(EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Jide Familoni spent close to ten years developing and writing what has become Losing My Religion, an exceptional novel about a Nigerian, Femi, moving to Canada and then the South – and facing the differences between the cultures.
Dr. Familoni based some of the book and Femi on his own life, a life in which he has deeply cared for and practiced the traditions and cultures of two entirely different places – Nigeria and the United States, particularly the South. He also lovingly (and not so longingly, at times) described the religion-culture in which he grew up, Yoruba, one of the few truly ancient traditions still standing in close to its original form. It is one of 11 world religions that state and practice the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It draws from the ancient indigenous tenet that man and nature are not separate, but part of one wheel of life.
Losing My Religion holds tension with both its action and subtext – Femi’s strain to hold dear to his native and adopted cultures. It also contains everything you want in a good novel – well-developed characters, conflict, villains, incisive conversations, settings both beautiful and menacing, and a couple of surprise twists. Oh yes, there’s even a love story woven in.
This is the second of a two-part interview with Dr. Familoni. Losing My Religion will be published in June 2013, and available on Amazon.com and through bookstores everywhere.)
WORD JOURNEYS: In Losing My Religion, you write about situations considered unfortunate, but almost socially normal here – such as divorce – that are seen as loss of face back in Nigeria. What aspects of these very difficult choices did you want to convey in the telling of the story?
JIDE FAMILONI: Growing up, the authority of parents was unquestionable. They also subscribed totally to societal norms. That systematically avoided some of the social missteps. I remember when one of my older sisters was already engaged. The family was in high gear preparing for what turned out to be a very elaborate wedding, during the heyday of my father’s political prowess. One evening, her groom-to-be came to take her to one of the key social events in Ibadan. The University of Ibadan held an annual dance/concert/jamboree called Havana. It was the event of the year for college-age and young professionals. He arrived to pick up my sister around 8 p.m., and my father refused to let her go. While she bawled her eyes out, her mother and the groom were pleading, but my dad did not budge.
Now, it seems absurd that the social order was so tight and inflexible. The inflexibility made it acceptable for odious practices, such as domestic abuse, to be tolerated in the name of ‘saving face’. But I believe it was also responsible in part for keeping down divorces, teenage pregnancies etc. Even now, any time I discuss same-sex issues and rights with many Africans, the discussions are often difficult. Some of my old friends find it so difficult to understand my liberal stance that they often conclude that I must be in the closet.
When I got separated and eventually divorced, my father was very cross with me. The family saw me as being ‘assimilated’ (equivalent to a four-letter word) … too Americanized to value what they valued … a prodigal son of sorts.
WJ: In the novel, you also wove in how pop music bookmarked key periods of Femi’s life. ABBA, Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, etc. It’s such a universal trait, isn’t it, for music to occupy such a big place in our lives? Could you share how deeply music is ingrained in your character – and some of the memories specific songs trigger?
JF: Music transcends languages and cultures and geography. I love music from the profane to the ecclesiastical. My father was an organist and choirmaster at different times in his life. I remember sitting in All Saints’ Anglican Church in Ibadan and listening to an Easter cantata. Handel’s Messiah makes chills run up and down my spine. But the same brain and mind that is transfixed by the Halleluiah chorus gets happy to Fela Kuti’s or Bob Marley’s profane and political lyrics.
I remember Bob Marley’s War. As much of a peace lover as I was, I deeply believed with him that until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior is abolished, there would be war and it would be justified. During South African Apartheid, Nigerian Sonny Okosun sang that there was a fire in Soweto burning all our people to memorialize the Soweto riots. Those tunes gave expression to things I felt deeply. Femi’s emotional overflow to ABBA’s Departure was me on a jet, leaving my loved ones and my life for a foreign land where I did not know a single soul, but believed in a better future.
WJ: What have been the nicest surprises of your journey from Nigeria to Canada to the South? And your most challenging moments?
JF: The nicest surprise is that I have seen more and become a better person that I ever imagined. I have met made lifelong friends. I love the way this culture has informed my Africanness to make me see parts of the African culture that can be improved. Of course, that same blessing also alienates me from some Africans still in Africa.
My most challenging moments are those times that I am confronted with the stark differences of my current reality and what I used to believe. For instance, as a result of the extended family structure, Africans believe in supporting family members who are struggling. I do that some for those who are closest to me. However, on occasion, when I travel home and see people who kindnesses contributed to who I am today, or cousins that I am persuaded to help out of obligation and I have not, I feel inadequate and foreign.
After my mother passed away, one of my greatest regrets is that she never visited the U.S. to spend a night in my home or dote on her grandchild.
WJ: How long did it take you to write Losing My Religion? How does it shape and read now compared to your original conception for the book?
JF: It did not start out as a novel or book. I was merely reverting to a tried and true self-protection mechanism in a time of crisis. After my mother’s death and burial, I returned to the States very sad, maybe even depressed. Late in 1994, in a bid to get some perspective, I started writing my thoughts about her just as I used to do as a teenager. It provided such relief and outlet that very soon, I was staying up the whole night to write, after working my regular day job.
Chapter 9, “Eventide,” was written in about 7 or 10 days and remained as notes for about 3 years. One day, I read it again and realized that there were gaps in the story. My decision to fill in those gaps is what became Losing My Religion. Writing mostly at night, the framework was done by in about 9 months.
WJ: If you could boil down the essence of Losing My Religion to two sentences, what would they be?
JF: LMR is about coming to the West and becoming of the western world without losing what is good and of value from the old world. It is an ode to the ties that bind to simple beginnings and parents that even death could not unravel.
WJ: When you speak with African-Americans, is there any need or effort on your part to reconnect them to their ancestral roots – or to show the way those traditions still were practiced during your growing up years? Could you share an example or two of talks you’ve had with people about this?
JF: My experience with my African American friends is that many have a yearning to reconnect and be connected back to Africa. I discuss the way things used to be. I also find to my chagrin that some of them are more Afrocentric than I am. Especially in February, during Black History programs, I sometimes get requests to speak or give advice about programs in churches. My female friends are very keen to wear the most elegant African designs. Luckily, I have a cousin in Atlanta that has a large and internet accessible African fashion business.
It is sometimes very difficult. There is so much misunderstanding of what is worthy by so many. So much misunderstanding between Africans in diaspora of their own will, and their cousins who have been here for generations. This doesn’t surprise me because my own son, born to two African parents, sometimes finds it difficult to see what is worth loving about Africa. A line often comes to my mind from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In Okonkwo’s village, as things started to unravel, he opined something to the effect that the white man had put a knife to the things that joined us together, so that we can no longer think as one.