I have absolutely loved reading this charming and uplifting debut novel from Lizzie Damilola Blackburn and I already know it’s one I will keep on the bookshelves and read again in the future. It has such charm and a huge heart at it’s centre. Yinka is a 31 year old British Nigerian woman with a degree from Oxford and a brilliant job at an investment bank, but despite all that she has going for her, she hears only one thing from her mother and aunties. Why is she still single? What exactly is she doing wrong? A perfect storm of circumstances affects Yinka’s confidence: her baby sister Kemi is about to have a baby; her friend Rachel becomes engaged and starts planning her wedding; then she expects a promotion at work and is instead made redundant. When her Mum and Aunty Debbie both pray out loud for her to find a man at Kemi’s baby shower, Yinka feels humiliated. Using her project planning skills she decides on a course of action. She will find a man in time to take a date to Rachel’s wedding.
I found the themes of identity woven into the storyline fascinating and complex. At the start of the novel Yinka is wearing her hair short and natural, is more likely to be in jeans than traditional Nigerian fabrics and prefers to eat fried chicken than learn to cook African food. Yet there are so many opinions and judgements, both in her everyday life and on social media, on what it means to be a British Nigerian and an attractive, desirable black woman. The men she meets aren’t short of opinions either. Donovan, who she knows from her gap year working for charity, despairs of her lack of knowledge about hip-hop and music of black origin in general. She accepts an introduction to Alex, a single man at her Mum’s church and they start to chat on social media. He seems to think she should be more aware of her Nigerian culture. He voices surprise, and judgement, that she can’t cook Nigerian food and she doesn’t know many words of the Yoruba language. A Tinder meet up goes horribly wrong when her date makes the assumption she will sleep with him on their second date. When Yinka explains that part of her faith is prizing her virginity and that sex is sacred, something she would only do with her husband. He seems okay about it, but then ghosts her, finally accusing Yinka of misleading him, because this is something she should have made clear up front. Her experience with Emmanuel was the one I found most painful and my heart broke a little for her. He goes to her Mum’s church and she has to swallow her pride just to agree on a number exchange. On FaceTime though he seems disappointed and admits that he agreed to pass on his number, because he thought she was someone else. It’s not his fault, he says, but he does prefer girls with lighter skin. It’s not hard to see how these experiences and opinions chip away at Yinka until she feels like she’s lost herself.
Yinka is constantly receiving messages about the woman she should be, through her experiences, the constant badgering from her Mum, and from social media. The black women society deems beautiful have lighter skin in caramel tones, long and flowing Western hair, and are curvaceous. Yinka feels her skinny body, her J shape bottom and dark skin are not good enough. Even the messages she is receiving from her own family don’t help. Her Mum openly criticises her short Afro hair, it used to be so long and beautiful, how will she get a huzband if she doesn’t make an effort? Yinka has internalised these messages all her life – the lighter her skin, the rounder her bottom, the longer and more Western her hair, the more attractive she will be. She tries a wig for a date then is constantly terrified of the parting being off centre and when her date touches it she knows he has never dated a black woman before – black men know not to touch women’s hair. When she gets a weave and wears one of her friend Nana’s dresses, made from African fabric, her Mum radiates approval – see how pretty she is? My heart went out to her when she remembers her Dad saying to her that the moon is just as beautiful as the sunshine, that midnight has a beauty all of its own. Another problem is the comparisons her Aunties and her Mum make, between Yinka and her sister or her friends, creating division and resentment. Her mum’s constant praise of the beautiful light skinned Kemi, the little sister who has pipped Yinka to the post by getting married and now adding to the family with her new son Chinedu, makes Yinka resent her sister. They become more distant from each other and never talk about the way their mum behaves. Her cousin Ola even laughs when the older women badger Yinka and embarrass her, Ola is married with three children, but is she as happy as her aunties assume she is?
The two aspects of the book I related to so strongly were the culture around Pentecostal Christianity and the role of counselling. Yinka normally attends the Church of England, but her Mum and Aunties frequent the All Welcome Pentecostal church and this felt so familiar to me as I grew up in a New Life Pentecostal Church. I found the scenes with the church so humorous and true to life, especially the constant praying out loud, even at parties. It was a very hard church to grow up in and those teenage years onward when I was single I felt hounded by youth leaders telling me what I could and couldn’t do in a dating situation, that I should only date other Christians and then pushing me towards people I didn’t find remotely attractive. I had a ‘boyfriend’ at church when I was 12 and we only saw each other at youth group and church. It really was more of a friendship, but youth leaders treated it like a serious relationship and when I wanted to break up I was forced to pray about it in a group. The youth leader prayed that God would bring us back together in the future. I felt that single girls were treated with suspicion and that adults were just waiting to matchmake. I rebelled at 16 and walked away, because I felt judged and stifled. It was wonderful though, to read about these experiences and hear certain phrases like being ‘in the spirit’, the endless praying out loud, the sense of having elders to answer to, because it’s rare for someone to understand my experience. It’s even more rare to see it in fiction in a way that acknowledges its drawbacks, but also its benefits and the deep well of humour it provides.
Counselling is something that my church would have been very resistant to, but I am now a counsellor myself and I loved seeing how positively it was portrayed in the book. The use of writing as therapy is something I do with clients and I was moved by Yinka’s letter to her younger self, going back and undoing some of the negative judgements and ideals she had internalised. It was brilliant to see how it took Yinka deeper, into how imbalanced those parental injunctions had become once she lost her father. I wanted Yinka to realise she had two incredible role models to aspire to; her Aunty Blessing who is happy and fulfilled despite having no husband or children and her friend Nana who is simply not bothered with dating and is pouring her energies into building her fashion brand. I loved both of these women and how they really pull Yinka back from the brink, help her untangle the lies she’s told and work out what and where she really wants to be in life. It reminded me of the power of female friendship and how it is most often the women who will hold you up in life. I loved how Yinka’s changes through counselling rippled out to others around her too. Once she has started to talk there are relationships she can mend and maybe others that need some redefining and new boundaries set. Her realisations, about her Mum particularly, are interesting and Yinka’s bravery in trying to address how she has felt made me feel so proud of her. It showed how counselling doesnt just create change in one person, it can change the people around them too. I don’t know if Yinka will ever return, but she was a great character to spend time with and I’d definitely be first in the queue for more. This was a pleasure to read from beginning to end, full of strong female characters, emotionally aware and addressing some really tough issues in a humorous and ultimately uplifting way.
Meet The Author
Lizzie Damilola Blackburn is a British-Nigerian writer, born in Peckham, who wants to tell the stories that she and her friends have longed for but never seen – romcoms ‘where Cinderella is Black and no-one bats an eyelid’. In 2019 she won the Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Writing Competition with the early draft of Yinka, Where is your Huzband?, which she had been writing alongside juggling her job at Carers UK. She has been at the receiving end of the question in the title of her novel many times, and now lives with her husband in Milton Keynes.