AiW Guests: Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè with author Ever Obi.
This Q&A and twinned review, “The Past Is Never Dead” – both by our AiW Guest, traveller, literary critic and writer Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè – may contain spoilers, but these are kept to the minimum needed to discuss Obi’s powerful and haunting second book, Some Angels Don’t See God (Parresia; Abibiman). In his very first question to Obi here, Adégòkè gets straight to the heart of the difficult and tangled, taboo issue of child incest central to Some Angels Don’t See God, proceeding then to unpack the importance and significance of Obi’s treatment of it through the novel…
Ever Obi was born in Aba, Nigeria, and curretly lives in Lagos where he works in financial risk management. His debut novel is Men Don’t Die (Parresia). Some Angels Don’t See God is his second novel.
Publisher’s Synopsis. An ambitious young banker’s stable but uninteresting life is disrupted when he comes across a book of fiction, recounting torrid experiences he lived through as an undergraduate. The banker is Peter Idenala; the writer is Neta Okoye, the girl who broke Peter’s heart six years ago.
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè: I remember the night we were having a dinner in a restaurant in early 2020 – a fellow writer, Jude Idada was also there – when you revealed you were working on a novel and one of the themes of the book was incest. Thinking about it now, it was rather an unusual topic for a dinner conversation – but I do remember that it was Jude who dominated the conversation and that you didn’t speak much. Can you take this moment to talk about the book – which is now Some Angels Don’t See God: how and when did the story unfold to you, what necessitated the main theme?
Ever Obi: I remember that day. It was a month before the COVID lockdown. It was the first day I met you. We had a great conversation that day in Ikeja, with Jude Idada, Iquo Diana-Abasi and Dirk Skiba, the German photographer that visited Nigeria to take pictures of writers. I was just completing the manuscript of the work; I had been writing it since 2014. We were discussing projects that we were working on and when I mentioned Some Angels Don’t See God, Jude asked me what the book was about. I always struggle with that question, to say what my books are about, but months before that day A. Igoni Barrett had invited me to his home in Surulere, and after he listened to my rambling narration of the story, he nodded and said, ‘It is about the incest and the ramifications of it’. I held on to that. That was the response I gave to you all on that day; and that was how we found ourselves discussing incest at a dinner table.
The book is about a lot of things, but when you focus on the main character, Neta, you would find that it is really about that incestuous relationship and how it affected her life. But there are about probably a score of themes that the story explored: imperfection, love, friendship, mental health and depression, betrayal, incest, child abuse, rape – a lot of taboo topics.
It is a book I decided to write after listening to various stories of people, and seeing how similar these experiences are. These things keep happening and we aren’t talking about them. I wanted to address these uncomfortable topics and highlight the scars of victims, as a reminder to us all of how incredibly flawed we are as humans, and our capacity to commit great evil against one another.
Adégòkè: Incest/twincest has received quite an attention in psychology, that means it is prevalent yet slightly treated in African literature; the only recent novel I can recall where that also occurs is Jennifer Makumbi’s masterpiece, Kintu. How do you understand this complex sexual desire? I am not asking you this expecting you to be an expert in this field, but to express your opinion beyond the scope of fiction, beyond the scope of your novel.
Ever Obi: I agree with you, it is prevalent but we aren’t talking much about it, we aren’t writing much about it. People walk around with these scars, pretending like they have moved on. The one thing that I find common in these cases is that something always goes wrong in childhood. In trying to understand it, we need to go back to the homes; we need to go back to parenting and how we fail children that we bring into this world. The telling fact is that it is quite easy for the young mind to normalise that which it is exposed to in that impressionable stage, regardless of how abominable it is. And it is difficult for one to withdraw from that which one has normalised in childhood. Humans tend to rationalise that which they are too weak to control. In Some Angels Don’t See God, you find Jeta, pointing out instances where the Bible normalizes incest and using them as a point of rationalization for his actions.
