Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2018

Wake Me When I’m Gone, by Odafe Atogun

I don’t do reading plans any more, but this year I am trying to read more fiction from Africa.  There is a reason for this: some of our more dubious politicians have been demonising recent arrivals from Africa and aligning them with a scurrilous law and order campaign, when in fact Melbourne is one of the safest cities in the world and the stats show that it is not people of colour who dominate the crime statistics at all. Bereft of ideas to counter this egregious insult to communities from Africa, many of whom are refugees trying to rebuild their lives after trauma, I decided that what I could do was to explore the diversity of stories from African countries here on this blog.  Perhaps I am naïve, but I hope that this might encourage others to take people as they find them rather than respond to prejudice.

So far this year I have read stories from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar, Sudan and South Sudan:

Pleasingly, some of these books have come from my library, which means that my library service is also open-minded and interested in the culture of the newest arrivals to multicultural Melbourne.  My latest book was a serendipitous find: it’s called Wake Me When I’m Gone and it’s by Odafe Atogun who lives in Abuja, Nigeria. What I particularly like about his writing is that his characters are people who are open to change.

Wake Me When I’m Gone is the story of Ese, a woman recently widowed who refuses to comply with traditional customs about remarriage and passing custody of her son to her son to a male relative.  It is not just that she does not love the Chief who pressures her into submitting to him, it is also that she wants time to grieve the husband that she married for love, and that she is appalled by the treatment of children caught up in this situation.  Many of them are treated more like political rivals than innocent children, and there are credible rumours that male children taken into the care of the Chief are murdered.

So Ese stands up for herself, for her son, and for the orphaned children of the village and invokes the opprobrium of the community.  She is a very capable woman and is able to support Noah and herself from her own garden, even though she has lost the fields that supplied vegetables for her market stall.  But the chief is obdurate, and he makes things very hard for her.  As is so often the case in these situations she has to flee, but she finds a safe haven and is able to build a new life.  And while there is no soppy happy ending, Ese becomes a leader in her new community and influences important changes to long-standing traditions that have ceased to be appropriate in the modern world.

While Atogun doesn’t go out of his way to trash traditional culture, he shows that some traditional healing methods work – and others don’t.  Some traditions are worthy of keeping, and others are cruel and irrational and should be jettisoned.  Education is important but it isn’t always the solution because unemployment in the city is rife. Belief and prayer can be consolation, but neither the old gods nor the new Christianity can be relied upon – people have to take the initiative for themselves, be flexible and adapt to whatever life dishes out.

In a world that is changing fast, it is the strength, resilience and adaptability of the people that matters.

Atogun’s first book Taduno’s Song was selected for the BBC Radio 2 Book Club. 

Update 8/8/18: In response to Sonia’s suggested reading list, I thought I should add what’s on my TBR (Africa) shelf too.  I have a couple on the Kindle as well:

TBR (Africa) (1024x507)

Author: Odafe Atogun
Title: Wake Me When I’m Gone
Publisher: Canongate, 2017,
ISBN: 9781782118428
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Well done Lisa. How I’d love to squeeze in some of these books. I particularly like your point that “While Atogun doesn’t go out of his way to trash traditional culture, he shows that some traditional healing methods work – and others don’t. Some traditions are worthy of keeping, and others are cruel and irrational and should be jettisoned.” This is relevant in our indigenous culture too. It makes me cross when non-indigenous Australians expect indigenous Australians to either stay the same or immediately become “white”, to criticise them – and thus deny their identity – if they change something traditional. As if we’re the same as we were in 1788. The lack of basic common-sense in the dialogue is frustrating.


    • Yes, it’s a refreshing take on societies in transition, and I couldn’t fail to notice that this was a male author lionising a strong woman as his central character…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said, Lisa. You remind me of Anne Frank who wrote: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.


    • Ah, I wonder what young Anne would have done, had she lived. She would have been another Malala Yousafzai, I think:)


  3. Hi Lisa,
    I enjoyed reading your review of Wake Me When I’m Gone. The author’s exploration of traditional customs and values that inhibit African women’s lives and personal choices are synonymous with novels by Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Yvonne Vera, Bessie Head, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,Chinelo Okparanta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga,Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Nuruddin Farah, Sefi Atta, Nawal El Sadaawi, and Ken Saro Wiwa.

    The reading list provided is also informative for me. I’m familiar with some of the authors listed.I would like to recommend fiction and nonfiction produced by the previously mentioned authors:

    1. Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not, and This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
    2. The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood, and Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta
    3. Stone Virgins and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera
    4. The Collector of Treasures, Maru, and A Question of Power by Bessie Head
    5. Efuru and Wives at War and Other Stories by Flora Nwapa
    6. No Sweetness Here and Other Stories by Ama Ata Aidoo
    7. News from Home by Sefi Atta
    8. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Sadaawi
    9. We Should All be Feminists and The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    10. From a Crooked Rib and Knots by Nuruddin Farah
    11. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
    12. Lemona’s Tale by Ken Saro Wiwa


    • Hi, it’s good to hear from you. Prompted by your suggestions I’ve added a photo of my TBR (Africa) so that you can see that I have a couple of those you’ve suggested – and I’ve read others in previous years (48 reviewed on this blog altogether), including Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo ( which, like this one, explores the impetus towards change that comes from dynamic women. I read Ken Saro Wiwa’s detention diary too, but that was a long time ago, not long after his execution was in the news.


  4. Dutton’s racism, and the support (failure to oppose) he receives even from ‘moderate’ Liberals is a disgrace and should be countered by every means possible. Greater knowledge of and empathy for Black African culture is certainly one of those means.


    • Yes, it breaks my heart to see the vilification going on. We need to call it out whenever we encounter it.


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