The literature for which I find the cultural gap to be so vast that it often supersedes all else that I like or dislike about the books is usually literature from Africa - specifically, East or West or Central Africa, not far enough north to be strongly influenced by the Middle East, and not far enough south to be . . . well, to be South Africa. The countries, in other words, whose names I have in many cases never heard spoken since back when my sixth-grade teacher made me label their names on a blank map for a monthly geography quiz. Ghana, for example. When is the last time you had a conversation that involved any mention of Ghana? Well, I just finished reading a novel by a Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo.
I think this novel, titled Changes: A Love Story, should be of considerable interest to many of my readers. Particularly to readers with any interest in polyamory, long-distance relationships, feminism, or West Africa. I cannot claim that the book is a suspenseful thriller that you won't be able to put down, because it's not. To be honest, I would not rank it any higher than average on a scale of sheer entertainingness (though I suspect that's somewhat related to how much got lost in cultural translation for me). But on a ranking of books that make you think about things, this book would do rather well. It's an educational kind of book. Sort of a novel-as-philosophical treatise, but novelistic enough to be a lot more entertaining than your average philosophical treatise - particularly if you're interested in in any of those four topics I just named.
Let's start with the polyamory connection. Ghana is a country where polygynous marriages are traditionally common; as of 1988, one third of all married women in Ghana were in polygynous marriages. But the main characters in this novel are Western-educated and nowhere near as familiar with the social rules of polygynous marriages as the average Ghanaian. Since they're unfamiliar with the traditional rules, they try to make up their own rules, making them in some ways similar to Western polyamorists (though in other ways not similar - particularly because they practice only polygyny, not polyandry).
The main character, Esi, is a woman with a much more successful career than is typically possible for women in Ghana - she's a statistician and has a master's degree. At the beginning of the novel, she's in a monogamous marriage to Oko, a man who earns less money than her, has less education than her, is the same height as her, and feels threatened by her success in traditionally male fields. He wishes Esi would stay home and have more children (she's only had one) and be more devoted to him instead of to her career. They have a fight, which ends in him committing marital rape against her.
The concept of marital rape is pretty much inconceivable in Ghana, to anyone other than Esi. Esi herself recognizes it as rape and kicks him out of the house, divorcing him for it. But every woman she dares confide in thinks she's a fool for doing so, and tells her that having a man who's "so crazy about her" that he "can't control himself" and therefore rapes her makes her the envy of every woman in Ghana. Oko himself tells Esi that he raped her to save their marriage. Yeah, well, that sure didn't work.
However, Esi acknowledges that the rape was just the last straw in a marriage that had already been making her unhappy before then. Oko was a drain on her energy, always wanting more of her time and attention than she felt able to spare. Always needing her to "mother" him, to ask after his feelings at every moment and consider it her personal responsibility to make his every moment a happy one, regardless of what else might be causing his unhappiness. Needless to say, he did not make it his personal mission in life to ensure her happiness every moment of her life in exchange.
Largely in response to this experience, Esi begins to view polygyny as a potentially feminist option. In Ghana, a man traditionally lives with one wife (usually his first wife), while any other wives live elsewhere. It occurs to Esi that if she were a second wife, she could leave most of the "mothering" and the daily responsibilities of cooking and cleaning for a husband to her husband's first wife, giving her plenty of free time to pursue her career, plus romantic marital visits on occasional weekends.
She has a particular man in mind, whose name is Ali. He already has a first wife, Fusena. Fusena has sacrificed her own educational opportunities to support her husband Ali's Western education, and the fact that Ali is now seeking a highly Western-educated woman like Esi as his second wife fills Fusena with rage and resentment as his lack of appreciation for her sacrifices.
Other than Esi, all the women in Ghana - both in this novel and, according to this essay, in real-life Ghana - seem to regard men's nonmonogamy (both in polygynous marriage commitments and in extramarital affairs) extremely negatively. The fact that it is extremely widespread and has been for centuries does not seem to make women stop resenting it any more than, say, the fact that in the United States, paying women less than men are paid for doing the same job is extremely widespread and has been for centuries has led women here to stop resenting it. Also, at least in the novel, it's very clear that what the women long for is primarily not the right to have polyandrous marriages, but rather the right to expect their husbands to be monogamous.
