Yejide Kilanko is a Nigerian writer known for her book Daughters Who Walk this Path, longlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature. Yejide Kilanko is Praixis Author for March and in this interview, we talked about her novel, being a woman and societal reactions to issues of abuse.
When you first set out to write Daughters Who Walk this Path, did you plan out to have it in its present structure using the first person narrative and arranging the incidents episodically, like a dairy? What informed your choice?
The initial manuscript was not planned out. It was my first. I wrote the story as it came to me. After I’d signed up with a literary agent, he recommended an outline, and that helped to shape the book’s structure.
I think it was on Instagram that you shared a poem, saying how that poem was the first thing that birthed the whole book. Can you explain how that worked out? Expanding a single poem into one full-blown book.
In 2009, I wrote a poem about child sexual abuse which was titled Silence Speaks. After I shared it on Facebook, I got some unexpected disclosures from my Nigerian friends. That experience led to my decision to write a novel. The poem became a crucial scene in the book and everything else, the characters, the setting, the plot, was built around it.
Set in as far back as 1982, I find it worrisome that women, just like in the past, are still at the risk of sexual harassment and abuse. There have been radical movements and protests, yet, it persists. What are we not doing right?
Perpetrators often manage to escape persecution because of different reasons. Most families do not want to publicize the abuse. Some blame their child. I don’t know why adults are unable to understand that a minor cannot consent to sexual activity. When rich men like Chief Komolafe are charged, convicted, and sent to prison for rape, perhaps justice would not be seen as unattainable.
Are you saying that there has not been such engagement from community leaders, educators, policymakers, etc. in the past?
Within the Nigerian context, I think we haven’t had sustained and productive engagement about sexual harassment and abuse. It’s much easier to pretend it’s not happening at an alarming rate.
I’m also thinking about the part where Chief Komolafe rapes Aunty Morenike as a teenager, gets her pregnant and still manages to go scot-free, with the added guts of returning years later to claim the child as his. I find myself thinking many times, why isn’t rape, and worse still, rape of minors, considered as criminal as robbery? How do the perpetrators often manage to escape and everyone moves on like nothing happened?
I think power and control are at the root of sexual harassment and abuse. Those who wield any power, whether it’s personal, social, political or economic, never want to share it or give it up. To make progress, we need sustained protests. We need engagement from parents, grassroots organizers, community leaders, policymakers, law enforcement, educators, business persons, and religious leaders, amongst others. People have to buy into the necessity for change.
I do agree with you, and I’m thinking now of the instances with Harvey Weinstein and women which included Lupita Nyong. One would think with such prominent voices speaking up; he would be convicted. What is the state of that accusation now? Do you know?
I don’t think Weinstein has been charged. We’ll have to see how things play out. Even in situations where there is physical evidence, sadly, sexual convictions are difficult to get.
Can we talk a bit about the ‘tear down syndrome’ where many people and even sad to admit, women too, believe that when more than one woman is calling out a man on sexual abuse, it is because they want to pull him down?
It’s hard for me to talk about this syndrome because I don’t understand the logic behind this response to another person’s pain.
And then Aunty Morenike’s father heard the news of her rape and subsequent pregnancy and chose to be on the side of his so-called friend responsible for the act as against believing his daughter. He sends her out of the house in rage. In what ways today do you think parents have encouraged/enabled unpleasant situations such as those that lead to sexual abuse?
Parents need to provide sex education in the home. When we don’t talk about normal, essential topics like puberty or sex, the issues get shrouded in secrecy and shame. Parents need to think hard about the people who have access to their children. Children should know the proper terms for their private areas and what to do when anyone violates their privacy.
Regarding sex education, I’ve heard people say teaching kids at that young age to understand their body only makes them more curious and at the end, likely to do things that might put them in danger line. What do you think?
I think that some sexual curiosity in young children is normal. You can’t live inside a body and not wonder how the parts work. These behaviours will happen whether parents provide sex education or not. The older children know that adults have sex. They talk about it around their younger siblings. Young children need guidance around appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. It could be dangerous if parents or guardians refuse to provide sex education at home.
There is the constant thing about shame is that it makes many people, women especially, not speak up when being sexually abused. The silence of Morayo’s parents in your book after she opened up comes to mind. The silence, the coldness. What would you say is the cause of this shame and how can one explain the silence that follows from people who should be supportive?
We all know the shaming and blaming sexual abuse survivors experience. Sometimes, people are silent because it’s their way of protecting themselves. Some keep silent because they know making a disclosure would not get them any justice. In Morayo’s case, her mother felt guilty for bringing Bros T into their home. Some people handle guilt by burying their heads in the sand.
Was it necessary for Morayo to have gone through her healing stage by becoming a flirt and hurting people along the way the same way Bros T had hurt her? What were you trying to portray?
For some, promiscuous behaviour is a way of ascertaining control over who has access to their bodies. It could also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In the novel, I was trying to say that sometimes hurt people hurt other people. It was an observation not a justification of Morayo’s behaviour.
I think it is great that many people are not only standing up to sexual harassment, but victims are also speaking out. Do you always find yourself, consciously, telling stories of women and abuse?
I find myself drawn to stories about women and the challenges they face. Sexual abuse or assault are part of those challenges. The statistics across many countries state that up to one in five women will experience sexual assault after the age of 16. I think that makes stories like Morayo’s important.
It’s sad that women also have to choose between keeping their jobs and offering their body to seal business deals. I liked that you touched on that aspect of the book. I’m wondering what the choices really are for women caught in such web.
The economic hardship has left many women in difficult positions. I think such situations underscore the need for viable women empowerment programs. Women need options.
A writer once said in an interview that the purpose of feminism is to defeat itself. Do you believe that the time will come when there will be no more women chanting, ‘me too’?
I hope so. The Me Too movement has created the space for people to speak their truth. It has established that people perceived as untouchable can be held accountable for their actions. It’s one more step forward.