The JRB presents an excerpt from An Unusual Grief, the new novel from Yewande Omotoso.
An Unusual Grief
Cassava Republic Press, 2021
Read the excerpt:
She thinks perhaps she’ll wear something of Yinka’s, then goes to the bedroom to see what there is. She opens the cupboard and, gently parting the dresses, wonders whether the clothes of our dead look different. Will there be anything that fits her? It seems silly even to wonder—they have never had the same kind of body. Mojisola recalls walking with Yinka through the stomach of a shopping mall. ‘People are looking, Mummy.’ And they were. Yinka had always been tall for her age, taller than average. Her parents had wondered who she took after. There were enough blanks (Mojisola’s father and both of Titus’s parents) to feed the mystery.
As soon as she’d realised that her child would be tall, Mojisola had taken it upon herself to train Yinka, with a stack of books, to hold her head up high, neck straight. No slouching permitted. They are looking. Later that day Yinka had asked, ‘Are we beautiful?’ The question had surprised Mojisola. That the child hadn’t said, ‘Am I beautiful?’ or ‘Are you?’ She’d said ‘we’. And as for beauty, what could she tell her? Mojisola had kept quiet, pretended not to have heard.
For days afterwards she’d felt angry. She’d snapped at Titus but, truly, she was upset by something much bigger than her husband. She could smell the sweat of Beauty, an ever-hungry hound in the lives of women. She could smell it bounding about her girl, felt keenly her inability to protect the child from all this and the whole thing had made her mad.
Mojisola lifts a hanger with a sequined top. Too elaborate. She replaces it. She has spotted something red but she ignores it. She looks out of the window. Beyond the garden, over a low vibracrete wall, she observes a little boy on his bicycle: he is wobbling on two wheels. There is no one else in sight but Mojisola somehow knows that his mother is close by. The invisible but discernible cord of the guardian’s gaze some paces away. Or, in the case of lost children, severed. Sure enough a woman soon comes into view. Mojisola purses her lips and holds the expression as she turns back towards the closet. There is a black jacket, long but too severe. A series of grey outfits, suits. A few summer-looking dresses in Adire and Ankara fabric. Shoes, but nothing with heels except the red ones by the door. There are some evening gowns. Mojisola cannot help it: she leans in to smell them.
The red dress is short, it’s the same one from the photograph. Perhaps in university Mojisola wore such things. And then she posed for the camera, propped on a stool, her hair in a beehive, her beautiful legs naked from just above the knees. Occasionally Mojisola could look dangerous. For those pictures, she removed her glasses and went without seeing or inserted contact lenses. Her danger (which is a form of allure) relied heavily on her gorgeous legs. She never smiled. The smile that reduced her to just a good person.
She fills the tub. Yinka was found in the bathtub. It is a Thursday, late afternoon. It is winter in Johannesburg, and the days, despite the cold, are yellow. After standing, watching the steam move off the surface and disappear, not entering, just watching, Mojisola removes her clothing, sinks in, closes her eyes. She is holding the knife. Zelda may have been jesting (goading) but Mojisola did go to the kitchen cupboards. The orange of the handle is a real defiant orange. A child’s orange. Crayon orange. The texture is not quite smooth. For grip, Mojisola thinks, and this deduction is bolstered by the ergonomics along the length of the handle—a series of indentations where the fingers can rest. She checks for a brand name but there is none. Did Yinka buy it specially or, before she took it to her own skin, had she used it to chop onions, tomatoes, careful so the juice didn’t leak? Mojisola tries the tip of the knife with her index finger. She applies pressure, wanting to push all the way. The flat of the blade is smooth and gleaming, reflecting light and form. Later, she puts the knife away.
How is it that the dress fits her? Yinka was always so much skinnier, more Auntie Modupe’s frame—stretched and slight. Mojisola opens the cupboard door for the full-length mirror. He’ll be surprised by her age. Might he try not to look at her breasts? So many years since someone had tried not to look at her breasts—that is, so many years since she’d considered herself to be someone, another someone had to avoid looking at too closely for fear of being struck dead with passion.
Her hair is no longer the length it was when she was a young mother. Instead, soon after they arrived in Cape Town, she had cut it short. For many years she visited the salon for a perm but recently she had let the perm grow out, chopped off the stretched hair. Now she wets her fingers at the tap and runs them through the soft curls of her Afro. This will do.
Yinka’s make-up, if some powder, a wand and lip-gloss constitute such, is less of a fit for Mojisola’s lighter complexion, but she moulds it to suit, her hand shaky with the unfamiliar ritual.
Worried, she double-checks, looking again through the history of the correspondence between FireBabe and D-Man. Once more she concludes that no photographs were exchanged. She can’t be 100 per cent sure, but then Mojisola’s judgement is bolstered when D-Man writes to ask that she describe herself. In making arrangements for their meeting, he’d written: What will you ware? Mojisola had scowled at his spelling. She’d written: No. What will you wear? He’d answered that he would have on ‘blu jeans, brown suede shoes’. He mentioned that he was bald and that he’d wear a long-sleeved light ‘blu’ shirt. She didn’t know what came over her but she wrote: Bring flowers.
