By James Eze
Like smoke, curling skywards to announce the presence of fire, Chimamanda Adichie has continued to rise and force a re-think of the place of women in Africa and the world. Before her, there was Ahibe Ugbabe, the first female king of the Igbo. There was Queen Amina of Zaria and there was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. But these figures belong to another age. Adichie is a phenomenon playing out before our eyes. She belongs to us! We have seen her, spoken to her and taken a selfie with her. We have felt her humanity!
Genius is like a fire. It never fails to announce itself. Adichie is a fascinating way for genius to announce itself among us. As I write this, I remember the first time I met her in the summer of 2003. She had just won the David T. Wong Prize with “Half of a Yellow Sun” the short story. I’ll probably never forget how she looked like a rare petal in the evening sun from the balcony of her sister, Uche’s house in Lagos. Looking back now, it is amazing how that petal has blossomed in its rarity, through the years, arresting the attention of the world, demanding and earning a spot among the very best. And finally, we see, the emergence of a new global voice.
I look around today and I don’t see anyone else from my part of the world, breaking all the ‘rules.’ I don’t see many people uprooting ancient stereotypes. I don’t see any African of my generation winning the respect of the Western establishment, still owners of our world, for now, in the way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie continues to do. And it is slowly becoming clearer to me that between 2005 when she debuted with ‘Purple Hibiscus’ and March 2017 when she published ‘Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,’ Adichie has become not just another storyteller. She has evolved into a potent voice for God’s silent children.
She seems to have figured it all out from the beginning; her choice of feminism for instance. Unlike many self-anointed feminists who jumped into what looks like a rekindled fire, Adichie did not drift into feminism by chance. She made her intentions known in ‘Purple Hibiscus’ when she made Kamibili Achike, a shy girl with extraordinary sensibilities her central character. Kambili’s power of seeing and precocious persona echoes Adichie whose voice has risen like the morning sun to chase away the dark, brooding clouds of patriarchy in African literature.
In ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ Adichie sustained this quest with two magnificent female characters. Olanna Ozobia and her sister Kainene represent two ends of the spectrum. But Adichie conferred dignity on each character in a subtle message that reminds us that all women are not alike and that women, just like men, are capable of heroism and villainy. ‘Americanah’ is another attempt to balance the story. Ifemelu’s life is a mirror of what exile does to female African migrants in America; the suspended hopes and the unspeakable resolve to survive. In all three books, Adichie gave us ordinary women with extraordinary propensities. In all three books too, Adichie succeeded in repositioning women in popular literature; not to displace the men but to occupy a deserved spot. And if these three books did not prepare us well enough for her growing personification of the voice of women, nothing else will.
Adichie’s silent rustle of the feathers has not gone unnoticed. Not to the administrators of the various literary prizes that she has won. Not to Beyoncé who sampled her TEDx Talk for the song ‘Flawless.’ Not to the French government who named her ‘Ambassador’ for its ‘Night of Ideas’ in January this year and to Brigitte Macron, the wife of the French President who hosted her afterwards. And certainly not to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who specifically chose Adichie to interview her at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in April.
And if we can find it in our hearts to admit the truth, then we may acknowledge her enormous efforts to give:- without asking for anything in return. We may remember that shortly after winning the Orange Prize in 2007, she invested her youthful enthusiasm, time and energy in a rare effort to help upcoming writers improve on their craft. She introduced a yearly international creative writing workshop that has attracted notable writers across the world to teach in Lagos, Nigeria. This remarkable effort is hardly remembered when Adichie’s story is told. Yet it is the closest anyone has come to repeating what Chinua Achebe did to African literature with the African Writers Series.
Indeed, Adichie’s impact is phenomenal. She has crossed the doorway of mere authorship and become a moral force, provoking the world from introspection and laughter to outrage as she pleases. If the life of a writer is humdrum, Adichie’s is glamorous. If some writers lack vocal expression, Adichie is outspoken and fearless. At the moment, there is no African writer and speaker in greater demand across the world for interviews, talks and speeches Some examples include her commencement address at Wellesley College (Hillary Clinton’s alma mater) which was included in the list of “Best Commencement Speeches” by US National Public Radio, and her keynote speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on World Humanitarian Day which received a standing ovation.
