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Motherhood as Ecological Metaphor

When aliens land in the ocean at the beginning of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014), they grant sea creatures the ultimate forms they desire and forever change the oceans. The sea creatures see the change as exciting and prescient throughout the text. The novel is broken into three parts: “Welcome,” “Awakening,” and “Symbiosis.” Written from multiple perspectives, the novel connects the events that happen after an alien invasion off the coast of Lagos. Many characters and the environment go through various stages of evolutions, expansions and transformations. The multiple transformations, which ultimately foreshadow humanity’s chance at positive evolution, constitute the crux of the novel as humans interact with the alien invasion and their representative, Ayodele. In her proclamation to Earth about the aliens’ intentions, she identifies her people’s landing as a chance for climate renewal: “We come to bring you together and refuel your future. Your land is full of a fuel that is tearing you apart. […] We do not seek your oil or your other resources. […] We are here to nurture the world. […] So what will you do?” (113). The connections between evolution and climate change is rooted, not only in reversing environmental damage, but changing humanity so Earth can flourish and grow. However, humanity’s possibility for rebirth is in flux throughout the text. To this end, motherhood is a metaphor for this process of renewal.

Ayodele connects to humanity’s conceptualizations of motherhood through her interactions with the multiple parts of Adaora’s identity as marine biologist, supernatural being, and mother, as well as interactions with Adaora’s children. The interactions between Ayodele and Adaora develop the concept of change and renewal throughout the text. When Adaora offers Ayodele a “place to stay,” she also names the being Ayodele, after a cherished childhood friend, as a mother does a child (18). She later introduces Ayodele to her children in her home laboratory, connecting her roles as both scientist and mother. Intersecting both caregiver and protector roles throughout the text, Ayodele and Adaora are linked through representations of, and interactions between, motherhood and creation. Ayodele creates and destroys matter at the cellular level, and also protects individual humans and humanity. Similarly, Adaora (mother, sea witch, and scientist) creates and studies at the cellular level, also feeling it her duty to protect individual humans and humanity. The connections between motherhood and savior abound in the interactions between Ayodele and Adaora as the story develops. Ayodele watches over Adaora’s children, and directs Adaora’s daughter, Kola, to help Ayodele broadcast her proclamation; this ultimately continues the generational motherhood connection, as evidenced in Ayodele’s saving Kola from a soldier’s bullet. Though both Ayodele and Adaora claim to want to help humanity, motherhood is a nexus throughout the text used as a metaphor for protector and savior. Motherhood becomes metaphor for the protecting role each character projects toward the Earth and humanity. Drawing on Mother Studies, in particular caregiver as metaphor, this essay will explore the connections between cli-fi literature and the metaphorical role of “Mother Earth” in literature, while also addressing climate change. Along with Mother Studies, this essay will also look at the recent criticism on Okorafor and climate change by Hugh Charles O’Connell, Melody Jue, and Esthie Hugo, thus developing the discussion of the role motherhood as metaphor assumes throughout the text.

Photo by Roman Vanur “Lagoon nebula” used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 License.

Motherhood as metaphor for mother Earth abounds in cli-fi. However, motherhood in Lagoon is also linked to transformation. Remi Akujobi argues in her article, “Motherhood in African Literature and Culture”, that motherhood remains an important part of feminist studies in that “with motherhood, a woman is considered blessed, she acquires a higher status in society, she is respected and mythologized” (6). As Akujobi notes in her article, motherhood is given special status in many cultures, and its history intertwines multiple social, cultural, and physical expectations; the expectations of being a dutiful wife and protective mother fuel Adaora’s perspective throughout the text. At the end of the novel, Adaora tells her children she will soon return but the narrative states that “she had things to do that went beyond motherhood. She would risk never returning to them, every time she explored the dangerous waters. She sighed. What kind of mother am I? And what kind of wife?” (280). She responds to these thoughts aloud when she proclaims: “I am a marine witch” (280) as she observes three women watch a speech by the Nigerian president using their phones. The three women can be read as representative of the three roles that Adaora sees as constituting her identity. The last occasion the reader encounters Adaora’s perspective outlines the connection between the women’s perspectives: “the women looked up from their phones and stared at each other. Finally, one of them said something and the other nodded. The third was pointing to the ground and laughing” (280). The three parts of Adaora’s identity are linked and inform one another and Adaora is clear that to help her children, and ultimately humanity, she must continue to study the oceans to help save the planet and secure her children’s future. At the end of the novel, Adaora’s motherhood is renewed with a sense of larger purpose.

