Calixthe Beyala, born in Cameroon in 1961 and resident in France since 1978, is generally counted as one of the second generation of African Francophone female writers – a judgment that is not merely to do with when she started publishing fiction (the 1990s) but also a reflection upon her typically feisty, feminist, vulgar subject matter and her eschewal of standard French in favour of a Parisian-African vernacular (not that I can tell, being monolingual). For all that she has won a number of major literary awards, there is a lot of critical commentary (mainly by men, at least from the sample I have been able to access online) that portrays her as, in various ways, not a proper writer. And I guess there are what some might consider improprieties in this novel, but I found them interesting and/or enjoyable rather than shocking or somehow disqualifying.
How to Cook Your Husband the African Way begins with what appears to be a fantastical premiss, with the black protagonist/narrator Aissatou explaining that at some point she became white:
My roots are black. I’m a black woman, but being away from my roots has confused me. Let me be honest. I embraced dissipation. I abandoned myself to it as you abandon yourself to a heavy fog. … I don’t know when I turned from ebony to ivory, but I do know that I smear my hair with a product called White Glow. Guess what it does?
I am, as I said, not sure when I became white. I now smear my skin with Venus de Milo and other cosmetics made for whites. That isn’t the end of it, though. Because to be white you’ve got to be thin. I’ve tortured my body to make it as small as possible. So now, I don’t have any breasts and my thighs are flat geometries – all because the mirror of the world requires that I make my body pleasing to white men. A beautiful woman is flat as a pancake, thin as a rake or a slice of Melba toast. Melba toast snaps easily. Crickle crackle. (7)
However, as soon becomes clear (and is already hinted at in the full version of the quoted paragraphs), this fantastical transformation should not be read literally. This is not like George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) or Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man (1970). It is a moment of hyperbole that captures a certain truth of double-consciousness, of a black woman’s conformity to white standards of beauty, of her willed bodily transformation and the abandonment of African aspects of her cultural heritage it entailed:
I am a white negro woman and food poisons my powers of seduction. I make my body sing by peeling my buttocks, by minimizing my breasts, convinced that if I make a martyr of my stomach, I’ll win a great prize. The pores of my trim body will exude divine sensuality. (15)
And apparently, where white Parisian men are concerned, they do. Which is of no help whatsoever when she falls in love/desire/passion with the Malian Suleiman Bolobolo, the new tenant in her building, who lives with his senile mother, who keeps a chicken in their apartment and who thinks she is in contact with the inhabitants of planet Oburne.
Aissatou’s initial approach to winning Bolobolo is to follow her white consciousness:
Rainbows appeared in the sky to answer women’s need to seduce. When a woman wants to seduce a man, she must smell sweet and glitter. Which is why we visit the lingerie shops when we’re in love. The modern knicker is available in all the glorious colours of the universe. These are consolations the gods have granted us to make up for the fact that we are mortal. (28)
But she realises that she is both ‘in Paris and not in Paris’, bilocated between ‘the African jungle’ and ‘a different jungle, the metro’ (33). And although she cannot ‘be bothered’ (40) to return to or embrace some half-remembered/half-invented version of négritude or africanicity, she can follow the advice she imagines her mother would give: cook for him, cook African meals that awaken his senses and sensuality, and thus capture his heart (and loins).
And in between each short chapter, there is a recipe or two – for meals as varied as paprika ngombo, boa in banana leaves, domba de macabe, mango puree on toast, and crocodile in tchobi sauce.
The novel tacks a course somewhere between essentialism and cultural constructivism, using the later to undermine the former even as it tend to rely on the former to explore notions of identity and hybridity. The tone throughout is a little bit raunchy – or at least blunt about sex – without ever being pornographic (a charge often levelled against Beyala). And while it is never laugh-out-loud funny, it is always comical.
Time heals all wounds though it doesn’t really wound all heels. If only. (9)