The Witch and the Uhamiri: Exploring Nuances of Female Bonding in A Mercy and Efuru
Research Scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India.
For Toni Morrison, the demise of an ancestor translates into the termination of existence for oneself, as she claims in an NPR 2008 interview. In her work, A Mercy (2008), Morrison embarks upon a journey towards ethnic history, hearkening back to a temporal past and its ambiguous framing of one's relation with identity, culture and the interpersonal; unlike her other works wherein she explores relatively recent contexts of the African-American predicament. Synchronous with her fascination regarding ethnocentric roots and historical fiction, this paper comparatively explores A Mercy (2008) and Efuru (1966) by the Nigerian author Flora Nwapa, through the lens of female bonding and its nuances which represent a different mode of understanding womanhood both as a construct, and a pervasive social marker.
Toni Morrison, female bonding, social, community
[T]here are extraordinary books written by Black people, really powerful. But those that were published in this country seemed to be talking to somebody other than me and the closest I came to finding it was in some books written by Africans. Novels that were loose, you know that kind that people can call unstructured because it was circular and because it sounded like somebody was telling you a story, yet you knew it was nothing simple...it was intricate...
- Toni Morrison in 1983(Obioma Nnaemeka 109)
For Morrison, the demise of an ancestor translates into the termination of existence for oneself, as she claims in the NPR 2008 interview. In A Mercy (2008), Morrison embarks upon a journey towards ethnic history, hearkening back to a temporal past; unlike her other works wherein she explores relatively recent contexts of the African-American predicament. Synchronous with her fascination regarding ethnocentric roots and historical fiction; in this paper, I have endeavored to comparatively explore A Mercy (2008) and Efuru (1966) by the Nigerian author Flora Nwapa, through the lens of female bonding and its nuances. The elucidation would comprise of three echelons;
i. The woman bonding with oneself.
ii. The women bonding socially on the plane of community living.
iii. The women bonding with the divine/ supernatural.
Morrison reminisces about the conception of A Mercy and its historical impulses in the National Public Radio interview in 2008:
There is not a great deal in fiction, although there’s a great deal in history, about what this continent was really like in the seventeenth century, before the United States, really before there were many colonies, when it was still ad hoc, when every country was laying claim, when there was the Swedish nation and the Dutch empire as well as the Spanish, the French, etc. And during that scramble, anything could have been shaped, anything could have come out of it. What was there before, that was truly fascinating to me.
The objective of reading the two novels simultaneously is to comprehend the two individual feminine spaces the authors explore. While Nwapa contextualises her novel in the native space of the Nigerian Igbo community; Morrison concentrates on the diasporic African identity in America at the dawn of political autonomy. As A Mercy accentuates the nexus of the diasporic movement, it might provide a peek at the realities of early migration. While socio-cultural transformation in A Mercy is perhaps engendered due to emigration; in Efuru, the society is seen in transition owing to the immigration of Christianity and consequent destabilization of the Igbo beliefs. Conceivably, Nwapa and Morrison are rooted in their cultural predicaments. While some might perceive it as a limitation; for others in might translate into authenticity. Morrison takes a step out of her immediate context into the contentious vortex of history. Caroline Moore in her review of the novel in The Telegraph, identifies Morrison’s attempt as ‘ventriloquism’ and therefore, ‘ludicrous’. (Moore) Authenticity in itself is a polemical idea. Perhaps, if one chooses to perceive A Mercy as a fictive historical approximation, rather than a factual adaptation, it might be more justified. Incidentally, Susan Curtis remarks that A Mercy was used by her in a graduate course titled ‘Reimagining America’. A Mercy can propose a discursive dialogue between the creative imagination of a novelist and a clinical reconstruction of a historian. She mentions:
The word imagination occupies the borderland between fiction and history. On the history side, there are synonyms like conceptualization, formulation, and originality. On the fiction side, are fabrication, invention, and making up. But one word could appear on either side of this divide—artistry. As humanistic endeavours, both fiction and history require some artistry. (Curtis 192)
Maryse Conde in “Three Female Writers in Modern Africa: Flora Nwapa, Ama Ata Aido and Grace Ogot” gripes against the lack of female personae in the African literary scene at the turn of the last century, even though there is no lack of educated females in the continent; ‘When so many women can stand up and shout slogans for emancipation or deliver political addresses for the benefit of the ruling parties, what prevents them from taking a pen and writing about themselves?’ (Conde 132) But Conde’s remark possibly pertains to the age when the scenario was dominated by the male ink- figures. Flora Nwapa of Nigeria whose fame was albeit posthumous, blossomed into prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. Flora Nwapa (1931-1993) was educated at the University of Ibadan and also in the University of Edinburgh. Efuru is her first novel which illustrates the challenges of the eponymous character, an Igbo woman from the town of Oguta. Although her lead is a strong female figure, Nwapa mentions in an interview, ‘…I don’t think that I’m a radical feminist. I don’t even accept that I’m a feminist. I accept that I’m an ordinary woman who is writing about what she knows. I try to project the image of women positively.’ For both Nwapa and Morrison, the emphasis lies with the shared microcosm of the few female characters and the connections assumed between them. Efuru is bequeathed with the pivotal role in Nwapa’s nexus of communiqué in the text.
Morrison’s artistry in the imaginative reclamation of history in A Mercy, set almost four centuries ago, journeying through the in medias res parallel narratives is an attempt of the ‘founding mother, proffering the mercy of correcting a flawed historical record, engaging the past in order to go beyond it’ (Babb 159). Presumably, the use of ‘founding mother’ instead of ‘father’ is deliberate. Nwapa, who tries to portray ‘women positively’, prefers the term ‘Womanism’ according to Marie Umeh:
Nwapa prefers to identify with Alice Walker’s term “womanist” to show her
allegiance to the struggle of black women in Africa and the diaspora against racism, sexism, and ageism. Womanist poetics in general celebrates male-female relationships, family stability, and the healing of black nations torn asunder by colonialism, ethnicity, corruption, individualism, and innumerable social ills. (Umeh 121).
Conceived perhaps in the womb of ‘Womanism’, A Mercy narrates the parallel tales of the four female characters. In the odd homestead of the late Jacob Vaark, a Native American farm owner, resides his mail order bride Rebekah who is one of the ‘Europes’, Messalina/Lina whom Vaark bought as a farm hand from the Presbyterian church, Sorrow whom he took in from the Sawyer family that rescued her, and Florens who was entrusted to him by her mother at his Portuguese client’s household Senor D’Ortega. The narrative burden primarily rests on Florens who undertakes a journey to find her love, the ‘freedman’ Blacksmith who harbours the knowledge of curing her sick Mistress. Valerie Babb in her essay titled E Pluribus Unum?: the American Origins Narrative in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy claims that Morrison is ‘complementing the discourse of historical documents is a narrative created in large part by traditionally ignored perspectives: a Native American woman, a white lower-class English woman, white indentured servants, an abandoned white girl, and a black female slave’ (Babb 149); with the allusions to the historical event such as the Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 and the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century from the alternative perspective of the marginalised.
Florens has multiple literacies; both of English alphabets taught to her by Reverend Father in her childhood before she comes to the Vaark Household and the language of signs. Her multiplicity could be the projection of the different voices that strive to speak in the narrative- the voices that desire to reclaim themselves. For instance, Lina refashions herself with knowledge gained from her brief stay at the Church and her native tribe to become a healer. These voices tend to threaten the selective and amnesiac mainstream documented history wherein the marginalized have been consistently oppressed. Florens presents her case with a latent hint of subdued violence, concluding with a direct challenge to the comprehensibility of the reader:
Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I
promise to lie quietly in the dark—weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more—but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. […] One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read? (Morrison 13)
Morrison tries to recapture the lost parts through the volatility and fluidity of ideas, as she conceives the birth of the nation as it perhaps was, all slime and grease, before national history was sanitized and delivered to posterity. Efuru is the tale of an Igbo woman who unsuccessfully seeks happiness through marital relation. But her independent spirit remains untouched, in spite of her two failed marriages and the death of her infant daughter Ogonim. She dedicates herself to the worship of Uhamiri, the Goddess of the Lake. Uhamiri is a divine figure that has a recurrence in other novels of Nwapa; her last being titled The Lake Goddess. The first level of the female bonding explored by Nwapa and Morrison is with oneself. Sorrow, the girl despised as the harbinger of bad luck, finds her own ‘twin’ schizophrenic self to curb her loneliness. It is curious as to how a mind inflicted with a clinically diagnosable imbalance becomes the comfort against the cruel reality. Similar to Florens and Lina, Efuru seeks freedom. She toils to become a prosperous tradeswoman, followed by her role as the devoted priestess of Uhamiri. In certain instances, the women acquire the forefront in the Igbo community rather than men, unlike early Native America. When farmer Vaark passes away, the household falls into chaos as the four women remain unprotected and without male supervision. Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo points out in her essay titled Traditional Women’s Institutions in Igbo Society: Implications for the Igbo Female Writer: “[…] women had a high economic status, especially the very industrious and intelligent ones who became wealthy. […] In Igbo communities where women took titles, such women were rich and powerful and were ranked higher than men and enjoyed greater prestige and influence” (Ezeigbo 154).
Efuru takes the ‘title’ as the influential priestess of Uhamiri, among the selected few in the little town of Oguta. The beautiful Goddess of the Lake bequeaths prosperity and wealth; but she herself is known to be barren, like her priestesses. In Morrison’s novel; a child becomes the umbilical extension of identity for the mother. A child gives Sorrow a tangible existence; who rechristens herself ‘Complete’ after the birth of her daughter. Gradually, her alternate self also disappears.one might argue that to define a woman solely by her motherhood is regressive, especially in Sorrow’s case. It is likely that her first pregnancy is a result of sexual abuse by an unknown perpetrator. But Sorrow is distraught when the child is stillborn. But when she delivers a healthy child the second time, she deems herself to be whole again. But in a manner of speaking, this child becomes her redemption. One might also argue on behalf of Sorrow’s capacity to choose; that she elects to raise her daughter without the sanction of paternity, with the rest of the female household. With the help of the household healer Lina, the pregnancy might have been terminated, has Sorrow wanted so.
Matrilineal circumstances initiate the communal, or filial bonding in case of both the authors. Rebekah is devastated after the death of her daughter Patrician, like Efuru after the loss of Ogonim. Hence they seek solace in other presences in their lives, whether mortal or divine. Florens’ mother is compelled to send Florens away with Jacob to protect her from the lusty shenanigans of the Old Lord D’Ortega. But Florens’ entire childhood and early youth is spent under the delusion of rejection from her mother who preferred the ‘boy child’ over her. That is perhaps the reason behind her debilitating love for the blacksmith, a plea for acceptance which is also thwarted. Lina comes to love Florens as a daughter, which foregrounds the motif of surrogacy in the novel. In stark contrast of her attitude to Sorrow, she protectively cares for Florens, tries to talk her out of the misplaced infatuation over the ‘freedman’. When in the last lines of the novel, Florens’ mother utters, ‘Oh Florens, my love. Hear a tua mae’; it is a last desperate attempt for her voice reach her daughter who has always tried to connect her through her later ‘dreams.’ Poignantly subversive, Florens’ sole way of communication becomes the scratching of her story with her nails on the walls of the deserted house of Jacob Vaark.
Rebekah and Lina, though in dislike of each other in the beginning; forms a solid bond of companionship. In a strange land, Rebekah is an outsider and Lina an outcast from both her native community and the Church; who in its limited mercy has sold her off as a slave. Morrison beautifully enunciates:
When the Europe wife stepped down from the cart, hostility between them was instant. The health and beauty of a young female already in charge annoyed the new wife; while the assumption of authority from the awkward Europe girl infuriated Lina. Yet the animosity, utterly useless in the wild, died in the womb. Even before Lina midwifed Mistress’ first child, neither one could keep the coolness. The fraudulent competition was worth nothing on land that demanding. Besides they were company for each other and by and by discovered something much more interesting than status. Rebekka laughed out loud at her own mistakes; was unembarrassed to ask for help. Lina slapped her own forehead when she forgot the berries rotting in the straw. They became friends. (Morrison 52-53)
The idea of communal or filial bonding in Efuru carries queer undertones. Following Igbo traditions, Efuru performing the rituals of a ‘female husband’ as she herself cannot reproduce a child fathered by her husband Eneberi. Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo informs: “The institution of ‘woman marriage’ was one of the ways women could rise in social prestige in the community. And invariably it was only wealthy women with strong personality and influence that could exercise this power. Women in this position were mostly married” (Ezeigbo 153). Efuru refers to their prospect of second marriage as ‘we are marrying again’ and not as ‘he is marrying again’, adopting a male persona.
Simultaneously, it fosters the idea of a surrogate bond. When Nwokeni, Eneberi’s second wife bears him a son, Efuru lavishes love upon the child. Furthermore, one comes across instances of communal female bonding that ossifies the palpability of the female figure. Ajanupu is Efuru’s mother- in law’s elder sister from her first marriage, therefore, a seemingly distant kin. But even after the marriage between Efuru and Adizua is dissolved, the friendship between the two women prospers. Efuru is a motherless child, and does not claim much competence in home-making skills. Hence, it falls on Ajanupu to take up the role of a foster mother and tutor the young bride. She presides over Efuru’s circumcision ritual, delivers Ogonim, and defends her honour against slanders. Furthermore, the Igbo community allows females to address unrelated individuals as ‘mothers’ and ‘sisters’. Greetings are important according to Igbo custom. For example, when one woman meets another acquaintance after a long time, she asks, ‘Is that your eye, sister?’ Wendy Walters in More Than ‘Girl Talk’: Language as Marker in Two Novels by Women of African Descent discusses the idea of familiarity and how Nwapa uses it in her narrative:
Some of the ways that Nwapa uses language skillfully to recreate an Igbo worldview are her use of traditional proverbs, salutation names, and untranslated Igbo phrases. […] It is in these verbal customs that the people define their group identity and community in a rapidly changing society. Language itself becomes an important marker of group membership. When someone “forgets” a village custom she is accused of “talking like a stranger. (Walters 163)
In A Mercy, Jacob and Rebekah dwell in a world of their own, self- exiled from social macrocosm, making communal bonding a tad inconspicuous. The Church is the most prominent interactive space in the social reality that Morrison portrays. But owing to Rebekah’s foreigner status, the local order refuses to christen and later, perform burial services for Patrician. Hence Rebekah shuns the Church with a personal vendetta. But the Vaark homestead, where the members are affiliated to different roots; make up a community by themselves. In a manner of speaking, it is both a family and a small, microscopic community. In Morrison, the bonding with the supernatural can be perceived as a palimpsest on the previous two bonding practices, with the self and with the community. Sorrow communicates with an impalpable presence which can be identified as an alter ego. But considering her socio-cultural reality, her attempts to talk to intangible entities could be easily dubbed as her liaison with the supernatural, especially in the light of the witch trials. Florens’ scratches her story in the deserted house of farmer Vaark, his dream home he could never enjoy, owing to his demise caused by small pox. In an abject space commemorating unfulfilled desire, it might qualify as the uncanny gothic site. Florens becomes the ghostly presence in an abandoned house where she etches her voice in the walls, suffering from a broken heart. She is also known to communicate with her lost biological mother through her dreams. The interaction between Widow Ealing, daughter Jane and Florens can be identified as communal with tendencies towards the supernatural. When Jane recovers from the witch trial, she and Florens foster a temporary companionship. Incidentally, the alleged witch circles through the ages have been perceived as sororities wherein the members hail supernatural entities. Upon the latter’s question on whether she is a demonic presence, she lightly affirms.
The supernatural bonding between Efuru and Uhamiri is queered, as the Goddess is a benevolent mother and a spousal figure in one persona. The worshippers of Uhamiri keep themselves chaste and untouched by a man on the Ekwe day every month, like a virginal bride waiting to be deflowered by her husband. Efuru’s dreams of the Goddess penetrates her consciousness and fortifies her love of Uhamiri. Ogunyemi discusses the queer identity of the River Goddess: “[…] Woman who sits on a special stool for ozo titled men! Thus, Idemili is female but acts like a male, like the griotte” (Ogunyemi 30). While in Sorrow’s case, motherhood augments the self; for Efuru barrenness does not debar a woman in her consummation of the self. Nwapa writes in the last lines of Efuru, posing an open-ended question:
Efuru slept soundly that night. She dreamt of the woman of the Lake, her long
hair and her riches. She had lived for ages at the bottom of the lake. She was as old as the lake itself. She was happy, she was wealthy. She was beautiful. She gave women wealth and beauty but she had no child. She had never experienced the joy of motherhood. Why then did the women worship her? (Nwapa 221)
Why indeed? The ambivalence regarding the enigmatic figure of Uhamiri is aggravated by the fact that she is often worshipped in the Nigerian communities with the expectations of a child. Nwapa is not completely averse to the concept of motherhood; as Efuru does experience the joys of motherhood with Ogonim. Also, as Patrick Colm Hogan opines in his essay “How Sisters Should Behave to Sisters”: Women’s Culture and Igbo Society in Flora Nwapa’s “Efuru”:
Nwapa repeatedly emphasizes Ajanupu’s role as a mother and thereby makes it clear that autonomy and women’s traditions are in no way contingent on having no children. Indeed, if no one had children, it would be impossible to continue women’s traditions, for there would be no new generation of women. (Hogan 57)
Nwapa perhaps endeavours to create an omnipresent sorority, as advocated by her interview wherein she voices; ‘We need one another, we really need one another. Globally, we need one another…’ Paul D in the final pages of Morrison’s Beloved tells Sethe the mother, ‘You your best thing’ and not Denver, her daughter. The child is important, as important is the conspicuous individuality of the woman. It is possibly no coincidence that Florens, whose voice is ultimately heard as she carves her story; while all the communicative gestures of the mother figures fail- Rebekah, Lina, and Minha Mae.
Her action is subversive, her methods deemed insane by the society. But Florens delivers her unsung blues to the posterity- a character not connected to motherhood. She may be ghost-like, but at least she manages to be heard. Sabine Jell Bahlsen in The Concept of Mammy Water in Flora Nwapa’s Novels superimposes the Goddess on the priestess and claims that the mortal and the divine might not be distinctive from one another. She writes:
The notion of Uhamiri merges with that of the woman as goddess. The divine woman is at once mysterious and awesome. A truly unusual Oguta woman, she is fired by divine inspiration, and is the focus of Nwapa’s novels. Efuru, Idu, Kate, Amaka, Dora, Rose, and Agnes are remarkable women. A strong, self-willed, and independent character, she does not always conform to the norms […] Like the goddess, woman is mysterious, sought for children, and gives riches. Admired and feared, the goddess is kind, but also demanding and awesome. (Bahnsen 33)
A Mercy and Efuru use two different narrative techniques. While the former has a signature Morrisonian multi-narrative pattern with non-linear time lines, the latter is relatively upfront, following a singular progression of events. Morrison concentrates on the communication between her characters for the smooth unravelling of her complex and interwoven tales. Nwapa’s focus obviously lies with Efuru, given that she is the titular character. She remains centrally situated, as the fulcrum of the narrative. The other figures are defined in terms of their interaction with her. But the impulse in both narratives is similar which foregrounds a visible affinity to the formation of female circles of empathy.
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