Bisi Adjapon’s writings have appeared in journals and newspapers including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Washington Times, Daily Graphic and Chicken Bones. She founded and ran The Young Shakespeare company for four years in America. Her short story, the short story version of Of Women and Frogs was nominated for the Caine Prize by Dave Eggers. Her black and white art work sit in prominent homes in America. As an International Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, she won the Civil Rights Award for Human Relations, and a Strategic Objective Award for her work on the Norman Borlaug Capacity Building Fellows targeting women in developing countries. She holds degrees in French and Spanish and has worked in several embassies, taught and managed projects in Costa Rica, Mexico, South Africa and Ghana. Until recently, she was a language instructor at the Diplomatic Language School in Virginia. Currently, she divides her time between Ghana and America.
BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in Gaborone, Botswana, and a red couch in cozy living room in Accra, Ghana via email.
Gaamangwe: Bisi, congratulations on your epic and powerful novel, Of Women and Frogs! I spent many hours moving between out-loud laughter, gripping fear and deep annoyance and love for Esi and her father. There was something deeply nostalgic for me reading through her journey because there is a lot of Esi in most of us African women. Let’s start at the beginning; how Esi arrived to you and demanded that the story be written, and how the story unfolded out of you?
Bisi: Thank you so much for those kind words, what a pleasure. You know, I had six sisters–five older sisters and a younger one, plus five brothers. Growing up in such a large family, it was easy to get lost or forgotten. I had lots of questions that often went unanswered or shunned. Because of this, I developed a love for children and an instinct to protect them. My first niece was born when I was only eight, or maybe seven. I became attached to her and wanted to make sure she got all her questions answered. I carried this love for the many nieces and nephews that came along later. I wished I had been braver as a child and more vocal, so one day, when I decided to write a short story, Esi’s personality came to me and I found myself following her thoughts in the present, as though watching her in real time. That’s how the story germinated.
Gaamangwe: I love that. I am in reverence of writers who can write children characters and actually inhabit them so seamlessly and beautifully! You did this so well. Was it easy to find and inhabit Esi’s voice in the different spaces and years? Especially from that time-period. I am obsessed with the impetus creative energy and how it tends to shape-shift as one continues with their art-making. How was your experience after Esi arrived to you, and how did the process of writing her story evolve onwards?
Bisi: It was easy, I have to say. I think it’s because Esi was my fantasy self, someone I wished I had been. Moreover, I’ve taught kids of various ages: from kindergarten through high school up to junior college level. I also directed the Young Shakespeare Company and had actors as young as five. In As You Live It, one of my main characters was seven years old, and two were nine. You’d be surprised by how much they understood, how easy it was to direct them. Not only are children capable of understanding and thinking like adults, they can say the most unexpected things. I love that about children, so for me, they are the easiest to understand and relate to. I tuned in to the diction of precocious, above-average children, the way they are perceptive. I altered Esi’s vocabulary and sentence length as she grew up, at the same time doing my best to maintain her core personality. You find her tone shifting as she got older. It was a bit painful to watch her grow, because I wanted to keep her a child forever, haha.
Gaamangwe: Oh, there are a lot of painful things that happened to Esi that broke my heart but also so many things that were so relatable and exciting to witness. So, let’s talk about her sexual awakening, which naturally is the center of her coming-of-age experiences. You put so many mirrors to look at the many multidimensional experiences that girls-women go through in relation to their femininity, womanhood and sexuality. Take me through your creative process with regards to this theme?
Bisi: Sex. That was something I wanted to write about very badly. If I was going to track a girl’s growth into adulthood, I had to tackle sex, which to me was one of the most important subjects but often ignored. I tapped into some of the scenes I had witnessed. For example, right in front of me, a male friend smacked his ten-month old baby for touching herself. How could he do that to an innocent child? I needed to show that as sexual humans, girls aren’t permitted to know or understand their bodies. Adults often expose children to things while expecting children to remain ignorant. It’s a futile paradox. Children never forget experiences that affect them emotionally. I wanted to show girls going through self-discovery and ultimately consummation with all it’s attendant fears, complications, confusion and pleasure. I had to show the consequences of not answering children’s questions. To bring the point home, I needed a painful, vivid scene to show what happens to children in such a case. Often, we adults pretend we don’t see children playing Mama and Papa. By allowing her to be innocent of her acts, I hoped to expose the painful process of growing up ignorant. I followed that theme and process, always showing through scenes in the present tense so that the reader felt like a fly on the wall. Her streams of consciousness were vital to exposing sexual awareness.
