Tag Archives: Anambra

#10 ~ Being beautifully rooted in the Diaspora

africa-roots

I have a friend who’s from my mothers home state in south eastern Nigeria. I think he finds me intriguing in a you’re-interesting-but-kinda-weird-way. Sometimes when we’re talking , I can tell that he humours me, he doesn’t necessarily ‘get’ me, but he listens and he finds it interesting. Sometimes I imagine that in his eyes I look like a lost sheep, slightly homeless and befuddled, but fuelled with a sense of directionless purpose. I feel this most often when i talk about my identity, my sense of belonging. He speaks Igbo, lived (if only for a short while) in Nigeria and knows the point at which he migrated to the UK. It was something he was contextually conscious of. He tells me if I went back i’d be welcomed home as a returnee daughter. Sure, for a period i’d be called oyinbo  or ‘just-come’, but in time I would settle, I would be accepted. He doesn’t, I feel, quite understand that diasporics never fully settle in already established homelands. He is rooted in a context, I, as I see it now, am rooted in rootlessness. 

My sister has never had an issue with this. Growing up my Dad’s pet name for her was ‘the Rock’, because she was solid. Some of this had to do with her physical build, which my Mum gave my Dad an earful about, but I think a lot of it had to do with her character. T is solid. When she sets her feet on something, it’s because she’s sure, and when she’s sure she stands her ground. She weighs her words carefully and speaks sparingly, often the quiet one in conversations. I used to think it was because she was shy, or didn’t always ‘get’ what was going on. Time told me it was because most of the time she had already worked out the answer, and found all us babbling self-proclaimed young ‘intellectuals’ wallowing in our existential crises at best irritating, at worst stupid and self indulgent. T is a firm foundation. She is rooted. And I think she’s rooted, because she is secure in what she is, and she’s made peace with that. In that sense we make a perfect team. I used to be called feet-on-the-ground-head-in-the-clouds and my mother’s nickname for me was spitfire, because I would flare and burn and run full steam ahead before burning out, sometimes with the job, passion or vision left unfinished.

These are crass and simplistic distinctions, but for a generalistic musing they’ll work for now. Whereas I pined for ‘home’, T was comfortable from the get-go with being British and Nigerian, being a Londoner and  from Anambra and from Ilesha – it wasn’t really a thing, it was just her, whereas I flitted from British, to English, to Nigerian, to British Nigerian, to Nigerian British, to Igbo, Yourba and Bristolian – I was very lost, and frustrated by this perceived loss.

I think part of it was to do with a strong racial conception of self from a very young age. I might regret saying this, but then Piaf had a more messed up life and managed to declare she had no regrets, so hey-ho. Growing up my mum was very fair. She’s never seen herself as anything less than Nigerian, never thought of herself as white but as the whole biracial discourse became more politically correct, when pushed she’ll say she’s mixed raced, but she was always secure in her Nigerianness,as though English was an historical technicality but had little cultural or even personal bearing. Yet when I looked around I was very aware that Mummy looked like the other parents, and the other parents were ‘right’. I was embarrassed by what the connotations of being black were, and growing up around non-Nigerians I didn’t quite get Caribbean culture, because that wasn’t home-life, and the Nigerian culture I saw was foreign (I’ve later realised that class has a lot to do with culture in the UK and ethnicity, but that’s for a later post). So, to be like Mum was to be better. If T was the chocolate baby, I was the yellow baby. But T had ‘fine features’ and I had the ‘African nose’ the ‘thick lips’, the things that made me more ‘Nigerian’ than her, the ‘coarse’ features.

Firstly I want to call Bullshit on such a distinction. That’s right, I call BULL-SHIT on the whole fine/coarse features thing. What it implies is that there is something refined and noble about caucasian features and something rough and ungainly about ‘traditional’ African features (read Aphra Behn’s Oronooko to see what I mean). Basically it means white pretty black ugly. So even though I had lighter skin I was still more ‘African’ than my sister – and people remarked on that shit. Ah Kehinde you have such coarse/strong/striking/Nigerian features. Ah Taiwo, you have such fine/european/english/pretty features. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t told I was beautiful, but it was a different type of beauty – so I went to find that type. I went to discover where that beauty came from. I wanted to go ‘home’ to an imaginary Africa, an imaginary Nigeria where my features were the norm.

Now the issue with such a distinction is that it creates a contrast. What if caucasian features were classed as ‘undefined, less-defined’ in stead of ‘fine’,as though they were delicate, fragile, precious. Think about it, if generic african features ( which really are generic, because if you look at the variety in African features from the Fulani to Ethiopians, Khoisan to the Sudanese you’d realise African features encompass ALL types of facial features, but, I digress) if things such as wide noses, thick lips, strong jaw-lines, big thighs etc etc were the norm, then anything other would be less, right? But I grew up in the UK, so it wasn’t the norm, and it sent me looking for it, it sent me towards this idyllic fairyland called the ‘home’ of black-consciousness and self-worth, it sent me back to ‘Mother Africa’.

