June 14, 2024

Navigating the intersection of two cultures, kinship in May’s ‘This Motherless Land’

  • March 17, 2024
  • 6 min read
Navigating the intersection of two cultures, kinship in May’s ‘This Motherless Land’

By Anote Ajeluorou

WHEN Nikki May explored the intriguing intersections of race, two cultures and friendship and how they impact young British-Nigerian girls growing up in London in her debut novel Wahala, there was a revival of an old, familiar theme – of black and white in love. The most recent echo is Chibuzor Onuzo’s novel Sankofa, of an African man who went as a student to Britain but did more than just study by leaving his imprint behind – a child with a British woman. Wahala similarly has such background echo, as it deals with the coloured children these African men sired with British woman, who have come of age and are living their own lives with all the fun and terrible dramas of friendship. May, being a product of such interracial liaison between a British mother and a Nigerian father, has chosen to revisit the love tangle between one British woman and a Nigerian man and the emotional odyssey of the surviving child in that union suffered in her breathlessly riveting new novel, This Motherless Land (Narrative Landscaape Press, Lagos; 2024).

May’s inter-cultural family saga maps the life of the protagonist Funke from a joyous infancy in Lagos to a turbulent adolescent in a little town in Britain where she’d been sent when her mother died, and back again to Lagos in the most bizzare, harrowing manner, so much so that she vows never to return to the land of her mother’s birth. Funke Oyenuga is a lively girl, who is surrounded by the love of her white mother and Nigerian father alongside the childhood rivalry of her elder brother Femi. They are being raised in the middle class environment that LUTH represents in the heady 1980s. What’s more, the Oyenugas have rich friends in Ikoyi, who enable them to have access to Ikoyi Club where Funke’s mother Elizabeth hobnobs with other British women married to Nigerian men. It’s all going well until an accident happens on Eko Bridge as Funke, her mother and Femi are on their way to school in Ikoyi. Their car run into a parked truck and the car is sliced in two, with Femi and their mum shoved under the truck and to their death while Funke’s half of the care is flung onto the side of the bridge.

Funke’s survival is a miracle. But Iya Nla, her Nigerian grandmother, is having none of it. Funke is an aje pupa (white witch); her father, an aspiring professor in a medical field, is too shattered to resist Iya Nla and her superstitious belief and even wishes she’d died for his son Femi to be the one who came out alive, unscathed. At nine Funke is packed off to England to live with her supposedly rich maternal grandparents, the Stones. However, Funke’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her aunt Margot hated her mother with a passion and promptly transfers that hatred to her niece. Margot blames Funke’s mother for her inability to clinch Bethram, the richest bachelor in town because her younger sister Elizabeth made off with an African man. The racist Bethram could not stand having a black man in his wife’s family; so he dumped Margot for her friend, who according to Margot is living her life in splendour. Although she got marred, and has Olivia (Liv) and Dominic to show for it, but the marriage soon crashes and an embittered Margot shamefacedly returns to her parents’ home to nurse bitterness against her younger sister, and vent all her lifelong frustrations on poor Funke, who just lost her mother.

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Olivia proves to be a true friend and cousin, but her own mother is the problem. Although her grandparents the Stones are fairly rich and willing to accord Funke, who has been renamed Katherine (Kate, much to her displeasure), all the privileges due to her mother, they are too weak to move against Margot who decides who gets what in the family. Funke is taken to a public school while Margot’s children are in a posh private school, although Olivia rebels against this, but her mother overrules her. Funke, now Kate, is brilliant enough to overcome the disadvantage her aunt visits on her. She comes out with many As and gets a grant to study medicine. But Margot capitalises on an accident at a party that lands Liv in hospital and forcibly returns Kate/Funke to Lagos to her father, who has since remarried and has a boy he names Femi after his late first son, to Funke’s horror, and a girl.

Funke, who has snatched back her real Nigerian name from the Stones, is stunned at the turn of events. She desperately hopes Liv would recover quickly enough to set the records straight and explain her innocence and be taken back to England. But Liv is blanked out by her mother, who tells half truths and utter lies to justify Kate’s sudden relocation from England back to Nigeria. Funke somehow begins to pick up the pieces of her life and obtains a degree in medicine and starts practising. But in a twist of events, love brings Liv to Lagos and they reunite in stormy circumstances that spiral out of hand, and which would eventually prove restorative.

In This Motherless Land, May weaves a uniquely intriguing narrative that reads like a grand inter-cultural family epic. More than the story itself, perhaps is May’s deep and fluid free use of Naija street lingo that sets the book apart, and gifts her the typical ‘omoluabi’ – daughter of the soil – tag. Whereas some Nigerian writers would show restraint in the use of certain Naija street lingos, May is effusive in their use and this lends a certain piquant and pleasing taste to her writing. And she’s as much a Lagosian as they come, as she takes the reader’s hand and walks him or her through all the nooks and crannies of her fatherland, particularly Lagos where This Motherless Land is mostly set. London seems a bit more remote in This Motherless Land than in Wahala. Here, Lagos looms large, and immensely so, as May, just as much as Funke, decides to pitch tent with her father’s land in spite of its many deficiencies. This Motherless Land is a priceless narrative, as May shows a keen eye for the minutest of details that are uniquely hers. A true gift.

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