SOLUTION: COLT 360 University of Michigan Stereotypes Africa Literature Writing Essay

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African “Authenticity” and the Biafran Experience
Author(s): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Source: Transition , 2008, No. 99 (2008), pp. 42-53
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African
and African American Research at Harvard University
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African “Authenticity” and
the Biafran Experience
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I grew up in Nsukka, a small university town in southeastern Nigeria, and
started reading when I was perhaps four years old. I read a lot of British
children’s literature, and I was particularly enamored of Enid Blyton. I thought
that all books had to have white people in them, by their very nature, and
so when I started to write, as soon as I was old enough to spell, I wrote the
kinds of stories that I was reading. All my characters were white and had
blue eyes and played in the snow and ate apples and had dogs called Socks.
This, by the way, at a time when I had not been to England and had never
seen snow and was more familiar with mangoes than apples. My characters
drank ginger beer, a staple of Enid Blyton’s characters. Never mind that I
had no idea what ginger beer was. For many years afterward, I would have
a desperate fascination for ginger beer, but that is another story.
Then, when I was perhaps eight or nine, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things
Fall Apart (1958). It was a glorious shock of discovery. Here were characters
who had Igbo names and ate yams and inhabited a world similar to mine.
Okonkwo and Ezinma and Ikemefuna taught me that my world was worthy
of literature, that books could also have people like me in them. It was about
the same time that I read C?mara Laye’s novel The Dark Child (1953), a beauti
ful, elegiac, and in some ways wonderfully defensive book that also played a
role in making me see my African world as a worthy subject of literature.
I like to think of Achebe as the writer whose work gave me permission
to write my own stories. But, although Achebe’s characters were familiar
to me in many ways, their world was also incredibly exotic because they
lived without the things that I saw as the norm in my life: they did not have
cars and electricity and telephones. They did not eat fried rice. They lived
a life that my great-grandfather might have lived, which brings me to a
second Things Fall Apart story.
I came to the United States about ten years ago to go to college because
I was fleeing the study of medicine in Nigeria. As is the case in many places,
when you do well in school in Nigeria, you are expected to become a doctor
or to pursue some other exalted science. I had been in the science track in
secondary school and matriculated at the University of Nigeria to study
medicine, but after a year I realized I would be a very unhappy doctor. To
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prevent the future inadvertent deaths of patients, I fled. Before I arrived in
Philadelphia, my friend Ada, who had been in the United States for some
years, found a four-bedroom apartment which I would share with three
American students. Because Ada had made all the arrangements, my future
roommates did not see me until I arrived at the door. I remember them
opening the door and looking at me in shock. There was also some disap
pointment on their faces: I was not what they had expected. “You are wear
ing American clothes,” they said (about the jeans I had bought in the
Nsukka market). “Where did you learn to speak English so well?” They
were surprised that I knew who Mariah Carey was; they had assumed that
I listened to what they called “tribal music.” I remember looking at them
and being surprised that twenty-year-olds knew so little about the world.
And then I realized that perhaps Things Fall Apart had played a role in this.
These students, like many Americans, had read Achebe’s novel in high
school, but I suspect that their teacher forgot to explain to them that it was
a book set in the Nigeria of a hundred years ago. Later, one of my new
roommates told me that I just didn’t seem African. Clearly, they had expected
that I would step out of the pages of Things Fall Apart.
My Things Fall Apart experience was a point of departure for reflections
on authenticity, for the idea that there is a single definition o? African and,
related to that, for thinking about stereotypes. There is a lot of talk about
stereotypes as being automatically bad, and I am not sure that I agree. I
think that some stereotypes can be interesting and useful. The problem
with stereotypes, however, particularly in literature, is that one story can
become the only story: stereotypes straitjacket our ability to think in com
plex ways. I have a friend from Korea who complains about being thought
of as intelligent by Americans just because she is Asian, and I often tell her
that I wish I had that problem. While I’d rather not have any stereotypes
attached to me at all, if I had to choose, I would prefer a more benign one.
Unfortunately, however, the stereotypes in the West about Black Africa are
anything but benign. Africa has a long history of being maligned. Racism,
the idea of the black race as inferior to the white race, and even the con
struction of race itself as a biological and social reality, was of course used
by Western Europeans to justify slavery and later to justify colonialism.
