Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story 03

Part Three
  • I must say that before I went to the U.S. 
    • I didn't consciously identify as African. 
    • But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. 
      • Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. 
    • But I did come to embrace this new identity. 
      • And in many ways I think of myself now as African. 
    • Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. 
      • The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries."
  • So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me. 
    • If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of 
      • beautiful landscapes, 
      • beautiful animals, 
      • and incomprehensible people, 
        • fighting senseless wars, 
        • dying of poverty and AIDS, 
        • unable to speak for themselves, 
        • and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner. 
    • I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family.
  • This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. 
    • Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Locke, who sailed to west Africa in 1561, and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. 
    • After referring to the black Africans as "beasts who have no houses," he writes, 
      • "They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts."
  • Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. 
    • And one must admire the imagination of John Locke. 
    • But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West. 
    • A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place 
      • of negatives, 
      • of difference, 
      • of darkness, 
      • of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet, Rudyard Kipling, 
        • are "half devil, half child."
  • And so I began to realize that my American roommate must have, throughout her life, seen and heard different versions of this single story, 
    • as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." 
    • Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places. 
    • But I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. 
    • In fact I did not know what African authenticity was. 
    • The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. 
      • My characters drove cars. 
      • They were not starving. 
      • Therefore they were not authentically African.

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