“This is a very strong, intelligent, precocious girl who is quite amusing to watch but also there are parts that are very painful, but she does make us feel very human and shows what it is like to be a woman. In her world, women are like second-class citizens.”
Debut novelist Bisi Adjapon discusses The Teller of Secrets with host Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Bisi Adjapon: I’m Bisi Adjapon, and this is The Teller of Secrets. The story about a young girl trying to find her way in a man’s world.
The book is about a young girl. It’s really an emotional and sexual coming of age within a patriarchal society and how she navigates that. And this is a very strong, intelligent, precocious girl who is quite amusing to watch but also there’re parts are very painful, but she does make us feel very human and to choose what it is like to be a woman.
Alka Joshi: Oh my goodness. There were so many cultural similarities between the African culture and then of course the Indian culture that I am from, especially when it comes to women. So Esi gets a lot of mixed messages from the women in her life, she gets messages like a woman’s glory is her husband. No matter how high a woman flies her home is down in the kitchen. So, a woman is supposed to be domestic. And then from her father, she gets all these messages like you must go to university, you can be anything even the first woman ambassador. So how does she reconcile these conflicting messages?
Adjapon: That is the dilemma. That is where the story comes in. And it is very difficult for her, of course. And she’s trying to make sense of it because you would think that automatically she would be on her father’s side because children tend to gravitate towards the person who has power, because they want to feel safe. And since her father has the power, she identifies with him. At the same time, she wants to be, well, initially at least accepted by society. Well, she knows that she doesn’t really like to cook and to clean while her brother is playing, so that’s the conflict comes in and it’s something that she has to grapple with.
Joshi: And like any girl, she is curious about sex. So she calls it playing romance. She’s been caught touching herself and she’s been given the ginger in the vagina treatment. So please explain what this is and how you ended up incorporating it in your narrative.
Adjapon: So when I was going up the actual expression for putting ginger in a girl’s vagina or actually supposed to be the anus, the vagina is for extra pain. The idea, it’s called to pay the person, wie chiano, to pay the person. So the idea is to pay the person for whatever bad thing the person did. And that kind of treatment was not reserved just for touching oneself. It was used for disobedience, for instance. It was used for mouthing off at a parent or anything that was regarded as wrong by a child. So you paid the child back for the wrong doing. So naturally when she’s caught touching herself, as far as she’s concerned she’s not doing anything wrong, right? And then she is paid. So she understands that this is a penal situation. She is being punished. And this is something that’s very much part of the culture. Of course, in the cities, it’s rare that it happens.
And I say that cautiously because we are talking about the upper middle class families, it does not happen. So for instance, we have people in the diaspora who will criticize my work and say, “Why are you making us all look so bad? And not only that, but you are lying. This does not happen.” I went to school with people and I myself went to Wesley Girls and I was surprised that nobody had ever heard of it. And yet in my little circle, it was very common. Every single girl that I knew had experienced it. And I personally hadn’t experienced that. Now I had gotten a little bit of that for disobedience, but it didn’t go very well because I fought and kicked and nobody ever wanted to touch me again. But one day I was playing with my friend and she came out and she was walking in a very awkward way as though she had an egg between her legs.
So I asked her what was wrong and then she told me that they had paid her and I thought, “Oh wow.” So then I thought that… I woke myself too, was a bit curious about my body and I started wondering. So immediately you have the association of sin. And then remember Ghana too is a very religious country, the Presbyterian missionaries were there perhaps a century before even the British colonized Ghana. So everything about the country is religious. So once you understand that something is wrong, obviously you are going to now suffer guilt because these are actions that must now take place in secret.
Joshi: And speaking of Wesley Girls, now when she goes to Wesley Girls High School, Esi is part of this group that is wanting to be a supi. Am I saying that word correctly?
Adjapon: Supi to an older girl. And it allows the younger girls to play romance finally, in a sort of safer environment because they’re all with girls. There are no fathers looking over their shoulders.
