Sunday, 15 August 2010

Chimamanda rocks

I first run across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus some time in the mid-2000s, and as I happened to be planning a course on Afro-Caribbean women’s writing, I decided to include the novel in the curriculum right away. The intensity of her prose, and the difficulty of the intimate relations she was describing, struck me as something worth investing our time on. My international students loved it, and especially those who had received a Catholic upbringing could relate to the subject matter very well.
            In all Chimamanda’s books the university city of Nsukka appears as one of the focal points. The university of Nsukka was established as the first “indigenous” university of Nigeria following the independence in 1960. It has particularly excelled in astronomy, medicine and law. The country’s first university has always been the University of Ibadan (the local Oxford or Cambridge), but Nsukka has tried to differentiate from its competitor by profiling itself as the more African alternative. For anyone from the Finnish deepwoods this makes perfect sense. We greet warmly all such initiatives. I don’t even think of it as a coincidence that Biafra adopted Sibelius’ Finlandia as their national hymn during the independence war. Small nations always find one another, no matter what the odds.
            Chimamanda grew up in an academic family on the campus of Nsukka, and in her writing, the town looms larger than life. For someone also born in the shadows of an “indigenous” university, this autobiographical emphasis doesn’t seem strange. I salute it. Through Chimamanda, I have seen vivid bits of Nsukka. It is a place with a noble nationalist history and a present that unfortunately promises too little. Her third book, the short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, reveals the realities of campus life in the 2000s: mob violence on the campus is rampant and any degree can be bought too cheap from the examiners through bribing. It is difficult to relate this to my own “indigenous” campus experience. There probably the most daring thing one could think of would be to cycle naked around the campus at full moon – but I can’t even confess having done that.
            The second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, became an instant hit in many European countries soon after first publication. I first got hold of the book in Swedish two years ago, and sorry to say, I could not enter its universe in that language. Nigeria in Swedish was too remote to me then. I also hesitated approaching the Finnish translation, on the same grounds. Now on my holidays, I liberated an English copy of the novel on the isle of Lefkada in Greece, where someone had left it untouched at a book recycling joint. After this, her art has truly started making sense to me. I was accidentally “bounced back” to her.
            Chimamanda is only a “small girl”, in her early thirties, and critics worldwide have already rated Half of a Yellow Sun as a global classic. In the literary beehive, she has sucked all the honey too prematurely, and she may have to bear also the negative consequences of such instant fame. In my country, she is being read everywhere in local flower hat aunties’ well-meaning book clubs. I can find a Finnish translation of her novel on every petrol station of this country.    
            The novel does reflect deeply upon the horrors of the Biafran war and the ethnic divisions of Nigerian society, but first and foremost it is a document of post/colonial gender relations, in a situation where modernity and tradition clash violently. The novel has five protagonists, “her children”, as the author calls them, all of who experience lapses and doubts in their intimate relations. It offers every reader a possibility to identify with someone – not pinpointing at any character’s innate moral superiority. Everyone in the novel makes fatal mistakes, everyone is rough and edgy.
            It is a novel about heterosexuality, written in a way that doesn’t make too rigid boundaries between Africa and the West. Black and white protagonists intermingle creatively. Things happen, between the races and in-between. The notion of “race” is easily dismantled. Neither does heterosexuality mean much to the protagonists. Chimamanda offers no simple “boy meets girl” stories. This fact alone renders her writing apart from the majority of European literature. Much of recent European literature is much more heteronormative and racially confined than this.
            In Chimamanda’s world, all relationships are defined by intricate complexities. She writes: “ Olanna gently places a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. (p.245) ” In this passage, Olanna is making a decision against all odds to return to her partner, who was too easily seduced to illicit sex during her short trip elsewhere. It would be difficult to think of an European Olanna, wife of a university lecturer, adopting the fruit of her husband’s lapse to brief rash lust.  Chimamanda writes very open-mindedly about common law marriages, infertility and adoption, to my understanding against the stream of everyday African sensibilities. The twin girls, Olanna and Kainene’s liberal lives seem very bizarre to me, based on the stories African friends displaced in Finland have told me about foolproof patriarchal heteronormativity and their less privileged families. The twin girls’ avant garde attitudes would have been extreme even in the Finnish 1960s – a time when “women were still women and men were still men”.
            Chimamanda insists on portraying the fringes of Nigerian society, the kinds of possibilities available if people broadened up their minds to accept the multitude of the human condition. She is positively “well ahead of her time”. I am not sure if this kind of loosening of family morality is what mainstream Africa is welcoming in this millennium. Chimamanda does not proscribe this, she only pokes at “possible lives, possible futures”  pending somewhere in the future. Having already been exposed to other kinds of sets of life, other norms of organizing everyday life, other forms of reasoning, the relationship puzzles Chimamanda brings us may be Africa’s unavoidable future.   

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