Lions and Tigers and Half-Devils, Oh My!

I love this woman’s voice!  I thought it was extremely effective that she began her discussion with the details of her early story-telling as a little girl – this idea that the very characters and scenarios she created (of course regurgitated from her own books at that young age) were “white and blue-eyed” is so telling.  Already as a little girl in Nigeria, she is self-defined as “other” as she reads about the fictional lives of caucasians.

I was really intrigued with her idea that we are vulnerable as we delve into a story, whether fictional or not (this truly does not matter), as we doubtless absorb the material in any case.  Obviously, this scenario can become dangerous when it implicates one’s sense of self and place.  As a child, Adichie was complacent about the fact that she could not directly identify with any of the characters in her British books, which is mildly alarming.  It is typically not until we become more evolved readers that we are ripe to undertake the challenge (or even the burden) of learning about others who are different from us – this not only informs us of those who are marginalized, but it forces us to confront ourselves about our own ideas regarding race relations and multiculturalism.

As Adichie discussed the challenge of finding African books, it reminded me of the first time I discovered there was even such a genre as Black Women’s Literature.  As an undergraduate with a minor in Women’s Studies, I took an amazing course called “Mothers and Daughters,” where I first read Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid; it left me feeling perplexed.  After years of competent teachers and professors feeding me the accepted canon of literature, I still could not fully grasp the idea that black women wrote.  It was like a breath of fresh air, and it helped steer me even further into the area of women’s studies and women’s writing.  Although I enjoyed Kincaid’s novel greatly, the piece, in a sense, knocked the wind out of me.

What is postcolonialism?  Although we’ve had some reading thus far in this course, I do think that this 20-minute discussion from this lovely woman certainly clarifies this probing question for me.  In my post-summer foggy brain which has had little exposure to this branch of English, Adichie’s anecdotes are appreciated – she is a wonderful storyteller.  As she tells us that she was unaware that people like her could exist within the pages of literature, it calls into question the idea that some may assume they cannot exist anywhere, or even exist at all, because of who they are.  Adichie’s words reflect what we read about “Place” in our Post-Colonial Studies – if women with chocolate skin (as she says) are not found within plain old books, where, then, can we find them?

This warning about the “single story” is a dynamic idea and works in many layers.  We are not a single story; rather, we have many faces and these may shift from day to day, or even moment to moment.  Not only are we not defined by our skin or where we come from, but we reserve the right to change our story if we see fit – or even if one story happens to be true, there is another story which readily challenges the first one.  This idea of the single story is parallel to acknowledged or chosen ignorance, or even the act of abandoning the search for information and wisdom.

Adichie’s story about her houseboy is something which we can all relate to.  If we make the decision (whether conscious or not) to view something or someone in only one dimension, they have no chance of transcending beyond that unless we are shown different.  It was not until she visited his home did she find that there was more to the houseboy than a poor family.  It was disappointing to hear about how she was received by her new roommate once Adichie moved to the states.  I think what we can take away from this specific anecdote is that her roommate could have been any one of us – feeling pity for her before meeting her rather than anticipating the adventure of cohabiting a dorm room with such an interesting person, and expecting that Adichie has no knowledge of working modern appliances, rather than bonding over movies and popcorn.  I think that many of us fall into the role of pitying the “exotic” or even “barbaric” foreigner from a country we know nothing of, who listens to “tribal” music and must speak some tragic form of broken english.  We may all have this single story if we are not cautious and receptive to the unfamiliar, as Adichie proves as she tells us about her visit to Mexico.

My mom and brother visited Africa a few years ago to take a safari and see all of the beautiful landscape and animals Adichie suggests are waiting there for westerners.  I think it is arguable that such an excursion is the opportunity to embark on a single story – let’s go and take photos of the pretty things we find and buy “handmade” objects which represent all those pretty things from the half-naked natives.  While my mom was not so interested in more than the single story she knew (or thought she knew), my brother spoke with tribesmen and asked them about their lifestyle, what a typical day was like, what they ate and drank in such a climate.  Although I think these things are impossible to fully comprehend unless you are, in fact, African, a conscious step was made to hear more than the single story of Africa today.  Why travel that far for only one story?!

Columbus apparently did, though.  I read his letters in a wonderful American Lit. class I took at ESU, and I had almost forgotten his offensive language and ridiculous expectations of the people he found.  “I might the more easily make them friendly to me, that they might be made worshippers of Christ” (20).  I guess America needs a hero, so we chose this guy – reminds me of the way that bumbling hypocrite Robinson Crusoe treated poor Friday.  Within Columbus’s letters, we do not find the single story, but rather, no story at all.  Because Columbus is part of the “celestial people” (20), he sees it as his duty to write the story of these people.  The cherry on top of this particular letter (for me) is the observation that the women “perform no kind of work of their sex” (22) because they carry weapons and work harder than their male counterparts.

I was so struck by this idea of “African authenticity.”  Zowie!  Whatta loaded phrase.  Adichie’s characters were not authentically African because, apparently, their descriptions and circumstances were too similar to the way in which white people live?  This reminds me of all the hullaballoo made four years ago when President Obama was criticized for being “too white” (although he is of mixed race) because he spoke well, dressed well, and he was smart and sexy (in the way that he was dynamic, charismatic, and appealing to the public – although he is easy on the eyes!).  How, then, did these critics expect him to behave during his campaign?  Perhaps if he had listened to “tribal” music and expressed frustration over working the modern contraption, the white man’s stove (back to Adichie’s story), those in question may have concluded that, yes, he is black after all.

I was so delighted to hear her reference to Ellis’s American Psycho, as it’s one of my favorite novels – and she so expertly utilizes it to prove her point!

Postcolonialism, then, is the offering of not only a second story, but limitless stories.  It is the opportunity to build a bridge to those we will never meet and cannot hope to speak with, but whose spirit resonates within literature, if we only choose to pick it up and read.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Isn’t it amazing how Adichie’s idea of the single story mentality resonates with your lived experiences? Clearly one of the main reasons that this speech is so important is that it identifies the essentializing and reductive ways that humans interact with an impossibly complex existence.

    I love the connection you make between Columbus and Crusoe–its perfect! It seems as if Crusoe’s often absurd understanding of the island and the world is derived at least partially from Columbus’s particular way of describing his activities. I wonder if there was any conscious attempt on Defoe’s part to copy the mentality of the discovery age colonizers or if he just happened to capture this mentality as part of his story-telling efforts.

  2. laurentocci says:

    I completely agree with your connection to the situation that occurred with President Obama! We have become so complacent in our quest for knowledge, that when a framework is established for how any group of people should act, we only desire those results. In relation to “african authenticity” I started thinking back to how many classes I have taken where they have discussed the narrative voice as being authentically (anything filling the blank). It is amazing in the discussion of literature, how often we do this, and how Adichie really can shatter the glass on how to discuss story.

    1. clutzclemens says:

      Isn’t amazing how an 18 minute talk can do such powerful work?

  3. clutzclemens says:

    This is a fantastic post. I am curious as to what country in Africa they visited. When I went to South Africa, the first thing people asked me was if I had gone on safari. I hadn’t. But I had seen crippling poverty and vast wealth. No one wanted to talk about that…

  4. clutzclemens says:

    Great title, by the way.

    1. lotusgurl says:

      Dr. C., they went to Kenya – all the buses there had photos of Pres. Obama on them! When I worked at Wegman’s, we had lots of customers from South Africa, and I’d always ask them what part of England they were from – I must’ve sounded so eurocentric!

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