Joshi: So tell us what that custom is and what it means to Esi.
Adjapon: That is very interesting. And if I may just correct a little bit, it’s actually the school before Wesley Girls, Notre Dame. In Wesley Girls, they have activities with boys. So, it’s no longer something that is so exclusive or exciting. But when I was growing up, it’s something that I noticed. And by the way, it used to go on until recently, now it’s become a sin because Christianity, our brand of… Let me put it this way, American fundamentalism has finally seeped into our culture because when I was growing up, we had Christianity but we understood it at something that was on the side and it did not prevent us from practicing our own culture. And so among the Akan people of Ghana and people from the south especially, it’s very common for young girls and even older people, slightly older people, teenagers to have romantic relationship with people of the same sex.
And I say this because I don’t think they consciously thought of it as homosexuality because in our culture, there is no word for homosexuality. And so it was just something that happened and girls were supi, and boys too. I Understand it happened in the boys schools too, but the boys were more secretive about it because I guess it wasn’t considered very manly. But with the girls, it consisted of writing love letters to one another, and some people would kiss, and there was a lot. But a lot was done through writing letters and the Bible actually was a source of inspiration. People would go to the song of songs and quote scriptures, behold you’re beautiful, and that kind of thing. And some people went quite far. I had stories about bananas getting stuck in people’s vaginas.
So I think the older people whose bodies were developed probably went a little far, but for many people it was mainly writing love letters, exchanging gifts, sending cards to one another, putting your arms around the other person, or going swimming together, or going for walks and basically just admiring the other person.
So this is something that went on and now though, the society is becoming less fluid because now you are expected to be defined. So if a girl is practicing supi immediately the person is labeled gay or… And the person may or may not be gay, but we never had labels. You were just either going to grow out of it or you didn’t. And everybody just look the other way and everybody went about their business, but it’s no longer the case.
Joshi: Well, in The Teller of Secrets, you do write very explicitly and unapologetically about sex. I heard you say in an interview, “I like to be raw about the sex without being titillating.” And I think that’s very interesting because as I was reading your book, I found a lot of… I could follow what was happening, but it wasn’t titillating in that way. So what is the message that you are giving your readers about sex, about the act of having sex?
Adjapon: So when I wrote this, I was thinking primarily of an African audience and I was just so tired of the hypocrisy, the idea that women were not supposed to enjoy sex. I actually heard a man say that a woman’s body was the receptacle for the sperm. I remember in Dakar I met a man who worked for the embassy of Zimbabwe, he was a first counselor, and he was married and he wanted to have an affair with one of my friends, somebody I knew. And I remember him distinctly saying, “I just want to go in there and spit inside her.” I’m furious.
Adjapon: So this whole idea that a woman had to be this chase person and then with all the pepper and all that, you get married and suddenly you’re supposed to turn it on. And by the way, if you do turn it on too much, then your husband is going to say, “You are a bad woman. What did you do?” And the man would go outside and find a girlfriend, the good time girls and spend all their money on the good time girls who made them feel sexual pleasure. And a woman was not supposed to enjoy it. And I knew that one could enjoy it. So I wanted to deliberately… This was… I know I’ve been criticized for being graphic, but it was to let everybody see what women were like, how sexual a woman could be. So yeah, that’s why I wrote it the way I did.
Joshi: Yeah, exactly. And then one of the things that you do write about in The Teller Of Secrets is that it’s so hard being a girl and wanting romance with a boy while papa has no problem passing through other women who are not his wife. So talk about that double standard. You talked about it a little bit just now, but talk about that.
Adjapon: Oh, where do I begin? It happens all the time, even now. I belong to a tennis group, and I’m one of the few ladies present because most of the young girls who are there are either being sponsored by the state or sponsored by a man. And nobody knew where to place me because I came in my own car and I played tennis and nobody was buying me drinks. In other words, it’s not that nobody was buying me drinks. They didn’t have to buy me a drink because I could pay for myself. And the girls would just come, the girlfriends would arrive and not play. They would sit and look just TBO. And the men would ask, “What would you like to drink?” And it was always, “You just choose something for me.” And they would never talk. And the man would ignore these ladies.
