The autumn of Professor Morayo
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (Cassava Republic Press, Abuja; 2016), follows Dr. Morayo Da Silva as old age injects itself into her eternal spring. A fall in the bathroom in the perfectly quirky quest of getting a good angle in the mirror to determine the best spot for a tattoo lands her in the Good Life Rehabilitation Centre (the Home). She has to confront the limitations of old age and her 75th birthday, conscious that a looming eye test could prevent her driving her beloved Porsche, named Buttercup.
Morayo is not your average woman of a certain age. A retired professor of English, she has lived an eventful life travelling the world as a diplomat’s wife, and is now facing the autumn of her life with the verve of a rose in bloom. With colourful fabrics, toe-rings and a sunny attitude, she zips around San Francisco in her vintage sports car, delighting in chance encounters and conversations. Long divorced, she lives alone, with only her books for company, luxuriating in memories of past trysts with a younger lover. Her first person narrative is spiced with literary references. And she is not averse to pleasuring herself when the mood takes her, in a depiction of female masturbation at a grand age. You’ve never met a Nigerian woman quite like this in fiction before.
It’s a breezy ride with Morayo as she meets with her friends in the community. From the Palestinian shopkeeper Dawud to homeless Sage and to Sunshine – who struggles with not being “Indian enough” but connects with Morayo who once lived in India and lunched with Mrs Gandhi. Add Reggie and other characters at the Home, and it’s as multicultural as it gets. The third person narration of Morayo’s encounter with Dawud gives way to the protagonist’s own first person musings about the same. Multiple narrative viewpoints are employed all through the novel, so that the reader enters not only Morayo’s head but also those of various other characters, the voices offering different slants on the same incidents, augmenting meaning. Instead of certainties, Manyika offers constantly shifting perspectives. How the protagonist sees people is undercut by how they see her. Brian Chikwava notes in his blurb that the novel is “always surprising and wrong-footing the reader at every turn and challenging one’s assumptions about the Other.” As Sage tells Morayo, “Everything is relative.”
In seamless transitions, individual experiences echo in other places; and the past echoes in the present, as the narrative loops in and out of itself. Connections are constantly being made: “smudged glasses” in San Francisco take us back to an eye test at the Kano Eye Hospital in the protagonist’s youth. Mention of Reggie’s son, Anthony, triggers recollection of Morayo’s Brazilian lover, Antonio. Then there is the meditation on the body in the novel’s exploration of sexuality, identity and racial politics. Reggie in particular has bitter experience of “the way white men have spoken of black men’s bodies for millennia. As threats. As rapists.”
The postcolonial meets African American discourse in the age of Black Lives Matter. The black chef at the Home, with the historically resonant name, Toussaint, straddles the crossroads. Morayo wants to lend him books by Ellison, Baldwin and C.L.R James, but he may also well be an updated character in a Richard Wright novel. Conscious of the racial burden, Toussaint’s passion for his work is expressed in lines allusive of U.S. black urban culture, music and drug references included: “I didn’t learn at the Cordon Bleu. I learned from my mama then got a credential from the Man. But my real cred, my street cred, is from my mom. Turning ordinary food into crack food is what I do. Just one hit of my cooking and you come back for more.”
Toussaint’s brief appearance leaves a certain wistful pathos in the reader; and Morayo responds by idealising his absence, imagining him on a mythical return to the motherland. Like her protagonist – who places Wide Sargasso Sea above Jane Eyre on her bookshelf in order “to redress the old colonial imbalance” – Manyika is in the business of ‘moving the centre’. The book reminds us that Nigeria had its own September 11 too, in Jos. “People ought to have been safe up in the mango trees… But no… these mad people had chased them even there, before smoking them out – some burning, as they fell from the branches. The date was 11 September 2001.” Our stories also matter, the novel insists.
Manyika’s echoes of Lagos aren’t so successful, carrying hints of the very clichés and simple certainties she is so keen to avoid. Morayo picks an ankara cloth from her wardrobe in California and finds “the smell of Lagos markets still buried in the cotton – diesel fumes, hot palm oil, burning firewood.”
Readers familiar with Lagos will wonder how many Ikoyi-dwelling diplomats’ wives cook with firewood or linger in the fumes of their generators. Or the percentage of Lagos residents that cook with firewood, period. One chapter’s veering to Lagos for Morayo’s ex-husband, Caesar, to receive news of her fall by telephone, ultimately goes nowhere. This is the same man that described her lovemaking as “Motherly” – it’s rather late in the day to get all misty-eyed over the ruins of their marriage. That said, here is a novel so well written and edited, it’s a bit of a surprise to find a malapropism – “discretely” in place of “discreetly” – on page 18.
As the book races towards its defiantly ambiguous ending, Toussaint’s declaration concerning his cooking may as well be the author’s regarding her novel: “It’s like my culinary mixtape; the tracks may be familiar but the beats, fades and mixes are all mine.”
Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is a bibliophile’s dream. “That’s my life, Sunshine! My books!” Morayo says in one scene. The fall takes her by surprise, for she has long prepared for greater calamities like the dreaded San Francisco earthquake. “The only survivors will be my books – hundreds of them – to keep each other company.” But as Morayo faces an uncertain future, the realisation dawns that her “shelf friends… weren’t real friends.” Happily, by the time of her second encounter with Sage, there is the assurance that books, too, can go on to live other lives.