When Aiwanose Odafen began writing her debut novel, Tomorrow I Become a Woman, she was moved by three stories in her own life. She had relatives who’d been in long-term difficult marriages, she had a friend in a terribly abusive marriage, and she had a colleague whose grandmother walked out of the house to buy something during the Biafran War and never returned.
“Speaking with the first two women, I was struck by how much pressure women in our society face to remain in marriages to preserve the status quo,” Odafen told Open Country Mag. “Pressure from all corners; do it for church, for family, for children—for everyone else but themselves.”
The women inspired Obianuju, the young woman at the center of Odafen’s novel, who is caught in a love triangle with two men from different ethnicities, a fraught relationship with her mother, and the burden of societal expectations.
It is nearly a decade after the war when Obianuju meets Gozie, and they dive into a fairy-tale romance. He is charming and good-looking and, like her, Igbo and Christian. It is the perfect match. Also in her life is Akin, a man her mother would never approve because he is Yoruba. But Akin understands her and makes her feel heard, and so her feelings persist. Yet only months after meeting Gozie, Obianuju accepts his marriage proposal in a bid to finally gain her mother’s acceptance and assert herself as a woman.
Odafen’s portrayal of a complicated relationship between a daughter and her mother has been described as “unflinching” by the Nigerian author Chika Unigwe, and “searing and beautifully rendered” by the journalist Koa Beck.
“It was deeply frustrating watching women I knew struggle in these situations and remain because it was what they were brought up to do,” Odafen said. “It was also evident to me that, in many ways, our womanhood rested on circumstances largely beyond our control—for example, whether or not we could have children. The book is partly based on women I know, but I wanted it to touch everyone it possibly can.”
She hopes, though, for people to be more empathetic towards women who decline to object. “Some people assume that women who go along with it are weak, but it takes a lot to go against the grain and many don’t see any other way to live.”
Born and raised in Lagos, Odafen was, at 21, the youngest graduate in her class at the Said Business School, University of Oxford. She worked as a consultant across industries before becoming a writer. An alumna of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Writing Workshop, she was longlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize.
As well as love, loss, female friendships, and the weight and struggle of keeping with Nigerian society’s ideas of womanhood, Tomorrow I Become a Woman also covers political tensions in post-war Nigeria.
After writing an outline, Odafen spent two and a half years developing it, working copious amounts of research into the first draft, all the while working full time. She then sent it to friends, edited it, and then Googled “how to get published.” The novel was acquired by Scribner in 2020 and released in the UK this year, on April 28.
The process was “insane,” said Odafen, who last month started an MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “I’d never written a novel before or even planned to write one but I knew I had a story I wanted to tell.”