How You Grow Wings
How You Grow Wings is a captivating debut novel by Nigerian author, Rimma Onoseta. The story revolves around the strained relationship between two teenaged sisters, Zam and Cheta, sharing a bedroom at home while trying to avoid each other and their dysfunctional parents. Their domineering, abusive, divisive and self-centered mother has intimidated their long-suffering father into perpetual silence and detached submission. ‘Papa never says anything,’ says Zam; Cheta’s delayed response, ‘That’s because Papa is a shell. Mama has already sucked his soul out of him.’ Feeling trapped and incapable of escaping their oppressive environment, each girl eventually arrives at a unique way to break free and begin her own promising journey. The opportunities that favorable destiny delivers to Zam are matched by those that Cheta creates for herself through crafty self-determination and street smarts, although it is not clear that the end totally justifies the latter’s dubious means. The plot is fairly fast-paced, unfolding within less than a year, and narrated in turns from each girl’s point of view.
How You Grow Wings is packed with engaging themes, some of them serious social concerns that may be disturbing or triggering for sensitive readers or those who have experienced certain traumas. For example, extreme physical abuse – adult on child or adult on fellow adult – with impunity of the perpetrator; violent crime; substance abuse, addiction, and petty drug-dealing; mental and psychological illness; marital infidelity; gender and class inequity; and abuse of political power.
Onoseta skillfully weaves important social commentary into her narrative through deft characterization. Colorism and preference for lighter skin, arguably enduring legacies of European colonialist worldviews, drive Mama to use increasingly dangerous bleaching concoctions that end up disfiguring her skin. Religious and societal hypocrisy are on full display as the Catholic priest, Father Charles, looks on with quiet approval as Uncle Festus ferociously whips his grown daughter for sleeping with her newly-wed cousin-in-law, who also watches the violent assault but suffers no punishment himself. On the positive side, Uncle Emeke and Aunty Sophie eagerly share their wealth, providing for the basic needs of their poorer relatives, which is not an uncommon occurrence in extended-family dynamics within Nigerian societies.
A concern with this novel is its apparent depiction of urban, single women as financially reliant on the benevolence of men with whom they have intimate relationships. One might wonder, where are the young female entrepreneurs and professionals- doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, computer scientists, fashion designers, merchants, civil servants, etc., mostly hardworking and with a passion for their careers? One or two such examples would suffice for balance. And how is it that in the entire village of Alihame there are no relatives or family friends interested enough in the welfare of Zam and Cheta or their father to try intervening, ever so slightly, against their mother’s tyranny? This family’s total isolation from neighbors belies the famous adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ which refers to the communal dynamics of life in many rural societies in Africa, including this Southern Nigerian setting.
Despite these minor observations, Onoseta’s novel is highly recommended for ages 14 and older, or Grades 9-12 and undergraduate classes. The book strikes a realistic balance in its depiction of different socioeconomic classes, demonstrating the enormous chasm between the very wealthy and other people, and between rural and urban environments, between opportunity and desperation, and between power and subservience.
Ruby Bell-Gam, Librarian/Curator
African, International Development, and African American Studies, UCLA Library
Published in Africa Access Review (December 5, 2022)
Copyright 2022 Africa Access