Category: Literature

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Caribbean Reader

Studying Literature is always like opening a gift. You never know what you are going to get; or in this case, what you are going to have to read.

This was how I felt when I saw the list of sp books that I would be obligated to study during my first year of college. Typical Shakespeare, lack luster Australian poetry, a truly entertaining Barbadian-American bildungsroman, and Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

A muted cover with an author’s name that was difficult to pronounce: I wasn’t immediately interested. That was probably why I refused to read it until I absolutely had to (don’t judge a book by its cover!). The synopsis read in part:

’15 year old Kambili and her […] brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu Nigeria. […] They are completely shielded from the troubles of the outside world. Although her Papa is generous and well respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home – a home that is silent and suffocating’.

By the time I had finally gotten through the first page, I was hooked. It wasn’t just the way that Adichie had written the novel. It was more than the detailed descriptions and the gripping plot and dialogue. It was more than how she casually threw in Igbo dialect. It was a sort of familiarity. My only connection to Nigeria was knowing two Nigerian priests based in my community, yet it all seemed relatable. The fact that a book about an abusive Nigerian father who ruled a submissive wife and daughter under the guise of religion, could resonate in the mind of a Caribbean reader, speaks to the continuity of our inherently African ties.

After two years of studying books that I had no part in choosing, I could finally go back to picking from my own wish list of books. Yet my first instinct was to find something else Adichie had written. Whereas most people know of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because of her feminist monologue popularized by Beyonce, I was about to really get to know her through her portfolio of well received novels.

And so I purchased Americanah. Five hundred and eighty-eight pages of familiarity. Americanah chronicled the life of Ifemelu, a Nigerian expat living in America, after moving there for school. Sounds familiar? After leaving the love of her life back in Nigeria, Ifemelu eventually prospered in America; doing well at school, running a thought provoking blog on American blacks, and meeting new men. All the while, her first love in Nigeria tried desperately to hold on to the thinnest of strings which still connected them. Sounds familiar? Many Caribbean relationships often suffer when one person moves overseas for ‘a better life’ – that includes the parent-child relationship.

After experiencing a brutal identity crisis, failed relationships, family issues and an overall longing for home and what she left behind, Ifemelu made the brave decision to return to Nigeria. Sounds familiar? Like many West Indians who move back home, Ifemelu always felt like Nigeria could be just a little more developed. She felt like her new workplace could be so much more – the people could be so much more.

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I was always fascinated by Americanah. It was odd how well the book resonated with me, although I have never left the country for anything more than vacations. Vague themes of love, sacrifice, perseverance and even corruption struck a genuinely West Indian chord. One of the characters being the owner of a collection of poetry by Derek Walcott created an even greater connection between Chimamanda and myself. In ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the mention of Campari made me remember that it wasn’t a St Lucian product, however much that it is loved by St Lucians, and that the connection spanned more than just themes, but even taste in liquor! Change the names of the characters, and switch up the setting, and Americanah is easily a Caribbean novel, maybe even the work of Jamaica Kincaid or Paule Marshall.

It is always wise to read the work of your people, and work that accurately represents your culture. Caribbean writers are in no short supply, from the classic pieces that you were forced to read at school, to new writers who tackle more modern Caribbean themes and issues. However, when you can find a writer who is so detached from your culture, yet at the same time reminds you so much of your own self, it is almost imperative that you immerse yourself in it.

I am sure Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie cannot relate to green fig and salt fish, roti, callaloo and oil down. I, as well as millions of other West Indians cannot relate to jollof rice, egusi and fufu. But just like both cultures love yams, the connection between Nigerian and Caribbean literature is unintentionally similar, and speaks to the depth of our African roots, and the genius of Adichie as a writer. I am presently reading another of her novels: Half of a Yellow Sun, and I am sure there will be much to say.

 

— Nelly Charlemagne is a Saint Lucian Writer

A (2017) Take on Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Much of the joy of reading is tied to the exposure one gets to purposeful, reflective stories and delighting in creative story telling. Now twenty-five, I find myself eager to read not only for enjoyment but also to find stories that enrich my spirit and mind as a Caribbean woman moving through the world. (And now that I am looking for any and everything to write about – because I just want to write and write some more… to hopefully one day be great at it) I thought a recent book I read made for a good challenge and topic. Below is a synopsis including my thoughts on a recent read but a 30 year old Toni Morrison classic.

Loaded. Important. Spell binding. Toni Morrison’s Beloved receives no stars from me because it defies the commonness of star ratings and exists outside the classifying lines of “fictional novels”.

Heavy with themes of slavery, race, home, guilt, love, community and identity, Beloved follows the story of Sethe, a mother of four in 1873, who was put in the position of sending her three young children (two boys, and a “crawling baby girl”) off in a wagon in order to have them escape the perils of “Sweet Home” and its slavery. Swollen with her fourth child still in the womb, Sethe later flees “Sweet Home” on her own, to reunite with her children and to live in freedom.

Following a set of events, including delivering Denver, her second daughter and last child in a sinking boat, Sethe eventually makes it to freedom; a two story house referred to as “124” on Bluestone Road in Cincinnati Ohio, inhabited by her mother in law, “Baby Suggs”, and Sethe’s children. In this corner of Cincinnati, the freed lives of blacks are full of tenderness, love, determination, and chants of hope, all the things Sweet Home was not Sethe realizes, but for her the joy of the place is short lived. A disturbing encounter leads Sethe to murder her first daughter in a desperate act of protection, marking the beginning of the demise of the once haven, 124, which later becomes haunted by the baby’s ghost. The house, which was once a hub for the community turns into a place of scorn.

Later, in various forms of abandon Sethe, Denver and Paul D, another sweet home runaway who wanders into the picture at the beginning of the novel become the only three inhabitants of 124, excluding the ghost. Paul D presents to Sethe a new opportunity for something other than the seeming alienation that has eclipsed her life, but this vision is seared when they come home one afternoon and find a young, ailing girl who goes by the name “Beloved” on a stoop infront the house. It is hinted throughout the story that the girl may be the ghost of Sethe’s dead baby in human form. This welcomed intrusion (oxymoron intended) sews, plants and rains uncontrollable things into 124 that leaves its members emotionally hypnotized.

Beloved is an uninhibited peer into America’s history. Stripped of flowering, the language is raw, simple, yet fluid in the way of the most intoxicating poetry. Nonlinear, the events of the novel are revealed as the plot moves back and forth from present to past tense effortlessly.

Additionaly, although Sethe is at the center of the story, the narrative moves freely from 1st to 3rd person between each character. Hence we are made to consider a difficult time and circumstance from various perspectives;

Sethe’s narrative forces us to face the realities of her experiences as a slave woman, the brutality she came under while working for her white slave owners, the traits of which were so dark, she preferred her children dead than to have them live through it. The way the guilt and aftermath of her actions rocked her own-better life at 124 with Baby Suggs, her children and their surrounding community shed light on the relationships and intricacies of Black communities held together by the willingness of its members to create lives worth living in a world designed to stump the very prospect of this out of the picture.

Sethe’s daughter Denver’s narrative invites us into the confines of the life of a first generation “free” African American. Having been with her mother “all her life”, Denver up until the age of 18 comes across a product of a grief stricken but in her own right resilient matriarch and her loyalty, loneliness and will prevail at various stages of the novel.

Paul D, an African American man’s fragmented journey sketches a map of hardship across America’s southeast. Here we have a male perspective, from his life as a boy, his humanistic desires contained to a cottage and field, a young man shackled and buried, then uncertain and lost once he is free, a grown man cold and hard, scouring for things he is not even sure exists.

Baby Suggs, an endeared woman even after facing the brunt of slavery in its varied forms; savage then lenient, folds into herself after witnessing white men with self-rightousness etched into their eyebrows, spread malice through and to the lives of “negroes” like an infection.

Sethe’s “crawling baby” a reminder of the innumerable, unlived, severed African lives. Children who were turned over into unconsciousness by parents who felt the life waiting for them in this world too filled with torture and violence, so death seemed a more desirable alternative.

This was my vain attempt at summarizing a work of Art with complexities that have been analyzed for 30 years now, the resulting variety of ‘conclusions’ conflict in so many ways that an attempt to put a finger on one true meaning would be futile. Nonetheless, Beloved is laden with meaning and story. The events of the plot are precise but it captures the essence of a time when the definitions of life and living were violently distorted. All in all, my rating of Beloved is that Everyone should read this book at-least once in their lifetime.