[Fiction issue] [The JRB exclusive] Read an excerpt from a work in progress by Yewande Omotoso

Exclusive to The JRB, an excerpt from An Unusual Grief, a work in progress by Editorial Advisory Panel member Yewande Omotoso.


Titus Owolabi was due to write a letter to Sister Immaculata—in fact, he was about a week overdue. Ever since he’d left Illesa, a Federal Scholar boy with the Bible she had gifted him tucked into his boxcase, he’d written to her every fortnight. Despite the passing of a decade, despite his first degree, second and now doctorate looming, they’d kept up the ritual. A few things had changed, though. He was no longer the Illesa boy. She was still the closest thing to him that resembled a mother but now growing old. Her early letters had been full of warnings. Don’t go out at night in the dark. Don’t go with girls. Don’t go with girls at night in the dark. In his first year, following her instructions, he made no friends. Unhappy despite his high grades and the awarding of a much-coveted College Scholarship, Titus embarked on year two with only one fervent goal—to go in the dark … with girls. Amin Bar was the appropriate place for a boy to become a man.

Before Mojisola, Titus had touched several women. Initially he’d fumbled. Understandably nothing in Sister Immaculata’s tutelage had taken copulation into consideration. In fact, although efficient in her warnings against it, she’d sent her boy off to University College Ibadan without so much as a mention of acts of the flesh. The word ‘girls’ was as far as she went to describe an entire world of pleasure and sin. What Titus knew he’d memorised from the Bible, passages such as: ‘May her breasts satisfy you always’. His dreams started at fourteen and continued unbidden, heavy and warm in the dawn, soon cool and sticky.

When Titus returned for his second year of study the first thing he did was to head to the bookshop and purchase a copy of the Bible. He still had the one Sister Immaculata had given to him but, with his new intentions, he felt the necessity for a brand-new book cut free from the oyinbo nun’s moorings.

In the beginning he was not above fears of being struck by lightning bolts sent from a wrathful God. His fears would eventually dissipate, but for the first few women he went to bed with, he told himself if he consulted only the Bible in preparation then surely it couldn’t possibly be a sin. ‘Let us go to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened and if their pomegranates are in bloom …’ he read in Song of Solomon. This piece of advice would prove eternally helpful: never would he seek to enter a woman’s vineyard before it was clear that her pomegranates were in bloom.

Within a few years after leaving home Titus lost the church-boy goodness that the Sister had rubbed into him. Perhaps not lost as he hadn’t misplaced it, like a set of house keys. Rather he had set all of Sister Immaculata’s lectures on virtue (restraint) aside, like a key that no longer worked, rusted, or opened a room you no longer needed to enter. He wanted to go somewhere else. He wanted to taste things that were neither simply sweet nor sour; he wanted to feel the dampness of the most hidden skin, those bits of the flesh that seldom saw daylight; he wanted again and again to feel burst right through, found but lost and found again. He learnt quickly, watching the older boys, he learnt how to want and, most importantly, how to get. By the time Titus met Mojisola he was a man fully expressed in his desires.

But things with Mojisola were stalling. They had been seeing each other regularly—the cinema or at Amin—but something about her prohibited intimacy. They didn’t return to Moola but he took her to Obisesan, tried plain old English-language films, not that that made a difference. Taking a different tack, he suggested they go for a walk, determined to take her hand once they were on the path only to find his hands empty, hers too. They would spend a night dancing in Amin and Titus, while walking her back, would be certain as to the task at hand—take her in your arms and kiss her—only to find himself waving as she walked off past the porter’s lodge into the dorms, unkissed. He had many pictures of the thing. To touch her neck. To put his hand on the side of her face, caress her ear. After some weeks, when none of this transpired, he thought perhaps he was setting his sights higher than was possible for the time. He resorted to giving compliments, imagining that he could start casual (your hair is nice like that) and skilfully edge into more intimate terrain (your eyes are beautiful, I like your lips, your hands are soft, can I hold you?). 

In between their times together he felt a sharp sense of rejection. He was failing at something fundamental. A rite of passage was being denied him. Despite having become popular his time as a teenager returned, a time of misfit and social agony. He often couldn’t hold Mojisola’s gaze for fear she could see his undesirability. He felt self-conscious about his height. Perhaps she found him gross. But, no, she seemed to like him. She must do. She kept agreeing to his suggestions. Once he had attempted to leave without setting up a new date and she’d piped up, ‘Are we not going to meet again?’

‘Oh.’ He’d been confused.

‘Unless …’ She’d looked sad.

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I … Yes. Yes, definitely, let’s meet again.’