And the entire time they would be talking. And if I talk, so I would engage the men in conversation. And the girlfriends resented me so much. And all these men were very so called happily married and the wives were supposed to be at home and did not dare do what the husbands were doing. One man had the nerve to actually tell me, “Oh, sometimes I really feel so sorry for my wife. The poor woman, she’s just at home. I don’t know what she does with herself.” But he’s out there having regular sex and changing girlfriends and it’s like a sport. They are expected to do that. And when I complained, I remember complaining at our gym, and fellow women said to me, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. So I mean, just because a man is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to do it.” Because I told them if a man cheated on me, that that was not acceptable unless the person was prepared to have me cheat because, I’m not saying one should go out and cheat for the sake of cheating.
But if sex is like food that a person is supposed to eat, and that is why I wrote about Esi’s discovery, where she likens it to eating. And if sex is a meal that two people are supposed to have within the marriage and the man is out there eating, and the woman is starving. If we look at it as food, would anybody say it’s okay for the woman to just sit and be hungry and suck a thumb? No. Why is it different for women? Why should women suffer, what? Vaginal atrophy and maybe early menopause and dryness and whatnot just because their husbands are busily dipping into other wells when they also need to be fed. And this goes on still. So people always refer to me as, “Oh, that crazy woman.” “Oh, she’s one of those feminist people, crazy types. Oh, well.”
Joshi: I love you Bisi. I just think that’s wonderful. Now, one of the other things that you were talking about in the book also is that women are complicit in forwarding a lot of these notions about how women should be and how men should be. And here is something that Esi says in the book, she’s thinking this in the book, “How can I fight when girls join forces with men? Why do we women act as if men are so frail that we need to hurt ourselves to make them look strong?” And even as she tries to fight this ideology, this way of being, she conforms to it in The Teller Of Secrets. How are women who really know better, conscripted into this way of being?
Adjapon: And this goes to show the power of society and patriarchy. When I was researching material for this book, I talked to several women that I knew. Women above forties and fifties, like myself. And I was shocked to find we have women right now in positions, in cabinet positions within our government who have had 15 abortions they tell me. I yesterday just was talking to a friend who was just crying. And this is a woman, a doctor, an accomplished person who lives in the UK, who tells me what she went through. And I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like a kind of social conditioning, almost like a kind of computer programming, you know intellectually that you shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t allow yourself to be treated in a particular way. You should use contraception if you want to. But at a subconscious level even as you’re protesting your independence, you have absorbed some of these values and they lie dormant.
And you think you’re independent until you find yourself with a man and then suddenly you’re behaving in a different way. So, I wanted to show… And I remember reading a review, a woman very upset with me and saying, “I am a very assertive, independent woman. This could never happen to you.” Perhaps in an American culture, yes. But in a different culture where it is the norm, it is very easy to slide into… You may not be aware of it. It happens once and you think, “Oh, well, that was just a one time thing. I’m never letting this happen again.” And then you keep doing it. And so it is so common to find men… And I hang out with men all the time, that’s how I know how they think. Many of them don’t use any contraceptive.
I’m telling you. They don’t. They think it’s the woman’s responsibility. And well, actually so long as it doesn’t interfere with their pleasure. And if you do get pregnant, well then the next thing is to have an abortion. I was talking to a doctor, a Ghanaian doctor, a prominent doctor that work for the United Nations that was traveling all over the place. And he was talking about how AIDS was rampant, and I guess, during the genocide of Rwanda and different places that he had been to. He was talking about it. And then he was saying, “These women are so beautiful, you can’t help but sleep with them. But if you do sleep with them, chances are that you’re going to catch a venereal disease.” So I said, “Well, I hope you protected yourself and that you were using a condom.”
