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BN Book Review: An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon | Review by E.B. Ayo

This book draws essential attention to gene expression and authentic gender ambiguity.

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When Oyeronke Oyewumi told me about An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon, I was intrigued and eager to read it. I quickly bought a copy and I was not disappointed. The novel, published by Pegasus Books, is the first book of fiction to win the Maya Angelou Book Award in 2022. An Ordinary Wonder was also awarded Fiction Honors at the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Book Awards.

This book made me laugh out loud. It has a rich tapestry of beautiful proverbs which warm the heart.

An Ordinary Wonder does two things for me. First, it reveals the fact that we need to have a serious conversation and public policy around parental expectations, and the overemphasis on having a boy child. Second, it inquires serious questions about Nigeria’s inability to implement science and technology in the everyday life of people.

Nigeria contributes to the global supply of amazing medical personnel. We also draw significant technological investment. Yet, genuine dynamic change will occur when we discover scientific answers to problems we are not used to addressing, rather than always relegating our replies to ephemeral conversations and half-baked solutions. Science – real science, not pseudo-science, must become so familiar to us that we live by it. We can weave science and technology into the stories we tell – Scientific Tales by Moonlight, anyone? Science should not only be reserved for the school. It should permeate our daily lives.

One of my children was learning Yoruba and at my request, the Yoruba teacher translated a scientific review article which showcases some of Darwin’s Early Research on Plant Behaviour. The teacher read it out loud to my child. A bystander in the room was listening and felt sad because, before then, they had never heard a scientific text in Yoruba. Their immediate comment was that because the text was in their own language, they understood it better and faster. This is how young primary school children should learn the sciences, in their own language. Such children will grow up with native proficiency in sciences which will propel the country forward.

We need to shift our minds to understanding how mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry really work in our everyday lives. As a people, we must be able to explain unusual phenomena with scientific knowledge, instead of imagining all kinds of folk beliefs veering to the worst expressions of pseudo-science.

An Ordinary Wonder is a story about a set of twins, Otolorin and Wuraola. It details the travails of Otolorin who is born with both male and female sex organs, an intersex child. The gender expression chosen by the parents is for Otolorin to be a boy. Otolorin wants to be girly but everyone is mean to him, except his twin sister, Wuraola. Otolorin is so distraught that sometimes his mind plays tricks on him and he has hallucinations where he sees a pretty mermaid in a dream. In his imaginary world, Otolorin is a girl who lives in a wealthy family.

This insightful book forces us to take an honest look at our individual and collective prejudices around gender issues. It is a worthy effort to clarify what we understand about our existence and the world around us. An Ordinary Wonder serves a full menu of avant-garde writing which will make us question the belief system we have created about the real world. It will also help us embrace our humanity, and guide us to remain curious, most especially as adults.

The physical violence Otolorin faces took me by surprise. In our society today, this asinine culture of slapping people’s cheeks, or any kind of violence masquerading as physical expressions of frustration, is simply an admission of weakness by the perpetrator. I like to believe that what separates us from animals is our ability to think and communicate. One possible explanation for the insouciance around private and public expressions of physical violence could be the fact that, as a people, we are traumatised. We have been unwilling witnesses to a vast array of atrocities such as walking past a dead body abandoned by the side of the road, or driving by the spot someone was gunned down in broad daylight.

So how does Otolorin fare? He gets on the japa train. This is where I would have liked to see something different from the author. Instead of portraying going to the US as the salvation in this book, I would have preferred to see further connections to science, an in-depth analysis of genetics, gene expression, physiology and other relevant fields in medicine, coupled with some necessary education about these topics. By placing the solution for Otolorin’s malaise in the hands of a “saviour country” and by extension, the Global North, we further deepen the unsustainable over-dependence of the Global South on the Global North. If we want to be credible, then we must demonstrate that we also are capable of scientific analysis and agency.

An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon draws essential attention to gene expression and authentic gender ambiguity. This certainly is a great place to begin. This novel is well worth reading. My family and I enjoyed reading it. You will too.

E.B. Ayo is an avid reader and a writer who likes to stay curious. Interests are a motley mix of Social Studies, International Law, International Project Management, Haute Cuisine, Viticulture, and Interior Design.

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