Three Friends Are Reunited at a Wedding and Confront Their Different Life Paths
In Tomi Obaro's novel "Dele Weds Destiny," three women reflect on the choices they've made under the pressure of Nigerian societal norms
It’s 2015. Zainab, Funmi, and Enitan are reuniting for Funmi’s daughter, Destiny’s wedding. The three have grown up since their university days in Zaria where they had first met, their friendship off to a rocky start with personality clashes, Funmi stealing Zainab’s boyfriend, and Enitan always left to play the peacemaker. A bond develops over time as Funmi elicits Enitan’s help in an illegal abortion, Zainab finds in Funmi and Enitan friends who appreciate and support her writing, and Enitan discovers a family within them that doesn’t suffocate her the way her single mother did. Now, after decades, the trio is back together in the same place. Enitan, who left Nigeria after eloping with a white man, has arrived with her daughter, Remi. Zainab has endured a long, traumatic bus ride and the worry of leaving her ailing husband behind. Funmi, at her wit’s end with planning a grand wedding that’s fit for the rich upper-class she now belongs to, is ready to welcome them. Excitement, love, and laughter are in the air but so are secrets and surprises.
Dele Weds Destiny is a riveting experience of Nigerian culture and its eccentricities through a narrative focused on the enduring bond of female friendship and the turbulence within mother-daughter relationships. Tomi Obaro—currently the deputy culture editor at BuzzFeed News—is deft with her craft. There is care evident in the way the narrative is spun, and there is wit and astuteness at play in a novel that investigates the patriarchy underlying Nigerian society where norms police the choices women make.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Obaro and I spoke over Zoom about navigating mother-daughter relationships, boundaries and social expectations in the collectivist culture, beauty currency, the immigrant experience, and much more.
Bareerah Ghani: I am fascinated by the bond between Zainab, Funmi and Enita—it’s beautiful and endures the test of time. In the prologue, you state, “their love has the makings of an ancient habit” and in the acknowledgments you reveal that their friendship is inspired by your mother’s experience with her two best friends. I would love to know more about that inspiration.
Tomi Obaro: So, in the acknowledgments I put in the word loosely to emphasize that it was just sort of an inspiration, but certainly the major plot points and the characters are different from my mom and her friends. But yeah, growing up those women were my aunts and their kids were my cousins and none of them have lived in Nigeria since college, but they’ve always stayed in touch and I always thought that that was really beautiful.
A couple of years ago I was with my mom and my sister, we went to visit one of these aunts who lives in France. And we were looking at old photos. I was working on another novel at the time, and so I was thinking to myself like oh, this would be my second novel idea. Then I eventually realized that that first novel was not going to see the light of day and so I sort of started writing this one and just by how effortlessly I felt like it was going, I realized that there was something there. And I’ve always been interested in stories about characters over time and particularly friendships and how they evolve.
Even though I am Nigerian American, I never lived in Nigeria, and so there was a certain element of fear too in terms of thinking about and having characters who are essentially my mother’s age.
BG: The novel opens with Enitan traveling to her homeland Nigeria after years of having lived in the U.S. She’s both an outsider and a native when she arrives at the airport, so we see this nuanced depiction of Lagos and its culture. I could relate when Enitan feels the need to put up this aggressive persona so that no one would think of her as the “outsider” and take advantage of it. I am curious to know about your experience of Nigeria and if it, at all, influenced the way you wrote Enitan’s journey?
TO: Definitely that scene at the airport feels spiritually true. Every time we’ve gone to Nigeria, we’re always hoping we don’t lose our luggage. Often my first memory of Nigeria is being at the airport, getting off the plane and then seeing how people change. So, I always knew—even before I knew exactly what the contours of the novel would be—that there’d be a scene, that the book would probably start with being in the airport.
I would often feel self-conscious about my Americanness when I was in Nigeria or aware of the fact that, like the way I pronounce things isn’t necessarily how a native would pronounce things. In some ways, Remi speaks to that aspect of myself. I think it’s common for a lot of immigrants—that feeling that there is something familiar about this place, but I don’t quite fit in. And I would say I feel that way in America too so it was something I was definitely interested in exploring.
BG: As an immigrant myself, I find Enitan quite relatable—she experiences this constant push and pull of home. She wants Remi to love the country despite herself having a troubled relationship with it and she also sometimes wishes she had raised Remi there. How do you contend with this idea of roots and their pull on people in a manner that is intense enough to make them consider forgetting about the very reasons that drove them away from what used to be home?
