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.
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