By Djami Diallo The Afro News Burnaby
If I had to pick only one word to describe Dayo Forster’s novel, I could not do it. That’s because Reading the Ceiling is not just one thing. It is bold, it is wittingly laugh-out loud, it is smart, realistic, deep, riveting and heart-rending. What grabbed me initially was the fact that this was a story about a young African girl on the verge of womanhood who decided to take her life into her own hands. And not just with an impulsive act of teenage rebellion, but with a decision to find ‘the One’ among a host of three very different characters with whom to transition into womanhood. There’s Reuben, Yuan and Frederick. Eighteen year old Ayodele has her own ideas for each of them and while she does not know what decision she will ultimately make, she is intoxicated with the range of possibilities, with the sense of excitement and independence that comes with finally turning eighteen. In Ayodele Forster presents an experience that is universal to every girl, regardless it seems, of place or time. I remember thinking how scandalously sweet a plot that could possibly be and picked it off the shelves with the curiosity of someone who had found a treasure. I started the book right away, picking a bench outside the library. The sun sat over my shoulder and the wind tousled the pages as if I could not get through it fast enough. I was trying to figure out how the title fit in with the plot and while it was not obvious right away, I was taken with the story before me, the beautiful prose and the wittiness of Ayodele’s voice. I found myself laughing out loud in those first few moments with the book; the awareness that I was outside in the company of strangers fell away.
The book opens in Gambia; the author invites us into Ayodele’s house where Satiday soup is cooking, mother-daughter tensions are holding on by a thread, and where Ayodele is plotting quietly for the night that will change her life. Although I knew nothing about Gambia, this knowledge was not required because no one was testing my geography; I was simply being presented with a typical scene that could remind me of my own house if a few elements were interchanged. This realization put me at ease and it is bound to serve the same function for readers. I could almost smell the scents, sense the movements of the household, the shifts in mood between Ayodele and her mother, who has warned her daughter about men and who would clearly disagree if she knew what her daughter was really up to. The readers will immediately pick up the dynamics between Ayodele and her mother: Forster has fashioned Ayodele’s mother after every ‘African mama’ we know, whether the mother is your own or not, you will all be able to relate. Readers will also be able to visualize Ayodele lying in her room, looking up at the ceiling, toying with the possibilities of a life with either one of her would-be suitors. Here Ayodele is a perfect example of an irritable teenager, whose mission in life is to get away from the family home and above all, avoid turning into her mother. But the catch is that Ayodele’s sassy, don’t-mess-with-me attitude, which readers will love, is exactly like her mother’s. And it’s exactly the boldness she will need to carry out her plan.
“In the slit between my bedroom curtains, I see a long triangle of sky more grey than blue. The light changes with each sweep of my eyelids. At this time of year, when the harmattan blows straight off the Sahara, not even the wide expanse of the River Gambia can add enough wet to stop it in its tracks. It has coated the mosquito netting on my window with dust. Today is my birthday. It is also the day I have decided to do The Deed. It’s almost as if I can see a list of names in my head, with mini head shots alongside, each taken in a studio with a full glare of lights, so that as I peer into each photo, I can see the pimple above Reuben’s eyebrow, notice that Yuan’s eyes are set slightly too close together, linger over the pout in Idris’ lips, observe the sheen on Frederick Adams’ face. I can choose whether to put a tick, a question mark or an x against each name on my list. It’s in my power, it’s up to me.”
In this short passage, readers will get a sense of the strategy that Ayodele tries to apply to the decision she has to make, but no matter how methodical she may want to be, the author manipulates certain elements in the story that put the brakes on her process. Clearly Ayodele and Forster act as counterparts who happen to have found the perfect balance in order to make the story work. For Ayodele, her decision is a question of power-feeling powerful, feeling validated in her choice. She is the epitome of someone who has agency and has decided to exercise it. In this aspect, we should recognize Ayodele as a role model to other girls regardless of their situation. In contrast, Forster acts like an invisible hand, mastering the parts of Ayodele’s life so as to teach both her and readers that fate has the last word in the course of our lives. We will see how fate plays out in each of Ayodele’s scenarios, sometimes so much so that she ends up with neither one of her initial candidates. One path will keep Ayodele in Africa into the hands of a polygamous marriage, another will have her pursue a European education and experience heartbreak, yet another will have her buried in unspeakable grief and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. In each scenario, readers will recognize common elements that are meant to show us that regardless how much we try to control, some things will remain the same constant facts in our lives. Ayodele’s friendships will be tested, she will discover new bonds; we will see her strength waning at times and all the while, catch a glimpse of the same spirit that brought her to each path. I really appreciated that Forster gave her protagonist several options: it’s not because Ayodele is African that she is bound to a life of polygamy, with ten kids and a High School education. And Forster forces us to ask ourselves who set the standard, who said that was a bad option? For readers who are at a crossroads in their lives, for anybody who is facing a major decision, Reading the Ceiling is a must read. Ayodele’s story can be anybody’s. Whether you are an African girl or just one at heart, you will love Ayodele and you too will find your favorite mate in Reuben, Yuan, and Frederick.
For me Dayo Forster’s novel was a lucky find. It took a lot of searching and patience, but I was thrilled to stumble on it in my local library. It made me realize that if we want to see African, African American and Caribbean literatures showcased the way they deserve to be, we need to be more proactive about it because the idea of missing a gem like Reading the Ceiling and other like it, is unthinkable. Forster, for whom this is the first literary effort, has undoubtedly come out with a bang. I know I won’t be the only one waiting to see what else she has in store. And in the meantime, I might just fix myself a pot of that Satiday soup.
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To read more about Dayo Forster and the idea behind her novel, visit: www.dayoforster.co.uk/book.html