TO: I don’t know that there’s any sort of definitive answer. Even now, given the climate in Nigeria—it’s a country that’s so volatile that sometimes I feel frustrated. It’s a place that my family is always wedded to, and so I don’t know that I have a straightforward answer to that question. I think our relationships to what home is, to our countries, are constantly changing and a lot of it also depends on the country itself and the progress that country is or isn’t making and how hospitable it is to live there.
BG: We see parallels between Enitan’s strained relationship with Remi and Funmi’s relationship with her daughter, Destiny. We also learn that Enitan had a problematic relationship with her own mother and that Funmi practically grew up without a mother figure. To what extent do you think the cycle of unhealthy communication and strained mother-daughter relationships passed down from one generation to the next can be broken?
TO: I was interested in exploring those dynamics and I think in various ways the mothers want to repair their relationships or want to build healthier relationships. It’s just hard, you know—they’re from different generations, different countries and cultures. Particularly with Funmi’s relationship with Destiny, she loves Destiny and a lot of her curtness comes from this feeling of wanting to prevent Destiny from making the mistakes that she made. And I think a common thing among mothers and daughters—parents and children of all sorts—is that disconnect between what a parent wants for their child and what a child wants and the parent often thinking that why don’t they want this thing that is clearly good for them and not allowing the child to reach their own conclusions or to come to their own realizations in their own time. Those are the threads I was interested in exploring but I don’t know if I have any solutions, necessarily.
BG: It’s interesting that you brought up that disconnect between parents and children. We really see this with Funmi and Destiny, especially with Funmi sending her daughter to a boarding school as per the norm of their social class despite Destiny fiercely resisting the idea of it. Do you think there is a happy balance that exists in choosing to do best by your child and choosing to do what’s right according to society’s norms especially in a culture where societal expectations matter a lot?
TO: I would like to believe that there’s a happy medium, but I think it can be hard and I think what that balance is, changes from family to family. In general, at least in my experience, I would say that there tends to be a little hardness and not over tenderness in the way that maybe white liberal Americans are used to when it comes to their relationship with their kids. And I think that there are a number of factors as to why that is. But I do think that there is sort of a growing awareness now and so it will be interesting to see how relationships between parents and children change in the generations to come among Nigerians, whether in the diaspora or there.
BG: Nigerian culture places a lot of importance on family and familial bonds which is quite similar to the Pakistani culture I grew up in. Attached to this is also this idea of pleasing one’s parents to the extent of sacrificing your own happiness. For instance, Destiny gives up photography because her parents don’t want her to pursue it. What are your thoughts on navigating this aspect of the collectivist culture without it impeding personal comfort and happiness?
TO: I have mixed feelings. I think America is a country where we see the extremes of a kind of individualistic culture that can be very toxic. Certainly, in just the past few years, like with the pandemic, some people just aren’t willing to do anything that causes personal inconvenience and that can be detrimental to a society. But on the other hand, there’s often, particularly in cultures that aren’t American, an emphasis on the family unit or society as a whole subsuming the self and that isn’t great either. So, I think it is something where you kind of have to strike a balance and I don’t know if I’ve fully figured it out for myself.
A few years ago, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote an op-ed for the Times about how sometimes he lies to his parents and goes to church even though he’s an atheist. And they ask him, but he just won’t say anything and it’s sort of to honor the relationship that he has but he’s also kind of living his own life. And certainly, when it comes to incredibly personal decisions like if you want to get married or who you marry or if you want to have kids—those questions—the person doing those things will live with the results of those actions. Getting married just to placate parents or having a child just to give them grandchildren—you’ll be living with the consequences of those actions so I think it’s a balancing act between kind of figuring out what are the things I could do to make them happy and I wouldn’t be killing my own self or burying my sense of identity and then, what are the things that maybe we just don’t talk about and then, what are the things that I’m just going to do. Maybe some people are able to just cut off their families completely to do those things, but I think for folks who do desire to have a relationship, it’s a delicate balance.
BG: Right, yeah! In such a culture, speaking from my personal experience, it’s difficult to set such boundaries. What are your thoughts on how to navigate the action of setting up boundaries without hurting someone’s feelings?