The brilliant Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera describes colonial
ism as “that great principle which put anyone who was not white in the
wrong.” It was an economic enterprise, sustained by superior arms, but it
was one that depended on racism for its survival. The ideology of racism
was derived from ancient and medieval ideas, biblical references, linguistic
connections to the idea of blackness, all of which said, in the end: Black is
Adichie African “Authenticity”
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not as good as white. And it therefore became morally acceptable to engage
in unfair trade with Black Africans, to take their agricultural resources, to
take their land, to “civilize” them. These dangerous stereotypes that origi
nated from the need to justify the economic enterprises of slavery and
colonialism meant that the inhabitants of Black Africa were no longer
looked at with the mere curiosity that one may have for somebody who is
different; instead, they were regarded with contempt. And these stereotypes
found their way into the popular imagination and literature.
Some of the books I read as a child?such as those by Rider Haggard
dehumanized Africans. All the Africans in those books were spectacularly
simple, if not stupid. The adults were like children who needed a Westerner to
teach them everything; they were uncivilized; or they were dark and inscru
table and dangerous in the way that wild animals are. I loved many of those
books. I simply didn’t get that they were supposed to be about me. I did not, of
course, identify with any of these African characters. Even the more serious
books which I read later, those with well-meaning intentions, such as Joseph
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902)?essentially about the evils of colonialism?did
not have a single African character portrayed as fully human. A more recent
anti-imperial book which castigates European evils in Africa, Sven Lindqvist’s
“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the
Origins of European Genocide (1995) still manages not to depict a single human
African. There are many other examples. Africans become dispensable;
Africans don’t matter, not even in narratives ostensibly about Africa. The old
stereotypes are repeated, feeding on one another and self-perpetuating in the
many other books that have been written about Africa since.
A different manifestation of stereotypes is the present sexiness and hipness
of Africa in the Western media. Africa has for the past two years or so been
very fashionable in the United States and Europe, and this new “afro
fashion” is based in part on the stereotype of the poor starving African in
need of salvation by the West. So we have celebrities not only adopting
babies but recommending that baby adoption is the way to save Africa.
And we have tons of people who go to Africa to show us how much they
care and who take pictures with starving African babies, and that sort of
thing. Now, I don’t want to appear facile about this issue. I recognize that
there are huge problems in my continent, and I certainly want them fixed,
and I believe that aid can be useful?although I do have trouble with the
idea of adoption or distributing bags of grain as the solution. I would rather
that we look at aid in ways that do not create dependency, that we start to
think of aid not merely as bags of grain but as infrastructure and trade.
However, the ways in which Africa is being portrayed today?from CNN
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Photo by Amo
to the New York Times?reduce Africa to a simple story and often neglect
African actors. So we see Africans receiving, we see Africans who are limp
with gratitude or limp with hunger, but we do not see Africans who act,
although there are many who do. If I were not African, and if all I knew
of Africa came from the U.S. media, I would think that all Africans were
incomprehensible people perpetually fighting wars that make no sense,
drinking muddy water from rivers, almost all dying of AIDS and incredibly
poor. This kind of portrayal makes it difficult for outsiders to see an African
as equally human, prompting the Westerner to ask, even if secretly, “Is
something innately wrong with these people?”
Adichie African “Authenticity”
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And this is perhaps the central point of what I want to say: I believe that
it is important that we recognize the equal humanity of the people with
whom we inhabit this earth. There is no doubt that we are all equally
human, but the course of history has made it possible for some people to
question the humanity of others, which has grave consequences for all of
us. And so, we need to combat and challenge and complicate stereotypes.
We need to conceive of a world in which the idea of difference is just that:
difference, rather than something necessarily better or worse. I am obviously
biased, but I think that literature is one of the best ways to come closer to
the idea of a common humanity, to see that we may be kind and unkind
in different ways, but that we are all capable of kindness and unkindness.
I remember reading Balzac’s P?re Goriot (1835) many years ago and being
a bit alarmed because the behavior of these nineteenth-century women in
Paris was exactly like the behavior of twentieth-century women in Lagos?
for example, they both lied about how much they had paid for domestic
services so that they could fleece money from their wealthy husbands. Of
course, their clothes and food and mannerisms were different, as well they
should be. What they had in common was being of a certain class with its
attendant expectations and hypocrisies.
While I do feel strongly about literature being the best way to combat
stereotypes, I am wary of the idea of literature as anthropology. It is not with
out its problems, one of which is generalizing from the particular. At an
Oklahoma university where I spoke not too long ago, a well-meaning student
expressed sadness that most Nigerian men were like the physically abusive
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father in my novel Purple Hibiscus (2003). I replied that I had just read Bret
Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and that perhaps all American twenty
something-year-olds were serial murderers. A short story of mine published
in the New Yorker in 2007 is about Nigerian university student gangs, which
are called cults. I received an email from an American woman who said she
was horrified by what happened in the story, although she guessed I was used
to it, having grown up in Nigeria. I was not used to it. I wrote about it because
in many ways I found it just as horrifying as she did. And of course a part of
me wanted to ask her to go to any U.S. inner city if she wanted to encounter
something similar to Nigerian university cults.
