“Why do we women act as if men are so frail we need to hurt ourselves to make them look
strong? And look at how Auntie always gives the best meat to Papa and gives us the bones?
Then they get angry when Papa gives me more meat. Oh, I’m so tired of it all!”
Bisi Adjapon’s The Teller of Secrets is a coming-of-age narrative, spanning about 14 years of
Esi’s life as a young Nigerian-Ghanaian girl living in Ghana in the 1960s and ‘70s. Born in
Nigeria, Esi and her brother are separated from their Nigerian mother at a young age and
sent to Ghana to live with their father, their stepmother, and their older half-sisters.
Esi’s relationship to her Ghanaian family is full of contradictions and complexity. While she
worships her father for the kindness he shows her and his encouragement that she “can be
anything, even the first woman ambassador,” he also calls her a “good-for-nothing tramp”
for having attracted the sexual attention of a teenage boy when she is only eleven. And
although her stepmother and her sisters often treat Esi with love and care, they also keenly
police her behavior whenever they suspect her of exploring her sexuality and threaten her
that they will “whip you with a cane and teach you wisdom”. This results in a thoughtful
exploration of the impact of power structures on familial relationships and of the changes
that these relationships undergo as Esi grows older.
While Esi learns to hide her sexual exploration from her caregivers, this novel still is
unusually direct in its depiction of feminine sexual desire, making Esi far from the only
woman who voices her enjoyment of sexual relationships. It also portrays Esi “playing
romance” with other girls at her boarding schools, later discovering masturbation, and
ultimately both the pleasure and disappointment she finds in sexual relationships with men.
At the same time, the novel harshly depicts the trauma awaiting women in a society that
considers abstinence the only acceptable form of birth control when Esi ends up having to
suffer through an illegal abortion. During the only scene of the novel that is told through
detached third-person narration, Esi is only referred to as “the girl” and ends up screaming
when she sees the contents of her womb “ground up, like minced meat”.
Throughout the story, The Teller of Secrets expertly interweaves Esi’s daily life with the
impacts of Ghanaian politics, creating a vivid background for Esi’s youth to be set against.
Esi’s understanding of politics also clearly evolves, from calling the CIA and the KGB that
meddle in Ghanaian politics “alphabet people” to becoming ever more cynical, thinking that
it is “madness to do anything involving heads of state when said heads can be removed by
soldiers whenever they feel like it.” This also extends to an understanding of the impact
colonialization by the British and French has had on Ghana and its neighboring countries,
with Esi recounting that “if it weren’t for the French and British carving them up, the Ewes
would be one people, not French-speaking Ewes and Ghanaians speaking the same language
speckled with English.”
Language is, in fact, one of the things that makes the cultural setting of this novel so vibrant
and clearly resistant to the all-too-common outside view of different African countries as
one culturally and ethnically homogenous mass. The English text is regularly interspersed
with a few words or sentences in the characters’ native languages of Yoruba or Twi, such as
Esi mentally addressing her absent mother as “ìyá mi” or using culturally distinct greetings
literally translated into English.
Another thread contributing to the cultural fabric of the novel is the food that is constantly
cooked and eaten. While having to help her stepmother and her sisters in the kitchen at first
feels like a confinement to Esi, it eventually also becomes a refuge to her, and the
preparation of the food and Esi’s enjoyment of dishes such as fried plantain or okro takes on
a familiar rhythm for the reader. Food also is one of the primary ways in which many of Esi’s
female relatives – and, in the end, remarkably also her brother – take care of her, becoming
an expression of familial love.
The Teller of Secrets is not subtle in its criticism of the treatment of women; this is
communicated vividly through Esi’s internal monologue. Even at eleven, Esi wonders why
“women can be meanest to girls” after being punished by her stepmother and sisters. While
it sometimes seems unlikely for a young girl to have such acute insights into the gender
dynamics surrounding her based solely on her own observations, it is very effective in calling
attention to how women’s behavior is policed and measured by completely different
standards than the behavior of men. This novel also contrasts the harsh experience of
sexism with tender sentiments of female solidarity. When Esi witnesses market women
being assaulted, her thoughts about “those strong women, reduced to mush, their stores
reduced to ashes and dust” are full of love and care: “I want to wipe their faces. I want to
rub oil on their bodies and wrap them in silk.”
In the end, The Teller of Secrets is a novel that makes it easy for the reader to get lost in a
different place and time and Esi is a captivating character to follow. Although Esi’s thought
processes do not always feel completely age appropriate, remaining rather child-like for
parts of her adolescence, Adjapon’s writing gives Esi a strong voice and is beautifully
expressive throughout the novel. If the premise of a coming-of-age narrative about a girl
standing up to the patriarchal ideas espoused by her family and her society appeals to you,
then this is the book for you.
Karin Suter is an exchange student studying English Literature at Loyola University New Orleans. Her home base is Dortmund, Germany, where she pursues a degree in Applied Literary and Cultural Studies. She enjoys getting lost in fictional worlds with a steaming mug of tea next to her.