South African-Nigerian novelist Yewande Omotoso has reimagined her deepest loss in An Unusual Grief, the dark and funny story of a mother who infiltrates her dead daughter’s life.
In Yewande Omotoso’s third novel, An Unusual Grief (Cassava Republic, 2021), a Nigerian immigrant in her late fifties leaves her husband to travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg. His plan, it seems, is to spy on his daughter. But this is not a typical marital breakdown, nor a typical exercise in maternal curiosity: the daughter, Yinka, has committed suicide, and her mother, Mojisola, is desperately trying to resolve her shock and reproaches. In order to mourn Yinka properly, Mojisola needs to know how she lived – and why she decided to stop.
If that premise suggests a dark book, think again. Omotoso is a tense and witty storyteller and Mojisola’s curiosity takes her to surprising places, both within Yinka’s milieu and within herself. Grief is not the monolith of grief we tend to expect. It is “dynamic” and “unruly”, according to Omotoso – as is the Johannesburg that Mojisola discovers.
Or, to be more precise, the Midrand she discovers. It’s a place far removed from Joburg’s grim fictional African Gotham presence, which seems to consist entirely of ghettos and palatial opulence. The action of An Unusual Grief takes place in the sprawling and mundane space between: on the exposed brick savannahs of middle-class atomization, from Midrand to Edenvale to Randpark Ridge, teeming with stone-built house properties row for “normal” people – who tend to lead “abnormal” inner lives, as Mojisola comes to realize.
An anxious and controlled temperament, Mojisola also surprises himself by expanding and relaxing into all this weirdness. She quickly strikes up a relationship with Yinka’s prickly landlady and ganja seller, and then with the inhabitants of Yinka’s demi-monde. Mojisola’s road to some form of resolution takes her through twisty erotic terrain, and the novel’s playful treatment of a grieving elderly woman’s imperious lust is one of her many victories.
Cities and signifiers
In an interview with Omotoso, Johannesburg Review of Books editor Jennifer Malec joked that An Unusual Grief could be “Midrand’s first great novel” – and Omotoso laughs when I mention it.
“Creatively, I’m interested in restraint,” she says, “and finding unusual ways to capture the little ‘truth’ about something. So I like the idea of the novel being set in Joburg, but it’s not Joburg – the vanity of Joburg, using the typical signifiers. I think Midrand hasn’t been fully exploited in the novel, though. There’s so much more to Midrand.
Omotoso knows very well how to read cities and their signifiers, having studied architecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and worked as an architect. It was far from her first career choice – she had wanted to be a writer since arriving in Cape Town from Ife, Nigeria, aged 12, with her family.
This narrative desire quickly found fuel. Suddenly, this Yoruba child found herself in a new multiracial ‘Model C’ primary school, Golden Grove Primary, in 1992 – pedestrian corridors in which black children were extremely rare and Nigerian children inconceivable.
“Being alienated from myself at 12, when all you want is to be familiar, to belong, this has placed in me a recurring concern in my writing: the idea of belonging in all its forms”, says -she. “When you’re weird, you watch everything very carefully. I didn’t have the luxury of comfort; I had to be on my guard. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but I guess one of the results is that you’re lively and able to observe.”
A project of freedom
But by the time she finished her studies, her father, renowned Nigerian author and literary scholar Kole Omotoso (also the “Yebo, gogo!” actor in famous Vodacom TV commercials) refused to fund the costs of a degree in literature. He knew the pitfalls of living by the sweat of his pen.
“He was like, ‘Mm-mm! This isn’t going to happen.’ My teachers looked at my notes and said, “Well, she’s got a little this and that.” So they all called together and decided that architecture would have some creativity, but it was also technical, and my results were pointing in that direction.”
Omotoso should be pragmatic to overcome this pragmatism. She began to gradually buy her way into a life as a writer, first by using her salary as an architect to pay the writing fees for her first novel, Bomboy (2011), as part of a master’s degree in creative writing.
“I didn’t like architecture for many years,” she says. “I hated it. I hated school. It was the late 1990s and UCT was quite interesting at the time. The department was tough; it was run by white men, and looking back, it It was a tough place to be as black people. But that was the water we swam in. I couldn’t name it for a long time. We were just upset and confused – pretty smart students who were getting some bad results. We were not at home and we were not received.
She is quick to add that several speakers have mitigated this sense of systemic alienation – including writer and architect Lesley Lokko, who has just founded the African Futures Institute in Ghana. “She made a huge difference to me and others like me.”
And Omotoso feels architecture helped her write – instilling a need for unity between concept and form. “In architecture, the concern is with that core of an idea which is then reflected in a building, and the same process takes place in a good novel.”
After graduating, she worked in and around architecture for a decade. And all the while she was writing and writing and writing at night. Bomboy, whose protagonist is a troubled adopted child in Cape Town who discovers a family curse in the letters of his real father in Nigeria, was shortlisted for the Etisalat Fiction Prize. Her second novel, about two grumpy old women and racism, The Woman Next Door (2017), was shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Prize. An Unusual Grief is a good bet to go even further.
For several years, Omotoso has been living by the sweat of his pen. “So it’s a happy ending.”
Reverse the moment
She just got off to a happy start, too. Her 21-month-old twin sons joined her last month at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, the first edition to be held in person since 2019 – where she spoke with academic and book reviewer Wamuwi Mbao.
For Omotoso, motherhood added a jolt of personal resonance to An Unusual Grief, whose premise of a mother mourning a daughter deliberately inverts her own story of grief: she was 23 when she lost her mother, Marguerita, d ‘cancer. She was an urban designer from Barbados, who met Kole when they were both students in Edinburgh, then moved to Nigeria with him to raise Yewande and his two brothers.
“To be honest, most of the book was written long before I tried to have children – and long before I got pregnant,” she says.
Mojisola’s construction was improvised, she says, which is her standard process – a meandering, whimsical collaboration between character and writer. Early on, Omotoso imagined that Mojisola could become a full fledged dominatrix, but Mojisola gave up.
“Mojisola leads a very scripted life, and the tragedy of her daughter’s death suddenly gives her permission to write her own screenplay,” Omotoso told Mbao. “When I imagined her responses, I thought a lot about my aunts, my father’s cousins - not so much because I needed her to be believable, but because I needed to temper my own vanities about where she could go.”
Mojisola’s strange grieving process—first a distraught state of fugue, then a kind of dark, uplifting surrender to repressed urges—was informed by Omotoso’s own experience of the surreality of surviving a being. dear.
“Besides the birth of my children, the loss of my mother was the event that marked my life the most,” she told Mbao. “You have this strange relationship with the deceased person, which continues but in a very distorted, almost absurd way. You grow in the physical realm, but they grow in another realm. You could freeze them. In a sense, you are still connected to the person they were when they left. There is also something very delicious about grief, in the way it can open us up, just as it can also close us down.
The twist in this story – the sharpest point in the family’s geometry of grief – concerns Mojisola’s husband, Titus. He is a chronically boring and adulterous teacher who is completely bewildered by his wife’s departure and continues to phone and text her. “Oh, Titus,” Omotoso said with a weary sigh. “It’s well-intentioned, but problematic. It takes up too much space.” The full humanity of Titus crystallizes in the climax of the novel: although it is on some level a satire of the dysfunctions of an elite generation of Nigerian men, it is also endowed with a rich and tragic peculiarity. .
Omotoso’s novels take their politics lightly. For example, Mojisola’s Nigerianness does not condition his interactions with South Africans, despite the rise of South African xenophobia. The novel looks through the frenetic screen of the social moment into the eerie fires of interiority – particularly into the (deeply political) childhood psychodramas of Mojisola and Titus in Nigeria. Their stories define them far more radically and mysteriously than their outer identities define them here and now. Omotoso says, “I liked what my older brother Akin [Omotoso, the filmmaker and actor] told me once about storytelling – if you want to send a message, go to the post.”
Titus is certainly not Kole, and Mojisola is certainly not Marguerita, but An Unusual Grief empathetically criticizes his parents’ postcolonial African intellectual milieu: liberators who could not break the chains of private pain. . Kole’s old friend, Nuruddin Farah, the great Somali novelist, sat in the Franschhoek audience and commented ruefully that his generation, unlike Yewande’s, were skilled keepers of secrets.
But they were also inspirational – proving that a lifetime of intellectual action was possible. Her father wrote eight novels, two plays and five scholarly books. Yewande remembers calling Wole Soyinka “uncle” – he was also a close friend of Kole and a colleague at the University of Ife when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“I remember him returning from a trip abroad with a bag full of trinkets,” she says. “All the kids were lining up and getting these presents, and I got these white pearl earrings… It was the magic man with his bag of trinkets. We felt like we were part of a community of thinkers and It shaped me, I would say.