As she drives to the venue Mojisola cannot shake the feeling, once again, of being in a crime movie. Except now she knows she is both criminal and detective. Perhaps she is even the victim. But no, she thinks, pulling up at the venue. Yinka is the victim. After all it is always the victim (always, in all the movies—an inviolable rule) who is dead. It is a Thursday. Mojisola is relieved that at least by one day they have avoided the weighted meaning implicit in Friday night meetings. Because although D-Man has referred to this appointment as a date she has told herself over and over again that it is just a meeting. Regardless of what fantasies he has brewed up (fantasies that will surely disappear when he sees her—no doubt she could be his mother), for her this is about the drawings. The drawings, the drawings.
She’d debated whether to reveal herself as bereaved mother, perhaps rely on his sympathy, but the reality is she does not know the man. He might have no sympathy to speak of. Her daughter may have taken a liking to him (she can’t tell for sure) but she, Mojisola, is discerning. This modern way of courting, while amusing, is really absurd. So when she sees him from a distance, standing (nervous?) at the entrance, lit by Ocean Basket’s blue neon she must remind herself that really he is a stranger, she cannot trust him, yet he has in his possession the most precious thing. Basically, he is dangerous.
‘D-Man?’ She feels stupid for not having asked his real name. Hot with embarrassment, she reaches her hand out fast, before he can say, ‘FireBabe,’ and offers herself, ‘I’m Yinka.’
‘Jide,’ he says, smiling easily, taking her hand in his. In his other hand are the flowers. There are five yellow heads, the plastic wrapping arranged around their long green stalks. She doesn’t even have to check whether his shoes are suede. ‘So good to finally meet.’
He has surprised her: his height, the fact that he is bald, as promised, but he also wears a not-too-close beard. His eyes are sharp, and he shakes hands as if he wants to pull her somewhere. Together, he, a second behind, they walk into the restaurant. The suggestion was hers, once again to head off any romantic notions. But as they sit down she sees her naivety. Jide is looking at her in a way that translates across time zones, languages and generations. The dourness of a chain restaurant will not dampen his ardour.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he says, straight away, before any waiter has even had a chance to hand them menus.
‘Oh … Look, I—’
‘No o! None of this shy-shy business, abeg.’
He turns to the waiter and orders something she doesn’t quite catch, busy as she is catching herself.
‘Now, I’m not sure why I let you talk me into this useless place. Anyway, sha, I’ve ordered their best wine. Don’t judge me, though. I’m working with what I got.’
He is young. Older than Yinka, by a decade or so, but still too young. Surely he must realise she is old. She decides to pretend it is his youth that was unexpected.
‘I thought you’d be older,’ she says.
Her attempts at being delicate are ineffective in the company of one so gregarious and unaffected. When he opens his mouth to speak, her country comes out. Apart from when she’d returned home to help Auntie Modupe, they have not gone back. ‘There is nothing for us there,’ Titus took to saying. As Jide attempts to banter with Mojisola in Yoruba she concedes that she has lost her traditions; the ache is in her stomach. She tries to recover and receive Jide’s play but her language is rusty. Her mother had not encouraged what she termed ‘vernacular’. Auntie Modupe’s insistence in speaking to Mojisola in Yoruba and pidgin English had always felt like a kind of rebellion against her sister’s preference for English. In particular Mojisola’s mother had encouraged her daughter to pray in English. Auntie Modupe had pointed out that it would indeed be a useless God who did not have at least a serviceable grasp of the Yoruba language. All this was around the time the sisters were drifting apart, the only family Mojisola knew splitting in two.
- Yewande Omotoso trained as an architect. Her debut novel, Bom Boy, was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature, winning the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author. Her second novel, The Woman Next Door, was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award. It was also a finalist in the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction. It has been translated into Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Korean. She lives in Johannesburg.
How do you get to know your daughter when she is dead?
This is the question that haunts Mojisola as she grapples with the sudden loss of her daughter, Yinka, and the unresolved fractures in their relationship. Mojisola is forced to confront the dysfunctions of her life that have led her to this point, evading her errant husband and mourning their estranged daughter alone.
Mojisola’s grief takes her from Cape Town to Johannesburg where she holes up in Yinka’s apartment, unearthing the life that she had built for herself there. Walking a mile in Yinka’s shoes, Mojisola slips into a clandestine underworld, where she learns to break free from the bondage of the labels, wife and mother.
In this new world of feline companionship, reignited talents and unlikely friendships, including with Yinka’s acerbic landlady Zelda, Mojisola’s understanding of life, and her place within it, is built anew.
A bold and unflinching tale of one woman’s unconventional approach to life and loss.