What’s missing from feminist readings of Nollywood romantic comedy ‘Isoken’

Still from ‘Isoken’

You are bound to be inundated by all manner of readings of “Isoken,” Jadesola Osiberu’s new Nollywood rom-com, the majority of them feminist. Those readings will recapitulate society’s pressure on single women. They will critique the near-universal acceptance in Africa of marriage as the crowning achievement of a woman. They will point out subtle and blatant patriarchies. They might miss the inexplicable, self-inflicted assumption of an image based on what a gaggle of women approximates to be a man’s desire. (Some extra-feminist readings will rightly concentrate on the interpretation of the contrast between Osaze and Kevin’s cultural relationships with Africa.) These (feminist) readings will be vital of course, but here’s something outside the sometimes cloying box.

In 1962, J.P. Clark, then a journalist, was tapped to Princeton University’s year-long Parvin Program, one of those weapons of elite instruction deployed in and on Africa to counteract Soviet ideological influence. Things didn’t go as planned. Clark would prove a difficult customer to brainwash, and nine months in he was expelled from the program, and subsequently departed from the United States.

In 1964, Clark exacted his revenge. America, Their America, his travelogue and memoir of the fiasco, was published (the book was re-issued in the run-up to the 2016 elections in the United States). With it, J.P. Clark would unwittingly take part in one of the stranger postcolonial phenomena of the 20th century.

One of the hallmarks of imperialism in Africa has been its arrogation to itself of the ability, through literature, to define a people and their location through reported observation enabled by travel. In America, Their America, it is Clark who erects this imperial observatory on foreign soil. Where the usual postcolonial program was defensive against sly and blatant imprecations of the subjectivity of Africa and Africans, Clark went on the offensive. Thus, the United States and what it meant to be American became “other”, were defined through Clark’s sensibilities. The imperial gaze had been inverted. Postcolonialism had itself become imperialism.

But stranger things were yet to come.

In 1984, Professor Robert M. Wren, once of University of Lagos’s Department of English, would publish J.P. Clark, a book-length study of Clark’s oeuvre. Wren was interested in Clark’s plays and poems, but to get at the poems in America, Their America, their provenance had to first be accounted for. Wren, mind you, was white, American and a Princeton alum. What followed was a “postcolonial” critique of Clark’s imperialistic portrayal of America, a critique as indignant as any of Achebe’s trenchant critiques of colonial literature. Imagine that: Clark as center and America as the margins that, through Wren, wrote back.

Just this kind of strange upending of categories is what Isoken participates in.

Still from ‘Isoken’

In her 34th year, the successful, eponymous center of the movie finally – somehow – finds a man who is worthy of her attentions. That man is Osaze (played by the squint-eyed Joshua Benjamin), a suave returnee Afropolitan born of good Bini stock who has recently raised US$3million for his business.

It’s classic. One man’s sustained attention begets another. Where were they before now? is probably a question many women (and men) have been forced to ask the heavens. Isoken Osayande, played by the slinky Dakore Akande, runs into Kevin (Marc Rhys) – a wise-cracking English photojournalist with the Associated Press who will not smell US$3million in three life times – in farcical circumstances. (Is a lot of money the new white skin?)

Things develop – or degenerate. Isoken eventually acknowledges that she finds Osaze enervating and Kevin energizing. To proceed as the world wants is to die. Cue bedlam.

Nothing has exactly been out of place so far. But at the meeting called to resolve – or at least make sense of – the bedlam, Isoken is forced to reveal the centrality of Kevin to the state of things. What – another man? No, not just another man. An English one. The one true love of her life. A white Englishman.

There’s shock. Played by the preternaturally beautiful, ever theatrical Tina Mba Isoken’s mother Yesoken’s reaction is particularly telling. It’s an unusual reaction, the sort of alarm a mother might emote upon finding out she’s been housing a collaborator with the invading Brits in Overanmen’s Benin. Or the sort of reaction a white Alabama woman marrying a black man might have elicited in 20th century (who am I kidding?) US of A.

Still from ‘Isoken’

A lot has happened since Overanmen was king. By design, Africa has largely been centripetal, a votive vortex to a grasping, overbearing West, blackness to whiteness, barring some occasional tokenisms – like independence.

In a place where whiteness is what is usually culturally aspired to, it feels very gratifying that Isokenlike America, Their America, has marginalized whiteness, has once again made whiteness the subversive choice, something that instinctively arouses startling shock, not drooling, starry-eyed admiration. Yesoken’s instinctive reaction in particular made Kevin something like that black man, and the choice something like his marriage to the white Alabama woman, a subversion of the reified status we often ascribe to whiteness.

The film is a rom-com and the moment soon dissipates, but with Isoken, we are back to basics. For a tiny little bit.

Kayode Faniyi

Kayode Faniyi is a writer and cultural critic whose work has appeared on The Kalahari Review and Music in Africa.

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