TO: I think you have to accept that some people’s feelings will be hurt and that’s okay. Particularly, if it’s something that’s really important to you, and you know that doing it or not doing it would be a betrayal of your core self, you kind of have to set up the boundary and hope that they’ll eventually understand.
BG: The novel also probes the idea of chastity, sin and corporal punishment in the context of Nigerian culture. I was particularly surprised when Zainab’s father beats her after he suspects that she has had sex with the man she wants to marry. How do you grapple with this culture-specific idea of parents policing their adult child’s behavior according to values and beliefs that might not even be shared by the child?
TO: I think it’s just something that most children of immigrants or immigrants themselves have to experience and figure out on their own. Again, I think it’s a balancing act.
The idea of corporal punishment is sort of a common expectation across most Nigerian ethnic groups—it’s something that I grew up with. It’s hard to contend with—your family tells you I love you but then they beat you and so as a child, it’s very confusing. But I think there can be, in certain more “liberal” circles, this lack of understanding about that cultural decision. It’s child abuse, yes, but framing it in that way can make people defensive. And so, it’s a balancing act. And it’s like this with any number of issues from genital cutting to a lot of contemporary African views about homosexuality, where if you dig deeper some of these ideas came over with colonialism, some of them didn’t, but I think there is sort of an inherent defensiveness. And I’m speaking very generally towards critiques from the West about some of these practices, because they do often feel rooted in condescension and in this idea that somehow the West is more evolved, when it’s not. It’s complicated. And so being able to say, there are aspects of our traditions that are wonderful and that we should continue, and then there are other things that aren’t so great, can be hard but I think it’s certainly a worthwhile cause.
BG: An interesting through line of the novel is the comparison between the three friends on the basis of their looks. Funmi and Zainab are described as the more beautiful of the three, always attracting male attention in their youth whereas Enitan is more plain-looking and often envious of the two. Years later, when Funmi meets Enitan and notices she’s remained skinny despite having aged, Funmi feels conscious about her appearance. I found this to be resonant of the competitive dynamics that manifest amongst girl-friends across cultures. How do you reckon with this idea of the world essentially making women feel like they are in competition with one another?
TO: I think having some baseline of awareness helps. But I also think it depends on who you surround yourself with. I feel like I’m pretty fortunate in life, where I don’t really have that dynamic with my friends who are genuinely conventionally attractive. For me it’s something that I try not to dwell on. But it’s something that obviously exists, and in fiction it’s fun to reckon with or acknowledge.
The whole idea of having beauty currency is based on the capitalist patriarchal framework. That was one of the things I was interested in exploring with someone like Enitan who has feelings of undesirability. I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, and so there was a lot of talk about the inherent seductive qualities of being a woman or how men were always trying to have sex with you, but then my experience living in predominantly white schools and neighborhoods was just feeling very sexually invisible. And so, Enitan’s desire to be looked at, desire to be considered desirable, those are things that I definitely grappled with on my own. And then eventually you realize that it’s kind of bullshit, and I mean– it is, and it isn’t. There are studies that show that beautiful people are treated better and there are material benefits you gain from being considered conventionally attractive. And the adverse is true too—if you’re not considered attractive, you can be discriminated against, so it’s not as if it doesn’t matter. I’ve always found that that kind of glibness like, everyone is beautiful in their own way, is materially not true.
In general, I surround myself with people where that isn’t the crux of why we’re friends. I think that there are certain dynamics where you could be friends with people who are constantly talking about their weight, or their looks in certain ways, and I feel like I’m fortunate enough to have friendships where that isn’t our primary mode of communication and I think that definitely helps.
BG: The novel deftly examines beauty standards and the social currency that comes with being a certain body type. You offer such a stark observation and comparison of American and Nigerian beauty standards. Skinny, for instance, is not perceived as beautiful in Nigeria and instead, curves have all the social currency. This is quite opposite to the world Remi is exposed to in the US. How do you think women across countries and cultures can withstand the policing of our bodies?
TO: I think it takes frank acknowledgement that these systems exist. And then advocating to shut them down. The fat liberation movement for instance—a lot of their philosophy is that it doesn’t really matter whether you love your body or not, the issue is addressing the real stigma that exists for people who are fat whether it’s discrimination with doctors or at work and how that often dovetails with disability. So frankly, a lot of it is just tearing down the capitalist and discriminatory practices that are embedded in our society.