“I heard my old friend Clem’s voice coming back to me through the dimness of thirty years: ‘I see you coming here trying to make sense where there is no sense. Try just living in it. Respond, alter, see what happens.’ I thought of the African way of perceiving life, as experience to be lived rather than as problem to be solved.” ― Audre Lorde
Thanks to Femi from @thebookalert, I got a chance to read The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin last year, and I absolutely loved it! Thank you to @tlcbooktours & @williammorrowbooks for providing me a free copy!
Shoneyin’s story follows Baba Segi and his four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle, who are all hiding secrets from each other.
In a culture that values children, Baba Segi sees his collection of wives and gaggle of children are a symbol of prosperity, success, and a validation of his manhood.
All is well in this patriarchal home until Baba arrives with wife number four, a quiet, college-educated, young woman named Bolanle. Jealous and resentful of this interloper who is stealing their husband’s attention, Baba’s three wives begin to plan her downfall.
Reading this book, I was placed in the mind of several books across the African Diaspora that are in conversation with Shoneyin’s story:
When it comes to the complexity and dynamics of sisterhood that Shoneyin displays in TSLIBSW, I immediately thought of The Women Of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and the essay, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving,” by Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider. There’s a myth that as a feminist or womanist, you have to like everyone, and as Naylor and Shoneyin prove, this isn’t the case. Solidarity amongst women can be as simple as me wanting you to have all your rights, especially the right to stay the heck away from me.
The problem of women being seen only as the bearer of children and through the lens of being the property of her husband is explored in #StayWithMe by #AyobamiAdebbayo and in Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks. In TSLIBSW, Shoneyin does a deep dive into how catastrophic it can be to see a woman in a piecemeal way instead of seeing her as a whole being. Each of Baba Segi Wives has their own talents, but because Baba only sees his wives in reference to being child bearers, he can’t see their talents as businesswomen, homemakers, or educated women.
While Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, & Bolanle don’t make any qualms around who Baba fundamentally is as a man or the belief he holds about their culture, there is a sense of resentment that underlines their relationship with him. Each woman’s household status and, subsequently, their independence are tied to Baba’s goodwill. This symbiotic relationship reminds me of all the women’s love for Bill Cosey in Love by Toni Morrison.
Lastly, Bolanle’s character made me think of Ngūgī wa Thiongo’s idea of the “cultural bomb” in Decolonizing the Mind and how being educated in societies that rely too heavily on colonial or imperialistic knowledge dilutes the regional culture. Seeing how Baba’s beliefs get challenged by Bolanle’s mere presence was fascinating.
If you haven’t read this book, I highly suggest it!
With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.
– Blurb from Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
What surprised you most about the process of writing this first novel?
The thing that surprised me most about writing this novel was that it did not become this novel until maybe the fourth or fifth iteration. There were things about Grace Porter that didn’t surface until my very last time editing. Some of her motivations and wishes and desires were still hidden until I had both the input from my amazing editor and also an entirely different headspace. I always hear the phrase, “writing is re-writing,” and I think the depth of that truth didn’t really hit me until I was knee-deep in revisions and realizing, like, wow, I needed so much more time to figure out how to say this, but now I can. Surprise!
In an interview she recorded with Balticon 34 in April 2004, Octavia E. Butler talks about wanting to “desensitize” readers with her writing and show them the “world as she wishes it worked” in her novels. One of the things I really loved about Honey Girl is that you don’t waste time explaining or trying to convince the reader that Grace Porter, your main character, and the rest of her friends, who are LGBTQ+, deserve to exist when it comes to their sexuality.
Instead, your writing creates these characters as messy and flawed human beings doing mundane day-to-day activities, like going to graduate school, trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, and falling in love. Why did you feel this was a significant angle to take with your writing? And did you feel, like Ms. Butler, that you were simply writing the world as you saw it or as you wanted it to be in your writing?
I know in theory it’s significant, but honestly, it doesn’t feel that big to me. Grace Porter is queer. Grace Porter is a lesbian. All her friends are queer. Queer people do really mundane things like work and go to school and date and even disappoint their parents for reasons other than being queer! I wrote a world that is very similar to mine, because I’m a queer person with queer friends and we just do really boring things like complain in our group chats and forget to pay bills. It doesn’t feel revolutionary to me because we are out here living our not-very-exciting lives, but then I remember in the larger scheme of things, us living our lives is revolutionary.
All of that is to say, I didn’t go in with any particular mindset except portraying queerness the way it is in my little corner of the world, and now in Grace’s, too. In academia and the corporate world adjacent to it, the reality is very cis-heteronormative and white, so that’s the reality I put on the page. I wish the world did not work that way, but it does. So, to answer the question, I feel like I was writing the world as I saw it and also how it really is, which is a world in which queer people, especially queer people of color, live and breathe and survive for as long as we can.
There is a strong sense of community and collective care that is frequently referenced in Honey Girl. At times, Grace is treated with more love and acceptance from her “chosen family” than her blood relatives. What made you create such a multilayered approach to family and community care when portraying Grace’s support system?
