#9 ~ Americanah & Being a (rootless) British African

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I really didn’t want to like Adichie’s new book, Americanah. Despite the fact that I got one of the first copies, and a signed one at that, I didn’t read it for almost two years. It sat, hardback cover and confident signature on my many university-room bookshelves, it’s large spine taking up pride of place, it’s crisp jacket (now oil stained) speaking of a newness, a freshness that should have been inciting, intoxicating even in its desirability. It blended cleanly into my pretence at a literary knowledge along with other ‘must-read’ African or African-American books, swilling from prose, to poetry, drama to criticism. Yet, for every month it went un-opnened, even throughout the summer when I couldn’t blame essays or supervisions, it reminded me of a fraudulence, a veneer of fakery that I had knowingly pasted over my face, its scent cloying, speaking of a knowingness, an intelligence, an awareness about the African experience which really wasn’t skin deep.

As Adichie has grown in the affections of white-educated-liberal society, the clamour for her work has, in a way, become cloying. I remember reading Purple Hibiscus when I was still a pre-pubescent teen and loving it (my own well thumbed copy has gone on a long loan/walk to a friend). I had always preferred it to Half of a Yellow Sun. There was a simplicity about the novel, a freshness and a pain in the characters – but never pity. Adichie didn’t (and still doesn’t) try too hard to breathe life into her world. Whilst my own attempts at any kind of creative writing have always been lugubrious, heavy handed and verbose, hers was stark, naked, clear and in that cleanliness it was seering, pernicious almost, unflinching. Whilst Half of a Yellow Sun became the literary love-child of all those politically-conscious white folks who were just so keen to ‘get’ the Post-Colonial experience, I didn’t love the book. I loved the meta-narrative that ran throughout, I loved learning about my matrilineal heritage. I loved a book that featured twins, but the narrative was detached from me – something to observe but not to feel. I felt the same when I dutifully ploughed through her collection of short stories (The Thing Around Your Neck) for A-levels. Her style effortless as though she doesn’t try she just tells. But I couldn’t help but fall into the romance of her craft when I analysed the stories, wrote essays about them – essays that got me my place at University, I learnt to admire her, yet still felt my heart ached as I saw glimpses, shadows of myself in her syntax, shadows that I recognised but did not fully understand.

So, when it came to reading Americanah, egged on by the girlfriends and soul sistas who kept plugging the book, the whispered comments of a smugness that surrounded Adichie now she was an established figure in the ‘African canon’, gave me a weak, immature excuse not to open it. I wanted to find a reason to resent her, to find fault with her, or at least her work. I wanted to struggle, I wanted her to be novel, unique, and not as celebrated as she was – as known. I wanted her to be mine, the way I had thought of her when I read the still unknown Purple Hibiscus. So instead I returned to her literary father and discovered that Achebe’s prose is indeed like palm wine, his criticism sharp, his fiction…beautiful. I devoured Things Fall Apart,reading the whole novel out loud in a 2-day sitting during my exam term last year. It’s one of the only times I ever sat in the armchairs of my lavish room. I don’t speak Igbo, but speaking Okonkwo’s name out loud, attempting to intone the proverbs I imagined my Grandfather would let slip from his lips as he sat on his verandah in Onitsha, gave me a degree of firmness, like a long lost child returning home after a long time, discovering the dusty memories of old rooms and forgotten wallpaper that had always been there, but one hadn’t had the clarity of mind to see. The last few sentences stilled my heart, and even speaking of it to a friend only a week ago, I felt my body plunge again into the wretched pool of pain and awe at his craftsmanship, at the reality that he described so unflinchingly, so un-ironically. I devoured A Man of the People, and began No Longer at Ease, and all the while my mind was pulled back to Adichie, and I saw just how well her form matched her forefather, just how talented her written sculptures were.

So, at the start of this term, I decided to cut the pages of Americanah at last and begin reading. I laughed, I was intrigued, but I grew bored and it sat on my bedside table for weeks on-end as the mania of term swept me away (or rather I turned on the fan and said – Micahelmas – Take me Now!). But then today, having passed out from sheer exhaustion after working till 5am and waking up at 1.30pm causally missing my 10am lecture, I thought – screw it – i’m going to indulge myself. And I read, and read, and read, and only just finished.

Americanah is exquisite. Painfully, beautifully, exquisite. People throw slogans like – best thing ever written – around too easily. But it was bloody brilliant. And I could launch into a wonderful critique of its arcs and curves, but that would spoil your own journey of it (because you will read it). But reading it made me understand more why I so wanted to dislike it.

There is a certainty in Adichie that is both compelling and unsettling. She knows who she is. Like Ifemelu, she might be buffeted by transition but she is not overblown. She might ‘code-switch’ but her tongue is not loose, not flaccid, it is not confused, it can always return to its original nuances and intonations. Though Adichie primarily writes in English (her work is littered, like Achebe, with Igbo sayings), she is not confined to speak in a language that is not her own. Hers is a choice, not an expressive requirement.

In the first half of the book, Ifemelu, our striking, forthright yet at times vulnerable protagonist attends the African Society of her university, where she is told, laughingly (but not mockingly) that African Americans who seek to be part of the society are those who ‘write poems about Mother Africa and think every black woman is a Nubian Queen’. I laughed wistfully when I read it, because I realised that was me.

For those of us born and raised in, and here i’m specifically talking about the UK diaspora, we are not rootless, like African Americans. Many of us know ‘where we come from’, whether we are Caribbean or African – and will say (now with pride, when we were in primary school the question either confused or mortified us) – I’m from Nigeria, Jamaica, Grenada, Ghana etc. Even if we are not that attached to those countries of ‘ethnic origin’ (as if 2nd generation Polish, German or Spanish people don’t also have a country of ‘ethnic origin’), we will at least state – my parents are from XYZ. So we are not rootless. But we, or at least I, have still suffered a trauma, a blow to that fragile process anthropology will call the constitution of self. Because though we are not rootless, we are also not rooted.

I wasn’t raised to think of England as my home, neither was I raised to think of Nigeria as my home. Home was something that existed in the present, where I was right now, it didn’t extend into the future and it didn’t link into an ancestral past, at least not in daily life. On applying to University my father emphatically challenged me about saying I was British Nigerian, insisting I was British but cited the fact that I had never lived in Nigeria and carried a red passport as the reason. My mother agreed, but only because she feared my CV could be rejected on account of 419s and other shitty prejudice. But aside from that, whenever we did something bad, they would remind us that we were not from England, therefore we dare not act like these oyinbo people with no home training. Sometimes it would even resort to – Do you know who your people are, where you come from – by which they referred to our tribal people group or home village – a culture we barely understood, a language we didn’t speak, a place we had never been to (or if we had, we’d been too young to formulate concrete memories). Sometimes my mother would say, why do you want to claim Nigerian, when I went through my ‘Mother-Africa-down-with-Colonisalism-BS phase’ – what has Nigeria ever done for you?! But then we rarely spoke about what England had done for me. It was taken as a given: education, amenities, healthcare, safety – but in terms of culture, values, history, I was never taught to be grateful to England for those things. So we (I) existed in a liminal space – a non-space, having to carve out Rushdie’s imaginary homeland. A space where people who looked like me and carried, as Adichie beautifully typed, the fine stamp of culture, existed. A space where people who had taught themselves to code switch spoke loudly and over-confidently. Reading Americanah, I wondered when that had happened. My ability to at best mimic at worst parody a Nigerian accent. In primary school I was as English as they came, in fact I remember actively learning long complex words to make sure by Englishness was permanent. And then, towards the end of year 6 this weird craving for America arose.

Fresh on the wave of TLC and Destiny’s Child, being African American wasn’t just sexy (as If 11 year old me even knew what sexy was, though in a way we did) it was acceptable. So I walked into secondry with the fakest Californian accent ever straight out of Saved by the Bell, My Wife and Kids and all that Disney crap. I remember feeling so proud when two year 10 girls asked me curiously if I was from the States one break time. But then the softness of the accent got to me, and I found myself switching from my Shepherds Bush accent into a weird cockney mockery, into faux American into Received Standard English, until I got to Uni. I got to Uni and met real Nigerians, the one’s that actually knew what to say in pidgin’ and not just how to intone it. They humoured me, and my tonal flexibilities increased, but always hollow. I made my voice. I don’t actually know what it should sound like, but today it’s a beautiful pan-world mishmash that is simultaneously ugly, phoney and lifeless.

The diaspora is a trauma, and not just the trauma of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Even when we moved by choice, moved for a better life, for safety, for whatever London streets promised or required, trauma was inflicted. And not just on the parents, safe in their knowledge of ‘home’, safe in the knowledge that they even have place to call ‘home’, where they don’t have to explain why their English is so good even if their name is ‘foreign’, where they don’t have to straddle a place that gave them culture and a place that gave the rudiments of basic survival of human nurture.  Where they are not limited to expressing themselves in one medium even when they are surrounded by a multiplicity of other languages which teaches them to create parts of themselves that can only be expressed in non-English sounding words (when i’m angry, or impassioned I want to reach for Yoruba like my parents, but just end up with an exasperated Ahn-Ahn, You know, Ha! Because I can’t say anything, I can just sound things).

I hate being rootless. I hate being rooted in that rootlessness. I hate having multiple homes that are more like rented apartments rather than deeply dug foundations. But I acknowledge that it is an emerging existence, and it is something Americanah pulls out so teasingly, so exquisitely. I loved it. I loved Americanah and I mourned when it ended because, some small part of me, wanted the security Ifemelu has at the end, wanted someone to say to me ‘Come In’, and to take my hand, and lead me home. But I am glad Adichie wrote it, and I know that now, those of us that are the Non-African (but perhaps still Afrcan) Blacks, need to write for our own – for we are an ‘our’ now, as much so as we’ve ever been.

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#8 ~ Humour is like a piece of cake

My sister is a joker. At a very young age she learnt the art of laughing at herself and therefore with others. I have tried numerous times to master said skill. Sadly I tend to be the one people are laughing at, yet i regularly convince myself they are laughing with. When the penny drops (often after i’ve laughed myself into a coughing fit) my embarrassment turns to frustration turns to a sour face.

Today as we were cracking joke by phone, we (read I) casually embarked on some shared (read self imposed) Facebook stalking, upon which we (read I) stumbled (read searched thoroughly for) some (read specific) images of a friend I admired. Gushing to my sister about how great they were, her first response was

They have a monobrow

I was crushed.

But look at the cheekbones I implored.

I’m a superficial person – she laughed, as I desperately tried to do an eye transplant via the phone line so she would see what I was seeing.

But they’re so sweet – I continued. I wasn’t sure why I was putting so much effort into this attempt to let her see said individual from my perspective – the endeavour was embarrassing if not, on reflection, creepy at the least

Look, i’m sure they’re great, but i believe in the separation of their eyebrows, they deserve freedom, emancipation is their’s for the taking.

I could not control the laugh that screeched out of my voice box. See my sister has this deadpan sort of humour – when it’s transcribed it comes across as rude (which it is!), but she manages to express herself with a gentility that is sweet and harmless at the same time. And also, cruelly funny.

Talking to a friend earlier today about laughter, I’m always reminded how little I laugh when I’m not at home. It’s as though humour were a piece of cake, a small slice of deliciousness that one can’t eat whenever they want, partly because there isn’t occasion to consume regularly.

I want to delight in humour more this year. Humour at other people’s expense isn’t the greatest form, but there are so many different types, so many ways to laugh, to laugh with others, to laugh with oneself. To be filled with humour would be a delicious thing to achieve this year. With that in mind, one of the first stand ups that ever made me really laugh – the late Mitch Hedberg:

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#7 ~ Library Hustle

The library used to be a place of utter un-productivity for me. The silence, the stuffiness and the feigned concentration all brought me into direct contact with the greying boarder of a comatose state. But then I discovered working in my room just meant extended nap time – so me and the library had to sort out some kind of effective working pact. Yet, now traversing my final year, there are a few things about the library and the evident hustle that takes place in it, that I have decided to take some real issue with.

No .1 – The Stage Whisper.

I work in the SPS library. It should stand for Select People’s Study Library considering very clear-cut gang lines develop as the year progresses. Territorial possession of tables and glowering stares are the welcome party for newbies who have not been pulling solid 9-7’s since October. But it stands for Sociology Politics and…I actually don’t know what the last S is for. It could be Social Anthropology….i’m genuinely not sure. But anyway, this library, designed to let natural light caress your double-strength, high-gloss text-book pages, is open planned. It means sound carries. The librarians, a pretty chilled-out lot, occupy the lower level, so us students have free reign up top – yet the taboo of speaking still holds court. So to get around it, happy homework gangs, crowded around adjacent tables decide to whisper. But not the imperceptible whisper that is conducive to putting together an escape plan while your kidnapper is negotiating with the police. A stage whisper. You know, the type of whisper that takes place by actors on a stage to convey the idea of a real whisper, but audible enough so the AUDIENCE CAN HEAR??!!

What is the point. Seriously? Why go to all those lengths. Just talk normally. Because when said culprits whisper all this unchartered air begins to gush out between their teeth as they start to over enunciate and develop an elongated lisp so all I hear is the crashing waves of sss’s and punctuative, plosive ‘ps’ and ‘bs’ that sear through my headphones. And then they laugh – because obviously essay planning can only be endured with humour. Imagine that – a stage whispered laugh. If you can’t, it sounds like rapid fire heavy breathing and asthmatic inhaling. Why? Just. Why?

No.2 – Adopting the Studious Position with Pzaaaaz

You know those people. They clomp up the steps, huffing and puffing so all the tables shake and everyone raises their head in anticipation of their entrance. Swinging their backpack/handbag some kind of holding device off their shoulders they let it land on the table, wham, the impact rippling through the stacked books and forcibly re-arranging the metal casing of your laptop, so that your equipment ends up with a sympathetic dent. Then throwing themselves onto their chairs, they sigh at all the (un-called for ) effort they have expelled, before scrambling (loudly) to unpack their chargers, snap open their laptops, smash their (constantly vibrating) phones in the space that separates your elbow from their sprawl of papers.

Click goes the top of the highlighter, preeeeessssss goes the nib engraving their thoughts into the very psyche of the long dead table their elbows are pressing studiously into. They exhale, nostrils flaring as your skin is engulfed in a stream of air.

WHY SO MUCH EFFORT PEOPLE. Making notes just isn’t that deep. The library is a quiet place. Learn to unpack quietly. Learn to notes take quietly. Learn to BREATHE quietly. We all know that this year is a hustle year, we’re all getting into gear, but being extraneously noisy is at best a distraction at worst an inconvenience. Stop, please and learn the art of gentle working.

And last but not least….

No.3 – “Hey, i’m in the library…what’s up?”

Are.You.Mad. It’s not a question, it’s not even a form of rhetoric, it is the sound of utter exasperation. Not only is your phone ON (and at this point i’d like to also call out the jingle for what’s app messages – that is seriously getting to me, a still non-smartphone user), but you both register the call, register your surroundings, and answer – in a more than AUDIBLE voice. At this point I urge you to bring back the somewhat redundant stage whisper at least. That is better than the blatant causality with which you engulf all within sonic reach with the ins and outs of your life. Stop.

I’m not saying i’ve never answered my phone in the library. Sometimes things happen. But when they do, you cup your hand over your mouth, whisper ‘in lib, hold on’, and dash down the stairs to the freedom of outside. Upon your return, you nod your head apologetically to all who greet your presence, place said phone in your pocket where its’ vibrations will not be heard, and return to your work. The precarious peace has been restored.

The library hustle is a serious thing, but let’s make it a hush hush hustle.

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#6 ~ Let the Rain Wash Over You

Her crown of purple and gold was drenched by the intermittent tears that fell, like rapid fire, from the tempestuous faces of a fatigued crowd of underfed and overworked clouds. They grumbled their discontent each time a proposition to suspend their lethargic tantrum was presented. And so the tears fell, pooling along bitumen lined roads, washing them slick with the image of sweat, a covering that turned them from trusted friends to slimy paths that shimmered belligerently under drug induced headlights. I watched their shallow tears fall, washing over the hushed night like a damp blanket that brought no comfort but the anxiety of further ill. I thought of their cries, hollowing out the heavens with each unexpected shower, bursting over the huddled figures gracelessly, carelessly.

And I thought of how each cry was mimicked, behind concrete and wood lined walls, in the cracks of brick and ageing mortar. I heard the disaffected chorus welling up, swelling over doorposts and under window frames, trailing round fences and gates. A moaning, wailing, mournful chorus that shook tears onto carpets, and scrunched screams up in shredded sheets of paper.

I thought about how the rain was meant to wash things away, how it was supposed to beckon in new dawns lined with fresh sprays of freedom and hope. How it was meant to cover the evil that had erupted from the clods of earth and manure we built our foundations upon.

But that night, the rain was not a blanket of peace, it was not the amniotic sac that preserved what was good in this world, holding it gently until dry land was found upon which life, crowned by a white dove, could be re-born.

That night, the rain washed over a scar wrenched city, each drop a nail hammering into already broken minds, the cries of the clouds only swelling that grey matter, their rumblings covering the pitiful moans with a forecast of tempestuous weather.

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#5 – Don’t Compete

Exhaustion is bred from external competition, but any good athlete knows discipline and planning is what wins the race.

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#4 ~ Have No Shame

Some tops are not made to be worn, not if, like most, moisture accumulates underneath your arms when you are cold. Some tops are great for days like that – the body moisture (note to self: because you drink water it has no odour), blends perfectly well with the texture and colour of the top so when you raise your hands for a salutary high-5 there’s no awkward pause from the responding partner. Some tops suck at that. Into this basket I throw fitted dark grey cotton polo necks. They look fit, but the problem is they fit (haha) too well and tend to shift from grey to black in the under-arm section of the otherwise perfect selection of final-year battle gear.

So this evening I found myself crouched (literally) under a dryer with my body twisted towards the ceiling and my arm looped over a less than capable stainless-steel contraption (it was the second one I had accosted), as I slid my body up and down the tiled bathroom wall trying to repeatedly trigger the sensor so small puffs of supposedly hot air would dry my underarms.

It looked weird. I was so hoping no-one would dash in for the toilet, as the sight of me polishing bathroom tiles with my rib-cage and inadvertently thrusting my hips at the fitted ceiling lights was disturbing even for my reflection, let alone someone actually detached from my being.

But, I found myself in said position, because I had two options:

Option 1: Rock about with black patches oozing from your armpits to under your bra-line and feel self conscious that your body is leaking

Option 2: Fix it.

Now there is nothing wrong with our bodies natural functions. I recognise the image I have just depicted would seem as though I were sweat-shaming myself and in the process all other human beings with sweat glands who wear clothing. I love my sweat, it keeps me alive, keeps me cool, sometimes it acts as a natural moisturiser (ok, that’s a joke gone too far), but I don’t really have a problem with it as an essential part of my being. Of course my noted insecurity is a product of a social image I have all but digested which presents the body and all its natural functions (especially anything that leaks and moreover is related to the female anatomy) as grotesque – and we have a long journey to fight such a warped view of ourselves, BUT, before I digress and begin pontificating about my various stances of feminist politics, I learnt a valuable lesson today, one in PRO-ACTIVITY.

I was pro-active about my situation. I didn’t like the position I was in, I didn’t want to wear a self-created 2 tone polo neck, so I did what I could to avoid such a situation. I took initiative and went in search of a ‘cure’, or at least a means to achieve my desired goal – a non-sweat obvious piece of chest clothing.

I’m about to start my first week of lectures. For the past few years a lot of material has skipped gloriously over my sculpted head, sometimes it even sings a lullaby as it goes by. I’ve been afraid in the past of asking questions, of approaching lecturers or fellow class mates. I’ve felt stuck – i know i’m supposed to ‘get’ the information, but I don’t and I don’t know how or where to ‘get’ it. So I walk around with obvious dark patches in my intellectual knowledge and my weekly essays.

This year I’m finding that dryer – two if need be. And if it means sliding up and down metaphorical bathroom tiles (which, in context, would be the equivalent of pulling night shifts in the library and being the student who asks a question *breathes sharply* at the end of lectures) in order to get that puff of dry air, that spark of inspiration, then so be it.

If your armour has holes in it – it’s pretty shit. If your armour doesn’t protect you as expected, it isn’t doing its job. If you don’t have the initiative to get an alternative and thus place yourself in the most confident and comfortable position possible, then the only person you’re hurting is you. And if you don’t know how to fix your armour, then you are a handicapped soldier. Solutions start with you – have no shame to ask the question, have no shame to do what it takes, no matter how embarrassing, to get what you need (so long as it’s legal and doesn’t actually injure or harm another human being…or this planet).

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#4 ~ Make a List

Make a list. Make lots of lists. Cross out things on said list. Then make some more.

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