However, renewal in the text is often linked to violence. As Obioma Nnaemeka argues in the Introduction to her edited collection of essays on motherhood and African literature,

“in fact, the centrality of motherhood in African literature peripherizes violence. Violent acts by women do not take the form of infanticide or matricide; they are willful acts of resistance against abusive husbands and lovers […] The few occasions when a mother engages in telling stories of violence, she uses them as cautionary tales for her children to learn from but not necessarily to live by. In contrast, the stories of and by men (“father’s talk”) are stories of violence” (11).

 Adaora’s narrative develops this idea. Adaora originally only uses her witch-powers, which include a multitude of possibilities including the power to levitate, to create force fields, and to shapeshift, to protect herself from her husband, and later protects one of the Nigerian president’s wives from an impending sea creature attack. She rarely uses her powers violently, but rather uses them as a savior. In contrast, her husband rationalizes his abuse self-righteously, only beginning to change towards the end of the narrative.

Photo by Bo Insogna, www.MrBo.com “Aliens Summond” used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License.

Ayodele is also confronted with violence and uses her powers to protect herself by turning a group of soldiers into a tree. The act shows renewal but also the terrible powers of a future mother. As Esthie Hugo argues “ecological degradation and sustainability is a notable thread that runs […] through Lagoon […] that successfully unravels the human/environment binary often seen to determine ‘western’ or ‘modern’ discourse” (49). Human becomes nature in this instance. Turning the soldiers into a tree is symbolic of Ayodele representing “Mother Earth” and the possibility of renewal from violent acts against nature; to protect, Ayodele transforms. The event leaves Adaora questioning reality, using her role as scientist to convey to the reader the importance of transformation and not death:

Ayodele had taken the elements of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium that had been Benson and the other soldiers and rearranged them into a plant. Does the soul transform too? […] She’d never believed in God, but she was a scientist and knew that matter could be neither created nor destroyed. It just changed form. (139)

Through science, Adaora is able to make sense of the change and contextualize the symbolic nature of Ayodele as caregiver instead of destroyer.

Ayodele asks Adaora what she thinks about the change, even though there are countless other people around her; she is looking for Adaora’s approval. Adaora nods but Ayodele tells her she is not happy. Moments later when Ayodele is called upon to save Adaora’s daughter Kola, Adaora notes Ayodele’s change: “Ayodele looked into Adaora’s eyes. Adaora held her breath. The warm, curious, lighthearted being that Ayodele had been was gone. The eyes Adaora looked into now were those of an angry, bitter old woman. Adaora didn’t move away with Kola as Ayodele leaned closer. It was instinct. Despite the look on Ayodele’s face, Adaora knew this creature would not harm her child” (139). However, attacked by the soldiers and wishing to retaliate, Ayodele petulantly maintains a caregiver stance. The exchange over Adaora’s daughter’s own experience of violence is important to the novum of the text. For the alien’s future to be actualized, humanity must break the violent cycle. Both characters are linked and feed off each other’s concepts of caregiving and change.

The link between savior and mother is important to humanity’s renewal in the text. Ayodele is attacked by soldiers, and this attack almost redefines her nature. Later, Adaora and Ayodele meet in the water after overseeing the meeting between the Nigerian and the aliens in dangerously inhabited marine waters. Protecting others allows for Adaora to confront her latent supernatural powers that she has tried to ignore and connect with Ayodele and her people’s view of change. As Hugo states: “the encounter between the human and nonhuman also transforms the relationship between human and environment […] Thus, a parallel is drawn between the corporeality of the aliens and Adaora’s amphibious body, which similarly performs a combination of newness with oldness; like the alien, Adaora, too, bears resemblance to Mami Wata” (50). Ayodele must meet Adaora in the water to develop a deeper connection between all parts of their identities and the hope of humanity’s renewal. The text subverts the alien meeting, offering only a time lapse. The meeting is not as important as the non-corporeality that the ocean offers Adaora to connect to Ayodele’s sense of renewal and higher purpose, allowing her to accept Ayodele’s oblation.

