Babel Presents Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Thur, Mar 26 / 8PM / Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle, Buffalo
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduces herself as simply a storyteller, but she manages to elegantly and almost seamlessly blend her gift for storytelling with her growing role as a public intellectual. She addresses the politics of gender, race, and sexuality in ways that foster conversation and acknowledge but do not encourage historic hostilities. Her first TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” has nearly nine million views; her second, “We Should All Be Feminists,” was sampled by Beyoncé in “Flawless,” for which she was co-nominated for a Grammy. She has been interviewed all over the world, gaining a reputation as a Nigerian woman interested in politically and socially nuanced depictions of a contemporary, heterogeneous continent reeling from (neo) colonialism. A recent feature in British Vogue celebrates her style and fashion in addition to all else. Her future plans include expanding her Lagos fiction-writing workshop to include nonfiction and journalism. In a recent interview in olisa.tv: The Blogazine, Adichie also describes her current project, a very personal piece about depression, which will, if the past can be our guide, devastate us while opening new avenues for discussion about that as well.
There is no “single story” about Adichie, and the more that I learn and read, the deeper is my affection and appreciation for her.
Yes, it’s true. I gush.
Adichie began winning awards with the publication of her first stories in 2002, many of which are collected in The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), a collection I mine every year for my classes at Nichols School. This award-winning trend continued with her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), and her second, Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), and of course, her most recent novel Americanah (2013), which is Babel’s selection for our reading in preparation for her visit to Buffalo. Purple Hibiscus is a good novel but it is just the first, clearly a means of honing skills, establishing a style, exploring—the stuff of a first novel. This novel, however, established her career, winning the Orange Prize. What has followed has been truly breathtaking. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tour-de-force, a historical novel set in the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, told largely through the perspective of the thirteen year old house boy, Ugwu, his mistress Olanna, an academic at Nsukka University, and Richard Churchill, an English ex-patriot who travels to Nigeria to study Igbo art. Most Americans, I think it fair to say, know little about Nigeria and its history in the last century. I think it also fair to say that we know little about Africa today, our media concerned with depicting only a few disasters and crises that seem to impact the US, most recently Ebola and Boko Haram. Adichie’s fully fleshed-out characters, their relationships, and their daily lives set the reader down in the middle of a living and breathing West African historical landscape. Biafran independence might seem distant from us, but Ugwu takes us there, and lzets us see the atrocities used to oppose independence. Richard, the awkward English ex-patriate who adopts Nigeria and the Biafran cause, makes it clear that the white Westerner can be fully invested in the health and welfare of the nation while not merely replicating the imperial consumption of African land and people. In short, Half of a Yellow Sun lets us be a part of something putting us in a position in which we can begin to understand. We experience the hope and devastation of the Biafran War and identify with the characters who love, make mistakes, and live their lives.
Americanah, on the other hand, allows us to re-see and rethink through an African lens what we assume we know—ourselves—in our various contexts. In some ways, this is what the best of the literature of immigration always allows, but Americanah also gives us new ways of exploring painful historical injustices from the vantage point of the present and those considered “others.” The recent Babel @ Betty’s discussion, as led by Buffalo State faculty member Barish Ali, spent some time considering the blog that the main character, Ifemelu, writes in America, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” This vehicle allows Adichie to make clear observations about race in America, balancing them with the experiences of the characters. These blog posts are speculations (could Obama have won the election if Michelle didn’t straighten her hair), challenges to stereotypes (assumptions about white men with dreadlocks and “White Middle Managers from Ohio”), and lengthy explanations about how white people need to stop denying that race is a real issue and just need to start listening. Especially given her recent interviews, it is fair to assume that recent racial injustices such as the events in Ferguson, Missouri haunt Americanah as Adichie forces us to recognize the deep racial fissures within American society.
I am captivated by Adichie’s characters as well as her bold foray into the issues of the day. I am also astounded by how she assists the reader in overcoming what would elsewhere be insurmountable differences, even a chasm in understanding. The teenagers I’ve introduced to her writing, particularly stories from The Thing Around Your Neck, feel a deep sympathy with the characters, identifying with their struggles. My students often express their surprise about the unique and moving way she engages with race and gender. They just haven’t heard anyone talk about these things as she does. Her stories are disarming and honest, leading the reader to listen to rather than resist the point she makes about race or about gender. There is a power in her words.
Adichie has found additional audiences through her two very famous TED talks. “The Danger of a Single Story” is an utterly charming presentation of the idea that we need to know more about each other, that knowing more will prevent the stereotyping that is inevitable when we know only one story about another. She opens with a story of the colonization of her own imagination: The only books available to her when she was a child were British and American; hence, the only children worthy of being in books were “white and blue-eyed.” It wasn’t until she read Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye that she “went through a mental shift in [her] perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.” She goes on to say that society, culture, and the media often limit our imaginations, closing us off to multiple inflected understandings of each other. Instead, we need to understand the power of stories. “Stories,” she says, “have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Learning more than one story is crucial in order to realize this potential.
What is most remarkable about the talk, however, is its objectivity. It appears free of accusation. It’s clear that we are all, without exception, susceptible to the single story, but we also very clearly have the responsibility of knowing that tendency in ourselves so that we can resist it.
I have shamelessly used “Flawless” to introduce Adichie as a writer to my students, many of whom can recite all of her words in that song. While I am certain that many of them would never know whose voice they are hearing without someone like me telling them (they are kids, after all), they quote her and think about the message. What is it to be a feminist? They find truth in what she says. Adichie opens the talk with a story about the first time she was called a feminist, “It was not a compliment. I could tell from his tone, the same tone that you would use to say something like, ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism.’” Rejecting the accusatory tone, she adds to the dictionary’s definition of a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” with her own compelling imperative: “feminist: a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better.’”
Through these TED talks, her many interviews, and discussions about single stories of Africa, and race, and women, and sexuality, Adichie has begun to use her words to tangibly influence the world. This is indeed her intention, as she recently told Maria Scrivani of Buffalo Spree. Her method, as she would instruct our children, is one I wholeheartedly support: “Read as much as you can, I tell them. Be kind. Listen. It’s lovely when one listens more than one talks. And lovely when people are kind, and not just to others, but also to themselves.” This is the sort of sympathy and generosity one must cultivate to be involved in productive discussions of anything difficult. Listening, I agree, is lovely.