Who Keeps Your Secrets?
Bisi Adjapon’s novel "The Teller of Secrets" examines the price of burgeoning womanhood in Ghana
When you were younger, how did you handle your family’s secrets? Did you share them with others or keep them to yourself? Did you revel in acknowledging how much privilege you had with this information or did you hold them over the ones you loved?
While reading Bisi Adjapon’s debut novel, The Teller of Secrets, I found myself asking these questions and reflecting on my own sensibilities from childhood. I remember snooping through my sisters’ text messages with their friends and listening in on my parents’ conversations about our close relatives. I was a reticent child growing up, yet I craved the idea of knowing and keeping secrets that were only reserved for a handful of ears; I wanted to understand why people made the decisions they did.
Naturally, I related to Adjapon’s fierce and percipient protagonist, Esi Agyekum. Not because we are both children of Ghanaian descent, but because Esi, when we first meet her, is a child full of questions. Throughout this novel, she tries to parse together her father’s infidelity, her stepmother’s rigidness, and her own ever-changing identity whether she’s at home or at school. Esi’s prudence only grows as she gets older and this journey—with the background of Ghana’s political upheaval—brings to light what it means to move through the world as someone who is unapologetically vocal, hungry for knowledge, and a woman. However, Esi soon learns that burgeoning into womanhood doesn’t come without a price.
The Teller of Secrets is a profound testament to Adjapon’s ability to write a sharp, feminist narrative with a deftly crafted woman at the heart of its pages. I had the opportunity to speak to Bisi Adjapon about the way society’s double standard continues to relegate women to such unfathomable expectations, even today.
Kukuwa Ashun: The protagonist of this novel, Esi, is such a keen and vibrant young girl from the first moment we see her—which is when she’s witnessing her father’s infidelity from a hotel room in Accra. As Esi navigates life at school and home, we see the way her mindset towards family, love, and womanhood shift as she grows older. Can you tell me what it meant for you to explore these themes in Esi’s story as a coming-of-age narrative?
Bisi Adjapon: I’ve always been fascinated by the way women are treated in Ghana. If you’ve been around any Ghanaian family, when there are guests around, the women are in the kitchen bustling around while the men relax in the sitting room just waiting to be served. For me, as somebody who had big sisters and brothers who grew up in a different generation, they used to tell me, “You have no idea how lucky you are. When we were young, this is how life was for us.” But even then, I saw this big gap between how boys were raised and how girls were raised. Girls are trained to be good wives because there’s always this thing hanging over your head, that you must aspire to get married. When you do have a husband, the success of the marriage depends on you. The man is like this ultimate prize, the glory that you have to win. Not only do you do everything to win him, but you must do everything you can to keep him. That didn’t sit well with me. If the man is something to achieve, if the husband is the glory to acquire, then that suggests that you, as a woman, are inferior; you’re less of a human being.
I’m a parent myself, so I’ve had to think about what it means to raise a girl. When boys are growing up, does anybody tell them that they better learn how to do xyz, or their wives will leave them? Every child should be trained to be worthy of being kept, regardless of gender. That’s something that I was interested in. I thought I would set Esi on a journey by marking all the different ages in her life. Obviously, the formative years are more important. I spent a lot more time in Esi’s early years because that is when ideas are introduced without the child’s awareness. When clay is soft, you can mold it, so you start to see all the different traumas that help Esi transform into the woman she ultimately becomes. Somewhere along the line, she hits a crossroad and has to decide where to go from there. Her father, her family, society—they are all part of shaping and molding Esi into who she becomes.
KA: Do you think this double standard has shifted in recent years?
BA: A little, but not enough. People still have those expectations, no doubt about it. I remember sitting at a table with a group of friends when Megan Markle got married. Everybody talked about how lucky she was that a whole prince married a woman who was older and divorced. Had it been the man who was older and divorced, there would be no problem with it! Recently, I attended a traditional marriage where the officiant said, “If you’re a woman and you’re still not married, don’t be worried, it will happen to you.” She literally said, “Your glory is coming.” Then she started singing this gospel song that goes, I’m trading my shame for the glory of the Lord. Lord almighty!
KA: In the novel, Esi attends three different schools before going to University. Can you talk about your decision in portraying these institutions across these different stages of her life?
BA: The honest truth is that these are schools I became familiar with, and I was fascinated by their differences. You’ve got this mixed elementary school where children interact freely with one another, but then you get to the middle school which is a boarding school. The minute you leave elementary school, teachers make sure you are molded into society’s ideal woman. Usually these boarding schools are not mixed. I guess it’s easier to plan a curriculum for the whole school where they have all girls learning how to sew, bake pineapple upside-down cakes, how to weed—all different things. I was fascinated by this.