As for Esi, the one exception who hopes to make polygyny serve her own feminist purposes by giving her more free time in which to pursue her career . . . well, she doesn't end up as happy with her polygynous marriage as she had expected to be. After she marries her new husband, Ali, she finds that his first wife, Fusena, still resents her so much that Ali can never come see Esi unless he can sneak out without Fusena noticing - which doesn't happen nearly often enough. In addition, soon after his marriage to Esi, Ali starts a new extramarital affair with his new secretary, so even when he does manage to sneak away from Fusena, he goes to see the secretary instead of to see Esi. Also he travels a lot for work. He mails Esi a ton of incredibly expensive gifts from all over the world, and at one point even stops off at her house for about half an hour (the first time she'd seen him in person at all for months) to give her a brand new expensive car, virtually unheard of in Ghana, and then leave again. As Aidoo puts it, "Through the gifts, Esi saw the entire world from her little bungalow. What she did not seem to see much of was the skin of the man behind the phone calls and the gifts." Even though she lives in the same city as her husband, the marriage is basically a long-distance relationship.
For me, considering that I am currently (and have been for quite some time) feeling quite deeply relieved to have escaped a friendship that was a massive drain on my energy and time, and quite thrilled about the non-exhaustingness of a newer friendship that consists in large part of exchanging gifts long-distance, it was a little odd to read about how unhappy Esi was with this arrangement. However, there were several major differences between her situation and mine that fully explained her unhappiness to me. First, Ali kept promising to come see Esi but then breaking his promises. Nobody likes broken promises. Second, the gifts between Ali and Esi were all one way, from Ali to Esi, which (a) can never be as fun as mutual reciprocal gift exchange, and (b) was especially less fun because the direction of the gifts was the traditional patriarchal direction in which men traditionally pay for sex. Third, Esi knew or had very good reason to suspect that Ali was choosing to spend his time having an affair with his secretary, and was significantly less interested in seeing Esi than in seeing the secretary. I find it rather unlikely that rekraft is sexually harassing any secretaries.
However, the polygynous marriage is not a complete disaster, either. Aidoo says that the relationship between Esi and Ali "stopped being a marriage. They became just good friends who found it convenient once in a while to fall into bed and make love." Compared to the end of Esi's first marriage to Oko, which involved marital rape and ending up no longer on speaking terms, becoming "just good friends" (with occasional benefits) is rather a good end result. And legally speaking, Esi and Ali do remain married, although basically just because Esi's friends and family members would have thrown too much of a fit if Esi had divorced a second man who they all once again thought was so fantastically perfect. (Her friends and family had thought Oko was perfect because he "paid so much attention" to her, and they thought Ali was perfect because he gave her such expensive gifts.) Aidoo concludes the book with these words:
So the marriage stayed, but radically changed. All questions and their answers disappeared. If Ali went to Esi's and she was not in, he tried not to question her about it when they next met. For Esi though, things hadn't worked out so simply. She had had to teach herself not to expect him at all. She had had to teach herself not to wonder where he was when he was not with her. And that had been the hardest of the lessons to learn. For, Accra being that kind of place, she couldn't help hearing about his womanizing activities. . . . Esi believed Ali when he insisted that he loved her very much. She knew it was true: that he loved her in his own fashion. What she became certain of was that his fashion of loving had proved quite inadequate for her.The suggestion in these final paragraphs that Esi was dating or hoping to date outside of what remained legally a marriage, combined with the fact that Esi's marriage to Ali did not end nearly as disastrously as her marriage to Oko, suggests to me that Esi ultimately comes to view the possibility of having polyandrous relationships in combination with polygynous ones as a feminist possibility, perhaps even a more promising one than the hope of monogamy that all the other women in the novel still cling to. But since the novel ends without Esi actually succeeding in finding any such relationship, the novel is more of an open question about what relationship styles are most favorable to women, rather than an effort to advocate one style over another.
So what fashion of loving was she ever going to consider adequate? She comforted herself that maybe her bone-blood-flesh self, not her unseen soul, would get answers to some of the big questions she was asking of life. Yes, maybe, 'one day, one day' as the Highlife singer has sung on an unusually warm and not-so-dark night . . .