seems, is already a foregone conclusion even though such a conclusion remains laughable. As this non-debate raged on, it became necessary to turn away from it and seek out those who had actually read Night Dancer.
It turns out, for one, the award-winning British writer, Bernardine Evaristo, not only made the effort to read the book, she was moved by the drama of the life of its female Nigerian protagonist to publish a review in The Guardian (UK) where she insists: ‘With Night Dancer, she continues her project of tackling big issues through superb portrayals of complex female characters, and immersing us in the drama of their lives.’ Certainly, it would have made for an exciting debate to hear voices contest the book’s inclusion on the long list for The Nigeria Prize for Literature because they disagree with Evaristo’s assessment. To do that, our debaters would have needed to seriously engage the book, not the prize.
That said, it would be difficult to disagree with Evaristo. Reading Night Dancer, we find that Evaristo is right to say Unigwe is one of the most probing and thought-provoking writers of contemporary African fiction. However, it would be useful to ascertain which of the female characters in the novel moved Evaristo so. Night Dancer is as much the story of Ezi, a young Nigerian woman, as it is the story of Rapu, the teenage housemaid. It is also the story of Adamma, Ezi’s daughter, who grew up not knowing her father.
Again, owing to the simple plot, it is fairly easy to come away with the impression that Night Dancer is basically a story about single motherhood. That would be a misreading. A suggestion that Ezi, Rapu and Adamma exhaust the list of the novel’s main characters would also be a misreading. The novel is very much a tale about power, inequality, matriarchy and feminism and, by every measure, the story of Mike, Ezi’s husband.
And so, if it is the case that the story impresses on the mind of a cautious reader the fact that Mike is one of four main characters, it would be incorrect to assume that ‘Adamma is born into social stigma – a bastard’ as Evaristo would have us believe. Adamma is the fruit of the union between Mike and Ezi. She is born in Kaduna, where part of the story is set, sometime in 1979. Ezi, her mother, upped and left her marriage when Adamma was only three months old because her paedophile father, Mike, impregnated Rapu, the housemaid, who was no more than fourteen years old at the time.
Within the first few pages, right about the time we meet Adamma in Enugu, another city where part of the story is set, we gather that she loathes her mother whom she cannot bring herself to forgive, chiefly for concealing from her the identity of her father. The second day after she begins to read Ezi’s letters, about a month after Ezi’s demise, Adamma pays a visit to Madam Gold, her mother’s confidante, where in search of ‘neat answers’ to questions about her father she says, ‘All my life, I sacrificed for my mother. Why could she not meet me halfway?’
It is while reading her mother’s letters that she comes to know that she has a father, a stepmother, a half-brother, grandparents and other relatives, that she was not born out of wedlock. It is at the same time that she reads these letters that Madam Gold also reveals her mother’s past to her, telling Adamma of the sacrifices Ezi made to bring her up alone, as a single mother, and persuades her not to judge her mother too harshly. Madam Gold tells of Ezi’s stubbornness and how her late friend always seemed to forget that ‘women are little people.’
Madam Gold’s sentiments here are not too far from those expressed by Evaristo, who recounts an exchange between Adamma and her boyfriend Obi, where in response to her request to go home with him for Christmas, he says, ‘Don’t be silly, Mma. Who would I say you were?’ Obi then goes on to conclude, ‘Without a father or male guardian, women are nobody.’ Evaristo and Madam Gold seem to imply that women have no power. These sorts of declarations are disturbing because they do not acknowledge female power.
Why excuse Ezi’s decision to punish Mike for impregnating Rapu by taking away his daughter and raising her single-handedly? Truth be told, while Mike’s action may be put down to his weakness, Ezi’s can only be put down to her wielding cradle power.
This same cradle power is precisely why Obi replies Adamma in the manner that he does. Obi had promised to spend the Christmas holiday with her, but later cancelled on account of his mother’s demand that he come home for his cousin’s wedding. To understand who rules – man or woman, seeing as ‘everyday of a man’s life, he is subject to the dictates of womb, kitchen and cradle’ – we ought to grapple with Chinweizu’s averment, offered here as our second epigraph. We need to understand that the lessons that mark a man for life are handed to him by cradle power.
There is no gainsaying the appeal of Ezi’s character for the New Nigerian Feminist, even though she was the housewife who did not have the stomach to fight Mike, who would not hear anything of her desire to work. It would not matter because once Ezi walked out of her marriage she never looked back. It would matter not that Ezi relinquished what Chinweizu refers to as kitchen power to Rapu long before Mike made that ‘stupid mistake.’ All that would seemingly matter is that once Ezi upped and left, she made a life for herself as an independent single mother.
Yes. It would have taken a whole lot of balls or hymen, if you like, to do what Ezi did in the Nigeria of the ‘70s, but why exactly is it that she is the only one considered brave, not Rapu of lowly birth whose own life mission is to raise her family out poverty? Even in the face of maltreatment, Rapu, to her credit, ensures that she is indispensable. In any case, Ezi’s treatment of Rapu and subsequent refusal to share the house with her and her son, after Rapu gives birth, highlights the problem of class and inequality, an issue New Nigerian Feminism has clearly failed to tackle.
Night Dancer’s greatest triumph is that it offers an opportunity to explore the lives of women like Rapu who, as Yemisi Aribisala says in her essay, ‘Sister Outsider’, have never had ‘intrinsic fuckability’. Rapu, like Aribisala, is among those increasingly few women who bother to acknowledge female power over men, and even though they have not been taken seriously by our New Feminists, she ought to remind us, in the words of the Nigerian actress Patti Boulaye, ‘most men are controlled by women’, that in fact women exploit men.
This is why any reading of Night Dancer that fails to account for the role of Mike’s mother, who not only wants a grandchild but a grandson, as instrumental to the reason why Ezi ‘chooses’ to raise her daughter single-handedly, is incomplete. For it is only when we acknowledge female power that the import of Aribisala’s declaration, which serves as our first epigraph, becomes self-evident. Night Dancer forcefully puts the question: which of the opinions held by women about female power is true? And it is for this reason that the book deserves to be read.