Yewande Omotoso is an architect, with a masters in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel ‘Bomboy’ (2011 Modjaji Books), won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize and was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She was a 2015 Miles Morland Scholar. Yewande’s second novel ‘The Woman Next Door’ (Chatto and Windus) was published in May 2016. It was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Aidoo-Snyder Prize, the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize, and the UJ Literary Prize. It was also longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Literature Prize and was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards for Fiction.
When I think of dangerous women I don’t think of women in whose presence I am in danger. When I think of dangerous women I think of women in whose presence the dangers of life finally meet their match. The kind of dangers I’m talking about are the hypocrisies, the patriarchy, the rules that are no rules at all but simply ways to cheat freedom and oppress those who dare sing out.
I have known such women, they occur throughout my life. It’s not what it sounds like, some do present as fierce but many are soft spoken, fewly-worded and calm.
In my childhood I knew a lot of mothers. My own, Marguerita, was gentle. Her danger may have been in the form of whom she chose to love. It would have been more popular, in the late 1960s at Edinburgh University, to suspect a Nigerian suitor as having a stash of wives back home in “dark” Africa. Instead my mother, hailing from the island of Barbados, wasn’t bothered and decades later I was given life.
Only as an adult, a woman, do I consider how bold my mother must have been, to carry such conviction and to voyage.
I remember being at a party as a little girl and watching the adults. And a family friend whose name I have lost walked up to another woman and said words that didn’t belong at a party, very clear words, not disrespectful but not polite either. I’ve named the person she was addressing Stella in my memory. Stella, she said, but don’t you know that you are beautiful.
Dangerous women show up sometimes, they disturb something. Stella was beautiful. She also bore tell-tale signs of the chemicals she was using on her dark skin to lighten it. I must have been eight or nine and startled that someone could speak to another someone that way.
Many of the women on the island of my birth are like this. Their bow tongues launch arrows into the world and never miss their mark.
My grandmother was one such woman. For very long she convinced me only of her sweetness until one day when I commented on how lovely she was she, holding a pot of boiling water, said Muh dear there was time when I throw this water on you soon as look as yuh. It would appear, I learnt, that my sweet grandmother once had a temper. Most dangerous women do, an important ability to access their rage whose existence alone runs counter to nursery rhymes we were fed about sugar and nice.
My mother’s cousins. Dangerous in the sense that they take up magnificent space, they know what it is to laugh even though they have cried too.
My grandfather’s sister, their mother, sits mostly in a wheelchair now but the other day she said Boy if I were young, and I believed her. I believed that the woman in front of me, frail and sitting, had eaten life, swallowed it completely whole. I imagine she danced, fell in love, made love, made children, made lives, and set people straight with her arrow-words. And you know, danger, in the way it manifests in these women, has never been more allowing or more generous.
This is a new kind of meaning, this danger. A serious kind of love. For oneself, one’s kin; and what life is meant for. Dangerous. I didn’t say it then; I was too young and answered Doctor or Mother but ask me now what I wish to be when I grow up.
Author portrait by Victor Dlamini.