The Three: March Edition

Every month, I write about a few pop culture happenings that caught my eye. Previous editions here and here. This is lucky number three.

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From the top left: Ariana Grande’s album cover for ‘thank u next’; R. O. Kwon’s book cover for ‘The Incendiaries’; and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s book cover for ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer.’

Us too

These last few years, women everywhere seem to be recalibrating their relationships to the societies they live in. Just like the wider #MeToo movement, women from the northern part of Nigeria are using #ArewaMeToo hashtag to share experiences of and raise awareness on gender-based violence in northern Nigeria. #ArewaMeToo started when Khadija Adamu’s thread detailing the intimate partner violence she experienced in 2017 inspired hundreds of others to come forward. One of the more high profile cases was Maryam Awaisu’s, where she got unlawfully arrested by the Nigerian police after accusing someone working with the Kaduna State Government of sexually violating underaged girls.

This is just the latest viral conversation being had on issues concerning women, sexual violence and gender roles that we’ve seen in the Nigerian online space. It is an interesting conversation to watch, and I see it all as part of a broader continuum: after the Gender in Nigeria report in 2012, after the #FemaleinNigeria hashtag went viral in 2016, after the rise of Female In Nigeria Facebook group and the controversy that trailed it, following with the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill having failed to scale through a second reading at the National Assembly in 2017, alongside the nearly incessant conversation on gender roles on social media. Things that happened in South Africa, Kenya, India and the U.S. also reverberate in Nigerian corners of the internet and reflect women’s experiences locally, so it has felt like a steady deluge of stories and experiences.

The real triumph of this cultural moment for me is how more people are becoming aware of how media creates representations of women that support a culture where women’s rights and control over their bodies is not a given. And this is not just about the people like Weinstein and Spacey getting their comeuppance. In the February edition of The Three, I wrote about how the show ‘Sex Education’ feels like a response to the #MeToo moment in its emphasis on bodily autonomy and its understanding sex as an often-messy thing that does not exists separately from our individual relationships with our bodies and our selves. This makes sense, given the impact sexual violence has not just on people’s intimate lives, but also the way they experience the world around them. Roxane Gay’s book ‘Hunger’ makes this link more eloquently than I could by shedding important, intimate light on the relationship with our bodies and how it impacts the way we negotiate the world around us through her own specific experience. There is still a long way to go, but there seems to be rising consensus about the need for diverse representations of women, brushing off the dust of toxic, patriarchy-derived notions we have collectively internalised several specks at a time. It is a process, and oftentimes storytellers in film and in the news leave us with much to debate, but the fact that there is real movement addressing this gives my cynical self some hope to lean into.

Globally, there has been high-profile changes brought about as a result of #MeToo that has shaped policies at some of the most powerful companies in the world, but in Nigeria we are nowhere near that. The Nigerian government signed the Disability Bill that has been languishing for years in the National Assembly to law before he won reelection, but the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill has not even been able to scale through a second reading. Young girls in universities in Nigeria have faced sexual violence for decades, but no government has put any measures in place to make our schools safer. Lagos and Ekiti have sex offenders’ registries, but that’s just two in 36 states, and on its own not enough to meaningfully address protecting children and communities at large in a country where people can easily move around. The sexual violence faced by electoral officers during the elections was worth only a cursory mention by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Yet, I believe that something is shifting, and women are more likely than ever to speak out. #ArewaMeToo would not be happening otherwise. The impact of this advocacy will likely be scattered and, as is typical, it is easier to say what change is not than what it does look like. Still, it is worth keeping watch. In solidarity.

Writing Agency

I read two books recently that are well-observed explorations of female agency and victimhood. The first is R. O. Kwon’s ‘The Incendiaries,’ a novel about a young woman named Phoebe who had recently lost her mother, and along with this loss everything that has anchored her — family, a sense of herself, her dreams of becoming a professional pianist. In college, she meets and embarks on a relationship with Will Kendall, and as this relationship is deepening she gets mixed in with a religious cult led by a guy named John Leal. ‘The Incendiaries’ is a story that paints a vivid picture of intimacy in relationships, how trust is formed and broken. Phoebe is burdened by guilt and a desire to anchor herself in something, looking past Will’s effort to be that anchor in her life. This desire and guilt shapes everything from her relationship with her friends to the decisions that she makes that culminates to the devastation of the novel’s conclusion.

The second, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel ‘My Sister, The Serial Killer,’ is a darkly funny, incredibly well-observed novel with pointed commentary on upper middle-class Nigeria. Korede and Ayoola are sisters whose bond is forged by shared trauma, so when her sister goes on her killing spree, this bond tells you why Korede helps her, even while biting hard on her own resentment. The best stories, much like the best photographs, have its subjects shaped by and interact with their environment. In ‘My Sister,’ we see Nigeria as a character in itself, looming large and informing everything from the family’s dynamics and privilege, Korede’s vision of her own worth, Ayoola’s calculated manipulation of her appeal. In both novels, these women are both victims of their circumstances and forces in shaping their world.

Go read them both.

Smiling through the pain

I confess, I wasn’t expecting to like Ariana Grande’s latest album ‘Thank U Next’ nearly as much as I did.

Grande has famously had a hell of a couple of years, and it is true that grief makes people turn inwards. It does for Grande as well, but not in ways that one might think. The album is indeed a pop confection, but it actually does portray all the hallmarks of grief, its inwardness masked with a bubbly exterior. She sings about how she’s dealt with enough that she can’t pretend like she’s fine when she’s not (‘Fake Smile’). She wants both the comfort of a warm body (‘Bad Idea’) and space (‘NASA’). Fuck what you want, tbh (‘Bloodline’). She acknowledges the hot and cold in ‘Needy’ (you can go ahead and call me selfish, but after all this damage I can’t help it). ‘Thank U Next’ only really cares about her exes insofar as they contribute to her own personal growth. Who cares if you, like Pete Davidson, don’t particularly care to be reeled off as part of a list? Fuck your feelings.

One thing you learn from Grande’s pop persona — and indeed, from this album — is that there’s more than one way to be guarded. The most ingenious of these ways is to hide in plain sight, replying on social media to fans and posting frequently, because that way you throw people off your scent. By giving the illusion of being publicly available, you can retreat uninterrupted to your life under the cloud of smoke. Music is always a very collaborative process, so it is always striking when a body of work truly presents itself as such, with a discernible personality coming through and a strong selection of songs that all fit into a coherent whole. Yes, even when they do lend too much to the prevailing singy-rappy style that we owe trap music for. Not mad at it.

Until next time.

Occassional writer. Music lover. Book reader. Point-and-laugh-er. Doer of things.

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