ARC 4: "Kicking Tongues"
This is my fourth review for the Africa Reading Challenge.
Kicking Tongues by Karen King-Aribisala was first published in 1998.
Kicking Tongues is a somewhat unusual work, patterned in part after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, set in Nigeria in the early 1990s. The main character, the hostess who names herself "The Black Lady The," has chosen some forty individuals representing a cross section of Nigerian society, has interviewed each and learned each's life story, and has paid all the expenses for the entire group to travel from Lagos to the new federal capital at Abuja. The purpose of the journey is for the group to meet with and tell their stores to the new government, with the goal of making clear to the governing officials what the real problems are that need to be addressed within Nigerian society. The group makes the journey by bus (they are supposed to fly but are bumped from their flight reservations by a group of government bureaucrats); on the way, The Black Lady The chooses to acquaint the members of the group with each other by having them go ahead and tell their stories. However, the hostess decides to tell most of the stories herself, as she knows them all (and is rather bossy herself). The work covers the course of the journey and the stories that are told along the way (these represent only half or so of the forty, there not being sufficient time for all to be heard during the journey).
The stories are divided into several groups, each focusing on one problematical area in society. (NOTE: There is a detailed discussion by King-Aribisala herself of the book's structure and other issues in this interview.) The first group, for instance, deals with the treatment of women. The problems range from the abuse of women on the basis of outdated tribal customs to the story of a young woman fired from her position as a flight attendant for being slightly overweight. Other groupings include such areas as education, economic problems, race relations, and religion.
The nature of the narratives in Kicking Tongues is somewhat unusual. While some of the individual tales are narrated in prose, others are in a poetic form supposedly devised by The Black Lady The herself; these poetic narratives appear to be based on the forms of various kinds of chants, being highly rhythmic without being metrical, employing intermittent rhyme and repetition, and frequently fragmentary language. (I have to acknowledge that at times it was difficult to follow the narrative thread through some of these poems; others, though were quite effective.) Doubtless, the use of these poetic pieces is intended as a tribute to Chaucer's Tales.
The "kicking tongues" of the title serves as a central metaphor that runs through the whole work and which changes its meaning by the end. At the beginning, "kicking tongues" refers to the lies told by corrupt politicians which oppress the people of Nigeria, erect barriers that keep society divided, and thereby prevent any changes for the better. Through the course of the work, "kicking tongues" comes to mean the truths told by the "pilgrims" and -- by implication -- by all Nigerians, truths which overcome the lies, which kick down the barriers, and which can prepare the way for a genuinely improved Nigerian society. Change is a possibility if the truth is set free; The Black Lady The herself embodies this possibility, as she acknowledges and overcomes her arrogance by the end of the work.