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Tomorrow I Become A Woman by Aiwanose Odafen

“And I felt it again - that nameless thing that flowed between us. A puppet of the strings of invisible hands waiting for something to happen - a miracle to take place. Nothing.” -page 117

What a page turner! Tomorrow I Become A Woman is Aiwanose Odafen’s debut novel. I have read emotional rollercoasters before but none have tested my patience as much as this book and particularly Obianuju, “Uju,” who is the protagonist in this story. You move from being empathetic to being enraged in a couple of pages. Odafen’s story is common because many have seen it play out in real life and her language is simple but it remains convincing and remarkable. The ending leaves a lot to the imagination and personally, no matter what life has taught me, I am choosing a happy ever after for Uju because she deserves it. The themes that stand out for me in this novel are friendship, womanhood and love. The women in this novel remind met of some of the women I have encountered in other works such as Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero, Ramatoulaye in So Long A Letter, Yejide in Stay With Me, Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood, Efuru in Efuru and so on. It is the familiar struggle and trauma that the women face that makes them question their womanhood and seek the answers to what is to be/become one. The book id divided into three parts; Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

In the beginning it is clear that one only becomes a woman when society has deemed it so, but the expectations to be fulfilled are unending. From Mama's (Uju’s mother) generation to Uju’s generation the women are socialized to believe and to work towards attaining the prize. One is brought up to be marriageable, wife material, after attaining that marriage one is expected to keep weaving that material into something that is steel because, the expectations? Unbearable. I chuckled a bit whenever Mama' uttered the phrase “now you are a woman,” because before making the first mark was she not a woman? But the gravity of the phrase is that it is used to mark certain milestones that continue to keep the foundations of the system strong 1. when menstruation begins (because this means that a girl is possibly fertile and will be able to bear children for her husband, the expectation not being that she too might want children but for her husband) 2. when the girl gets married (because she no longer 'belongs' to one family but 'belongs' to another that must now benefit from her existence, never belonging to herself) 3. when she conceives (because she has proved that she is of "good use" and fertility is an important tool) 4. when the woman bears a son (because even if she has this supposed important tool, she cannot bring shame upon her husband by not providing an heir, of course she is the determinant) 5. when she manages to bring up her girls to be marriageable (because she must contribute to keeping the structures together and the burden of continuity lies on her) and the cycle continues. Papa (Uju's father), when talking about Ego, Uju's ten year old daughter; "He smiled. 'It's never too early to talk about marriage. They are women after all." (page 179) It is encouraging that Uju is committed to breaking that cycle and raises her daughters differently, with a few slips here and there but that is the nature of the process of unlearning old ways and learning new ones. Change is possible.

Mother and daughter relationships are important in this novel because it is in that first relationship that girls are taught to be. Mama is a frustrating character that had me grating my teeth. I sometimes give Mama a chance and wonder if she had anything else besides what she had been given and was she willing to change? The idea of womanhood and respect that she has, is something that she has also inherited. The role of religion is clear in this novel, one should sustain their marriage at whatever cost, they must fight and fight to keep their vows but this responsibility mostly falls on women. When Chigozie, Gozie (Uju's husband) does something negative/irresponsible the expectation is that it is Uju’s responsibility to control/take him to task because the shame is inevitably hers to bear. So somehow, she has power to be the voice of reason but not enough to be a woman of her own.  There are characters like Sally who show that defiance can save you a lot of headaches, but to what extent can one live on their own terms in a society bent on controlling them? Because she is a woman she has to tone herself down in the way she carries herself at work despite working hard and making it all the way there. “'Yes. That. They will never take you seriously as a professional when you’re dressed too much like a woman or your make up is noticeable; it’s almost like they don’t want any obvious reminders of your gender. And of course, there’s my mother.'” (page 368) Womanhood being prescribed as being of service to patriarchy. In this novel, closely linked to this is the issue of women’s bodies not belonging to them but to the system and being committed to servitude (to please men be it aesthetically or sexually, to bearing children - but at most punishing their bodies until they get that coveted son, to experiencing and enduring violence when a man is not pleased by their behaviour).

