When the Elderly Choose to Live

A character-driven novella exploring race, sexuality, and love in our later years.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Cassava Republic Press (2016), 118 pages

 

When I first heard Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s new book was out, I found the title both captivating and curiously driven. Then, when I met Manyika in person during the Ake Festival last November in Abeokuta, where she was a facilitator for the fiction writing workshop, I found her personality charming and endearing. “Write the type of book you would want to read, have fun, and break the rules” – those were Sarah’s playful remarks as she kick-started her class with us on characterization. Fitting then that with Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, Manyika brings us a character-driven novella. In her book, every character is given a voice—each character tells their own story.  

The book is centered on Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a 75 year-old Nigerian woman who lives in San Francisco, CA. She’s feisty and very unusual for what you would expect from a retiree her age, spending her time enjoying a colorful view of Haight Ashbury from her kitchen. As a retired English professor, she’s unsurprisingly a book lover, and one who would never dispose of the mountainous book collection that litters her apartment.

 

When the earth decides finally that it’s tired of fidgeting and needs a proper stretch, I might be the one walking downstairs; if that’s the case, then the only survivors will be my books – hundreds of them – to keep each other company.

 

Her books aren’t her only desires; the ghost of a love unlived stubbornly lingers in Morayo’s recollection of thoughts. She occasionally has flashes of Antonio, an old acquaintance of the family from her days of being married to a diplomat. There’s also the desire of a distant home and family back in Lagos. She busies herself with occasional drives in her Porsche, taking strolls in her colorful African attire to town where she meets Dawud, a Middle Eastern store keeper who forgets her name, and a homeless woman Sage, who peaks her interest. As Morayo contemplates the perfect birthday gift to imprint on her body, she slips and falls in her bathroom. She later wakes up in a rehabilitation center, where her relationship with the other characters begins. 

Sunshine, just like her name, illuminates the near emptiness of Morayo’s life. She’s a friend, admirer, and mentee. Despite her struggles as a mom and wife, she finds solace and courage in the words of Morayo. She’s soft, thoughtful, and kind. There’s an unspoken mother-daughter relationship neatly woven between this duo.

Sage, the homeless woman who piques Morayo’s interest, comes off as rude when her character first appears. Yet, as the story pushes forward, Sage evolves from simply the “homeless hippie” to a deeper character with struggles, emotions, and a zeal to beat the odds. When Morayo returns from the rehabilitation center to find more than half of her books gone, she aimlessly wanders the streets where she runs into Sage. Here we finally see Sage’s multi-dynamic personality—not just as the homeless woman who walks the street with her dog, but a complex woman full of sadness, struggle, and a desire to resume yoga classes to get in touch with her inner self. She even has reading a book on Africa on her to-do list. Sage’s tattoos give Morayo an inner inspiration of strength as they talk.

There are other characters worthy of mention—there’s the Ambassador husband, Caesar, a fully entitled and privileged Nigerian man who finds it easier to blame Morayo for the breakdown of their marriage than blaming himself. Antonio, the Brazilian poet who makes occasional visits in Morayo’s flashback of a time she wasn’t the bold professor who could muster an affair to salvage her happiness. Reggie forms an unusual bond with Morayo at the rehabilitation center while navigating through his ethnic struggles as a black man caring for his white skinned wife, Pearl, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. And Toussaint, the chef from the rehabilitation center who fancies Morayo’s attitude, and also has a million questions about Africa – his ancestral home.

 

Exploring Race and Sexuality in Morayo’s World

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun raises questions about how we view and treat the elderly in our society. It brings to our knowledge that 70-something year-olds are also very human, with passion-driven sexuality, unlike the passiveness in which we are quick to accord them. The character Morayo constantly dreams and thinks of sex, she admires her body in front of a mirror, and imagines a new look if she were to get a tattoo.

In speaking about this book, Mayinka has continually mentioned how she felt there was an imbalance between the representation of older men in comparison to their female counterparts in literature. In this book, she tries to a great extent to bridge this gap as seen in the life of Morayo.

Morayo’s story also addresses questions of race. Reggie champions the struggles of many African Americans, who still hope to live in a world where Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have been actualized, where they are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Reggie single handedly cares for his wife Pearl who has been disowned by her family because she’s married to a “black man with little money.” In the past, before Reggie had built a life with Pearl, he was in love with a white woman, Rose, a governor’s daughter who he was also warned to stay clear of…

 

To my body learning the hard way that one must never fall in love with a governor’s daughter, no matter how close one might feel to the family. My body was told by the governor that I was a coolie; that I must never, ever, set eyes on his daughter, Rose, for she was white and I, my body was not white.

 

With further incidences, such as constant racist remarks made in the rehabilitation center, you can see that Manyika was trying to evoke a wider discussion of racism today, a nod to the global discourse on black shootings in America and the movement of Black Lives Matter.

Before I read this book, I wouldn’t think past common wisdom, or some quaint terms if I imagined seeing Morayo walking down the street. Many people might also cringe at an elderly woman who is divorced and has no children bringing turbulent grandchildren on frequent visits. Perhaps the only adjectives that may be used for such women would be pitiful and a whole lot of other synonyms, forgetting her accomplishment as an English Professor. So it is safe to say that this book also addresses the feminist question. Who is a woman if she’s not a wife, a mother or a grandmother? This book gives alternative answers to such questions by offering new a narrative, showing Morayo’s life as full, satisfied, and content rather than empty because of her obvious lack of fulfillment of societal gender expectations.

As I sat on the heated beach sand enjoying the chill of the sea breeze on a cozy getaway, the pages of this book were a worthy companion; so much that when I had gotten to the end, I considered starting all over.

Chinenye Yvonne Ikwueme is a Nigerian resident in Abuja. She’s a writer who habitually reads. Of recent, she has taken a peculiarity to African fiction and has a booming collection of African literature books to this effect, which are her most prized possessions. She hopes her stories will present more than just humor or entertainment, but something deeper that lingers. She’s inspiring herself to write more diverse stories daily. She’s been published on Kalahari Review. Twitter @imstillyvonne