And he said, “Oh, I don’t need to use a condom. I’m a doctor. I know how to take care of myself.” So you can imagine such a person talking to somebody, a girl, and persuading her, “Listen, I’m a doctor. You don’t need to worry about your body. Let’s just do it.” And this is what happens. So, I wanted to show that a woman could be very strong and hide shameful secrets. I think even in the Western world, you find a woman who on the surface, everybody thinks she’s leading this wonderfully charmed life only to discover later that her husband killed her and in fact had been beating her all along. And I want to show that a woman can be flawed because you are almost always swimming against the tight, right? And sometimes you don’t succeed, but the idea is never to give up. And I want to… So I created Esi to be this flawed character who was wanting her independence and yet sliding into this kind of big situation.
Joshi: And I think you do that beautifully in the novel so that we feel for her. We feel sad for her. And we feel frustrated along with her. Like when she gets to Rudolph, she’s like, “Oh no. Now why is she marrying this guy who is not going to make her happy?” But she’s getting into that sort of social… She’s buying into all of the things that she has been conditioned to believe her whole life, about how she should be and she ends up having so many abortions. It really hurt doing that kind of thing. The solution to every pregnancy outside of marriage does seem to be abortion in so many of the cases in The Teller Of Secrets, in so many realms of Esi’s life. So as she matures, she realizes that women are considered weak. And you are a woman who has grown up in Ghanaian society and Nigerian society, and you consider yourself strong. How did your life turn out so differently?
Adjapon: It’s very hard. I have six sisters. I’m the 10th born of a very large family. There are 12 of us. And if you think about it, my baby sister and I, I would say that I am the only one of the seven that has stood on my own two feet. I am a single parent. I raise my children alone. And it’s not something that is done. The idea that I would walk out of a situation that wasn’t healthy for me, it’s just not done. When I was in secondary school I knew only one girl, who came from a divorced home. Now, I am not suggesting that divorce should be what everybody should aspire to get, because obviously broken relationships are painful and disruptive to children.
So in an ideal situation that wouldn’t happen. However, if you are in danger or if you are in a situation that is just killing your spirit, and there is no solution, and there is… You don’t see a way out. I don’t believe a person should stay within that marriage. And frankly, marriage is not necessarily forever everybody. Oh, don’t worry about the time.
Joshi: Bisi, let me ask you this, Esi lives in two worlds. She lives in Ghana and in Nigeria. They have each of them their own political and economic issues, which she somehow gets a little bit entangled in. And as she matures, she realizes that she has maybe two world views. She understands what’s happening in two very different countries, and that’s so somehow informs the way that she goes about her life. What were you trying to say in having Esi involved in two different world views?
Adjapon: Well, initially the idea was just to have fun, put the assertive women in Nigeria because Nigerians are Yoruba people that I knew were very feisty, and to put the more submissive women in Ghana. So I wanted to do that. But I myself, I am from both countries, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way I grew up. In Nigeria, I was always defending Ghanaians. And then in Ghana, I was always defending Nigeria. So, unfortunately we have this unfortunate history that we Ghanaians first expelled Nigerians, and then Nigerians expelled Ghanaians. And we have… As we speak now, it’s happening again. We have a lot of Nigerians now in Ghana because unfortunately life is a lot more chaotic right now in Nigeria. And the economy is stable sort of in Ghana. And so Ghana is now the destination vacation for the jet set in Nigerian crowd.
But also we have a lot of traders and we have clashes now. The police has been called many times to defend people. Ghanaian traders have been accusing Nigerians of dominating the market. And this whole idea that the foreigner is always responsible for all the bad things that happen within a country, that I found very fascinating. And so, since I placed Esi within that period, I figured why not highlight that as well? Besides, it affected her movements for instance. When she wanted to go to Nigeria and she had to go through Togo and you’ve got all these things happening. And so, the fact that if something bad was happening in one country, everybody flees to the other country because Ghana and Nigeria are… We have this joke that we are the two superpowers in West Africa.
