Authentic Mama: Nimble Storytelling about Nigerian Life
Olunosen Louisa Ibhaze
YEAR OF PUBLICATION
Everything you need to know about the flavour of Authentic Mama is on the first page: the novel opens to a scene of the larger-than-life protagonist Iye Baby fighting with the wife of one of her many clients. With liberal use of pidgin and Nigerian-isms, Olunosen Louisa Ibhaze paints a hilarious and vivid picture of Iye Baby, a prostitute and proprietress of Love Your Neighbour Bar and Beer Parlour, and her life in the multifaceted fictional city of Nimbe.
While most of the action centers on Iye Baby’s vicissitudes of fortune, we also meet a colorful cast of characters: from Iye Baby’s arch-nemesis Oyibo, to her best friend Taibat, the one-eyed playboy Valentine, the naïve nursing school student Evangeline, and the downtrodden but judgmental Promise. With such a large cast of secondary characters, writers often run the risk of creating one-dimensional caricatures who only exist to move the plot along. However, Ibhaze deftly avoids this pitfall by humanizing all her characters, revealing their motivations and redeeming qualities even as we see their many flaws.
In a sense, the Imose Sisters Association of Distinguished and Accomplished Ladies, of whom Iye Baby is president, reflects Authentic Mama’s approach to Nimbe and its inhabitants. Despite internal petty rivalries and external opprobrium from more “upstanding” members of society, the Imose Sisters support each other and reach out to people simply because they need help – what they do for a living doesn’t preclude them being good people. In the same way, Ibhaze describes the lives of her characters as chaotic, yet their antics never overshadows their humanity. Every character is interconnected in what seems like a really small world, but by the end of the novel, the reader gets the sense that Nimbe may not be as small as it seems.
Among Authentic Mama’s greatest strengths is that it is popular fiction written about Nigeria for Nigerians, while still being accessible to non-Nigerian readers. In a style reminiscent of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana, the novel takes a humorous look at the lives of ordinary people who end up in various predicaments by bad luck or poor choices, and try to make the best of things in any case. But even in its fast-paced storytelling are deeper questions: what forms the basis of our judgments of other people? And how can we be more compassionate in our assessments of a person’s character? In real life, I am not sure how sympathetic we would be to someone like Iye Baby, yet this novel has us rooting for her. And this is what ultimately makes Authentic Mama a memorable read.
– Ebehi Iyoha is a Phd Student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee. She enjoys reading.