Friday, 7 March 2014
Is Adichie Like Achebe? Be Not Deceived by the Alili By Okezie J.S. Nwoka
The Alili is a centipede; a centipede has one hundred legs. That is what it claims. The claim won the acceptance of nearly every animal in the verdant forest, giving her the benefit of an unspoken doubt. All of the different animals believed her, save one group. All of the animals were deceived, except for the shrewd and perceptive Tortoise. When the Alili pranced around the market square with a foul pretentiousness, singing “Look at the wonderful me, and my one hundred legs,” the Tortoise yelled out, “Turn yourself over so that we, your kindred, may count your legs.” The Alili was shocked, and then angered by the Tortoise challenge. She knew she could not maintain her façade, so she ran away and became silent for a period of time.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an alili. The question, then, becomes “what is her façade?” How has she deceived us, her kindred? To answer these questions, one must examine how Adichie has crafted and marketed her literary career. I humbly submit that Adichie has stolen the legacy of a literary giant for the sake of her own personal self-advancement. Adichie has hijacked the literary memory of Chinua Achebe. She has done this through the construction of a parasitic Achebe Complex that is made evident through her words and through her work. From the onset, Adichie has claimed to have a special connection with Achebe, yet a critical analysis of her writing tells a different story. She finds significance in the fact that she once lived in the same home that Achebe did. However, what good is that fact when her work continually misses the mark— the mark set by Achebe’s high standards? Instead of standing on the shoulders of this literary giant and paying him a true homage, she tries to topple him… time and time again.
There are three ways that Adichie does this egregious thing. Firstly, she inappropriately deploys literary devices. Second, her characters lack a developed consciousness. Finally, the morals of her stories are not prophetic enough given the historical moment in which she tells them. Let us begin counting the legs of the Alili.
The opening line of Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus reads, “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” The language here is deliberate. It is intentional. Adichie is invoking the spirit of Achebe, and placing it in the typeface of her own text. However, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer… the centre cannot hold.” Adichie does not hear the wisdoms of Achebe, and as result the works fails. Take as one example the two writers’ use of folklore. Achebe uses the Igbo folklore of Tortoise to speak to the System of Reality (as James Baldwin would call it) of Okonkwo, his protagonist in Things Fall Apart. Because Tortoise is egocentric and places his desires before those of others, he suffers a tragic fate; his smooth shell is shattered. Okonkwo too behaves in that manner, and he suffers too. He commits suicide
Achebe’s poetic reflective-ness between the folklore and the novel’s characters, has no home in Adichie’s work. She too has a story about Tortoise in Purple Hibiscus, and that story lacks the poetic reflective-ness of which I speak. Her story of Tortoise cracking his shell is one governed by blackmail and greed. Because Tortoise desires to survive a famine, he blackmails Dog so that he can indirectly obtain food from Dog’s mother. Greed takes hold of Tortoise to the point where he deceives Dog’s mother, so as to eat an even larger portion. The question now is, “which character in her novel has the tendency to both blackmail and be greedy?” There is none; not one.
The second problem with Adichie’s work, as it relates to her Achebe Complex, is that her characters lack a developed consciousness. Achebe’s characters act within their surroundings, speaking with history and culture and Nature. They try to make sense of their System of Reality and imagine new ways of being, developing possibilities across space and time. Take Obi Okonkwo in No Longer at Ease as an example. His experiences while studying in England, cause him to rethink Igbo understandings of being and recreate himself as a “modern man”. He defies the wisdom of the elders who raised money for him to study abroad, causing a generational schism in his family. He also laments the corruption rampant in a newly independent Nigeria, and is constantly negotiating how to “be” within the borders of a nation defiled. He then engages in forbidden love, expanding the possibility of the privileged sharing a romance with the outcast. All of these factors make the moment when Clara, his lover, reveals her identity as an osu both powerful and power-filled. It is in his reaction. Instead of Obi jumping to embrace Clara to touch her and to kiss her, Achebe tells us that he was silent.
Adichie’s characters do not do this. They simply react to the forceful hand of their writer, not living in the moment of their literary existence. Take for example Ugwu in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. In most of the novel, he is portrayed as an incredibly docile boy sent to work for a university professor and his wife. We see him live in the shadows of the home, as a lowly servant. We see him play with, feed, and protect Baby, the couple’s daughter. We see him as an innocent. Then something happens. Ugwu is kidnapped by Biafran forces to fight, and without any notice at all the Ugwu that we know flips. He becomes a fearless soldier and a heartless rapist. This moment, unlike that of Obi Okonkwo’s, is strange and bizarre. One sees the same thing in Purple Hibiscus. Every reader of Adichie must ask themselves this question, “Did it “make sense” for Jaja to protect his mother by turning himself in to the police?” In my opinion, it made no sense. Adichie forced that decision upon Jaja; Jaja did not act on his own volition. The novel does not provide any signal, not even a whisper, to illustrate and contextualize Jaja’s System of Reality. As a consequence, when Jaja sacrifices himself, it seems as though he does so as a slave of the text. .
The third problem with Adichie is that her stories lack the prophetic gravitas necessary to challenge the social problems of her contemporary moment. She writes just to write. Now, there is no problem with writing for the sake of writing. In fact, doing so can lead to new and innovative literary expressions. However, if one chooses to write that way, one ought not claim to be something else. Do not be a puddle calling yourself an ocean. Achebe’s work was and still is a critical component of human liberation. In his text Home and Exile, he writes, “I did not really want to see the score of narratives between me and my detractor settled by recourse to power, other than the innate power of stories themselves.” He knew that freedom could not be attained through the barrel of a gun, but through the broad exchange of human narratives. Achebe’s writing prophetically spoke to a historical moment filled with holocausts and wars. It was a modernist moment, yet his writing transcended that moment by speaking to something larger, something bettered. The battles of today have new morphologies and writers writing on the shoulders of Achebe must adapt. Writing prophetically in a post-modernist moment requires humbling one’s narrative for the sake of allowing other narratives to exist, no matter how “bad” they are. It is a game of convincing and cajoling, not one of force. The meta-narrative has been damned.
The question, I now ask is, “How could the literary community even consider Adichie to be Achebe’s protégé when she does not speak prophetically in the post-modernist moment”? In a CNN interview, Adichie talks of banning Western stories like Cinderella, banning them as if this were the Third Reich. This deeply contradicts Achebe’s ideological position, a position that allowed for all stories to exist. Adichie’s novels are not about making the world better. They are about selling themselves. A friend of mine tried to convince me of the opposite by defending Adichie’s contributions to feminism, particularly as it relates to Nigerian women. I responded to her with the following:
There are so many problems with Adichie’s work I do not even know where to begin. Suffice to say middle-upper class Nigerian women have a system of reality that differs drastically from poor Nigerian women. How, then, does Chimamanda dare to speak on behalf of those impoverished women? How dare she?
I would not dare criticize any woman’s right to share her narrative. But when there is an attempt to [use] that narrative to eclipse another’s narrative, there is a PROBLEM. Adichie did not begin anything! Read the works of Yvonne Vera of Zimbabwe and you will see an African woman who understood feminism and womanhood. Read Butterfly Burning; your eyes will open. To say that African [women] have not [begun] a dialogue about their womanhood pre-Adichie is simply ahistorical.
It is here that you may be asking yourselves, “Who the hell is this kid?” Well, I am an Igbo-American who wants to continue in the tradition of prophetic liberation writers like Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Yvonne Vera, and others. A few months ago the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa extended an invitation to me to join their community of writers as a Masters in Fine Arts student. And I am thrilled. I am also fearful, fearful that the greatest literary minds can be quickly deceived— tricked into thinking that something is, what it is not. I have been consoled by one of my favorite African writers, a man who I consider to be my literary father, a man who said that I should not worry about such things. Still, the treatment of Black literature by the West concerns me, and I hope there can be more dialogue centered on resolving this issue once and for all, once and for everyone.
I admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a great deal. She is, in fact, one of the reasons I applied to MFA programs in the first place. The way she draws parallels to Achebe is the way I draw parallels to her. She was born on September 15th, which is three days before my birthday. She was born in 1977 and I was born in 1988, i.e. repeating digits. We are the same shade of brown. We both have parents who pushed us to study medicine. The list goes on. Still, I refuse to let my love for Chimamanda jeopardize the fate of African literature and the future of my own stories. I do not know if Chimamanda ever met Chinua Achebe. I have. As a student of Brown University and a concentrator of its Africana Studies Department, I have interacted with Chinua Achebe several times. The first time I told him my name, he let out an “Oooooohhh Okezie!” as if we had met before, as if we were old friends. I remember that moment, because it was the moment that I decided to try to continue his project, the project of our ancestors, the project of being free. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want that Chimamanda? Let me count your legs. Something tells me that with time, you will have one hundred.