On December 5, I sat down to speak with Yejide Kilanko about her latest novel, A Good Name, a complex and tragic story about a marriage; the unreachable American dream, and the oppressive expectations of family.
“Twelve years in America and Eziafa Okereke has nothing to show for it. Desperate to re-write his story, Eziafa returns to Nigeria to find a woman he can mold to his taste. Eighteen-year-old Zina has big dreams. An arranged marriage to a much older man isn’t one of them. Trapped by family expectations, Zina marries Eziafa, moves to Houston, and trains as a nurse. Buffeted by a series of disillusions, the couple stagger through a turbulent marriage until Zina decides to change the rules of engagement.” Guernica Editions
It will be hard to talk about this novel, without touching on the burden of family expectation, or cultural expectations. There is point in the novel where Zina says: “one should never underestimate the destructive power of the village gossip.” How does this play a role in Eziafa and Zina’s dysfunctional marriage in A GOOD NAME?
Zina was right. Village gossips are skilled at airing people’s dirty laundry in public. And in the world, she and Eziafa grew up in, one followed the rules and did everything not to attract their attention. Family expectations and cultural expectations play significant roles in AGN. Eziafa went back to Nigeria to find a bride because of his mother’s demands. And his ideas about what it means to be a man, a husband, are shaped by his cultural socialization. Zina entered into the marriage because of her parent’s wishes. Her decision to challenge cultural expectations changed their marital rules of engagement.
Eziafa is a character I feel like I have to hate. He is so self-centred and deluded, but as a reader, I also felt sorry for him. How did you manage to create such a selfish character and yet trigger so much sympathy?
I was relieved when one of my first beta readers echoed your comments. It is easy for us to have strong negative feelings about self-centered and deluded people. I knew I had to provide readers with enough information on Eziafa’s thought processes. When we catch glimpses of other people’s humanity, we may be open to understanding why they act the way they do without needing to approve or disapprove of their behaviour.
Friendships are very important in AGN. As a connection to home or a welcome to a new life and new love, but they are not just a beacon or promise, they are warning signs, flashing lights that Zina and Eziafa ignore. Can we talk about the development of these secondary characters? Felix, Nomzamo, Raven, Jovita and even Billie Lou? I’d love to talk about their names as well. First names and last names are very important and I wonder how important naming these secondary characters became?
One should never underestimate the destructive power of the village gossip.Zina, from Yejide Kilanko’s A Good Name
I’ve always felt that one does life better with the right friends. In an earlier interview about AGN, I had talked about how character naming is a crucial part of my writing process. As a Yoruba woman, I grew to believe that the names given to babies shape their personalities and destinies. Therefore, I spend quite a bit of time pondering the names I give to all my characters. Nomzamo’s Zulu name was a nod to Winnie Mandela. Her Georgia peach namesake exhibited her boldness.
The pacing of the novel matches the slow revelation of character: Eziafa is a man who unfolds, revealing himself a little bit at a time. Zina is a woman who goes along with the life she is supposed to live, until she can no longer. How did you think about plot and character when you sat down to write AGN?
Goal, motivation, and conflict are essential story building blocks, and they are what shape my plotting and characterization processes. The characters have a way of telling you what they want. After my first novel, I started writing with a detailed outline. I found that breaking down my chapters into scenes helped with the pacing. The length of time it took to birth AGN also helped with the crucial simmering process.
The perspective is balanced between Zina and Eziafa, but Eziafa dominates as his presence is so large. The novel opens with a lot of Eziafa and closes with more Zina. This matches Zina’s coming into her own, as she finds her own voice, she takes up more space in the novel.
I’m glad you noticed the balance. I had mentioned earlier that I knew I had to provide readers with enough information about Eziafa’s ways of thinking. That’s why he took up space at the beginning of the novel. And as Zina grew from a teen to an adult and made more independent decisions, she claimed more space.
When we catch glimpses of other people’s humanity, we may be open to understanding why they act the way they do without needing to approve or disapprove of their behaviour.Yejide Kilanko
As always, at Junction Reads, we get insightful questions from our audience. Here are a few of them. Dividing a large manuscript into several parts is a fascinating process. Do you consider the resulting three books to be a series, or as freestanding books?
All three books, the published ones which are Chasing Butterflies and AGN, and the work-in-progress, In Our Own Ways, came from the manuscript I’d titled, When Land Spirits Cross Big Waters. They are all freestanding books with some similar themes. The central character in Chasing Butterflies, Titilope Ojo, appeared in AGN. Readers wanted to know what happened to Titilope, and I thought it was an excellent way to tie up her story.
What made you interested in writing about couples?
I’m interested in exploring intimate partner relationships and understanding why people act the way they do. I think I write about couples because their interactions offer layers one can peel back.
Have you always combined writing and your profession in mental health? Or did you begin writing later?
Writing came first. I started writing poetry when I was twelve and became a social worker at thirty-three. Writing is a solitary pursuit, while social work practice demands interaction. They complement each other.
You’ve published so many different types of writing: novels, short stories, kids books… how do you choose whether an idea becomes a novel, a short story, etc?
I appreciate this question because it made me think about how this determination happens. With my children’s books, I’m deliberate about the themes. I want to write about mental health issues, special needs, grief, on topics we don’t usually talk about with children. My poems come in a self-assured way. There are no doubts about what they are. It’s hard for me to explain. In my short stories, whether flash or longer, I write about themes I want to explore immediately rather than teasing them out for years which is what happens with my novels. I’m grateful that I can explore life in many ways.
Yejide Kilanko was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. Her debut novel, Daughters Who Walk This Path, is a Canadian national bestseller. The novel was longlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Literature Prize. Kilanko’s work includes a novella, Chasing Butterflies (2015), and a children’s picture book, There Is An Elephant In My Wardrobe (2019). Kilanko’s short fiction is in the anthology, New Orleans Review 2017: The African Literary Hustle. When she’s not busy dreaming about more stories and poems, you’ll find Yejide online playing simultaneous games of Scrabble. She lives in Ontario, Canada, where she practices as a therapist in children’s mental health. (Transatlantic Agency)