“I needed to show that as sexual humans, girls aren’t permitted to know or understand their bodies. Adults often expose children to things while expecting children to remain ignorant. It’s a futile paradox. Children never forget experiences that affect them emotionally. I wanted to show girls going through self-discovery and ultimately consummation with all it’s attendant fears, complications, confusion and pleasure.“
Gaamangwe: I absolutely loved this theme and how you explored it through Esi. It was jarring (in a good way) for me to read her frank stream-of-consciousness because like I said, her experiences are the experiences of most girls. We are sexual beings and our African traditions and customs have a way of trying to omit and ignore this part of our lives. Overall, there is a harshness and lack of engagement with the inner experiences of children and women. We saw this with the way Esi’s father was with his daughters and Esi’s sisters when Esi was still young.
You’ve talked about this with Ope before, that Of Women and Frogs is a feminist manifesto! Let’s talk again about the other feministic themes that were important to you?
Bisi: Apart from sex, the second most important theme for me is marriage. It’s outrageous that the society considers marriage to be aspirational for a woman, a goal to achieve, a trophy to win. This notion is driven into girls before they can walk: Oh, she’s so beautiful men will fight for her hand. She’ll get a good man. She’ll marry rich because rich men like light-skinned women. She must be a good cook or else. She must be soft-spoken. She must be humble. I can’t stress how damaging this is. Most girls grow up viewing their worth only through the lens of marriage, whether said marriage is a good one or not. I remember my wise sister-in-law telling me it’s better to be single than lose your soul in a marriage. She was right. We see child marriages, women married off early or being told not to become too educated or too rich or risk scaring men off. The idea that a woman must diminish herself in order to make herself desirable is tragic. I witness many women wearing the title of Mrs. as a badge of honor even when they live with secret abuse. I know women in powerful positions who live have secret, painful lives but they can console themselves and say, at least I have a husband. No, no and no. I want girls raised the way men are. Everyone eats, so everyone needs to know how to cook. Everyone needs to learn how to clean houses, how to launder clothes. Men aren’t as helpless as they are portrayed to be. Girls should aspire to whatever they feel is their vocation. Every human should be allowed to pursue his or her dream regardless of gender. When Esi’s father reminds her that a woman’s glory is her husband, he is diminishing her, regardless of his love for her.
Gaamangwe: That line from Esi’s father vexes me absolutely! His double standards are shocking but really a reflection of how deeply rooted and harmful patriarchy is. I particularly found it sad that women are either unaware or have resolved to being participants of this systems that is upheld as culture, tradition and customs. On cultures, I loved how we traveled through West Africa through Esi’s eyes. As a Southern African, I was properly schooled about the different psychic and vibrant imprints of Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin and Senegal. I want to visit West Africa now. Tell me about this historical and travelogue part of your beautiful work?
Bisi: I hope you get a chance to visit West Africa. I visited South Africa in 2003 and it was a particularly emotional journey for me, having read Tell Freedom, Mine Boy and Cry, the Beloved Country. For me, history and geography play a part in shaping who we are. Esi’s story is set in the turbulent period of Ghana and Nigeria’s alliance and occasional misalliance. The fact that she is half-Nigerian and half-Ghanaian is an important part of her journey, because she lives through the expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana in her early years, and Ghanaians from Nigeria when she is older. It affects the trajectory of her relationship with Rudolph. We also see the consequences of artificial borders like the Ghana-Togo border where one ethnic group is chopped into two. Ewe people belong to both Ghana and Togo, and yet, in times of dispute, it’s the people who are caught in the middle. Overnight, those who have previously enjoyed freedom of movement between countries are unable to join relatives. We see this when Esi and Rudolph are forced to trek through the forest because of a border dispute. In another example, we see how quickly Esi rejects the idea of being an ambassador when she perceives how transient political appointments can be. I didn’t set out to include history, politics and its attendant issues, but with what was going on during the military regimes and how it affected the daily lives of individuals, I couldn’t ignore that. I also find it interesting that, in West Africa, people who share the same indigenous language speak either English or French, depending on who colonized them. History and complex relations between neighboring countries provide texture and context.
