AiW Guest: Tolulope Akinwole
AiW’s annual Caine Prize review series is back, adding to our conversations over the years about prizes and prize culture – see Kate Wallis’ kick off from back in 2013. In the coming days we are featuring reviews of the stories shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing ahead of the announcement of the winner on 8 July. You can read previous years’ shortlist reviews and coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our coverage of the Anthologies. The Prize announcement will close the Caine series of events with the shortlisted writers.
Lesley Nneka Arimah puts a new spin on the narrative of gender inequality in “Skinned.” The riveting piece presents for discussion issues of women’s inequality in a patriarchal society without oversimplifying the matter. It would seem that Arimah is asking the reader to locate the body as the site of a woman’s oppression, but she is doing more than just that. She is asking the reader to take on the gender issue in its entire complexity.
What if all societies were not pretentious in their unfairness to women? hat if they displayed their bias unabashedly? There is such a brazen society in “Skinned” where you could tell a married woman apart from an unmarried woman. The distinction is simple: the married woman is clothed, the unmarried woman in unclothed. Even though the unclothed woman earns enough to clothe herself, she must not dare; only a man can clothe her. This is the society in which Ejem, the protagonist, lives. Rid of her dignity because she is not married, Ejem finds refuge in Odinaka, a wealthy, but unmarried, woman. However, Ejem’s uneasiness persists, revealing the complexities of the discourse of social equality.
When, early in the story, Ejem concludes her sales pitch “with a line about how a woman’s skin is her most important feature and she has to take care of it like a treasure accessory,” it would seem that she is promoting the philosophy of the male gaze, but the sarcasm is so tastefully rendered that it is lost on the clothed, married women who have come to buy beauty products. If the reader is not careful, the sarcasm may be lost on them as well. But Arimah leaves us with the keys to the depth of the story, all of them in the well-developed character of the protagonist.
I am inclined to assert that the well-developed character is one who inhabits the space of ambivalence that all humans inhabit. Since all humans are constantly reviewing their positions in relation to the society in which they find themselves, some level of ambivalence is necessary, and we find this in Ejem. In a society constructed so that a woman’s ambitions are reduced to three sentences: “Get covered. Get claimed. Take yourself off the market,” Ejem resolves that she will stay unmarried, having already passed marriage age. It is not clear, however, whether her resolve was born of the will to be independent of men or a realization that she is past marriage age and would rather not be tossed around as an object of pity. But it is okay for this to remain unclear; it brings the reader to appreciate the complexity of social divides.
In addition to other questions that the story asks, it causes us to contemplate how wealth affects the definition of masculinity and colors social acceptability. This is through Odinaka, the independent, wealthy woman who gives refuge to other women like her. Odinaka is wealthy enough to escape the retribution of her society—yes, money tempers patriarchy. This is not so for Ejem. When, like Odinaka, she clothes herself and ventures to the streets, she is accosted by her childhood friend who vehemently opposes the covering.
But just in case the reader thinks that “Skinned” is all about women’s plight, there are also the people of the Osu caste—in old times, a lineage of people dedicated to the deities and considered inferior to others, they thus cannot marry outside their caste among the Igbo. This group of male and female members of the society perform menial tasks and live their lives outside of the central societal system. Arimah portrays them so masterfully that they remind one of the repulsive Jim Crow days and evoke images of acts of racism in several parts of the world. They are seen, not heard; they perform the tasks that sustain society but are not acknowledged. It appears that Arimah is asking us to, as horrified as we are about gender inequality, take care to include instances of racial inequalities in our rumination.
In all, Arimah’s “Skinned” offers a provocative view of social inequality. Like all great stories, “Skinned” leaves us with profound questions: How does wealth redefine masculinity? What really matters in the politics of respectability—possession of social and economic capital or compliance with normative social guidelines? If gender inequality and social (racial) inequality inherently arise from the same cause, how best should one deal with them? The answers we proffer to these questions cannot be simple, just as the issues Arimah deftly takes on are not.
Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria and wherever else her father was stationed for work. Her stories have been honored with a National Magazine Award, a Commonwealth Short Story Prize and an O. Henry Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, GRANTA and has received support from The Elizabeth George Foundation and MacDowell. She was selected for the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and her debut collection What it Means When A Man Falls From The Sky won the 2017 Kirkus Prize, the 2017 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and was selected for the New York Times/PBS book club among other honors. Arimah is a 2019 United States Artists Fellow in Writing. She lives in Las Vegas and is working on a novel about you.
Tolulope Akinwole is a PhD student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he recently earned a master’s degree in African Cultural Studies. He is interested in the everyday politics of the African urban space, in tracing the Afropolitan sensibilities of the African urban space and how this is shown in Anglophone African novel. He is associate editor for Africanwriter.com and a reviewer for Wawabookreview.com.
For our previous post in the Caine Prize review series, see AiW’s Ellen Addis reviewing Meron Hadera’s “The Wall”.
For the next and final post in the series, ahead of the Prize announcement on the 8 July, see AiW’s Kristen Stern on Tochukwo Okafor’s story, “All Our Lives”.
AiW note: Breaking! Lesley Nneka Arimah has won the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing – many congrats!