The Silence We Eat by Oyindamola is a book that has carved a space for itself in recent literature about women’s experience. This book does not pretend to represent all women; rather, its strength lies in highlighting specific women’s experiences of silence, cultural bondage, and the difficulty in articulating certain events.
Subtitle: You know that you have officially made it when a Professor at the Department of English in Obafemi Awolowo University (Kayode Omoniyi Ogunfolabi) writes a 3-page analysis of a story from your published book... Please Read.
The Silence We Eat by Oyindamola is a book that has carved a space for itself in recent literature about women’s experience. This book does not pretend to represent all women; rather, its strength lies in highlighting specific women’s experiences of silence, cultural bondage, and the difficulty in articulating certain events. I am particularly struck by one of the poems entitled, “Saved.” The poem begins by returning to the sites of subjection. That is, the poem functions as a kind of cultural memory that forces readers to confront institutions that participate in, reinforce, and perpetuate women’s subjugation. Three of these are the family, hospital, and the church. One of the most effective and therefore repressive sites of subjection is the family. This is the space where a particular woman is identified as, or named as, a problem, before she is transferred to other disciplinary apparatuses of the society. The family, in particular, operates as a primordial sign whose material presence has been effaced and therefore, has erased its intent for power. Its absence, nevertheless, does not fail to facilitate the power to signify, a power that predates and vanishes from the poem.
Perhaps one strategy that helps the reader to grapple with the subject matter is the structure of the poem. This subject matter, salvation, goes through shifting interpretations according to the organization of the poem. For example, the poem begins in the doctor’s office, where it showcases the gulf that separates the protagonist, the parents, and the doctor. The fact that she “looks” at the teary face of the mother and the father’s blank face suggests the disconnection and distance from one another. At this scene, the father’s question about how his daughter can be saved contradicts the protagonist’s understanding of her problem. But neither the parents nor the doctor could appreciate the epistemological chasm between medical inquiry and the protagonist’s understanding of her problem.
Apparently because of the failure of the hospital, the poem shifts to the persona’s recollection of the past in which she had sought salvation from the church. The poem tries to show that the doctor has no access to the persona’s past, which probably holds the clues to her suffering. However, this section of the poem is not simply to regurgitate the past; it is also the space in which the past and the present collide without the knowledge of their contact. More important, the hospital and the church mimic each other in a ritual contest for the persona’s body. These institutions seem to coalesce to produce a predatory and visual enactment of salvation.
The major part of the poem is devoted to this drama of salvation that returns through the persona’s memory. However, there’s an irony that destabilizes this grand discourse, which is that the persona, a young woman of eighteen, seems to have understood her predicament, an intra-subjective conflict but which institutions of family, church and hospital could not decipher. By saying that “I needed someone to save me from myself” (50), the young woman expresses her desire for healing. However, this is unrealized because her voice is unheard by the discourses of medicine and religious ritual.
She recalls that she comes out in the church with two other women, kneels down for the prayer of salvation. The women on either side of her shudder and collapse at the touch of the minister’s hand on their heads, a supposed testimony to their salvation.
When her turn comes, she fails to flail and fall like the other two women in the drama of ritualized salvation. Because she refuses to yield to the touch of the minister’s hand on her head, two other officials join in the prayer that intensifies with speaking in tongues, and which causes the priests to shake her body violently. The priest grasps at her head while the deacons grip her hands and in response, she cries that they are hurting her. According to her claims, the priest “pretended as if I had not said anything” and the “deacons were still not listening to me” (51). In other words, the church crew ignores her cries. Using their hands as restraints, the woman’s experience becomes analogical to the fruitless elaborate medical procedures, which is why she states “The deacons’ palms were wrapped around my wrists like the wealth of diagnosis the doctor placed on me” (51). The poem challenges the stereotype of women’s silence in the face of violence by showing that sometimes women’s voices are ignored regardless of how hard they cry and resist such violence. In order to show that the violence in the church is a deliberate one, the persona claims that “The more I fought, the more they tightened their grips on my arms” (51). Not only that, the poem also hints at other women’s ignorance and complicity in the assault, especially when a woman in the congregation says, “Halleluja, the devil is coming out” (52). Still, she refuses to give up; she screams with all her strength but the crew refuses to let her go. It is at this point that she provides the clue to the traumatic event at the source of her pain: rape. The violence of the crew’s hands takes us further back to this event of rape in such a way that the violence of the hands and that of her actual rapist are almost indistinguishable. By stating that “My stubborn body struggled beneath their weight,” she re-experiences the rape. Just as she was unable to fight her rapist successfully, she collapses out of exhaustion, an act that the congregation misinterprets as having been delivered from evil spirits. The poem narrates these events through mise en abyme; that is, a story within a story, which implies that in order to understand a woman’s pain, it may be necessary to examine layers of traumatic events that mark her journey through history. As Sigmund Freud has argued, there is no past in the unconscious. In other words, traumatic events of the past become part of the victim’s present reality and they relive these with intensity of the original event. In “Saved,” the present, the past, and the distant past collide in such a way that the pain of different pasts take on the identity of the present so that the victim re-experiences the traumatic events all over again. It should not be surprising that both the institutions of medical science and the church are unable to unravel the source of the patient’s pain. Rather, they have exacerbated it.
Unfortunately, the congregation believes that the woman’s fall is a sign of successful exorcism. This misinterpretation ends the poem and rightly so in that it highlights people’s gullibility and passivity in religious contexts where violence against women becomes celebrated as evidence of salvation. Also, the congregation fails to understand that the men’s hands have usurped the woman’s body and that she no longer controls her own body. Because they have failed to recognize this point, the final celebration shows that the congregation ignorantly approves. Not only that, the celebration also normalizes assault against women once it is represented in familiar discourses of medicine and salvation. In all, this poem shows that pain silences women not only because of the magnitude of suffering, but also because sometimes people fail to listen to a woman in pain. Also, it demonstrates that we misrecognize violence committed against women mainly because this takes the form of culturally approved activities in church and in the hospital. Because the tone of the poem is ironic, the protagonist is able to mock these institutions that repress women and at the same time draw attention to the metalanguage of their disciplines.
Kayode Omoniyi Ogunfolabi
Department of English
Obafemi Awolowo University
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© Oyindamola Shoola 2020