Adégòkè: I think it is fair to say the novel is about (un)happiness. A reader gets that from the first chapters which are about the protagonists’ childhood, this period when life was so simple before it gets complicated. I think a lot of readers will blame the twins’ parents first over their traumatic latter childhood, don’t you think so? But I don’t want to believe it is that simple.
Ever Obi: True, these things are never that simple. I blame the parents too; it is easy to blame them. But when you look at their lives, you would find that they aren’t bad people. In their minds, they were good parents that provided for their children. But in life, the biggest danger is in things that we miss, things under our nose that we cannot see. As parents, you cannot miss these things. When you do, and your child suffers as a result, you must take the biggest blame. They were being bad at parenting without knowing it. They take the blame before it trickles down to every other person involved.
Adégòkè: Creating the character of Neta must be quite tough for you I imagine, no? Let me admit, it’s been scarring for this reader.
Ever Obi: It was tough, one of the toughest characters that I have had to write. Her sufferings carried the entire story, but at some point, I was worried that I had been unfair to her, that I had betrayed her and put too much burden on one character. I developed a liking for her, but I did not have the power to save her, because her pain is the main point of the book. You should also know that Neta does not just represent a single character. She represents every woman out there who has been raped, every child who has been abused, every adult that is battling depression, trying to find a meaning. You see, the story was bigger than her; it was bigger than me. Unfortunately, she had to live through all that and I had to write it. I could not save her, regardless of my sentimental attachments.
Adégòkè: I think a lot of readers will sympathise with her because of her imperfection and childhood abuse. But in real life, some may recoil on hearing her story because then it’s tangible and people can be judgmental. How do you see it, literature’s role in expanding our empathy?
Ever Obi: You are correct about that; we all can be judgmental. Even in the book, you will find that Neta was always concerned about being judged. That was why she shared so little, even with her friend, Esther. When you read through, you will agree that she could have made better decisions in a lot of cases, if she worried less about judgements from people. When she started opening up more, even accepting to go to therapy, it improved her mental health, and she started seeing things a little bit differently. Neta’s story is a lesson, even to me, about the need for one to prioritise one’s mental health over the fear of being judged.
Does she deserve empathy? Of course, she does. But as a writer, I have come to accept that my job is to tell stories as truthfully as possible, and not to deliberately attempt to sway people’s emotions. I have learnt not to judge my characters, even when I find them vile or despicable. I consider it a failure, if it appears evident from the pages of my book, that I hate a particular character, or that I want readers to hate that character; and this goes the other way round too. My job is to tell the human story, from the point of literary neutrality, presenting all sides of the coin, highlighting strengths as strongly as I highlight weaknesses, presenting both evil and good, our faults and their rationales. I betray my characters when I fail to give them the voice to speak for themselves, because of my sentimental weaknesses. I think I did enough for Neta, by giving her this voice, narrating her story without any considerable bias. If readers then decide that she is a character deserving of empathy, then that is beautiful. I want her to get empathy and compassion. But if, after reading, people decide to hate or judge her, then that is her cross. She must bear it as dutifully as I bore mine for all the years it took me to write her story.
From the Lagos reading and launch of Some Angels.
Adégòkè: We pretend ours is a civilised, modern time and betrothing a child to an older man or woman is a thing of the past. Yet we insentiently continue in the habit, playfully calling children husband and wife, matchmaking them, sexualizing them. Sometimes, this has hurtful effects on people’s childhoods. I’d like you to speak more on these culture codes that are hard to break.
Ever Obi: It is sad, isn’t it? The fact that we propagate pedophilia in our cultures. In some cases, it is sheer ignorance, but still with all its attendant risks. Parents and guardians should understand this. Just like in Some Angels Don’t See God, the perpetrators are often the people close to you; uncles, friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, people you willingly open your door to. We all should be more conscious of these things. We all should also keep in mind that the boy child is also at risk. Once, in Port Harcourt, I listened to a talented spoken word artist called Jon Dominic, render an emotive performance of his work, This Time, it Happened to a Boy, based on his personal experience of child abuse. Dominic’s poem is a reminder that no child, irrespective of gender, is insulated from this.