A Diaspora is a ‘scattered population with a common origin in a smaller geographic area, or a movement of people from their homeland’. It implies that there is a ‘real’ place that you ‘truly’ come from, but for some reason or other you are not there.

And it’s  definitely true. There are plenty of diaspora’s the world over. Some of them have settled and are no longer viewed as diasporas (white people in America), others are less stable (Jewish diaspora, Turks in Germany), but they exist. The issue I have with diaspora as a definition is that I think it belongs to 1st generation migrants. The one’s that have ‘just-come’, the ‘freshies’. I think it applies to second-gen migrants who go back to that country of ‘ethnic origin’ regularly, speak the language, can flit easily between the two.

But for many children of African migrants who don’t go back, who have settled in e.g. the UK but still exist within their parents culture, we have another homeland emerging. See, I’m beginning to see things like my sister, to realise there isn’t one place that I ‘truly’ come from, or rather there is, it just isn’t a recognised nation-state. See, I come from the diaspora. I am a child of the diaspora, born and raised. I speak the language, I understand the culture, I breathe the history. I have that beautiful ability to morph regularly, to be at ease with Nigerians, with Africans in general, with whites, with Indians, with Far East Asians. I speak slang, I speak Received, and not just in English. When I go abroad I know how to adapt my body language, how to blend in and stick out at the same time. I understand cultural symbols, I understand how to act with elders, even if its elders from another culture. My straight up immigrant friends don’t know how to deal with that drunk roommate, or the friend who calls their aunts by their first name. The kids who tell their parents to fuck off in the supermarket cause they can’t get a Fanta and they’re not even in year 2! They think – He dey craze oooh. My homegrown friends don’t understand to call their ‘immigrant’ friends parents Aunty and Uncle, not Femi and Gbemisola, or Raj and Amina. But I do, because I am a child of the diaspora.

That doesn’t mean i’m totally secure in me (me is a fluid thing constantly evolving), but it means I am not diagramme_de_vennhomeless. I have a home. I’m not a global citizen (that phrase is so daft, cause we all know citizenship rights are NOT accorded to how many passports you have, citizenship is more than legalities), I am a disaporic national – and that can be ok. My home can be like a ven-diagram with Nigeria and the UK as the far circles that overlap to make ‘My Home’ in the middle. I can be rooted in that, and in being rooted in it, I can find a freedom that other people before haven’t had.

I can also begin to understand that human history is one of migration. Even those who’ve ‘been here for generations’ aren’t people of the soil. As one of my best supervisors once said (at least in regards to recent World History but it certainly goes back to the beginning of time)

Indigenous people were just the people who were there when the Europeans (read any kind of coloniser/invader) turned up. 

So yeah, i’m beginning to find my home -and i think i might just like it.

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There’s Something About Chimamanda

Chimamanda-Ngozi-AdichieFor most people, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel Half of a Yellow Sun was their introduction to African literature and Adichie’s growing cannon of fiction. Conversely, I first met Adichie in the pages of her first novel Purple Hibiscus, and preferred it to her second, possibly because I was only just understanding the history of Biafra that so grounds the award-wining text. During my A-levels I studied her collection of short stories: The Thing Around Your Neck, and today spent just under £40 on her latest  novel Americanah. I state all this in order to ensure that the reader is aware that Adichie is neither a flash in the pan writer, nor a token symbol of the African canon, but rather a solid and ever-expanding force in global literature. 

 This evening, after a very lucky purchase to the Cambridge Wordfest seminar featuring Adichie, I sat in the Palmerston Room of St. John’s College with eager anticipation. The following account is everything I scribbled in my Moleskin diary (what other option is there?) whilst wedged beside two elderly English ladies who were ever so curious to decipher my scrawl. The interview was chaired by Alex Clarke, the narration (influenced by retrospective analysis and now steady hands) by me. Although it is quite lengthy i implore you to read through, she has some incredible pearls, and her question and answer session is the definition of how to be a BOSS. 

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The Palmerston Room  of St. John’s has a capacity exceeding 300. I know, because two years ago I sat and watched myself get inducted  in that very room. Today it is crowded, not with students, but mainly geriatrics and those that have or are about to hit their half a century mark. There are very few women of colour (let alone men) and for some reason that interests me. On one hand, after the total sum of ethnic people halts at ten, I conclude that hey, it’s Cambridge what can I expect. Yet listening to the conversations that spool around me, it becomes apparent that, like Jon Snow, many of the audience members would have been young adults when Biafra hit the West. The first image of Africa post-independence, the first time images of children suffering from kwashiorkor at the expense of ‘tribal warfare’ really hit home, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun was both topical and insightful for this generation. It resonated with their experiences, not least because, as she candidly states towards the end of the interview, many of the audience members would have had relatives who were instrumental to the construction of Nigeria, and inevitably it’s demise (yes, she literally said that).

As people pile in the heat becomes stifling, the anticipation crawling at your skin. Late-comers eagle eye vacant seats, the elderly lady next to me gets her toe crushed by a desperate scavenger. All eyes are fixed earnestly on the stage. It’s empty, except for two white chairs and a matching table, inspired by Ikea, decorated with a jug of water, two cups and a pair of microphones. At this point there are only four women of colour noted, excluding myself. One has an afro-hawk with shaved sides, the others perms, weaves, and then there’s me, with a natural afro tied back into a large poof, with a clipped fringe. I note this, because Americanah and Adichie, are both obsessed with hair – especially the politics of black women’s hair.

Dressed in a black top and jacket,  forest green shorts with red trimming all made out of traditional cloth, over dark tights and high-heels, Adichie looks like the perfect image from ‘Black-Girls Killing It’. She looks fierce. African, beautiful, and with her hair piled up on her head and highlighted by her afro-kinky extensions (she proudly mentions later) she looks regal.  The audience clap, she smiles benignly, takes her seat and is introduced by the MC. The MC gets her name wrong – what a shame (I reserve judgement, that is for another post).

She begins with a short reading from Americanah. Recently, a friend described Chinua Achebe’s prose (Adichie’s greatest literary influence) as palm wine. I’ve never tasted palm wine, but listening to her voice, flecked with a subtle naija accent, rich, deep and confident,  pool over the audio system, i’m sure you can drink palm-wine through your ears. Definitely. Then we begin:

Americanah

Americanah

There is a disjuncture between Adichie and her audience simply because her novel is concerned with the politics of black women’s hair. Her protagonist complains about having to travel to Trenton to get her braids done, as Princeton wouldn’t have a black hair salon. The audience giggle but find the description of a grown American man eating ice-cream far more humorous. It’s only until Adichie shows that women’s hair in general is political that change starts dropping.

“I think white women’s hair is very different to black women’s hair. But white women’s hair can be political, for example, when they choose not to colour it. Then they are presented as one of those ‘earthly organic types’”. At this the audience laugh.

‘The difficulty for black women, is that the way our hair grows on our heads is not something the world likes. (Audience giggle), No – it’s true’, she’s insistent, leans forwards and gets serious.

Growing up I used to always want straight hair. And we weren’t allowed it in secondary school. So in the holidays I would get it straightened with the hot comb. Even though it could burn me, I loved it. It was only until I got a really nasty burn from a relaxer when I was at University, that I suddenly decided I didn’t like this any more. I wanted to love my own hair. But it was a very long journey. It wasn’t easy. Even now, underneath here (she touches the pile of braids that crown her head), I have a very thick afro. Now, my mother loves me, but when she sees it she asks me – when are you going to do something with your hair? I.e, when are you going to straighten it. Even my cousins, when they see my hair, they always say (here she switches to a Naija accent), Aunty, your hair is very rough’.

The audience titter, but they still haven’t grasped the depth of the identity crisis Adichie is pointing too. But this woman is astute and fearless in the best of ways – she tells it like it is.

Hair is political for black women because it casts allusions about our character. Now, if three women were to get onto this stage, all dressed the same, but one with dreads, one with straight hair like yours (she points at Alex Clarke), the other with an afro, we are going to draw very different conclusions. The best is that they are vegetarian (a loud guwaff erupts), the worst is that they are ‘angry black women’. Silence. ‘There is this idea, that black hair as it is, is not suitable. If we were to go for a job interview, our hair as an Afro or in dreads would not be deemed acceptable. You’d think – oh this one’s going to be trouble, if they aren’t vegetarians, then they’re radicals, maybe even Black Panthers.’

Adichie says all this with a smile on her face, her tone easy and non-judgmental, but suddenly her audience are starting to think.

I’d love it, if after this discussion or after reading the book, the people in here, when they do job interviews, wouldn’t judge someone because they have dreads or a fro. They wouldn’t assume someone is a musician or an artists or writes poetry because their hair is natural. Maybe, there will be someone in the audience who runs a magazine, and after this will think – ok black hair isn’t scary. Maybe i’ll put someone on the front cover of the magazine who has natural hair. Because growing up, if all a young black girl sees is straight hair, she’s going to want that. When you see those before and after images in magazines, the before image she always has natural hair, the after image it’s straight. It’s basically saying natural hair is ugly’.

