Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Kiru Taye: On Sex and African Romantic Fiction

First, I want to say a big thank you to Adura Ojo for hosting me on her blog today. I feel honoured to be here.

Right, on to the topic of today’s post – Sex and the African Romance novel. I’ve been itching to write a post on this topic for a long time. As a romance novelist, sex is a feature of my writing. But I’ve since noticed that while sex scenes are pretty common place in romance novels in the UK or US, not many African romance authors feel comfortable writing about it.

Let’s face it; sex is still a taboo topic in Africa. This fact really amazes me. Let’s look at some statistics. Africa has some of the countries where populations are rising rapidly. From the last census, Nigeria has a population estimated at well over 150 million people. Africa has 9 countries in the top ten fastest growing populations according to aneki.com.

So one thing is very clear, lots of Africans are having sex. The figures above prove that. Yet it seems no one wants to talk about it or write about it, apparently. If so, then it is worrying because lots of people are having bad sex, in my opinion.

Yep, think about it.

If no one’s talking or writing about it except in Biology text books that show sex merely in terms of body function or religious leaders that classify sexual activity as a sin, then you can bet there will be loads of dysfunctional sexual encounters. There are lots of Africans especially women who are taught that sex should be purely for procreation and not for pleasure. If they seek any more gratification than the ten seconds it takes for their husbands to spill their seeds inside their wombs, they are labelled as sexually deviant.

I met a woman recently who had never experienced an orgasm and she is married with two children. I had to watch her in shock as she told me her story. All I could think was, seriously? The truth is she is not alone. There are loads of sexually frustrated African women out there that simply lie back and think of (insert the African country name) while their husbands have their way. And that saddens as well as annoys me.
That was why when I finally decided I was going to write romance novels, I also made the conscious decision to include sex scenes (or love scenes as they are know in the romance writing world) in my stories.

I wanted to write stories that feature couples making love the way I think it should be within the boundaries of a loving relationship. Of course each story is different and the context of the love-making within each story will be different. But the bottom line is that I wanted to showcase men and women giving and receiving sexual pleasure in the context of love-making. Also a love-scene when written very well plays an important role in moving the characters and story along. Like a first kiss, the love scene is a pretty good indication of whether the romance will be passionate or cosy. If you’ve ever read any of my book excerpts, you’ll know which end of the romance scale I prefer.

When I read Myne Whitman’s A Heart to Mend I noted there was no love-scene, except if you count the couple kissing on the sofa as a love scene. I was slightly disappointed she didn’t go there. However in the context of that story, it made sense. When Myne started writing A Love Rekindled last year and shared some excerpts online, I hoped she would take the plunge and include a consummated love scene. As one of the first Nigerian romance authors, I hoped Myne would set the pace for upcoming Nigerian romance writers. I felt if she didn’t include a love-scene in the story then others may not feel brave enough to go there either. Thankfully, she did and I think A Love Rekindled is a richer story for it.

In Lara Daniels’ romantic suspense novel, Love in Paradise, the closest the amorous couple came to making love was a make-out session on the sofa before being interrupted by a nosy tabloid photographer. As this was her first novel, I can understand Lara’s wariness with having a full on love scene but I hope her future novels are a bit more adventurous in that department.

In my debut romance novella, His Treasure (part of the Men of Valor series) a historical romance set in 13th century Igboland, I have used sex not only as a tool of rebellion but also as gift of love. By refusing to submit to the sexual will of Obinna, Adaku effectively rejects her husband. Yet when she eventually acquiesces, Obinna shows her love beyond her wildest dreams. The love scene is pivotal in terms of moving the story along and showing resolution of some of the conflicts.

I have to accept that writing love scenes can be difficult. If you’re like me, when I read a romance novel, I like to visualise each scene. So I get quite critical if I feel a limb is in the wrong place or the writer has not told me the basics like are they sitting, standing, etc. I remember having a laugh recently when I read a love scene and thought ‘He is either a midget or extremely acrobatic.’ Love scenes have to be realistic.

So I hope more African romance authors will include love scenes in their stories. With the dawn of the eBook age and romance publishers like Sapphire Press, Ankara Press and Africana Publishing springing up, I certainly look forward to a golden age for African romance and sizzling hot novels in the pipeline.

Kiru Taye is the author of His Treasure, a historical romance novella, published by Breathless Press. The book is out 2 December 2011. I can't wait! You can reach her via her blog: http://kirutayewrites.blogspot.com.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Bitter Leaf - A Review*

Book:  Bitter Leaf
Author: Chioma Okereke
Publisher: Virago
Year: 2010
Source: Amazon
Bitter Leaf is set in fictional Mannobe, a village which appears to be a character in itself. At the centre of the narrative are charismatic Babylon and beautiful Jericho.  It is essentially the story of these two lovers. However there are other characters that help make life in Mannobe what it is supposed to be – a sleepy yet vibrant village where almost everyone is linked in one way or another due to their past or present lives. Okereke has a gift for creating colourful characters. Jericho is the feisty heroine; Babylon the charismatic hunky dreadlocked musician, Allegory the self appointed sage-slash- prophet, Mabel and M’elle Codon - twin sisters who could probably give real life Michelin master chefs a run for their money, Magdalena daughter of Mabel who lost her heart (to guess who(?)) and almost lost her head too. There is also Jericho’s lily livered beau and Babylon’s rival - Daniel Dorique - from the affluent Dorique family. And who can forget Oracene, the eccentric clairvoyant-slash-medicine woman? There are others. The reader may well remember most characters long after reading without trying too hard. Having such memorable characters is one of the novel’s highlights.

Another thing to really sing about is the lyrical beauty of the prose. It is poetic and somewhat sublime. Apparently, Okereke started her writing career as a poet. Bitter Leaf is her first novel. Structure is tight and pacing is fine. The plot is well executed and the relationships between the characters are handled well.

My gripe with this novel is that it is portrayed as an African story. From characters' names to the language and the food, I struggle to find Africa in it. The fictional local language is confusing: a mixture of European influences and some sort of creole: words like ‘bon dia’, ‘senorita’, ‘tanka’ and ‘pues’.  And then a smattering of ‘sha’, ‘abeg’, and ‘ewo’ (presumably Nigerian Yoruba, pidgin, and Igbo usage respectively). While the merits of poetic licence and creating an imaginary world may be all well and good for the writer; in this case it seems to require more than a stretch of the imagination for the reader to locate the numerous worlds of all these languages in one tiny village. The novel’s title is ‘Bitter Leaf’ and there is a scene in the novel (a recollection of Jericho’s childhood) where bitter leaf and what appears to be pounded yam is described. Apart from this instance, food which has a life of its own in the book seems to be mainly European in presentation and content.

Given the recent controversy about what constitutes African fiction (this has been discussed elsewhere by concerned literary critics), it is important that African writers writing African fiction do just that. Despite the lyrically beautiful quality; the sanitized picture of an African terrain sours the book - in my opinion. It does Bitter Leaf no favours as a work of African fiction. Bitter Leaf to me is bittersweet. Pick up the book to read some enchanting prose and decide if you really can see Africa in it.

*This review was written as part of the Nigerian Independence Day Reading/Reviewing Project set up by Amy at Amy Reads. Long live Nigeria!