(Published in the Business Standard, June 12, 2007)
On Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s website , a button invites readers to ‘Tell Your Biafra Story’. That apparently ordinary link tells an extraordinary story. Chimamanda, whose book Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for fiction recently, is the best-known of a small but growing group of “African writers” who are challenging the stereotype of what it means, as one of them sardonically put it, to “write in African”.
“Girls I had seen struggle at the water pump and hit each other with plastic buckets, girls who had cut holes in each other’s bras as they hung out to dry, now held hands and sang,” Chimamanda writes. “Instead of ‘Nigeria, we hail thee,’ they sang, ‘Biafra, we hail thee.’ I joined them, singing, clapping, talking. We did not mention the massacres, the way Igbos had been hunted house to house, pulled from where they crouched in trees, by bright-eyed people screaming Jihad, screaming Nyamiri, nyamiri.”
There are currently 56 stories up in the ‘Tell Your Biafra Story’ section. Ugwueze Alozie shares memories of being a 7-year-old during the war: “Hunger and sickness killed so many children… After the war, the Nigerian soldiers seized our sisters for wives…” Chiedu Ezeneah offers Chimamanda a sonnet. Shirin writes about the death of a secretary called Hyacinth, and the impact it made on her as a schoolgirl.
The people who share their memories with Chimamanda may not share her talent, the way she balances terror against the banal, blood and gore against small epiphanies, war against the ordinary rhythms of life. But Chimamanda believes that their voices and their stories are important, even crucial. These are the stories that CNN and the BBC don’t cover. She believes that part of her work as a writer is to create a space where those who are normally invisible can be seen, and heard.
In her first book, Purple Hibiscus, she gave herself the freedom to disturb both sets of readers—African readers, by speaking openly about subjects not considered fit for public discussion (massacres, girlfriends), and Western readers, by not conforming to the rigid stereotypes that African writers are forced to wear like crinolines.
Many Indian writers would feel a sense of déjà vu if they read some of the comments on Chimamanda’s website from readers asking her to present a better picture of Nigeria to the world, or not to rake up old troubles. And many Indian writers would smile wryly if they read what Hillary Mantel, a fine writer and critic herself, had to say about Chimamanda Adichie’s work: “There is no wilful exoticism: no playing to the gallery of Western expectation.”
Mantel accepts tacitly that exoticism is what the world has come to expect from a certain kind of African writing. The African novel was supposed to be all about vivid colours and vastness, wars and bloodshed, and the ideal African novel would, of course, be written by a white man. Mantel also gestures at the fact that many young writers in Africa—as in India—do end up “playing to the gallery of Western expectation”, if for no other reason than that the main readers for their books are in the West.
What I love about Chimamanda Adichie’s work is that it moves away from all expectations. As a young student, she was once told by a professor that her story about middle-class Africans felt inauthentic to him—this was not his vision of Africa. Sometimes, Western readers have expressed their sense of dislocation at her evocation of an Africa where Africans might employ houseboys, or listen to jazz, or treasure beautiful old furniture. To Indians, the world Chimamanda writes about—often a middle-class world where students in their sneakers switch comfortably between Hollywood films and old Igbo legends—is, on the other hand, very familiar.
One of my favourite small moments in Adichie’s writing is the part, in an early story, where the narrator’s family has to leave their house behind, abandoning leather-bound books, old china, a woman’s lavender wig specially imported from Paris. They leave in “Papa’s Peugeot”.
Chimamanda writes, “Papa stopped the car often to wipe the dust off the windscreen, and he drove at a crawl, because of the crowds. Women with babies tied to their backs, pulling at toddlers, carrying pots on their heads. Men pulling goats and bicycles, carrying wood boxes and yams. Children, so many children. The dust swirled all around, like a translucent brown blanket. An exodus clothed in dusty hope. It took a while before it struck me that, like these people, we were now refugees.”
This is what makes the work of this young writer—she has not yet turned 30—so special; the fact that she can offer both the view from the Peugeot and the view from ground level, with equal assurance.