In both Graceland and the Secret Lives of Four Wives, we’ve discussed the main characters’ journeys with very traumatic, violent rapes and how they connect to a broader conversation about abuse in the post-colonial experience, and the status of women and youth in society. For Elvis, his rape by Uncle Joseph illuminates the double-standards around sexuality in Nigeria, where older, powerful men retain their social standing and heterosexuality (as insertive partners in “homosexual” sex), while the young are silenced, stigmatized, and almost never believed when they are hurt. We can expand Elvis’ single experience to talk more widely about power and ageism in Nigerian society in general, where a man is not worth anything until he can marry (an opposite-sex partner) and provide for a family. For Bolanle, a rape similarly shoved under the carpet illustrates a class difference, where men with money abuse women, without losing their societal standing.
In both stories, the survivor has immense difficulty moving beyond the trauma of the rape and reconstructing their identity, which I believe can largely be chalked up to the way the individual traumas are echoed by these larger societal structures. However, both novels bring a moment of catharsis and “re-birth” from the ashes of trauma, and that is what I’m most interested in. Elvis suffers a debilitating fever, where he realizes he cannot survive in Nigeria. He then literally and figuratively escapes its influence by taking on Redemption’s identity and flying to America, where he can start life again. Bolanle grieves for the dying daughter Segi and realizes that her own path must diverge from her husband’s and begin again. But what is it about these two events that allow Bolanle and Elvis to move past their rapes and past trauma and re-imagine a future for themselves? Does illness constitute a breaking of the orders which seem to bind the future of everyone in Nigeria? Is there something symbolic in fever and suffering, a kink of catharsis in sickness that comes from bodily, rather than psychological pain? I’m not sure….