These experiences culminate in Ayodele’s sacrifice. After saving a group of soldiers from a giant octopus attack, they pull her from the ocean and brutally beat her to near death. Each bludgeoning event of the group attack is given immense detail until Adaora manages to shield Ayodele with her powers, asking the other powerful characters not to kill the soldiers that are attacking Ayodele because they do not know what they are doing. Adaora creates her own bubble to try and protect Ayodele. Ayodele responds: “I saw you first. It started with you […] Your people. They wanted to use me, kidnap me, kill me…” (268). Adaora proclaims that humanity is sorry and that “we are better than that” (268) as Ayodele makes it known that she going to disperse her essence so humans can become “a bit…alien” (268) in order to save themselves from themselves. As Ayodele makes her Christ-like sacrifice, she connects the collective nature of her people to the lack she sees in humanity. She states: “You people need help on the outside but also within […] I will go within” (268). The sacrifice reverberates throughout Lagos and out into the world. The sacrifice is effective, and though Adaora is also changed, she accepts the change and the new future for humanity. As Hugh Charles O’Connell states: “The healing of the ocean is not a return to some dehistoricized, pure natural state. The transformation belies a larger recognition that humans will no longer simply be able to subsume nature as means to dominate both it and themselves” (305).  Characters are shown working better together and being less afraid. Though barely perceptible, people seem to work more collectively in the newer, and arguably better, world from an ecosocialist perspective. The end is positive, and humanity is shown as ready for a different future.

To further connect nature and narrative, Lagoon offers the perspectives of many animals throughout the text. A swordfish relates her rebirth and change from the aliens, which mirrors the change and rebirth that humanity should take in the next stage of protecting itself from climate change, and other social and cultural disasters. The swordfish states that when the alien force “communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn’t take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants” (6). Melody Jue argues that “because Lagoon’s scientific intimacy remains open to the surprise of the folkloric and fantastic, aligned with the novum, it constitutes a practice of resistance against western paradigms of scientific practice that are centered around the control and domination of nature based on gendered forms of ‘knowing’ carnally and cognitively” (174). Though Ayodele sacrifices herself and Adaora is forced to reconcile parts of her nature, the end of the text is hopeful. Like the swordfish, the work seems ready to transform. Ayodele and Adaora’s roles as mothers and saviors throughout the text offer a relief from disastrous environmental changes through rebirth and renewal.

Intersections and overlapping identities are important to developing Ayodele and Adaora’s characters. As both characters develop and grow, motherhood continues to connect the two characters as the answer to environmental change on a global scale. Both characters nurture a new future, developing the metaphor of a sacred mother Earth in the text. As the text’s novum moves to a brighter environmental future, evolution into an alien, more collective community on a global scale is important to saving not only humanity, but will reverberate to saving the planet.

Cite This Article

Marie Hendry. “Motherhood as Ecological Metaphor”. Alluvium, 7.3 (2019): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v7.3.08

About the Author

Marie Hendry is Assistant Professor of Language and Literature at State College of Florida-Venice and is the author of the book Agency, Loneliness, and the Female Protagonist in the Victorian Novel.

Works Cited

Akujobi, Remi. “Motherhood in African Literature and Culture.” CLCWeb: Comparative

Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, 2011. EBSCOhost, DOI: 10.7771/1481-4374.1706. Accessed 26 April 2019.

Hugo, Esthie. “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Animating Magic, Modernity and the African City-Future in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon.” Social Dynamics, vol. 43, no. 1, 2017, pp. 46-58, DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2017.1345528. Accessed 25 April 2019.

Jue, Melody. “Intimate Objectivity: On Nnedi Okorafor’s Oceanic Afrofuturism.” WSQ: Women Studies Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1 and 2, 2017, pp. 171-188. DOI: 10.1353/wsq.2017.0022. Accessed 25 April 2019.

Nnaemeka, Obioma, ed. The Politics of (M)Othering: Womanhood, identity, and resistance in African literature. Routledge, 1997.

O’Connell, Hugh Charles. “‘We Are Change’: The Novum as Event in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon.Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, vol. 3, no. 3, 2016, pp. 291-312. DOI: 10.1017/pli.2016.24. Accessed 25 April 2019.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon. Saga Press, 2014.

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