The African Women’s Book Club was supposed to read Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor but most found it hard to get through, if they had started it at all. So a short story was recommended in its place so that when we met we would have something to talk about while enjoying each others dishes.
The Sex Lives of African Girls is a short story, the début work of fiction of Taiye Selasi, published in the 2011 F word summer edition of the UK literary magazine, Granta, and later included in the Best American Short Stories 2012. It resulted from a challenge given to the author by Toni Morrison to finish a work of fiction in one year.
Though I do not know Taiye Selasi personally, as is typical among African graduates of élite universities, we share friends in common. This only means that deep down inside there’s a twinge of jealousy of her success along with pride of course that her and others like Chimamanda Adichie have come so far.
But back to the short story. What a title. The Sex Lives of African Girls. I found myself anxious to read the story to figure out the angle. I was reminded of the Al-Jazeera exposé of African prostitutes in Europe and I wondered if that was the angle. Then I wondered if it would be a romance novel, perhaps an X-rated romance unlike any we have read in the book-club.
But then, the introductory sentence, “Begin, inevitably, with Uncle.”
Just that was enough to form a lump in my throat and a heaviness in my heart. It seems a number of the other women at the book-club felt similarly unsettled with that sentence. It gave me pause as I wondered what impact that introductory sentence would have on a man in general or on a woman who didn’t belong to the African diaspora. Do many of us Black women not have that uncle or knew of someone else’s uncle, familial or nominal, that we were instructed as little children to stay clear away from while still having to show him respect? Are many of us women not constantly aware of the vulnerability associated with our female bodies and consumed from an early age by thoughts that inform our choices to protect us from sexual assault on all fronts?
Ahh, so this is what the short story is about I sighed restlessly as I tepidly sank myself into its pages. I won’t give the story away as I do believe it is well worth a read but I will say that it begins and ends at a large Christmas party in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Narrated from a second person point-of-view, it tells the story of an eleven year old girl who is at the center of a bustling household. She finds herself experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts that she is in fact not emotionally ready for. Despite that, she’s curiously fascinated by her revelations. In short, The Sex Lives of African Girls, is a story of inequality, of family dysfunction, of the social problem of sexual abuse of young girls, and of submission to patriarchy.
Sensual, dark, emphatic, deeply tragic, intriguing, beautiful, and heavy, this is yet another contemporary African story that washes our dirty linens in front of the international eye. It is damning but it is truth. Even if these contemporary stories are half-truths, incomplete not inaccurate stereotypes, they too deserve a platform. This is an exceptionally written story that I highly recommend.
—In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is childless mother—