In Susan Z. Andrade’s introduction to The Nation Writ Small: African Fiction and Feminisms, 1958-1988, she says, “The first generation of postcolonial African novelists, who published between 1958 and 1988, the most obvious manifestation of political commitment took the form of anticolonial resistance and agitation for national sovereignty.” But according to Andrade, this is not “the only way to tell a political tale”—instead, she argues for reading allegorically, especially because it will allow us to greater understand the role of women in African life and fiction. It is the “domestic” where “women historically have set their novels,” and this decision “offers as sharp an analytic perspective on collectivity and national politics as does the arena of public political action.”
Even in this first paragraph of her introduction, Andrade hits on main points we can understand in relation with The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Written in 2010, the novel does not belong to what Andrade calls the first generation of novelists, and in fact, it doesn’t discuss anticolonial resistance—the time period is wrong for that. The book is set in the 2000s, when colonialism had been, in name, long gone from Nigeria. Andrade is similarly correct in her suggestion that the domestic tale can offer “perspective on collectivity and national politics”: How else can we describe the characterization and behavior of the four wives, Iya Segi, Tope and Femi, and Bolanle? Each wife fairly clearly represents a different aspect of the modern Nigerian identity: Iya Segi, with her repressed sexuality and desire for wealth; Tope, with her affection for her children but inability to comprehend the modern working world; Femi, with her simultaneous religious fanaticism and belief in the old spiritual standards; and Belanle, with her university education and belief in Western-approved medicine. As the women spar between themselves in Baba Segi’s domestic environment, their back-stories also explain various threads of Nigerian culture and society, elevating the novel from simply a tale about four angry women bickering over some guy.
Therefore, according to Andrade, female authors eschew the cultural convention that “the novels that have become important are those that were read as, and thus performed the function of, national narratives,” such as Things Fall Apart. Instead, they do their own part toward making the “nation writ small” by demonstrating how the family and private life can simultaneously examine fully realized characters and the social and political conditions that made them that way. Domestic issues, therefore, become part of the national narrative, which we can see specifically through Iya Femi’s conversion from Islam to Christianity (and her tendency to pick and choose what aspects of the religion she likes more than others) and Bolanle’s struggle with others mocking and belittling her education. As Andrade quotes Mariama Ba, “all cultures, the woman who formulates her own claims or who protests against her situation is given the cold shoulder”—and each wife is done this, in various degrees, by the others. Iya Segi tries to claim all the household power but is bucked against by Tope. Iya Femi attempts to make herself the family’s most religious or devout, but her specific brand of Christianity is not shared with her relatives. Iya Tope protests against being ignored and abused by Femi and Segi, but is shot down. And Bolanle is attacked simply for existing, her entire essence seen by Segi and Femi as a manifestation of their greatest fears and shortcomings.
How can we fit these reactions into the domestic-life-as-allegory Andrade discusses? Perhaps by using her idea that family is “both a product and an instrument of social power,” one that cannot “disappear so that the glory or pathos of a nation might be revealed.” Baba Segi hopes others see his four wives and his many children as a reflection of his own wealth, a “product” of his individual will and success and an “instrument” to use against others to garner their respect. For the wives, the family is a “product” of their social oppression and inability to individually advance but an “instrument” of inner social power, depending on which wife can control what is happening in the household. Overall, however, the family cannot fully reconcile its problems just so Nigeria can look better. Although Bolanle leaves at the end of the novel, the family remains intact, with the three wives—who still had problems between themselves when Bolanle arrived—sticking with Baba Segi. All of their problems aren’t resolved with Bolanle’s departure, just as the “glory or pathos” of Nigeria could not be hastily put back together again. If we are to read The Secret Lives of the Four Wives as a national allegory according to Andrade’s terms, we must take the family as a whole unit, flaws and all.