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New nigerian ‘Transatlantic’ novel and sex trade narrative in Bisi Ojediran’s A Daughter For Sale – Part 1

By Ezechi Onyerionwu   |   02 October 2016   |   3:22 am

One remarkable feature of new Nigerian fiction is what has been termed “the localization of the international and the internationalization of the local.” By this is meant both the intense inclination of the national literature to critical global imperatives (especially in the era of the flambouyant phraseology, ‘the global village’) and the construction of its place and space in the world literary canon. A larger degree of the propensity of the Nigerian (and, of course, the African) to connect with the outside world has been ‘transatlantic’ in nature, especially in the explosive dispensation of the 21st century.

The idea of ‘transatlantic’ is, however, far from a 21st century phenomenon for the African. Much of the continent’s understanding and appreciation of the term would always be linked to the unpalatable experience of the transatlantic slave trade which ran for three centuries, forever redefining what it means to be African. The Atlantic Ocean had provided the platform for the most massive human translocation in history, and had set the ambience for the greatest tragedy of dignity ever. Also known as the ‘triangular trade,’ the transatlantic slave trade saw Africa lose about thirty million of its people to other parts of the world, across the Atlantic, in circumstances of extreme exploitation and dehumanization.

Interestingly, the African heritage in literature, which now ranks among the most illustrious in the world, has its roots in and owes a huge debt to this singular experience of racial humiliation. Exposed to languages with fully developed writing systems, a handful of ex-slaves were motivated to express their experiences in print. This is how names like Olaudah Equiano (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African [1789]); Phillis Wheatley (Poems on Various Subjects [1773]); Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, (A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars of the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince [1770]); Ottobah Cugoano (Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species [1787]); Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave [1845]), among others, became dominant features in African (and allied) literary history. It is against the backdrop of the contribution of the ‘slave narrators’ to the establishment and development of modern African writing that S.E. Ogude expresses a critical concern:

Unfortunately, modern African writers are hardly aware of the traditions that have shaped their art. And they are less likely to claim affinity with the eighteenth-century black men of letters. Yet the story of the development of black writing in modern European languages is part of the history of the black contact with the modern European world. It is, in its less attractive aspect, the history of the Slave Trade and the brutalities which accompanied it.

Perhaps the example of Equiano has been the most outstanding among Africans, owing to his obvious links with the modern Nigerian tradition in fiction, where he has been noted as a possible influence on Nigeria’s most celebrated fiction writer, Chinua Achebe. Achebe himself would characterize Equano’s The Interesting Narrative as “a beautifully written document which among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Europeans to justify the Slave Trade”. Achebe would, in the spirit of the temperament attributed to Equiano above, make a career out of defending and reinforcing the African dignity and integrity.

If the kind of material produced by Equiano and his group of ex-slaves qualifies as ‘transatlantic’ literature in today’s assessment, then in the 21st century age of globalization (by the way, the transatlantic slave trade has been described as ‘the first system’ of globalization) then the work of present day writers has exploded the genre into a major compartment of the modern world literature.

Ironically enough, ‘slavery’ is still at the core of transactions which have informed the emergence of the new transatlantic African/Nigerian novel. Alongside the other great instrument of exploitation—colonialism—slavery has found a veritable way of reinventing itself in new world terms. While oppression remains the principal denominator, and the oppressor and the oppressed roughly retain their former identities, neo-slavery manipulates socio-cultural, historical and economic indices to present a markedly different rule of engagement—the African now consciously wants to be enslaved. Taking a cue from Walter Rodney’s thesis about the outside world’s contribution to Africa’s underdevelopment, Ezechi Onyerionwu explains a situation where slavery and colonialism now appear to be in the reverse gear, even though to similar devastating effect:

It is within the context of the socio-political and economic crises engendered for Africa and the African that the continent’s history of dependency has no end in sight, and can only take new forms to perpetuate the inevitable. The story of Africa is now the story of hunger, starvation, disease, leadership directionlessness, wars, terrorism, corruption, and general under-development and disillusionment. And the mass exodus of Africans from their motherland in search of these securities that have infernally eluded them at home, courtesy of the devastation of enabling structures, becomes not just imminent, but a cause for contemporary global concern.