But I think that the most dangerous culprits are those that have hidden under tradition and religion, to convince themselves that it is normal to take a child to bed, or even marry her. People have spoken about this issue for years, but it is just hard to break these things, especially when people do not want it broken, when you have the law bending to accommodate this perversion. Child marriage is the same thing as child abuse, it is the same thing as rape. And if we remain on this dangerous path of selective criminalization, we are not ready for any change.
Adégòkè: I like that the novel throws open the issue of formal adoption, with a positive angle to it that it is not always sad or scary as many Africans might like to believe.
Ever Obi: As humans, we are always quick to ascribe and hold on to stigma. For some reasons, Africans have refused to accept that adopted children are legitimate, regardless of what the law says. You find that people put too much pressure on themselves because of this unfortunate thought process. I consider adoption a non-monetary philanthropy, and people who do that, giving children that aren’t biologically theirs, a real chance at life, should be respected and not vilified.
To explain the pressure people put themselves through to avoid the stigma of adoption, I will tell you about a wealthy man that was my neighbour when I was growing up. He was convinced that he needed a boy, so he kept getting his wife pregnant. They ended up having nine girls and no boy. It was after the ninth girl that he gave up and adopted two boys. Then for some reason, he wanted the girls out of his house, as quickly as possible. He started marrying them off immediately after secondary school. The question is: did he need to have that number of children?
Adégòkè: I understand you launched the novel in grand style: a song – the lyrics of which you wrote by the same title as the novel – and a music video were made for the purpose. I wonder if songwriting might be one of the things you wish to explore further in the future?
Ever Obi: Yes, yes. I enjoyed the process. I had never written a song before. I wrote the lyrics and Naomi Mac turned it into a beautiful song. I get goosebumps each time I listen to her voice on that song. And I enjoyed doing all that for the first time, being in that music video with her, watching her own the project. Of course, I would love to write more songs.
Naomi Mac performing Obi’s song, Some Angels Don’t See God at the Lagos reading and launch of the novel.
Adégòkè: Now, to the title, Some Angels Don’t See God… Why this in particular? Personally, I think it should have been a phrase culled from the novel, page 113, ‘This Thing Called Happiness’.
Ever Obi: Hmm. ‘This Thing Called Happiness’ has a nice ring to it. I like it. I consider the overarching theme of the book to be the theme of imperfection. I needed a title that would represent that. Angels are supposed to see God. When you say, ‘Some Angels Don’t See God’, it is figurative and there is something paradoxical about it. It just means that things are not always how they seem, people are not always as perfect as they appear. You will find this hidden imperfection in Neta and a lot of the other characters.
Adégòkè: And finally, without giving a spoiler away, how do you anticipate readers will respond to the novel’s closure after throwing them into its emotional wreckage?
Ever Obi: I have been overwhelmed by the reception that this book has received so far. People read it, they hate it and they hate me, they get across to me and want to beat me up. But I have come to understand that it is not just about the ending, but about the fact that the book evokes memories from their respective pasts. I have essentially written about what most of us have passed through, what most of us are still passing through, wounds with intentions that last a lifetime, the things we never talk about. I have brought them to our faces. That is why people connect to this story. In two months of its release, copies sold out and my publishers had to go back to press, to print more. I have learnt a lot from this journey, and we are just getting started.
Ever Obi’s second novel, Some Angels Don’t See God, is widely available to read now. Order your copy from Parresia Books, Abibiman Publishing, or other online book retailers or stores.
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.
Please read the accompanying Review of Some Angels by following this link, and find more from Tọ́pẹ́ on AiW here.
Preview/Excerpt from Adégòkè’s AiW review: The echoing timeframes of Some Angels Don’t See God centre around two characters, Peter and Neta, and the writing of a novel, penned by Neta, which acts as a catalyst for their reunion. Throughout, Peter’s and Neta’s stories are interleaved like the verso and recto sides of a page, clasped together by common childhood trauma. The novel lifts the veils over their distressing pasts that clogs their potential futures. It throws light on complex sexual desire and loss of childhood innocence.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Reviews & Spotlights on...
join the discussion: