How will history depict the African woman? That is the question Chimamanda Adichie explored as she spoke at the Royal African Society’s first annual literary festival in London. Africa’s leading literary voice and one of Forbes’ Youngest Power Women in Africa, Adichie reflected on five momentous decades of an African literary culture, saying, “Africans must speak for themselves… especially women.” Above all, it was a heartfelt tribute to Africa’s women writers. Speaking on the legacy and “complex femaleness” of the authors, Adichie declared, “African women writers’ story-telling nurtured mine.” The lecture was also a chance to get intimate with the Purple Hibiscus author as she discussed details of her childhood. To Ike Anya, who sat next to her, Adichie was the “small girl next door” whose imagination was “shrouded in wonder.” As Anya explains, “When the Achebes moved out, the Adichies moved in,” revealing Nsukka’s prestigious line of homegrown writers.
*All photos by Siddharth Khajuria.
An issue particularly close to the author’s heart is the role of women and marriage in African societies. Having decided to call herself a “feminist,” Adichie shared her amusement that a Nigerian reporter once told her, “Feminists are unhappy women who cannot find a husband.” Arguing, “We should not be raising our daughters to aspire to marriage,” Adichie urged her audience to “make space” in society for women who do not wish to get married. She added, “We need to teach our girls to conquer the world [instead].” Above all, Adichie hoped that history would remember that African women could love and be loved. One of the main reasons why her readers are drawn to Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to humanise people in deeply troubling circumstances. Even amidst the horrors of the Biafran War, Adichie’s characters were allowed to be passionately in love; from Odenigbo to Ugwu, master to houseboy, there was love at every level of the story. In societies where sex is rarely discussed and in a literary culture where love and romance are reserved for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed heroine (and “tall, dark and handsome”) means something very different to what a much younger Adichie had imagined, Adichie enforced what she called “the democratisation of sex.” She insisted, “The [African] woman is more than merely an object but [an individual] with her own desires.”
It was only a matter of time, however, before the language debate pervaded her speech. Having previously been accused of succumbing to “western” standards by people that Adichie jokingly describes as the “preservers of the African culture,” she defended her decision to write in English. She declared, “English is mine… it has become mine.” While Adichie grew up speaking both English and Igbo, her school system was entirely in English. She recalled how children could be punished for speaking the vernacular at school. Pointing out that many from her generation can neither read nor write in Igbo, Adichie explained, “English was the only language by which we could express ourselves philosophically.” She did, however, maintain that, “We need to find ways to give value to our language,” before adding that she finds it is “silly” that some are ashamed to speak their native language. Nonetheless, it is clear that Adichie operates beyond the confinements of the many burdens of representation faced by African, or indeed black, writers. She dismissed these burdens and their confinements, saying, “I don’t speak for all Nigerians.” She continued, “It is not something I think about. I want to write. I want to tell stories.”
This discussion soon found itself wandering towards homosexuality, a taboo subject by African standards (although this is changing). “I believe in love” was Adichie’s simple answer to Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights question. Boldly declaring that homophobia is “fundamentally wrong,” Adichie maintained, “Being gay is not something white people brought to us. Africans have been gay for centuries.” As for the Hollywood rendition of Half of a Yellow Sun, featuring Thandie Newton, Adichie said she was glad that even more people would be introduced to her story. However, explaining that books are, by nature, very different to movies, Adichie told her audience, “Half of a Yellow Sun matters to me in a deeply personal way… but I want nothing to do with the [directing of the] film.”
As the interest in Africa grows, Mary Harper, Africa Editor at the BBC World Service, shared her excitement for the prospects for African literature. She said, “This is just part of the whole Africa rebirth, the Africa renaissance,” adding, “Africa is growing into itself, as it were”. Harper praised Adichie, saying, “She has inspired others to write. She gave them courage.” Examining the outlook for future African writers, Adichie admits, “We don’t have many stories but it is changing. The more African stories we have, the better.” Adichie urged the audience to look to the past, as well as to the future, saying, “The books that truly matter are the ones that survive the ages. The books of the African Writers’ Series have endured.”
Story by Okayafrica Contributor Vinjeru Mkandawire.