Last year, I had the pleasure of copyediting Brimstones and Rainbows by Ololade Akintoye. The novel follows the story of a young girl, Iyunola, her marriage to a temperamental middle-aged man, and her consequent struggles with vesicovaginal fistula (VVF). It’s a deeply moving story that alerts us to the importance of safeguarding our young girls from child marriage and adolescent pregnancy.
Ololade was gracious enough to grant me this interview where she talks about writing a debut novel based on such powerful themes, what people are saying about it, and her hopes for the future. Ololade is the author of Brimstones and Rainbows and Emerging (a collection of poetry).
It’s a pleasure to interview you today. I think your book, Brimstones and Rainbows, is essential, especially since child marriage and VVF are still ravaging our country. So, I’d like to ask you a question that was on my mind as I read and edited your manuscript: what caused you to choose these themes?
OA: I have always been passionate about social issues, especially those affecting children and women in our society. Therefore, weaving my writing around these causes came naturally to me.
During my undergraduate days, a close contact shared her personal experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) and its negative impact on her self-image and sex life. This encouraged me to research and write about the role of the mass media in the curtailment of FGM as my dissertation.
My research revealed many cultural practices and customs that encouraged gender-based violence in Nigeria and other parts of the world––especially in underdeveloped countries. Some of these included the sexual rite of passage for teenage girls in Malawi and the Trokosi system of ritual servitude in Ghana. It was at this time that I first heard about obstetric fistula in Nigeria. It is a devastating childbirth complication mainly occurring in teenage girls due to prolonged and obstructed labour.
I discovered that child marriage was one of the leading causes of obstetric fistula, with a staggering statistic of between 50 000 to 100 000 women affected worldwide annualy, most of who were married before 18.
That was when the seed of Brimstones and Rainbows: Memoirs of a Child Bride was first planted in my mind. It’s more than a story to me, it’s a cause.
Why do you think these issues still exist? Your book touches on some of the factors that predispose these young girls to abuse and degradation, but I’d like you to share a bit more about the root of this problem.
OA: I believe there isn’t enough awareness at the moment, especially at the grassroots where some of these harmful customs (like child marriage) have a strong hold. Girls need to be empowered through education or vocational skills, not forced into marriage.
Apart from awareness, there needs to be adequate constitutional provision for the protection of child rights, access to good medical care for everyone, and economic empowerment and support for families and women.
Tell us a bit about the research that went into writing this book; I know you did a lot of studying. Did you consult with medical professionals or speak to survivors of VVF?
OA: Months of in-depth primary and secondary research, including speaking with medical professionals, child brides, victims of FGM and VVF survivors, preceded the writing of Brimstones and Rainbows.
As I read this book, I was deeply touched by Iyunola’s (and the other girls’) traumatic experiences, and I can only imagine what writing it must have felt like. How did you manage to create such painful scenes?
OA: It was truly an emotional rollercoaster penning down this narrative. There were times I literally broke down in tears during the course of my research and writing of Brimstones and Rainbows. Even though the characters are fictional, the real-life horrors of child brides are beyond imagination.
There were times I went from anger to sorrow and frustration, more so because child marriage is still prevalent in Nigeria. According to UNICEF, Nigeria has the 11th highest rate of child marriage globally. At the same time, the number of women currently living with obstetric fistula ranges from 400,000 to 800,000, and annually, an additional 50,000 to 100,000 new cases occur in the country.
Have you encountered any negative feedback regarding the theme of this book? Are there people who have said to you, “This isn’t true” or “This is too graphic”?
OA: On the contrary, the feedback has been quite encouraging because, at its core, Brimstones and Rainbows is an expose on the harmful practices affecting girls and women. Therefore, we need to pay attention to and collectively work to end it.
The book was an eye-opener to a lot of people who had never heard of obstetric fistula nor taken the time to consider the ripple effects of child marriage. They were angry and shocked to know that these practices still exist.
What’s the most beneficial feedback you’ve received? Which one really made you feel like all your effort was worth it? 😊
OA: Of all the beautiful feedback, the most touching one was from a schoolteacher from Ibadan who reached out to thank me for writing such an important book that created an awareness of child marriage and obstetric fistula. Moreso, for letting people know that fistula repair was possible as she had lived in the shame and hopelessness of her condition for many years before getting her fistula repaired after someone told her about the collaboration between the Fistula Foundation and some hospitals in Nigeria.
You’ve already touched on it, but what was your vision for this book and how close are you to accomplishing it since publishing? Should we expect another novel in 2022? 😊
OA: It is my hope that Brimstones and Rainbows will be instrumental in educating people on the dangers of harmful customs and practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
I also hope that it challenges our policy makers to create legislation that does right by these girls and women.
Even though I can’t categorically give a date, another novel is definitely in the offing.
Image credit: Spotlight Photos and Imagery