Although the world’s mass-migration narrative is now much bigger than the African predicament as the Middle East and the Arab world boils, Africa is still very much in the centre of a new world emergency. For the average African today, the other side of the Atlantic, especially Europe and the Americas, have become choice survival destinations dangling promises of a good life, and it hardly matters if some kind of slavery is part of the entire package. It is mainly the overestimation of the characters’ chances of survival and the opportunities for the realization of their dream life (or life dreams), and the tragic disillusionment that comes with it, that engages the new African transatlantic novel.

Among the signature themes of this emergent direction of African fiction are identity, physical and mental subjugation and disenfranchisement, and the politics of location/translocation/ dislocation.

It is the expert handling of these themes, and with the kind of narrative resilience and courage hardly seen in African literature of previous epochs that the new African transatlantic novel has been established as perhaps the fictional fulcrum of new African writing.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah (2013), for instance, possesses all the trappings of a finely-honed African transatlantic classic, dramatizing and narrativising the bold templates of the new African migrant story. Set both in London, England and in the United States of America, Adichie gives flesh and blood to the well-known dilemma of the African migrant, who like his predecessor African slave receives the due of an inferior being in full doses, in spite of the vaunted tempering of modern day civilization.

Adichie’s major female character, Ifemelu, who like Adichie herself is smart and ideologically resilient, sees through the façade of race tolerance bravely displayed by the American society. She invariably arrives at the conclusion that even the effervescent African American civil rights movements of the mid- 20th century did little to close the social gap between slave descendant and freeborn, and to douse the supreme legacy of racism that slavery instituted. Adichie’s major male character, Obinze, through whom she provides a United Kingdom version of the subject, could even afford to justify his circumstances through admirable historical theorizing:

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of Black and brown people from countries created by Britain. Yet he understood. It had to be comforting, this denial of history. (Americanah 321)

Thus, one major testimonial of transatlantic literature, is that the ghosts and legacies of past transatlantic transactions (that is slavery and colonialism) never die. They remain insatiate and menacing, taking every opportune moment to avenge for a previous disruption of world social order. In other words, the producers of this kind of literature would readily deploy it as an instrument of protest, of writing back to history.

Sex trafficking: The Menace of new transatlantic slavery
ON my return flight from the 41st edition of African Literature Association Conference in Bayreuth in early last June, where I presented a paper on sex trafficking in new Nigerian literature, the in-flight entertainment I chanced upon was Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008). This film, is about Bryan Mills (played by Liam Neeson), a retired CIA field operative, whose daughter has been kidnapped by a ruthless Albanian sex trafficking syndicate in Paris. Although Mills has many personal scores to settle with Lenore, the mother of his daughter, who is now married to Stuart, a billionaire businessman, he undertakes this very dangerous rescue adventure for the love of his daughter.

As he gets into the thick of action, he realizes that what he comes against is far bigger than a gang of amateur kidnappers; he is faced with the towering might of a most formidable world criminal organization with immense transnational political and economic interests and connections. He is exhausted, bruised and battered far beyond the magnitude of his expectations as he chases the criminals. But thanks to a combination of his CIA experience, his fighting and shooting abilities, and a generous sprinkling of luck, he is able to save his teenage daughter from destruction at the bloom of life.

There are a number of implications in the above reference to Taken for me and the present essay. 1. The Transatlantic sex trade has grown beyond Africa, and its socio-economic failures which enable such criminal exploitation of its peoples. If the step-daughter of an American billionaire private jet-owner like Stuart can fall victim to a modern-day transatlantic malaise, then everyone, everywhere is vulnerable. 2. The level of organization of the operational networks of this burgeoning trade suggests that it has built a gigantic economy for itself, any threat to which would be met with stiff, decisive, and even deadly resistance. This also means that it enjoys substantial socio-political influence and deep interest of powerful patrons. 3. It could be argued that one of the reasons for which Taken scores a major expository point on the global menace of sex trafficking is the investigative/detective format it takes.

The set text for this paper, Bisi Ojediran’s A Daughter For Sale (2006) employs the same technique, with an investigative journalist as protagonist.

That sex trafficking (or sex slavery) can now constitute a significant multimedia exploration should not be surprising. Functional art thrives on intense societal anomaly. This is why Lucien Goldmann, distinguished literary critic and Marxist theoretician, holds that these kinds of circumstances “are particularly favourable to the birth of great works of art and of literature because of the multiplicity of problems and experiences that they bring to men and of the great widening of affective and intellectual horizons that they provoke’.