Ghana is the UK if you like, and Nigeria is the US. And so Ghanaians flock to Nigeria when things are too hard, because around us, we are surrounded all by only French speaking countries. So it’s just Ghana and Nigeria. We are cousins, right? And so this is what happens. And I thought, why not? And I just brought it in.
Joshi: Colonization does play a part in your book. And you do talk about how people who have British surnames as Ghanaians or Nigerians they somehow think that they are better than other people. Why do we believe… Now, I also come from India, which was called nice for 200 years by the British. And there are many instances in which I agree with you. There are people who believe that somehow the British things are better. That anything British is better. And so why do you think that that is so pervasive? Why do we feel the west is somehow better than whatever country we come from?
Adjapon: It’s because that is the situation that they created when they came in. The first thing they did with the missionaries was to strip you of your local name, because that was a name that was going to send you to hell. And in order to add attend school, you couldn’t attend school unless you had an English name. And so if you were educated, what they did was they favored the Clerks and yet these Clerks were actually their underlings, right? The traditional people had their own cultures. They had Royalty, they had the different trades people, goldsmiths and hunters who earned very good living, but because the British people treated the Clerks who had British surnames better than they treated those who didn’t because they whip. Literally they would cane you if you spoke your own language, because your language was also associated with an evil culture, because you were not allowed to do things like piers your ears that was considered paganism.
And if you danced to traditional drumming, that was kind of evoking of evil spirits. All these things that were traditional became associated with evil. As matter of fact, I wrote a blog and I haven’t quite… I don’t know quite sure what to do with it. The first time I saw God, everything about God was also white and white equaled goodness. And so, we just bought into it. And it’s still like that. If you have a name, like your surname ends with Blankson or Plaque or Riverson, Grant, then you are considered classy. But if you have a tree name, so all of us, my name actually is not Bisi. My official name, I was Christened Francesca. I hate that name.
Joshi: Just like Esi is called Frederica.
Adjapon: Frederica. Yeah, I think probably psychologically I was thinking of myself. Something with an F, right? But when we were in high school many of us chucked our names and we adopted our… Because we had two sets of names. You had your Ghanaian name, which you could only use at home. And you had what we called your school name. Well, now we use our local names. So, we are beginning to change, but it’s still like that. I have a niece, her name is Nanafowa but she’s ashamed of the name so she calls herself… Nanafowa, I thought was a beautiful name. She calls herself, Mary.
That it is not all bleak, there are lots of humorous moments also because Esi is quite funny and because she’s outspoken and you know how children are, children have no filter, so they can be very entertaining. So, there is a lot of hardship in the book but there is also a lot of humor and there is also lots of love and romance. And so I think lots of people will enjoy it too. I think it’s not just women who love it. Different people might like it too.
Joshi: Bisi I have had so much fun talking to you. What is next for you?
Adjapon: So, it’s interesting because Daughter In Exile is coming out next year, which I have already finished. And I think there was a teaser in The Teller Of Secrets at the end. And so that is coming out next year. I’m also working on some historical fiction. I have so many things that I want to do. I think there are about five books I want to write. And I don’t know how I’m going to find time to do that, but I’m going to do it. And by the way, Alka, I didn’t know that you wrote this book. When I saw your name I went to Google you, and I’ve ordered your books, both books. So, I am so excited. I can’t wait to read your books.
Joshi: Thank you. I think that you’re going to find so much symbiosis between our books definitely.
Adjapon: I will plunge into it. When I saw the description and I thought, “No, I want to read this book.” So I’ve just ordered the books. I ordered them on Amazon and somebody’s bringing them to Ghana. And I come to find out that I was going to be talking to the writer. So I am very excited.
Joshi: Bisi, thank you so much. And thank you so much for talking to us today. And thank you for watching A Word on Words. I am Alka Joshi. Keep reading.
Bisi Adjapon Recommends
The Deep Blue Between, by Ayesha Harruna Altah
A Broken People’s Playlist, by Chimecka Garricks
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, by Lola Shoneyn