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Sunday, February 25, 2024

BURDEN OF BLACKNESS IN AUSTRALIA: A REVIEW OF WOLE AKOSILE’S REAL MEN DON’T DO THERAPY: A PORTRAIT OF A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER

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By Paul Liam

African writers in the diaspora have for decades attempted to highlight the social imbalances in the relations between Africans and Europeans in their writings. Racial subjugation and dislocation form the larger experiences of African immigrants in Western societies; thus, diaspora narratives are often entangled in the mesh of inequality with adverse socioeconomic implications for the immigrants. These representations are situated within the larger postcolonial discourse which evaluates the relations between the former colonizers and the erstwhile colonized peoples of the Global South. These relations, strained by historical antecedents offer introspective insight into the nature of the differences that define the experiences of black people around the world. While African diaspora writers have fictionalized the various faces of racism in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, etc., not many African writers have problematized the crude racism in Australia. It is therefore on this premise that Wole Akosile’s novel, “Real Men Don’t Do Therapy: A Portrait of a Beautiful Disaster” (2024) provides a refreshing perspective on racism in Australia not only as a subject of postcolonial discourse but stretches the conversation to cover an uncommon subject such as the implications of racism on the mental health of African immigrants which has not been given adequate textual representation.

Real Men Don’t Do Therapy: A Portrait of a Beautiful Disaster x-rays the burden of being black and living in Australia. It is a polemic depiction of the often-unspoken consequence of racism on black people such as the psychological dislodgement they endure living in a white-dominated country. The prose of this book beautifully captures a sense of melancholy, offering a graceful exploration of challenging themes. The novel’s enchanting narration chronicles the life of Femi, a Nigerian immigrant living in Brisbane, Australia whose encounters with racism cause him to question his sanity and the world around him. With a master’s degree in information technology, Femi works in the storage department of a hardware store pending when he will find a job befitting his academic achievement. He develops anxiety disorder after watching a television broadcast in which a minister makes racist remarks about Australia having a black gang problem.

The Minister’s statement and Femi’s daily encounters with racist behaviour from white Australians further compound his sense of despair and dislocation resulting in the quest to reluctantly seek therapy which he finds abhorring for a man, especially for a black man. To overcome this challenge, Femi develops a complex that manifests in his incontrollable behaviour of viewing any action by a white person towards him as a racist overture. 

This also affects his relationship with Sola, an affluent British-born Nigerian who regards his reactions to racism as overbearing and inconsiderate especially considering that he had willingly chosen to leave Lagos for Australia. This disagreement leads to their breakup after he had accused her parents of being part of the problem of underdevelopment in Nigeria which forces his likes to seek green pastures in foreign lands where they are treated as second-class citizens.

The foregoing premise summarizes Femi’s reality as he struggles to navigate the web of uncertainty that beclouds his sense of reasoning. His encounter with a recommended therapist, Dr Segun Agoro, who happens to be a successful Nigerian psychiatrist practicing in Brisbane brings to the fore the central point in the story as the crux of this exercise.

Racism can cause a person to develop a mental crisis that they don’t even recognize that they are suffering from. For example, Femi does not accept that his aggressive reactions to white people or his perceived sense of racism are a result of a compulsive disorder that he has developed over time as a form of dealing with racist innuendos even where they don’t exist. He regards himself instead as an activist fighting against injustice in the face of evident indicators showing that he is the only one responding to the differences he sees with aggression and hate. In an exchange with Dr Segun, Femi encapsulates his dilemma; “It had an effect on me, a strange effect. Particularly on the way I see the world,” referring to the Minister’s remarks.

Femi goes on to narrate his encounter with an old Australian woman on a bus who was racist towards him when he tells her to mind her business after she asked him where he going dressed in his flamboyant Yoruba attire, her words leave him shattered. He recounts to Dr Segun thus, “She exploded at this, saying, ‘You don’t talk to me with your filthy mouth. You come here with your gangs and disease and fancy clothes and refuse to live the Aussie way, you lazy piece of shit. If you don’t like it here, go the fuck back to where you came from….’”

Femi is further angered by the fact that Dr Segun does not buy his sentiments but instead regards his insinuation that white people consider themselves superior to black people as an ‘assumption.’ The therapy session ends abruptly when Femi accuses Dr Segun of being part of the system for refusing to share in his sentiments. By this depiction, Akosile highlights how encounters with racism can alter a person’s sense of judgment choosing to see only the negative sides of every situation without recourse to the positive sides.

For example, why is Femi unable to see beyond the racism in front of him? Why is he also unable to see the several other immigrant Nigerians excelling in Australia? It reechoes the sense of disillusionment that many immigrants face while living abroad which is often not reflected in the beautiful stories told about the beautiful life of living abroad. While some people succeed economically overseas, others suffer without success thereby falling into the arms of depression and mental breakdown. In the case of Femi, he suffers from chronic anxiety disorder.         

Technically, the narration employs the third-person point of view approach and is spread across thirty-nine chapters. The narration alternates between Femi, Dr Segun, and Raji’s experiences as well as Femi’s romantic entanglement with Ada, a married woman he met at a function with her family. The stories can also stand alone as each story bears a unique subtitle that is distinct from the rest. Because of this, the story does not rely on a single text but adopts a multiple-plot structure approach which allows each story to exist independently as an extension of the whole. Although it leaves little room for suspense, one can still enjoy the full breadth of the narration. The characters are relatable as they are typical depictions of Nigerians, especially as accentuated by Femi’s sense of culture and pro-Yoruba identity which runs through the novel. Albeit it is prosaic, the narrator makes it a duty to render social commentaries on the lineage of the characters by highlighting their unique ethnic mannerisms. The language of the text is accessible and suitable for all categories of readers. There is also a great dose of dialogue which keeps the reader engaged.

Although it is a well-narrated story, it is not without its shortcomings like any other work of art. The novel would have benefitted from sturdier editing. For example, King Sunny Ade is referred to in the novel as an ‘Afrobeat Musician’ whereas he is not. King Sunny Ade is a Juju and Pop musician. Afrobeat is a music genre synonymous with Fela Anikulapo even though he was a contemporary of King Sunny Ade’s. The novel also reads like a piece of anthropology because of the narrator’s penchant for explaining the cultural background of the characters instead of just showing them. These commentaries make the narration didactic and may be unsavoury to Nigerian readers who are already too familiar with the cultural traits of the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. Although this style is often intended to benefit non-local readers in the West, without explaining, the narrator can show through the behaviour of the characters their unique social and cultural identities not spoon-feeding them with extra information.

In conclusion, Wole Akosile’s novel is an important addition to the corpus of Nigerian diaspora authors that sheds light on the trauma of immigrants living abroad. It is a fine novel that deserves all the attention it can get for its refreshing take on Australian racism and the impact of racism on mental health.

Paul Liam is a poet, author, and literary critic.

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