Gaamangwe: Yes, I agree. There is no single story in the human experience. One aspect affects and alters the other. See how that trek through the forest created a greater bond between Esi and Rudolph. I love how you wove all these nuanced cultural, political and personal experiences as determinants of who Esi gets to become and who she eventually gets to choose she will become.
There are so many contradictions in Of Women and Frogs; adults, countries, traditions, patriarch say one thing but do the exact opposite. So many lies spoken too. I was deeply hurt by how the adults handled the entire story of Esi’s mother. What did you want to reflect here?
Bisi: I wanted to show how even acts performed in the name of love for a child can be more hurtful than the truth. For instance, when a child asks where babies come from, why tell them an angel drops them from heaven? Why not break down the simple truth? Without children understanding truth and consequence, they are vulnerable to the influence of probably ignorant friends and, in this age, the internet. I am persuaded that truth is the best policy in most matters. (Mind you, it’s unkind to tell someone he or she is ugly, however true that may be.) Tragedy, like death, is part of life. As painful as it feels, one must be truthful about it. Children will experience death at some point. I remember losing my first “boyfriend” when I was in Primary 4. It was one of those situations where someone had been designated my boyfriend by the class for some obscure reason. I barely talked to him, and yet his death was such a shock. One day he was in class, and the next day, we were watching his wooden coffin hit the bottom of a dark hole in the ground. I was struck with terror and thought that if I slept, I might not wake up or that he’d try to come pull me down into the hole with him. No adult helped us cope. When we tell children the truth, we teach them how to cope. In this respect, Esi’s family fails miserably. I also wanted to show how difficult it is to be a good parent. I’m convinced that most parents make the best decisions they know. When a woman burns her daughter’s vagina with pepper, she thinks she is helping prevent unwanted pregnancy. However, girls aren’t animals incapable of understanding the human language. They aren’t donkeys or horses to be trained with pain. We need to help parents understand there are other ways to teach children about life.
Gaamangwe: I am so passionate about what you are saying Bisi. We really need to look at how our child-raising practices are so harmful, and the cause of dysfunctional patterns that come up for children when they get older. And then there is Kayode! My heart broke over and over again. Let’s talk about Esi’s love experience!
Bisi: Ah, love and Esi. Like every human being, she welcomes it, whether it’s through the thrill of “suppies” where girls exchange letters or when she falls for Kayode. Once again, we see well-meaning adults interfere in an unhealthy manner. On the one hand, her aunts seem to offer great advice about freedom and the need to know other men before committing herself to one, but the values they prescribe are confusing. This is the part about growing up that was challenging for me to write. There’s a line where Esi says a child’s voice gets hushed in adulthood. We see that in her relationship to Rudolph. The need for adults’ approval is inherent in all of us. At times, it’s a good thing, because adults have much to teach us. That’s what makes life hard sometimes, how to know what is right. Esi has a great need for her aunt’s approval because this aunt is the woman who loves her. Thus, Esi has to decide who deserves her loyalty. Many readers get frustrated with her, but where would the story be if she made all the right choices? I didn’t want a neat ending. There are shades of happiness. In the end, I think she chose the right path for herself. Life doesn’t wait for anyone, as she realizes. It is messy. Out of disorder, she has to find her own peace.
Gaamangwe: That ending stayed with me. In many ways it’s so empowering that she has found that she is ‘I am! I am!’ but the other side of me really wanted a different ending. Oh but thank you so much Bisi for giving us this powerful multi-layered story. I am telling all my friends to read it! And lastly, what’s next for you?
Bisi: Thank you so much for reading and sharing your insights. Many readers have called for a sequel, which I will write one day. But right now, I am focused on a story about a Ghanaian woman in America. It’s a totally different novel and I am very excited about it.
Gaamangwe: Oh that sounds exciting! I can’t wait for the sequel and your new book! I am a life-time fan. Thank you so much Bisi for joining me.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a multi-passionate storyteller, literary interviewer, editor and publisher, ancestral healer and sacred gatherings curator. She is the founder of Rise the Warrior, a movement that fuses depth psychology, metaphysical sciences and African Spirituality to curate sacred gatherings, inner healing and transformation immersions for African individuals and organizations. She hosts The Joy Mogami Show, a Facebook Live stream show that holds conversations on healing and transformation with wellness experts. She is the founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.