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Extract: ‘An Unusual Grief’ by Yewande Omotoso

28 April 2022 - 14:04
'An Unusual Grief' is Omotoso's third novel.
'An Unusual Grief' is Omotoso's third novel.
Image: Supplied

About the book

How do you get to know your daughter when she is dead? This is the question which takes a mother on a journey of self-discovery. When her daughter Yinka dies, Mojisola is finally forced to stop running away from the difficulties in their relationship, and also come to terms with Yinka the woman.

Mojisola’s grief leads her on a journey of self-discovery, as she moves into her daughter’s flat and begins to unearth the life Yinka had built for herself there, away from her family.

Through stepping into Yinka’s shoes, Mojisola comes to a better understanding not only of her estranged daughter, but also herself, as she learns to carve a place for herself in the world beyond the labels of wife and mother.


The months after the birth were a blur. Auntie Modupe moved in. Sometimes she even slept in the bed with her and the baby, Titus in the spare room. For a spell that was how things were, Mojisola in a kind of stupor – the baby had come and shifted her. This lasted almost a year and then, slowly, she began to feel like herself again. Auntie Modupe moved out but would visit from time to time, usually on weekends, bringing with her special condiments from Akure or some grasscutter she’d purchased on the Illesa road. She had no need for invitations and came whenever she felt like it, claiming to have dreamt something, to have seen something in the bush behind her house.

Just like that, much to Titus’s chagrin, she would arrive unannounced, and instantly commandeer the kitchen to make what she called ounje gidi. She seemed to think neither Titus nor Mojisola possessed the necessary skills to cook proper food, turning her nose up at whatever leftovers Mojisola inevitably offered her as proof that they were not starving. Within days Auntie Modupe would go to market to select yams (no one– especially not the young woman who cleaned and cooked for the family – was as skilled as she in selecting the perfect tubers) and would then return home determined to pound the meal herself. Here Mojisola drew the line, reminding her of her age. It’s true that they ate better during those visits so Mojisola withstood the criticism that came her way when Auntie Modupe scrutinised Yinka for evidence of neglect. On an almost daily basis during her visits the old woman would pore over the child, as if looking for cause to take her away from the parents.

She never found anything sufficiently indicting. Occasionally Auntie Modupe asked that they cut Yinka’s nails: ‘Or she must first pluck out her eyes abi?’ Mojisola envied Auntie Modupe the space that she took up in the world. It felt as if she’d missed out on some birthright, some metaphysical connection to ancestral strings and pulleys constantly directing knowledge and behaviour. Her mother had been the same. Expansive except, because of her devout leanings, she’d thrown it into the service of God, allowing it to reveal itself only when she prayed. Mojisola’s mother prayed with the intricacy of one who was on intimate terms with the Bible and the Lord. Her prayers were not so much prayers (beseeching in tone) as instructions, precise and even tinged, just that little bit, with impatience. Mojisola’s earliest memories are of the sound of her mother praying. And for some years – perhaps until she was five and growing in understanding of Christ and Afterlife – Mojisola had always thought, in praying, her mother was addressing a subordinate, some stubborn person who never learnt and constantly had to be appealed toto do the correct thing.

Auntie Modupe had that same air of superiority: she carried herself in a certain way and addressed you as if every second she spent doing so was a grace she bestowed. There was a poise to both women that Mojisola was certain she had not inherited.

Further proof was how flummoxed she was by motherhood.

She could not imagine her mother becoming undone by her entry into the world. How could a child – a simple small being – have come and shifted her so? After Yinka’s second birthday Mojisola tried to return to work; she still dreamt of being assigned back onto the team documenting the biome. But there was a lot of noise in her head when she thought of her job, her rotund greasy-faced boss (nastier now his promotion had been denied), her astute colleagues, and she felt queasy, felt it would be impossible to walk a straight line much less arrive at work and be productive.

She struggled to reach the mental composure her job required and so eventually she gave up.

How easily it had happened.

How easily everything can be sitting as it should, the layers in order, up is up, and then suddenly she could not feel herself, would never again feel that Self. She had a desire to be in the world, to venture, but on some days it was too hard to cross the threshold. In this way she and Titus were a cliché: the birth of their child had sent him hurtling into the wide world while it shut her in. She travelled tight trajectories away from the child and towards her as if they were joined by a rubber band with only this much give.

If she was in the habit of collecting appellations and had asked, medicine would have told her it was anxiety, postpartum, schizophrenia, mental illness. But something prevented Mojisola from seeking diagnosis. It was, declared the dark corners of her mind from which came determinations, to be a disease of one, something to suffer and bear alone. She could not talk to Titus about it and yet he was exasperated at what he called ‘this your behaviour’. Her rash flared up: for that she tried to find new doctors, new creams.

Once a senior colleague of Titus’s invited him and Mojisolato his daughter’s wedding. Titus, sweating with ambition, saw this as a chance to break through. Mojisola tried to bow out but he would not allow it. They’d get a babysitter and he’d arrive with his wife, he in agbada, she in buba and iro and appropriately tied gele. It was the gele that unravelled her. Mojisola had never possessed any skill in tying. Her mother had schooled her in church and God but not in cultural dress. While she and her mother wore starched church uniforms, as a young woman Mojisola had observed with envy the other girls and women in her community, thought them formidable in their headties. There was the right-handed left-hander problem and on top of it all the baby had come and shifted her, producing an impatience that was of especially no use when it came to tying gele.

On the morning of the wedding Mojisola had fussed with the starched adire, planted in front of a full-length mirror, her arms on fire as she fiddled. ‘Ask the neighbour,’ Titus offered but her pride wouldn’t allow it. The fabric would not sit as was required of gele. Each time Mojisola finished a tie (she knew three and went through them over and over before giving up) instead of it holding form, instead of commanding obeisance, it flounced, shivered, threatened to fall at the slightest turn.

Titus, a different kind of animal in his green and brown agbada, checked his watch, walked out from their bedroom down the corridor of their bungalow, walked back into the bedroom, checked his watch.

Mojisola gave up. At the function she noted the eyes cut her way, felt anew the obscene nature of an uncovered head at a prestigious Yoruba wedding.

Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers