When my book club selected Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), as our book of the month, that was my first introduction to Adichie. I had not read Purple Hibiscus (2003), but was impressed with her second novel, both the content (describes the Biafran struggle, 1967-1970, to establish an independent state in Nigeria and the awful Nigerian civil war that resulted in the lost and displacement of one million civilians) and the lyrical prose style that I decided to teach the book in my course on contemporary women writers the following year. Then when her collection, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), was published, I read it right away and decided to teach it in my graduate seminar on short stories from the African Diaspora. The twelve stories that comprise the collection are fierce, penetrating and provide unique insight into the motives of humans living in Nigeria as well as the USA. A long-standing admirer of Chinua Achebe, whose books I devoured and also taught, and who was the first writer to open the doors to Nigeria and invite me to be witness, praise Chimamanda Adichie. “We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.” I certainly would not dispute the great Noble prize writer, and in fact concur that Adichie is an astute storyteller, whose works does not shy away from both political as well as social commentary, and as such she in keeping with the ideological perspective of many writers from Africa and the Caribbean who feel an obligation and responsibility to use their art as a vehicle to understand, and even heal the social milieu of their respective countries. So it was with this mind set that I bought tickets for my daughter, a good friend, and I, to go and hear Adichie at San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Series at Nourse Theater on Tuesday, October 1. Adichie was in dialogue with Dave Eggers, whom she claims as a friend at the beginning of the talk, related in great detail a story of Eggers’ visit to Nigeria, and him having to drive in Lagos, and avoiding bribing the police when they were routinely stopped. Chimamanda Adichie was very upbeat from the moment she entered the stage, fashionable and commanding, she directed the course of the conversation, throwing off Eggers prepared attempt to ask her specific questions about her book and her work. She talked at length about the writing summer workshop that she started in Lagos, and the number of talented writers that have benefited from that program. Also, she shared her path to being a writer, which forced her to veer from the medical career that was to have been her faith, instilled by her family. Raised very privileged, Adichie said she had a wonderful, almost idyllic childhood, and upon reflections now, wouldn’t change anything about her past. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result of her comfortable life, she felt a deep sense of responsibility, to both country and family, when she wrote Half of a Yellow Sun. And in contrast, she emphasized, that her new novel, Americanah, 2013, that has garnered even more rave reviews than her previous works, was a departure from her other works and that she wrote it for herself, without any sense of obligation to anyone, and with a certain sense of freedom to both explore new terrain as well as experiment, and as a result, she didn’t think more than seven people would read it. I have not yet read Americanah, as my time has been absorbed reading and preparing for the graduate seminar I am teaching this semester on Haitian Literature, which includes several new texts to my repertoire. However the synopsis of this new novel indicates that it explores blackness in America through the eyes of its protagonist, Ifemelu, the young Nigerian who leaves a military ruled Nigeria for America. And although Adichie did not discuss about drawing from her own experiences attending university in the USA, she did say, with, it seems to me, still a tinge of indignation, her professor was surprised that she wrote the best essay in the class. She followed up this with by saying, and I paraphrase, I don’t know why he was surprised everyone knows that Nigerians are smart. In her world that was a given, just as blackness was a given, but the USA that she encountered that was not a given. In fact, the dominant discourse, which lumps all Blacks as the same, the converse is promoted as the truth. While Chimamanda Adichie did not elaborate in her talk about race, which does get boring for those of us whose experience of growing up in black countries, where everyone from the leader to the beggar is Black, we know the range and class difference that exist, and often find it tedious to continuously have to justify who we are to whose we deem ignorant or beneath us. After all, Es”kia Mphahlel, the great South African writer, hit the nail on the head, when speaking about African writers and their lack of need to name their blackness said, “A tiger does not have to declare its stripes.” It is self-evident. Without reading Americanah, I cannot say if Adichie arrives at the same conclusion, but I suspect that she might. More importantly, it is important for writers of African descent, for whom blackness is a given based on their experience of dominance and normative reality, tickle the ludicrousness and obsession of American racism that for too long has been a thorn thwarting the dreams and goals of selected members of its citizens. Adichie made is clear in her talk that she would not follow anyone’s agenda, and directed the course of the conversation. She did not need permission nor would she allow someone else to corral her. Yet, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed about the dialogue on two fronts. First, that Adichie did not read, even a short excerpt from the novel and second, given the plight of Nigerian girls and the political climate, that Adichie did not say anything on that subject. I suspect she had been asked about that issue ad nausea, but still, given her visibility, a concise statement would have suffice. During the Q & A, someone asked her about a feminist talk that she gave a while ago, and about how she felt that Beyonce used an excerpt of her talk in her song. Adichie deflected the question, but did say that among her nieces, to whom she had always appeared serious, being quoted by Beyonce scored her high, favorable points in their eyes. In all, the entire tone of the evening was lightly conversational and Chimamdana Adichie was gregarious and charming. Adichie’s Americanah is going to be made into a movie staring Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey in the movie, 12 Years a Slave. Already, the novel has won numerous awards including, 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, has been named One of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year , and won The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction, etc, ect. When asked about her reservations about her book being made into a movie, Adichie was very clear that both forms are very different, and that she would not be involved in the movie in any way, and did not want to be, except to make sure that the actors’ accent was Nigerian and not the common, generic, erroneous portrayal of African speech. Seeing Chimamanda Adichie, the darling of the literary world, celebrating her Nigerian style, her poise and intellect in an easy engaging manner that makes it clear she knows who she is, and is unapologetic in her confident suave and candor, was a special treat. I look forward to reading Americanah novel, and perhaps adding it to my rooster of books I teach.
I have been pregnant for the last fourteen years, and I am still carrying the life that remains curled in my womb, in my head, refusing to be born. And there is no doctor who can give me prostaglandins to induce birth so that my cervix will dilate and open up so I can push the story out. There is no doctor to lay me on the delivery table and probe between my legs with a forceps and pull out this story, nor am I eligible for a scheduled c-section to deliver this story while I am out unaware. It is a lie that elephants have the longest gestation period: 95 weeks, which makes a year, eight months and a week…. right, whatever!
I have been pregnant with this story for fourteen years, for fourteen years I have been carrying this man, who ever so often tugs at me, but still refuses to be born. I thought I had aborted him, rinsed him from my thoughts, decided there wasn’t a story there after all. Done. Moved on to the next poem and story, and I have written many since his first appearance. Then a few years later he appeared again, for a little while and I thought I miscarried him, a probing sadness that he came and went without turning into a real life, that I could carry around and show off, and say isn’t he cute, doesn’t he look like his other brothers and sisters, doesn’t he have my cheek bones, eyes…?
I recovered from his loss, and moved on, birthed other children who did not cling to my womb refusing the life that I was so willingly granting. They choose to be born and were named and published and thereby got to share their lives with others. And still others fought for place in my womb, racing frantically in this 40 million sperm marathon, most never lasting long enough to reach the uterus, make it to the oviduct, and still further up the oviduct where the egg is located, and then the road is still uphill from there, to break down the walls of the cumulus oophrous, all fighting more frantic and more eagerly, but only one, at least one at a time will fertilize my egg, and I will sit with loving patience and listen to and write their story. Well that is the way things are supposed to happen, but somehow this man won the sperm marathon, got inside my womb and stay glued to its walls, comfortable, contented, just hanging out, allowing many who came long after him to be born.
And here he comes, peeping out, spreading my legs wide on the Bart train (although still not ready to be born), just last night as I was returning home from the birthday party of my poet friend Nellie Wong, with the most outlandish opening if there ever was one. I should have known he was special since when he first came to me he was sitting in his living room building his coffin. And I told him I just could not have that, and his feeling were hurt and he went away. Then he came back a few years later and had a woman friend, although he was still building his coffin. I told him that I might be able to work with that – every one deserves a life and who am I to say to this man, you shouldn’t be building your coffin and courting a woman at the same time. And since she was cool with it, I said , okay I will give you a chance. But then he didn’t know what to do with this woman, and she wasn’t so sure if she should avail herself since when he invited her over, the coffin was in the living room like the proverbial white elephant in the room, except she really could deal more easily with a white elephant, any elephant even a herd, rather than the coffin. She just sat there ever so often glancing at it, hoping he wasn’t planning to kill her and put her in it, as they sipped rum and coke. Nothing happened, so I assumed, erroneously, that he just up and died and slipped from my womb while I was asleep and unaware.
Fast forward to last night on the Bart train and he appears in my head as clear and familiar as if it was yesterday, vexed that he came home, and this woman who it turns out he has only been seeing for a little over three moths he gave the key to his house and he returned to find her asleep in his coffin. At first he thought she was dead and was wondering how he was going to explain that to the cops, but then he realized she was asleep. Imagine my astonishment at these two people who have now taken up residence inside my head and have been carrying on.
I am sick of him, and because he still is not born, he has no name, so I can’t even shout, “Hey Delroy! or hey Jimmy or Sambu! Stop that and get out my womb! I have carried you long enough!” He pouts and tells me that is not his name, and to leave him be. You see my crosses. What can I do? It has been fourteen long years that he first came to me, and I hope now he is ready, but I don’t think he is a short story as I had hoped, I think now because he has been with me such a long time, he thinks he deserves a novel. I don’t know. I tell him I will see, but he cannot move as slowly as he has been these last fourteen years, we are both getting on with age and need to just decide.
That fact is, like me, I have known other writers who have been carrying a story with them for a lifetime, or at least for years. The average novel takes two years to be born, and this is true even of male writers, so again writers belie scientific evidence and data collectors who neglect to document these births of ours, often long and arduous– as we do give birth to stories and poems. As for women writers we never approach menopause, in fact we are often more prolific having multiple births as we approach that period.
Coming Next: 10 Reasons To Be A Writer
Send your questions about writing to Opal and she will do her best to answer your queries.
While I understand the impetus behind the above question, I must admit, having been asked it so often, I want to just fold my arms and turn my back in sheer vexation, but I don’t. I grit my teeth, breathe, smile then offer some shortened version of what is really a simple, but complex explanation about the voyage of poetry and the arduous and even hazardous steps that make one better. Of course it begs the question, better than now or then, better than X , Y or Z, or better at using words, or better at exploring a topic, or better at imagery, or just a better poet.
That is the dream of every poet, to be better than he/she already is. I think Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott probably would concur. Maybe even Pablo Neruda, and his teacher/mentor Gabriela Mistral. I think Octavio Paz wanted to be a better poet, as did Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course so did Miss Lou, the great Louise Bennett. I am still searching to know and discover how I can become a better poet as I am not yet the poet I want to be or think I can be, nor will I be as better as I want to be, maybe not even before I die.
The problem is with the question, is that the phrasing has an erroneous premise — which implies that there is a magical formula that makes one a better poet; or if I think Mervyn Morris is a better poet than I am, then whatever works for him that makes him a better poet, might also work for me. But the fact is while some might consider Mervyn a better poet than I, there are those who might consider me a better poet than he. Maybe we should stop comparing guinep to jackfruit. When one asks this question what is it that the person really wants to know? Truly, I don’t remember ever asking this question, but my memory sometimes lapses.
A better poet always self promotes, so I want to reference myself, and invite potential askers of this question to consult my collection, Eros Muse: poems & essays, (Africa World Press, 2006), and specifically, “When the Poem Kisses You,” which is a letter to an emerging poet, resulting from my teaching life, and also my version of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I am certain wanted to be a better poet himself. Although the essay is not prescriptive, nor does it specifically answer the above, it does, I believe, speak to some important elements of this writerly life of a poet.
The letter begins, and I quote myself, “When the poem kisses you, there is no need to ask what it means. Just accept it as a gift.” A better poet is someone who is open to being kissed by a poem, and does not question the gift, by feigning such trite response such as, “Oh you shouldn’t have.” Or “that’s so thoughtful of you;” or even worse, “I just don’t feel I deserve this!” A better poet readily kisses back the poem, and insists that the kissing continues as long as is possible until there is the need to come up for air. Bottom line. A better poet wants to write great poems all the time. But a better poet does not want to write great poems that is like that of another poet’s, regardless of whether or not that person is famous. A better poet has her own voice. A better poet knows it is practically suicidal to compare herself to anyone else. A better poet daily goes about doing her work –which is to write her truths in the strongest and clearest way that she discovers– to become better. Period.
In the above-mentioned letter to an emerging poet, I invite the would-be poet to become intimate with the three P’s: patience, persistency and perseverance. This is the only formula I know, and it has worked for me. A better poet understands that under no circumstances, should a poem be rushed. A poem is not a woman in labor. A poem is a Yogi, sitting on a mountain, with fog wafting as gauze while he ponders his third eye. A better poet sits with the idea, allows it to take shape until it levitates, then ever so gently, the poet grasps the poem, firmly, every so affectionately, until they become one, then the poem becomes its own essence and of necessity leaves the poet.
The other two p’s, persistency and perseverance, are dispositions that any better or wanting to be better poet must become very familiar with. To aspire to be a better poet demands complete intimacy with these two fellows, the former of whom can be annoying to even the most agreeable person, and the latter, although often admired for unyielding determination, has limited number of friends. But a better poet does not take her/his cue from others; a better poet understands that the work of a poet is never done. There is no finish line that you can speed past, setting a world record and garnering a gold medal. A better poet will not get the endorsements nor have the entire island come out to welcome you home like Usain Bolt. A better poet is lucky if she is even allowed to come back home so she doesn’t expect anyone to meet her at the airport.
But what makes a better poet, better than any superstar and why I so admire your desire to become a better poet, is that a better poet will take the time to validate by recording what she thinks, feels and knows; a better poet, by descending into imagination, ascends to give language to her idea, and is often willing to share her poem, even in its imperfection, in hopes that someone else might catch a hold of the light and bring it close to their heart to warm and brighten their life.
I am thankful that Keorapetse Kgositsile, South African poet Laureate, whom I met in New York in the 70s when I was taking tentative steps in this area, and whom I had the pleasure of hearing read last March at the National Black Writers Conference in New York, 2013 (and where I was one of the invited poets) wants to be a better poet; I am thankful that Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet and priest, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing read at the Annual Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicarague, 2012, (where I was one of the invited poets), wants to be a better poet. I feel so fortunate that Jayne Cortez, whose poetry I admire, and who recently died, wanted to be a better poet, and I am grateful that I know and have read with Sonia Sanchez, who inspired me to walk this path, and who still strives and wants to be a better poet. Wanting to be a better poet is perennial.
Thanks for stopping by. You have been on my mind.
Perhaps you are like me. Your head always bursting with ideas/information. There is so much to see, do and be. I want it all. It is all possible, by dreaming, seeing it, planning, working hard and connecting with others to make it happen.
That is why I am so delightful that you’ve connected with me. I am so glad you are wiling to help me make some fantastic things happen in our life time.
Here is what’s up for me. Establishing my university in St Croix, Adisa Institute of Creative Practices (c) 2014; my Caribbean Children’s journal, Ay-Ay (2012), my theatre group, Moving Women (c) 2012 and my writers/artists residencies. I need your help and support. I need your talent and commitment. I need your belief and resources. I need you to open doors and get the word out and connect me with others who want to share in this exciting dream. I need you to be onboard to help in the creation and design of a program that is totally appropriate and applicable to the Caribbean.
Together we can really do it , and it is not at all complicated, if we each get our ego out the way. Banish the naysayers. Focus on the salient aspects of the dream. Design a workable plan. Execute. Rethink. Relook. Take definitive steps.
Thanks for joining me. I am here for the long haul. I am used to working hard and following through. I believe and I know.
Come visit often. Leave me your fruits of love and vision. Share the ones I leave. Pass it on, pass it forward and make it happen.