by DW McKinney
The Girl with the Louding Voice
by Abi Daré
Dutton, February 2020
384 pages (Hardcover) / $26.00, Bookshop
The imbalance and exploitation of power is a collar and chain wrapped around the necks of young girls. Girls are denied education, bartered like objects, and killed for existing. These injustices extend into womanhood as vast inequalities. It’s a harsh truth—and it’s a global one. In Abi Daré’s debut novel The Girl with the Louding Voice, winner of The Bath Novel Award in 2018, Daré depicts these problematic issues against the backdrop of Nigeria.
The story follows 14-year-old Adunni who lives in Ikati with her alcoholic father and two brothers. When the novel begins, Adunni’s father informs her that she will be the third wife of Morufu, an elderly taxi driver, in exchange for food and community rent. Adunni is in disbelief. On her mother’s death bed, her father promised to continue Adunni’s education and not marry her off. Adunni protests the marriage and instead dreams, “I will finish [school] and become teacher because I don’t just want to be having any kind voice…I want a louding voice.”
Her protestations fail and Adunni marries Morufu. She moves in with him, his two other wives, and their children. What happens next is tragic and catalyzes monumental change in Adunni’s life. She flees the only life she’s ever known and begins anew in Lagos as an indentured servant to Big Madam, a well-known fabric seller who uses brutality as a method of correction. After she survives Big Madam’s thunderous blows, Adunni must also dodge the lecherous advances of Big Madam’s husband, Big Daddy.
The novel’s early chapters are loaded with examples of poverty, cultural oppression, and the twisted forms of punishment (so-called “jungle justice”) in retaliation for breaking social rules. Scenes alternate between heartbreak and tension—a particular one in a community toilet evokes both terror and sorrow—but they are critical to building the plotline’s intricacies. These early chapters also contrast to the latter half of the book, which takes place amongst flamboyant characters in grossly rich and opulent environments. This dual-sided nature provides a more encompassing perspective of Nigeria—one that is often suppressed in favor of poverty narratives in American popular media.
Daré intertwines the plight of Nigerian girls with Adunni’s journey. She becomes an intermediary for the millions of girls who are traded for naira and social status. The ones that are used up, discarded, and living in fear of ever-present sexual dangers. This happens through Adunni’s forced marriage and the rape and abuse she experiences in that household. And later, in Nigeria, when she is robbed of her earnings and little is done to protect Adunni and the previous house girls from a known sexual predator. She is even blamed and beaten for Big Daddy’s predilections. Throughout the novel, people tell Adunni that she is nothing. She is simply a servant to her husband, a child bearer, a “nonentity” and “[a]n illiterate thing, completely useless.” At one point, Adunni asks a very poignant question: “Why are the women in Nigeria seem to be suffering for everything more than the men?”
Well into my teenage years, I was raised knowing my “proper place,” or rather, the place that was created for me by my father. In my proper place, I did as I was told. I did not question any command given to me. In my proper place, I was kept small. My voice was silenced. I was an easy to manage object—not a real person. And any time a man looked at me with the slightest hint of desire, I was punished. It was “my fault.” Even though my brother lived within these boundaries too, he was given some allowances because he was a boy. When I pushed against these strictures, I experienced swift punishment, but I continued to do so because I knew that I deserved better. I was worth more than what was given me. And it is a welcome relief in the novel that given all that she’s endured, Adunni does the same. She never loses hope.
Through a stroke of fortuitous timing and a dash of plot convenience, Adunni befriends Tia Dada, a wealthy woman attending a meeting at Big Madam’s house. This friendship carries a crucial plot point, but Daré interjects it with surprising developments and subplots. And through these Adunni and Tia’s interactions, Daré explores how reproduction, economic status, education, and perception of safety are often used as cudgels to keep women in line.
It is in the last third of the novel that the reader discovers what a louding voice is. It is Adunni’s prize, her reason for persevering through the hardships constantly lobbed at her:
“I want to enter a room and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so that when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping.”
What Adunni wants—what so many young girls and women around the world want—is to advocate for their own futures. Of course, she achieves that, to an extent, by the end of the novel. But Daré makes it clear that this hero’s journey is a difficult one.
By the novel’s end, Adunni’s reasons for leaving Ikati are never resolved. It’s a missed opportunity for ultimate closure. However, this isn’t what fuels readers. Adunni represents a great hope that resides in many of us. We read filled with a hope in a young girl’s future—our eyes turned outward toward those around us trying to escape on the wings of their own dreams.
DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch Media, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.