On Becoming: Should African Women Share Their Stories Too?
This Article Was First Published In December 2016.
Should African women share their stories too? This is a question I have pondered several times. I pondered this question about two years ago when I shared a collection of my unpublished personal essays with a Nigerian friend, who suggested my “emotional outpouring” belonged in a diary. I pondered this question when the UK Guardian published a personal essay Chimamanda Adichie wrote about her experience with depression. The Guardian quickly retracted the article over consent issues, but it had already made the Internet rounds. Many Nigerians criticized Chimamanda for overshare— an excess they deemed tolerable only for a woman with her celebrity and western influence. It’s a question I’ve pondered while reading and re-reading non-fiction works by Nora Ephron, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Gilbert, Caitlin Moran, Lena Dunham, Iyanla Vanzant, Sloane Crosley, Demetria Lucas, Helena Andrews, Rachel Held Evans, Jen Doll, Sarah Bessey and others. Lost in the pages of these memoirs, autobiographies and personal essay collections by western female writers—old, young, black, white, celebrity, obscure, religious, agnostic—I sometimes find myself yearning for more third world bodies. It’s a question I’ve pondered most recently, with the release of Toke Makinwa’s memoir: On Becoming.
I first wrote about Toke Makinwa last year. The 32-year old multimedia personality is currently one of the most influential African celebrities, particularly on social and new media: she has over 4 million views on YouTube and 1 million followers across her social media platforms. Toke rose to prominence as a radio host, and has gained increasing fame through her YouTube series (‘Toke Moments’), her TV gigs, and her fashion repertoire. À la Kim Kardashian, Toke broke the Nigerian Internet last year, when gossip blogs broke news that her husband had a longtime mistress who was expecting a baby. The story was particularly scandalous because Toke gives relationship advice on her vlog. She remained mum on the issue until the release of her book last Sunday. In less than a week, On Becoming has become an Amazon bestseller and a trend on Twitter.
A little over 100 pages, Toke’s coming of age memoir quickly chronicles her journey through loss, love, hurt, shame, faith, and healing. While there are other notable anecdotes—such as Toke’s heart wrenching story of watching her parents die—On Becoming is by and large her story about loving and leaving (over and again) a man who cheated on her (time and again) for a dozen years. My social media feed has been abuzz with people discussing, arguing and reflecting on the book. In the midst of the online cacophony, one recurring question stood out to me: Should she have shared so many details of her story?
For better or worse, overshare is part of the zeitgeist. As Rachel Thompson writes in The Rise of the Personal Essay: “The rise of personal essays is symptomatic of our digital age...Surely literature too is a public arena? Why not carry forward the same no-filter level of sharing, lay all your cards on the table, and turn those Facebook likes and Twitter favorites into literary prizes?” In a world where western female writers are recognized and rewarded for their detailed personal accounts of dating, divorce, weddings, abuse, sex, diets, faith, the contents of their handbags and the depths of their hurt—surely, African women deserve space, too? At a time when personal first world narratives are encapsulating and defining global culture, shouldn’t African women be throwing their hats in the ring? And hey, if Beyoncé can turn lemons into lemonade by singing about “Becky with the good hair”—perhaps Toke has the right to do the same by writing about Anita with the good skin?
For far too long, we have clung to the tradition of keeping our dirty laundry in-house within African communities—and so many women are suffocating from the stench. I agree with Nancy Mairs who writes in Remembering the Bone House, “the proscriptions traditionally placed on a woman’s speech foster feelings of shame that lead her to trivialize her own experience and prevent her from discovering the depth and complexity of her life.” How many women must suffer from swallowed secrets before we stop silencing them? I can’t help but think that if some woman, somewhere, determines to walk away from a toxic relationship, or to find purpose in a painful place—On Becoming serves some good.
This does not mean that I do not have my criticisms of the book. On the technical side, there were typos and grammar errors here and there. Chapter 10 titled ‘The Other Woman’ consisted of blank pages (although that might be Toke's way of saying she has nothing to say about her). Timelines were not always clear. For example, Toke doesn’t explicitly state how old she was when her parents died or when she met her ex. There are also narrative gaps. For example, Toke jumped from her struggles pursuing a TV career in London to her stardom in Nigeria, but I would have loved to glean more about the in-between. On the substantive side, there are ethical questions surrounding the privacy of people mentioned in her book. Joan Didion once wrote that writers are always selling somebody out—it’s an issue most non-fiction writers grapple with. In my opinion, motive is what matters here. Are the non-fiction author’s stories about others fueled by revenge or the need for truth? And is truth being told with compassion? Perhaps the one thing I believe Toke owed her ex in this story is more character development: the only dimension revealed in the book is of his infidelities and insecurities, but what sides of him kept drawing her back (besides his "ability to beg like his life depended on it")? What aspects of his background could have fleshed out his behavior? There was also room for more self-reflection from the author. She briefly discusses her “daddy issues” and also examines her role in the demise of her marriage—but I would have liked for her to delve deeper into the thought processes and societal norms that led her down the aisle in the first place, after a decade of gbeses and red flags. In the final chapter (‘Healing’), Toke launches into a bit of self-help and advice proffering—the book doesn’t need it, in my opinion. In short, On Becoming is not without its flaws and holes. But overall, I believe this book represents progress for non-fiction genres in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.
Truth is not without consequence, particularly in a country like Nigeria. By sharing her story in the detailed manner that she did, Toke didn’t just disrupt cultural and gender norms: she put her body and brand on the line. When the personal forms a narrative—it is impossible to criticize the work without criticizing the writer. The very act of Toke opening up her life to analysis and criticism—in a culture where the norm is to protect men and blame women—is courageous. As the African proverb goes: Until lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
At varying points of On Becoming, I felt frustrated with Toke. Why did she keep going back to Maje, year after year, Zainab after Aisha? While I could not understand her relationship choices, I could empathize: there have been chapters of my own life covered with shame…chapters that make no sense. But even in those chapters, I have been met with God’s love and grace. One of my favorite lines from On Becoming is where Toke writes: “They say God hates divorce, but God loves you more.” Yes and Amen to that. Thank God we don’t have to look like what we’ve been through. In Your Life As Story, Tristine Rainer notes that autobiographies “may be a way to recall that although each of us gets a different life story—a different piece of the puzzle—our tribe needs the wisdom of us all for our truth to emerge.” It is through sharing our different stories that the collective wisdom of the human tribe comes to fore.
Yes, we need books from women African writers about war, the immigrant experience, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, and more. Of course, we need fiction. But the personal is also political, and there is a literary space for daily lives as they exist—for the messy real. I can’t help but wonder: how many women are reading On Becoming at this very moment and realizing that they are not alone in their mistakes and experiences? I can’t help but think that there is a silent chorus of “me too!” reverberating across Nigeria and the continent, as women read and share Toke’s story. And to that: Yes and Amen, too.