I had a big sister who went to a middle school, and the minute she entered, it was baking, cooking, and all that. Not that there is anything wrong with it per se, because food is great, and everybody should learn how to cook. But these activities superseded academics, unlike in the secondary school. Wesley Girls was different. I went there, and it was a wonderful experience, so I wanted to show a different side. Yes, Wesley Girls had the obligatory cooking and sewing classes, but the greater emphasis was on academics. They were studying to be engineers, pilots, doctors, writers, and lawyers. I wanted to show that.
KA: And it seems like Esi also has more freedom when she’s in boarding school. There’s also a deeper intimacy between her classmates since they all live there.
BA: Absolutely. Being in an all-girls school is such a great thing for girls—for me, personally. When I was in the U. S., I taught in Christian and public high schools. But especially in the private, Christian schools, I noticed that the girls were more reluctant to raise their hands and answer questions. These same girls in elementary school were bright, high achievers, ready to take over the class. However, the minute their hormones kicked in, many girls became instantly coy. They thought they were supposed to be demure, and they were unwilling to raise their hands or appear overly intelligent. They wanted to be cool, and that was a shame. I liked the idea of a school that allowed these students to just explore anything that they wanted to. In Wesley Girls, there were students learning to play the cello, the piano, or the flute. They were doing athletics. They were involved in science competitions and beating the boys. For years––even now––they pride themselves on being one of the best academic schools. I really like that.
KA: Speaking of community, in Esi’s home life, she’s around these women who contribute to her growth in different ways. I think about the differences between her family in Ghana and her family in Nigeria. I’d love to hear more about how you wanted to explore her growth through the women she grew up around.
BA: I don’t know that I thought consciously about it, but I observe life around me. I’m half Nigerian, and I used to travel a lot to Nigeria. I had Nigerian relatives and I saw how they were. I must say that there are just as many feisty women in Ghana as in Nigeria. There is the belief, for instance, that Asante women are professionally independent. Even illiterate women are out there on the street or in the market, hustling, trading, selling food, doing their utmost to earn a living. I just chose to place Esi in a Ghanaian family where the stepmother was rather subservient and didn’t have a voice.
I patterned her Nigerian aunties after the feisty Nigerian women that I knew—who were actually a lot like Asante women of Ghana. So it’s not that Ghanaian women are not strong. Esi had to have two distinct families. I wanted her to be able to see what was possible. If her sisters and her stepmother were subjugated, I wanted to show that there were different types of women who were, while married, pursuing their own career. There’s the auntie who’s a businesswoman and another that’s going to university. It’s possible to have both and I thought it’d be fun to do it in two different countries.
KA: Something that’s prevalent in literature is the bond between mother and daughter, but here it feels like the focus centers on the father-daughter relationship and expectations. What drew you to writing about the nuances in Esi’s relationship to Papa?
BA: I think that father-daughter relationship, and the relationship between mother and son, are very important. The father, or the mother, serves almost as a model for what you’re going to encounter later in life. And there is always this yearning to please one’s parent.
For some reason, girls tend to adore their fathers and sons tend to adore their mothers. There’s a lot of tenderness between fathers and daughters. When you have a father who is like a model for a man, when that father is telling you to go for your dreams, and then start to switch when puberty hits, it can be heartbreaking. Parenting is tough. You enjoy your daughter and then one day you blink and you think, wait a minute, what happened to my little girl? Oh my God, she’s a woman. Men are going to notice her. So, do I lock her up and keep her safe? How do I protect her? Fathers want to protect their daughters. In that protection, the father is now shifting and looking at things not from his point of view, but from society’s point of view. How are people going to receive my daughter? Not all parents do this, but Esi’s father represents a lot of fathers whose perspectives shift.
My own father, for instance, was very supportive and always willing to let me try anything. But I think that for most men, the minute the daughter becomes a woman, fear sets. You want to also make sure your daughter fits in and is loved. And actually, it’s detrimental. If you do everything in your power to be liked, you end up destroying yourself. The good thing is that Esi manages somehow to find her own way. But it’s not easy.
KA: I noticed how flawlessly you inserted these moments of political unrest that happen not only in Ghana but in Nigeria, too. How important was it to blend Esi’s Nigerian and Ghanaian roots, along with these political moments, throughout the novel?
BA: Everything is political, right? Certain life decisions are made because of politics. For instance, Esi decides to go to Nigeria but has to go through Togo because there is dispute between Ghana and Togo. Why is there a dispute between Ghana and Togo? Because of the coup. So politics is all around us and it affects how we view ourselves, how the course of our lives changes. In childhood, Esi clings to her father. Is he going to disappear like the fathers who disappeared during the Nkrumah regime?
Initially, I resisted politics because I resent the fact that when Africans write books, it’s almost as if you have to write about politics. I was not in the least interested in politics, but a lot of stuff came out through my research. For instance, it came as a shock to me when I stumbled onto the fact that women were blamed for shortages in Ghana during the military regime. I thought, wait a minute, women traders were at the bottom of the supply chain! Since I was writing a feminist novel, I decided to weave it in. To do that, I had to tackle how politics affected women. Politics gave context.