I say this all the time, seriously, but I feel like “found family” or “chosen family” is such an important component of the varied queer experience. It’s so hard to be alone, especially with people who are your blood, and may still love you, but can’t really understand something that makes up such a huge part of you and influences the other intersections of your identity. You need queer friends and queer friends that feel like family because those are the people you lean on and learn from and support on your respective journeys.
For Grace, her chosen family provides her with unconditional love and unconditional honesty. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she gets in her head a lot, and they are right there to be like, hey, you are not the only person going through this thing. They all have their own lives and issues, and though not every problem revolves around their LGBTQ+ identity, because they are all sharing this queer identity, they are able to be their full, authentic selves when they are vulnerable and asking each other for help.
At the same time, I wanted to show Grace’s mom and dad as people she thinks should be infallible and all-knowing, but she has to realize that’s not possible. Parents are not perfect. Parents don’t know everything, or even half of everything. They are flawed people who make mistakes like anyone else. Sometimes those mistakes can be apologized for and relationships redeemed and repaired, and sometimes not. Sometimes the best thing is for people to break off from their parents entirely. It was important in Grace’s journey for her to start to think about the type of relationship she wanted with her parents that was best for all them and didn’t sacrifice her mental and emotional health. Basically family, in all of its manifestations, can be really complicated and intricate and nuanced, and there are so many different ways to build one or multiple with the different people in your life.
What books have you read recently and loved, that inspired Honey Girl in some way or that you very much look forward to reading?
Recently I’ve read and loved Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, and of course, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.
There are so, so many books coming out this year that I want in my eyeballs immediately. I can’t list them all, so here’s five:
For all the chaos of 2020, I had an excellent reading year.
I found myself gravitating more toward fantasy novels and doing a lot more rereading than usual as a means of escaping into “alternate realities” or books that were a comfort to me in my childhood.
Each of the featured books below are ones I loved or feel that I would revisit in the future.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
This book was such a joy to read! If you loved reading fairytales as a kid or want to read more fantasy novels, this book is a must read! It’s also a wonderful audiobook.
In a year of chaos and pandemic, Klune’s novel shows the side effects of burnout on people in helping professions. The House in the Cerulean Sea also details how the child welfare system fails children over time. The characters in Klune’s novel are ones that will stay with you long after the book closes.
Initially published in French, Dabos’ series is full of tomfoolery and shenanigans set around a world built on Classic Western Mythology. The main character of the series, Ophelia, is the odd one out in her family that has the gift of walking through mirrors.
Sent away to the sky palace of Clairdelune to marry Thorn, another outcast from the who has a detailed memory, Ophelia is on her own for the first time to be the person she’s always desired to be. From here, chaos ensues.
Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge
I really enjoyed reading this classic Caribbean novel by Merle Hodge.
Crick Crack, Monkey follows Tee, the main character, as she comes into her identity as a Black Trinidadian girl in a post-colonial nation. The novel was accessible and showed the differences in the class structure in this island nation.
Tee is shuttled between two aunts of varying class and economic levels and made to piece together an identity through her experiences with both. Hodge’s novel was short, but it packed a punch.
In this text, Freire argues that teachers must open dialogue and facilitate critical thinking around subjects instead of spoonfeeding students lessons to regurgitate. By opening critical discussion around issues, the educator will build stronger learners that can become self-actualized.
Coupled with this, the chapters about how the oppressed seek out liberation blew me away. The idea that everyone can be an oppressor and the oppressed gave me a lot of food for thought. This text is one I hope to revisit in the future.
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
The task of a first or second-generation child of immigrants is to pick up the hopes and dreams of their parents and to carry them over the threshold of success. Often times, it’s not important what that child wants, but more importantly is how they add to the legacy of their family. Thus, these children live within a confined space that is both real and imagined, between cultures that they can never honestly explain until they meet someone else with a similar burden to carry.
Kara’s story in Frying Plantainleads me to wonder, what parts of our cultures do we inherit, and what is learned as people immigrate to new places? Likewise, how does the meaning/practice of culture change as each generation gains new information and comes into contact with new technologies that shift the way that certain traditions are carried out?
It starts cliched with the main female lead, Liya, a successful biochemical engineer sneaking out on a dinner they put together with the family of Jay Shah, a potential suitor. Unfortunately, Liya bumps into him on the way out, and of course, the two end up being forced to work together as the novel unfolds.
If you are a reader who enjoys multi-layered characters and non-generic romances, this book is for you! Jay and Liya both have a traumatic past, and Patel has each of them work through their trauma before giving them their happy ending. I appreciate that Patel showed the real aspects of trauma in a person’s life and how they play out in interpersonal relationships and across a community.
Throughout this series, Taylor has the Logan children fight for their agency as Black people before they really even know what they’re fighting for. I’ve read this series countless times over the years, but it always hits differently each time. I highly recommend it!