She was recently invited by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to serve as the Lead Narrator for the Malaria Summit London 2018, and will later this year deliver the keynote address at the US National Education Association symposium “Keeping the Promise of Public Education”.
Nor is there any more decorated. She is a favourite of academia, having been awarded honorary Doctorate Degrees in just the last three years from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, from Williams college and Amherst college, ranked number 1 and 2 on the list of America’s best liberal arts colleges, and from other prestigious American universities: Johns Hopkins University, Haverford College, Duke University, Bowdoin College. And of course, this is not to overlook her numerous other recognitions, including Fellowship awards from Princeton University and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard; as well as the world renowned Macarthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant: which was awarded to her ten years ago in 2008.
Her calendar is often full and keeps her shuttling between continents to keep speaking appointments. This year alone, Adichie has spoken at over a dozen events and will this month deliver the 2018 Class Day address at Harvard University (for which last year’s speaker was former US Vice President under Barack Obama, Joe Biden).
Yet, of all her famous speeches, none is as important to me as the speech she gave to mark Governor Willie Obiano’s 100 Days in office, in Awka. It was her first home-coming as a writer of note and a voice of her generation. Picking her topic carefully, Adichie chose the title: ‘Community and Consensus: My Hope for Anambra State.’ Almost acting out Chinua Achebe’s famous essay, ‘The Novelist as a Teacher,’ Adichie spoke candidly on the importance of preserving the Igbo Language. In a voice that carries no hint of the weight of truth, she warned Ndigbo that ‘to deprive children of the gift of their language when they are still young enough to learn it easily is an unnecessary loss. The loss is made worse by imagining what would have been, the stories that could have been told, the wisdom that might have been passed down and most of all, the subtle and grounding sense of identity that could have been imparted on the grandchildren.’ Driving the point further home, she reminded them that ‘one of the wonderful things about language, any language, is that it gives you a new set of lenses with which to look at the world. Which is why languages sometimes borrow from one another – we use the French ‘au fait’ and ‘savoir-faire’ in English-because communication is not about mere words but about worldviews and worldviews are impossible to translate.’ The hall erupted after her speech. The women’s associations members at the event broke out in enthusiastic dance steps and chants of ‘nwanyi bu ife,’ affirming the importance of women; a reminder that she was one of them. It was easy to see that she touches ordinary people the same way she touched Beyoncé and Hillary, and she is equally at home in her village and with people from all backgrounds and walks of life, as she is with globally known personalities. Adichie’s love for her country is well known and in 2011, the Nigerian Government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, awarded her the Global Ambassador Achievement Award
Away from writing and public speaking, Adichie has enriched our days with memorable moments. Like her epic clap back to the French journalist and her interrogation of Hillary Clinton’s choice of ‘wife’ as the opening of her Twitter intro. The outrage that followed Adichie’s choice of the word ‘upset’ in that interview is a watershed in audience feedback to someone they love. But predictably, when Mrs Clinton kept her promise and re-phrased her twitter intro, this same audience went to a pleasant sleep. So, Adichie should know by now that to be loved by one’s own people is not to be applauded all the time. Sometimes, it is to be caught in the vortex of their misplaced outrage.
But, whichever way we feel, we are no longer in doubt. Adichie has served us enough notice. She will not stop asking unsettling questions…about race and gender relations, about human dignity and about the human condition in Africa and beyond. And in a world in dire need of new voices from silent places, only few people come better prepared than someone rated as a ‘Leading Global Thinker’ by Foreign Policy magazine in 2013 and as one of ‘The 100 Most Influential People in the World’ by Time Magazine in 2015.
Award-winning American novelist, Dave Eggers considers Adichie ‘the rare novelist to become a public intellectual.’
And he may just be right!
James Eze is a poet based in Awka, Anambra State and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org