' "Yellow-Yellow". That is what most people in my village called me because of my complexion, the product of a Greek father and an Ijaw mother', relates Zilayefa, the protagonist of Kaine Agary's first novel. A swiftly moving bildungsroman, the story unfolds as seventeen-year-old Zilayefa passes her Baccalaureate and makes her way from her village in the Niger Delta region to Port Harcourt in search of a new life.
One of the intriguing aspects of the narrative is not that Zilayefa is extraordinary, but that she is an ordinary, intelligent young person encountering the difficulties of growing up under the Abacha regime in a region racked by neo-colonial exploitation, above all the environmental degradation and social destruction perpetrated by Western oil companies. Further, her African-European ancestry marks her physically in the regime of stereotypes that follow children of biracial parentage still in the 1990s.
Zilayefa strives to 'understand better or with less anger why there were more and more of my kind – 'African-profits', 'born-troways', 'ashawo-pickins', 'father-unknowns'. . . . Maybe then I would not hide from the facts of my birth that my yellow skin and curly hair put on display' (p. 171). This list of terms for biracial children reflects important aspects of the novel's themes and narrative techniques. Thematically, the post-colonial situation of cultural contact repeats, with important differences, cultural conflicts of the colonial situation. Stylistically, commentary on the post-colony is never more poignant that in the poetics of Nigerian pidgin, which is interwoven sparingly and effortlessly in the narrative without notes or a glossary. [End Page 325]
Her father, Plato Papadopoulos, after a few weeks with her eighteen-year-old mother, sets sail with his ship, never to return to Nigeria. Her mother tries to protect her from such a future and emphasizes education above all. While she feels claustrophobic in her village, Zilayefa does well in school and grows intellectually through the help of Mr Diseye, who lends her books from his extensive collection of literature. History repeats itself, however, as an older man named Sergio from Spain enchants Zilayefa, and she invites him for a picnic on a little island, where she experiences the gentle embrace of the married, middle-aged antique dealer. In a week he leaves without saying goodbye.
Most of the story takes place in Port Harcourt, where Zilayefa finds a job at a hotel and eventually finds time to resume her studies, with the promise of support from her new lover, the rich, established, retired Admiral Kenneth Alaowei Amalayefa, an older Ijaw man with a penchant for very young women. While he admires her respect for Ijaw tradition, the admiral has little time for Zilayefa, whom he keeps in his opulent bedroom as he deals with, and funds, local battles, the result of unequal distribution of oil profits: 'The Ijaws and the Itsekiris were fighting each other, as were the Ifes and the Modakekes, the Kuteps and the Jukan-Chambas, and the Bassas and Ebiras' (p. 109).
The dictator General Sani Abacha is never mentioned by name, but Zilayefa reveals that 'all those who dared complain about the land's leader mysteriously disappeared . . . . It seemed Big Brother was watching our every move' (p. 99). While military rule has plagued Nigeria since the 1970s, the context of the Abacha era is clear from a moment of reflection two decades after the 1977 FESTAC, the Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos, as well as from the description of the oil boom, including the brutal execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose work is noted as an inspiration by Agary in the Acknowledgements. Zilayefa's colleagues at the hotel tell a young man, an Ogoni like Saro-Wiwa, that if he does not like life in Port Harcourt, he should seek political asylum in the US.
The death of the dictator marks the hope for the end of military oppression, and ironically, the end of Zilayefa's innocence. It coincides with the exploitation of a different form of the 'politics of...