The power of friendship holds Uju, Ada and Chinelo together for the longest time. Twisted as their lives may have been through the different times of their lives, they find ways to be there for each other. I wish these friendships had been each woman’s saving grace, but after being socialized to dance to the tune of the system how could they encourage each other to draw out of the lines. Their advise to each other panders to the expectations of patriarchy perhaps because they see obedience as their only safety net. To a certain extent, that is hard to believe because it is also that net that entraps them. One friend advises the other, ‘Uju, you know how these things work. Marriage is for life…’ (page 219). But this also speaks to the importance of a community that is supportive and speaks sense. Like Uju, if one is not surrounded by a strong support system it makes it harder to leave an abusive marriage or relationship. The unexpected friendship between Sally and Uju is refreshing because it is true, people do not have to be similar to be friends. Sally is a formidable character (although her character is not explored as much as the other women’s) and a different sounding board for Uju from college days till the end even with the gap between their connection for some years. Though she seems like a marginal character her effect on Uju is tremendous. I think it is also because Uju’s three friends see a different woman in Sally so they don't understand Uju’s friendship with her. The nature of the friendships casts a light on the issue of solidarity, what that looks like and how it is practiced. Sister Bolatito and Sally are action oriented. Uju's silence at one point disturbed me, when Ada talks bout how her husband wants their daughters to marry early at eighteen, "What can I do? she asked. You can fight, I thought, You can fight for your daughters. But then again, who was I to speak of such things?" (page 316) Given her proactive, protective and vocal stance when it comes to her daughters, I thought she would do the same for her friends' daughters and this is a dilemma. From another point, Uju I understand that she feels inadequate to talk about fighting because she has not fought for herself enough.

Romantic love in this novel remains an idea for the women because the men, my goodness, have nothing solid to give. The love relationships induce fear and disdain. The women try to reason and justify this without realizing that this withholding of love and emotional attachment is a form of persecution against their own emotional wellbeing, "'You see what I am saying? Sometimes life's stresses and pressure from this society can make someone forget about love. Love is for those that have finished eating...'" (page 312) Gozie is a very unlikeable character from the beginning, showing narcissistic tendencies in the way he relishes in women lining up to him just to get a chance to bow at his feet and prove their worthiness. Uju and Gozie’s relationship shows that 1. You cannot force it 2. Just because a couple have been married for a long time it doesn’t mean that all is well/they are happy together. Poor Akin, but it is easy to glorify Akin because he is on the side lines, lingering and doing just enough to be the face of true love. The letters between Akin and Uju in this book are important because they signified some form of defiance by Uju. To a greater extent, t is through her friendships mentioned above that Uju finds some sort of fulfilment. Uncle Ikenna is easy to glorify as well because he is a distant memory who was probably saved by death. From the narrations of the women who said they knew him, Ikenna’s love is coloured by nostalgia. People tend to glorify what could have been. Uju's brothers defend her (but often ask her to save her marriage), I can't help that their actions towards Gozie are only so because Uju is their sister. On the other hand, there is Christopher who feels emasculated by a another man helping out (a father showing up for his daughter) Chinelo, his wife. Even Papa’s horrid actions once revealed leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. Ikenna and Akin are portrayed in a positive light, so not all hope is lost.

I enjoyed reading this novel and reflecting on it. In Tomorrow, Uju becomes a woman when she stops worshipping Gozie and society. Tomorrow is a promising day for Uju as her divorce case is determined. The place of agency in this novel is a bit obscured for me but Uju lives to tell her story. I enjoyed how Odafen plays with language in her novel. Violence and the war are brutal subjects which she manages to handle with care. The plot develops steadily and the glossary is helpful, but I spent much time actually trying to pronounce the words and taking count of the familiar ones (testament to just how much literature from/set in Nigeria I've been consuming!). There has been so much talk about how people are tired of "these" books which lean deep into struggle, wars, pain and trauma; I think more should be written. I know that the effect of these experiences is far-reaching and for many writing is healing. You must not forget these experiences and after all, you read what you like.


Book Details

Title: Tomorrow I Become A Woman

Genre: Fiction

Author: Aiwanose Odafen

Publisher: Scribner UK (2022)

Pages: 416

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