Human Trafficking, especially its sex trade variant, much like its historical transatlantic antecedents, qualify as a contemporary global siege. For the United Nations, human trafficking is as heinous a crime as any other, and as grave a violation of human rights. The UN is apt in describing what constitutes human trafficking.

“… The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

The global battle against human/sex trafficking grows fiercer with each passing day. Governments, world organizations, non-governmental outfits, international security agencies, etc, have all joined the war. But like in the case of drugs, it appears it is a losing war.

Nigeria has over the years come to occupy a strategic place in the human/sex trafficking conversation. The country does not just serve as a veritable recruitment ground for sex slaves, it is a strong and strategic base for the formidable mafia operations which specialises in trafficking young girls to Europe and other parts of the world for purposes of prostitution.

As I have suggested in a previous paper of similar direction, one big reason that informs Nigeria’s large scale participation in this inglorious ‘neo’-transatlantic slave trade is its “perennially embattled socio-economic process, whose devastation has been serially orchestrated by Nigeria’s history of uninspiring leadership.” The outcome of this situation is that many of the country’s productive population hardly finds hope of economic survival within its shores. Encouraged by this socio-psychological anomaly, individuals of dubious characters devised a means of profiting from the circumstances, forming what has now become some of the 21st century world’s most vicious criminal organizations.

Nigeria also plays a leading role in the fictional representation of the scourge of sex trafficking. This may be an offshoot of the country’s dominant profile in African literature, and the very significant interest of Nigeria in the ‘globalization’ of African literature concomitant with the emergence of the global age. As Abiola Irele would reiterate, African literature specializes in “expressing the tensions set up in our modern awareness by the varied and often contradictory elements of the collective experience…”. But I have also argued that the deep involvement of Nigerian literature with this subject is perhaps “a price that [the country] has to pay for Nigeria’s leading role in a new world predicament”. In the Nigerian sex trafficking oeuvre are such well received novels as Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sister’s Street (2009), which won the coveted NLNG Prize for Literature in 2012; Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Trafficked (2008); Abidemi Sanusi’s Eyo (2009); Ifeoma Chinweuba’s Merchants of Flesh (2009), Ikechukwu Asika’s Tamara (2013), among others.

But what makes our set text for this discourse, Bisi Ojediran’s A Daughter For Sale, most remarkable is its detective outlook, which affords it the ambience, like the film Taken, to trace the contours of the sex trafficking trade to the detail. Thus, Ojediran’s novel provides us with a heart-warming mix of the realistic/topical mode and the detective/thriller sensibility. Among other deductions that can be made from Ojediran’s choice of this narrative outlook, is the conviction that the fight against trafficking requires much more than declarations by world bodies, proclamations by national governments and admonitions by religious leaders. The response to a global crime this organised has to be strategic, investigative, intelligence-oriented to be defeated.

In A Daughter For Sale, Peter Abel, an investigative journalist with Zodiac, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers undertakes a perilous adventure with the aim of saving a trafficked girl to whom he is emotionally attached. Other motivations for this high risk manoeuvre include to average the gruesome death of a fellow Zodiac journalist and friend, who is slain in cold blood for writing a story about sex trafficking in his country; to expose the evil cabal responsible for dislocating the maturative processes of young girls, and bringing them to book. Abel discovers that he is up against a very complex network of dare-devil killers almost as soon as he begins his investigation. One of his informants is murdered in cold blood and he narrowly escapes death himself in a well-planned assassination attempt as he tries to protect Alice, a young girl in danger of being trafficked. When Alice is eventually whisked abroad, Abel decides to make his pursuit international, of course with the full support of his highly cooperative boss at Zodiac, Chief Benson, who also understands the potential impact of such a big story on the reputation of his newspaper. In an extraordinary display of investigative resilience, Abel chases the traffickers to the Canary Islands in Spain, Mali in West Africa, London UK and finally Washington D.C, USA before he is able to finally snatch Alice from their jaws.

Abel could hardly believe that this was the same girl. Tears stung his eyes. Somehow after all the miles and all the pain, it was heartbreaking to see what had become of her. He wondered if there was anything human inside this shell left to save. What would her mother think when she saw her?

• Onyerionwu teaches in the Department of Languages and Communication, School of General Studies, Abia State Polytechnic, Aba, Abia State

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