With five books of fiction, one non-fiction volume and several lectures and speeches, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 1977) has established herself not only as a leading contemporary voice of anglophone Africa but also as a top global thinker.
Ethnically an Igbo, Adichie is the daughter of a professor father and administrator mother who grew up in a conventional middle-class environment in the town of Nsukka in southeastern Nigeria, site of the the University of Nigeria. She moved to the United States at the age of 19, where she studied communications and political science in Pennsylvania and Connecticut for a bachelor’s and later obtained two master’s degrees – in creative writing and African studies from Johns Hopkins and Yale universities, respectively. She now divides her time between Nigeria and America.
A passionate proponent of “realist” literature (as opposed to “fantasy” literature; see her Commonwealth lecture of 2012 delivered in London), Adichie began reading at the age of 2 and writing at the age of 7. She shared her positive and negative experiences of growing up with books in a 2009 TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” organised in Oxford. As a little girl, she revealed, she was only exposed to British and American children’s literature. The result of this was that her own stories began to be populated with white, blue-eyed kids who ate apples, drank ginger beer, played in the snow and frequently talked about the weather. Years later, when she discovered the works of African writers like Chinua Achebe (Nigerian) and Camara Laye (Guinean), she was surprised to find that characters who looked like her – chocolate-skinned and kinky-haired – could exist in literature. Although she adores the American and British stories she grew up with, she had to face an unintended consequence – for a long time live with a very limited perception of literature. She was convinced that stories by their very nature were about foreign people and themes, experiences she could not identity with. Her reading of African writers saved her from what she calls “a single story of what books are”.
She goes on to recount her time as a student in America, where her roommate found it hard to believe that she could use a stove, speak very good English and listen to Mariah Carey instead of some tribal music. When a novel of hers was published, a professor remarked that it was “not authentically African” – because her characters were educated, middle-class citizens who drove cars and were not exactly starving. Foreigners like her roommate and the professor, says Adichie, unfortunately have narrow views because they have been repeatedly fed with “a single story of Africa”. Africa is presented to them as a place of beautiful landscapes and animals but incomprehensible people “fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner”. Africans are projected as inhabitants of “a continent of catastrophes” towards whom your default position must be “patronising, well-meaning pity”.
Such conceptions of Africa and Africans, explains Adichie, ultimately come from a tradition of depicting the continent in Western literature and have little to do with Africa’s conception of itself. She traces the origins of this tradition of storytelling about Africa to a London merchant called John Lok [(ancestor of the influential English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704)], who, having sailed to west Africa in 1561, wrote of Africans “as beasts who have no houses.” “They are also people without heads,” he continued, “having their mouth and eyes in their breasts.” Adichie also mentions the derogatory language used by the famous British writer Rudyard Kipling in his 1899 poem The White Man’s Burden, where he openly referred to non-European races as “half-devil and half-child”.
And since then, the single story of Africa has been told over and over again. What does the single story do? Adichie says: “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
When in America, she never made the mistake of taking any one character from any American book as “representative” of the whole culture. She knew that Americans had diverse temperaments and interests. This was because she had read “many” stories of the country – writers like Anne Tyler, John Updike and John Steinbeck and Mary Gaitskill. America could afford to produce multiple stories of itself because of its immense political and economic clout. The production and publication of stories in the world – who tells which stories and how many and when – Adichie maintains, are, sadly, too dependent on the prevalent power structures.
Stories have immense power. Before them we are “impressionable and vulnerable”. Stories can be used either to empower and humanise or to dispossess and malign. And our present power structures allow only specific stories of specific people. Adichie here raises a terribly important point which anyone associated with publishing and social communication must dwell upon. Global approval is difficult – we all know that – for any storyteller, white by race or otherwise. But imagine how much more difficult international recognition must be for those many sincere and talented non-white writers (African, Asian, Latin American, you name it) who wish to move beyond civil wars, poverty, the melancholic immigration experience and document their lives and their cultures in an all-in-all happy and positive light. Just how many aspiring non-white novelists are being declared ungenuine and unmarketable by publishing gatekeepers in London or New York not because of lousy prose or boring plot but simply because the characters and narratives they have crafted are not in sync with some (only partly true) ‘post-colonial identity’ that Western sociologists have imposed upon them?
Watch Adichie’s full TED talk below:
Her Commonwealth lecture in which she makes a case for realist literature:
List of books:
Purple Hibiscus (2003)
The Thing Around Your Neck (2010)
We Should All be Feminists (2015)
Featured: Adichie in 2008 by George Osodi by User “Slowking4”, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons
Other: Adichie in 2013 by User “Slowking4”, GFDL 1.2, Wikimedia Commons