The films and books I had consumed about America before I first visited
did not prepare me for West Philadelphia. I knew there was poverty in the
United States, but my conception of it was more like that of people living
off the land, in conflict with nature,
brave and dignified, even if poor,
But the first time I drove
in worlds like Willa Cather’s. But through the inner city of West
the first time I drove through the
inner city of West Philadelphia, I
was shocked. It was not mere pov
erty. It was the sense that these
Philadelphia, I was shocked. It
was not mere poverty. It was the
sense that these were a people
were a people who had been for who had been forgotten.
gotten. But, to return to the woman
who wrote to me about the story, if we had an African Aljazeera that
broadcast worldwide, if we had diverse African stories told by Africans
available all over the world, she would perhaps not have assumed that I
was immune to horror, and there would be no need to say any of this.
Knowing that so little is known about Africa, however, does make me wary
in writing truthfully about what interests me. When I write about war, I
think: Will this only perpetuate stereotypes of Africa as a place of war? I
have so far kept away from making artistic choices based on this concern,
but I do think about it, and there is a certain discomfort that it brings. My
vision of the world is largely a dark one, and I sometimes wonder whether
being African means that I must always indulge in fragile negotiations in
order to fully explore my artistic vision.
Literature as one way of combating stereotypes brings me back to
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There are many ways to read this book,
but I think most people will agree that it challenges the idea of an Africa
without a past, as well as the idea of an Africa with one unchanging past.
And so, even if it did not ultimately prepare my roommates for the strange
and disappointing vision that I presented at the door, Things Fall Apart
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certainly disabused many of those who felt that the Igbo?as only one
example of Africa’s diverse peoples?lived in anarchic darkness before their
contact with Europeans. The allusions that Achebe’s work makes to customs
that have changed, to what people did but no longer do, remind us that
human history is a collection of stories, of people borrowing from one
another, and African cultures, too, have always been dynamic. The Igbo
culture changed over and over again, even before the missionaries came.
To be an African in precolonial Africa was not one single thing.
After my first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was published, a professor at Johns
Hopkins informed me that it was not authentically African. My characters
were educated and middle class. They drove cars. They were not starving.
Therefore, they were not authentically African.
My characters were It made me wonder why I had never heard any
educated and middle body speak of “authentically American” charac
class.They drove cars.
ters. Is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, with his
love of money and position, any more or less
They were not starving. authentic than John Steinbeck’s altogether dis
Therefore, they were not similar characters? Both Fitzgerald and Steinbeck
authentically African.
are American writers, and their stories are
American. I do not accept the idea of monolithic
authenticity. To insist that there is one thing that is authentically African is to
diminish the African experience. That kind professor wanted to see in my
work what he had come to expect from Africa, having consumed the long
literary tradition of the Africa of Joseph Conrad and Karen Blixen. Somewhat
related to what that professor had to say (and related to the distinction between
universal and parochial writers underscored by Ali Mazrui), I am often told
by Western journalists that my work is “universal.” Sometimes this is said with
some surprise, as if by setting a book in a small Nigerian town one risks losing
the ability to be universal. I feel very strongly that it is from the specific that
universalism arises, that it is through anchoring one’s narrative in so-called
parochial details that universalism becomes possible, and that it is therefore
counterintuitive to make a distinction between universalism and particularity.
When William Faulkner, whose work I admire, writes about life in small,
closed, and very specific communities in the U.S. South, his universalism is
never in doubt. Nor did the specific Russian realities described in the novels
by Dostoevsky and Gogol, which I read and loved as a teenager, make it dif
ficult for me to see that the characters were human like me?even if I had no
idea what a samovar was.
One can ask of Christopher Okigbo: Was he Nigerian, a poet, or an Igbo
first? I find it reductive that the different identity labels we carry must somehow
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be arranged in some sort of ascending or descending order. I am Igbo because
I grew up speaking Igbo and was raised with Igbo cultural norms?I did not
quite grasp some of the subtle differences until my Yoruba sister-in-law spent
time with us and kept shaking her head in bemused wonder at some of the
things we did, such as saying “thank you” to every adult after we had a meal.
I am Nigerian because of the passport I carry and the football team I root for
in the World Cup. I am African because I find similar concerns, similar ways
of looking at the world, in a lot of African people and literature …
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