“‘Adunni, you must do good for other peoples, even if you are not well, even if the whole world around you is not well,’” says Adunni’s mother in Nigerian-British author Abi Daré’s debut, The Girl With the Louding Voice (Dutton, Feb. 25). The novel, awarded the 2018 Bath Prize, was lauded by judge Felicity Jones as a “winning book of many voices, heard and unheard.” It was recently selected by Jenna Bush Hager for her Today show book club.
This admonition of Adunni’s mother speaks directly to Daré’s mission in writing the book. The novel’s themes—arranged marriage and indentured servitude—have haunted Daré for years. “What I noticed as a young girl of about 7 growing up in Lagos was that all the families in our neighborhood had a girl my age as a maid doing all the chores—the cooking and the cleaning—and I remember wondering, ‘Why are these girls doing all this work?’” says Daré. “These girls worked while I went to school, and many of them were badly treated, which I didn’t know about until doing my research later.”
Daré describes telling these memories to her own daughter years later when she was about 7 years old; her daughter’s shock reignited Daré’s determination to tell the story of one of these girls.
This is the premise of The Girl With the Louding Voice; here, after 14-year-old protagonist Adunni’s father sells her into an arranged marriage as the third wife of a man many years her elder, Adunni’s escape is derailed by indentured servitude in an abusive household until she is able to fulfill her quest for education and agency.
“I was very angry about child labor and child trafficking,” says Daré. “Parts of my research made me very, very sick—I read the story of a 9-year old girl whose head had been split open by the woman who employed her, for example. I saw a video of a 4-year old girl being thrown up in the air and slammed on the ground. I told myself I was trying to do something about these issues while writing this book because, as these stories get shared, more people also protest and try to get lawmakers to effect change.”
The Girl With the Louding Voice rests upon the pivotal role of the voices of girls and women. What is the power of girls’ and women’s voices for Daré?
“I think there are a lot of great things that have happened—so many women have used their voices and the platform they have to ensure women’s voices are heard; they speak for people,” she says. “One of the great role model stories I read while writing this was Malala Yousafzai’s story; Adunni in a lot of ways is inspired by Malala because she risks her life to use her voice—she refuses to be silent in advocating for girls.”
Daré credits the appreciation for education that imbues The Girl With the Louding Voice to her mother. “I was raised by my mother, and she put my brother and me in the best schools, and every semester she would work hard so she could continue paying the fees,” she recalls.
Indeed, it was only through a trick Daré’s mother played on her—enrolling her for university and leaving her in the U.K. at the end of summer vacation—that Daré ended up at university in England. “I really wanted to kill her at the time, but I later realized she was doing what was best for me,” says Daré. “I was studying French at university in Lagos—really just having fun with my friends—and I think she saw if I carried on that way I would waste four years and graduate with a degree in French [that] I couldn’t understand or use.”
What was it like growing up in England as a young woman alone? “It was the first time I was responsible for myself. It was a bit of a culture shock trying to understand being a minority in a culture,” says Daré. “I was very alone. It was very different.”
The result of these experiences was that Daré started writing—first online, then stories, then The Girl With the Louding Voice. And in a time when the traumatic experiences of people of color are often exploited by authors outside that experience, Daré’s respectful care of the material is multilayered and authentic. Here is an eloquent voice matched by elegant prose and characters, genuine and realistic, whom we root for as they step away from a life of exploitation and into empowerment in a story that speaks to our larger cultural conversation about erasure, agency, and the voices of girls and women.
Hope Wabuke is a writer and assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.