Perhaps she was cruel and laughing at him behind his back with her girlfriends. But that didn’t seem right either. Eventually Titus worked out that they were simply stuck, suspended in a cordial interaction that was doomed to stay so if he didn’t act. He couldn’t discuss it with his friends. They would laugh. He’d been so distracted with his woes that he hadn’t opened Sister Immaculata’s letter. Now, a week late, he opened and read it. She prayed for him; she suggested he pray for himself. The farm was okay—Sister Immaculata lived on a small plot. Moji was okay—Sister Immaculata lived on a small plot with Auntie Moji, the other woman who had raised him. Of course, the minute Mojisola had introduced herself he’d thought of Auntie Moji and would continue to for a long time, even though the only thing the women shared was half a name. ‘Read your Bible, child,’ Sister Immaculata suggested in the closing sentence of her letter. He felt morose. Titus quickly wrote a response as he imagined the Sister would be concerned if his letter arrived later than usual.

When he was finished—letter folded and sealed for his next walk by the post office—Titus did something he hadn’t done in a while. He obeyed Sister Immaculata and opened the good book. There was a lot of kissing in the Bible, mostly between men. Very little of it felt instructional. Then again, Titus was aware people came to the Bible for help with their soul, not their inability to get laid. Except the two seemed caught up, one and the same thing. He was simultaneously miserable and enraptured. Mojisola wasn’t like anyone he’d previously encountered, male or female. Her body, the way she moved and spoke, seemed to be imbued with the certainty of life’s dangers, ruled by caution, governed in hesitations. She was filled with a concrete silence, which isn’t to say that they didn’t engage in conversation during their meetings, even robust ones, but rather that, whether speaking or not, there remained a sense of quiet about her, as if her very centre was dead. Not as in old and rotten. Dead as in the condition before life, not after. And then right on cue her smile would spring forth from that deathly core: this remarkable joy would fill her face and scatter his mind.


One evening, to steel herself, Mojisola declined the soft drink and requested a beer.

‘Is the Queen visiting?’ Titus asked, indicating her gloved left hand.

Amin attracted enough eccentrics that Mojisola had hoped her glove-wearing would go unremarked but, she supposed, while in the company of eccentrics she did not quite pass as one herself. The gloves on her were conspicuous.

‘It’s nothing,’ she said, and before she could repeat her request for alcohol Titus reached to touch the gloved hand.

‘Style?’ He was curious in a way she couldn’t brush off.

In the week a rash—the same from her childhood—had flared up. This was not unusual, it happened on and off.

‘I’m really a lefty,’ Mojisola said, looking Titus in the eye.

Despite all the darkness Amin was not really a place for confessions. Both shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

‘I was a lefty,’ Mojisola dropped her voice. ‘But my mother showed me how to write with my right hand so … I’m no longer a lefty now.’

Titus cleared his throat into the silence. She could see she had made him uncomfortable.

‘Lace abi?’ he asked.


‘It suits you.’ He smiled, then drummed the table. ‘Oya come, let me buy you your beer.’

‘Who do I remind you of?’ she asked, once she had the drink in front of her. The question had been hanging about all these weeks but she noticed it took Titus a few seconds to understand what she was asking.

‘Oh, you mean … a woman who took care of me. Raised me. You have the same name.’

Mojisola brought the open beer bottle up to her chin, picking up the scent. She held it like that for a beat.

‘Cold enough?’

She nodded, putting the bottle back on the table without having taken a sip. The evening carried on, she was distracted, remembering a week ago when, after a stroll, Titus had walked her back to her dorm. Already she’d been thinking that something was wrong between them: she knew something more ought to be happening. But she was a young twenty-one, had entertained no suitors before Titus, and was too shy to ask for guidance from any of her girlfriends. That night, after the walk, he’d shaken her hand as usual. She’d said what a lovely time she’d had. He too. She’d turned and was walking through the gate by the porter’s lodge when she had an alarming thought. She realised that he’d applied a special pressure to his hand shake. Almost imperceptible, a quietly urgent pulse that hadn’t been there before. It put her on guard for something, she wasn’t sure what. The next time they went out, there it was. And walking away she couldn’t hide from the fact that she was the problem. She was somehow disallowing things. Not in words but in action, ruffling when the conversation died, troubling the kind of silence a kiss could grow up in; coughing and mumbling—disturbing the delicate fibres intimacy needs for weaving. She’d driven the poor guy to start sending smoke signals in the form of pressured handshakes. Well, tonight was the night.

‘You haven’t touched your beer,’ Titus said, as the man began to sing.

Mojisola scooped up the bottle and plugged her lips to the mouth. Beer is sour, she thought. Outside Queen’s Hall Titus leaned in and she held still, waited. She didn’t think to part her lips. And she felt it was beautiful enough (soft, wet even) without the addition of their tongues.


  • Yewande Omotoso was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria, moving to South Africa with her family in 1992. Her debut novel Bom Boy, published in 2011, won the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author. Her most recent novel, The Woman Next Door, was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English. It was also shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. Omotoso lives in Johannesburg, where she writes and has her own architectural practice.

© Yewande Omotoso, 2019

Author image: The JRB Photo Editor Victor Dlamini

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