At this point I am silently fist-pumping Adichie to victory. Now she’s said a lot that I haven’t written, about her relationship to America (which she is grateful for because they gave her money for education) and Britain. Britain she views as belonging to her parents generation. It was the only place they looked to because it had money and was instrumental in the construction of Nigeria, but now  the country isn’t doing so well,  young Nigerians are looking to the US, because it has money (oh UK financial crisis, look what you’re making us miss out on!).  But now – onto Question Time Adichie style!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hay festival 2012Q: How does Half of a Yellow Sun differ to Americanah?

A: 1/2 YS made me cry and cry. Americanah made me laugh and laugh. 1/2YS made me cry because I was mining the pain of my people. My father was sharing things with me about Biafra that he had never told anyone before. I felt very fragile writing it. With Americanah I was laughing, because I was intrigued by the absurdity of race. Coming to America was the first time I realized I was black. (audience laugh). No really, I arrived and I suddenly realised I was ‘black’. We have a lot of problems in Nigeria, but race isn’t one of them. I felt like, in the US I could observe things and criticise racial issues, because whilst I was black, I am not an African-American. I am Nigerian. Therefore race wasn’t so much of an issue for me before I went to University, it was something I learnt. Writing Americanah I used to wonder if it was wrong that i found it so funny, you know, I thought that i’d be one of those people who thinks they’re hilarious and then tells someone a joke and  they’re like….ok? (Laughter, this sums up my humor perfectly).  

I am passionate about gender and I am a happy fierce feminist. I am keen on women’s issues but not in an “issues” way (she laughs). I am passionate about the multiplicity of female voices and what constitutes femininity.

Q: What do you think of Chinua Achebe?

A: (Pause and she looks very emotional). He was a man of intense integrity, he told stories beautifully, brought dignity to my history and made it worthy of literature. 

Q: (MY QUESTION, I was sweating but forged ahead).  My name is Kehinde (yes i’m going to buss out the traditional name!), and I am an English student here at John’s. I was fascinated by you stating that when you were in the states you knew that Nigeria was your home. As someone born here, having studied English, I feel more and more as though Nigeria is also home or has a claim over me. I was wondering how you came to the conclusion and contentment that Nigeria was also home for you.

A: First and fore most I am a Nigerian. That is non-negotiable. Though I am grateful to the US, Nigeria is my home. More importantly Anambra state (she then names her patrilineal town and village, I was too engrossed to scrawl it down, shame on me) is home for me. I think being in the States has made me understand the difference in race, the US added to my acknowledgement of being black. Initially when an African-American would be like to me – ‘Hey Sister’ – I would move away thinking ‘No, no  I am not your Sistah (in Naija accent), because I knew that being black had bad connotations in the US. But now, I am not afraid to acknowledge that. I think being in the US helped me to understand and redefine race and being black.

At this point she asks them to turn the house lights up so she can SEE MY HAIR!!!

A: I like your hair. It’s super cool. Really cool, I love it. When you were asking the question i couldn’t see your hair, but now I can I really like it

I died…literally and was born again. The audience clapped. Power to black women’s hair being beautiful. Boom!Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie-Commonwealth-Lecture-2012

Q: You talk a a lot about yourself as a Nigerian, and you formerly mentioned Britain’s sins in Nigeria. Is there such a thing as being Nigerian? And has Nigeria made it yet.

“Trigger warning – this is when Adichie shows you what it means to be A BOSS”

A: Well I think what you are really saying is ‘Didn’t we (the British) do well in creating Nigeria?’ Parred. Straight out, woman went IN. ‘Is there such thing as Nigeria? Yes, you created it. Is it working, no. You can’t expect Nigeria to have it all together. Maybe your father was involved in setting up Nigeria. It takes time to make a country work. The concept of a ‘Nation’ is an idea. First and foremost, when you came and lumped together groups of people that, apart from perhaps trade, had no actual relationship with one another, you can’t expect it to work. I mean even today, the North and South are so different. Yes, there is such thing as Nigeria in the sense that we have for example the same education curriculum, but we are very different culturally. There are larger characteristics. For example, all Nigerians are aggressive, and we have this very confident swagger which means we act like we own everything, even though Ghana as things worked out and we don’t, we still believe we run the continent (laughs). We won’t break apart, but we still have a way to go. 

I suppose the question you are asking is ‘Do I wish the ancestors of people here hadn’t gone meddling, Yes, I do.  Can I change that, No’.

And she said it all with a beautiful smile and a calm tone.

This woman is the image of intellectual grace, talent, beauty and power. She is proud to be an Igbo woman, to be a ‘fierce and happy feminist’, and to speak the truth. There is so much more scribbled down but i’ve already passed the 2000 word count, so figure I should stop around about now. If you haven’t read her work, GO, if you haven’t got Americanah GET. This woman is a Queen. I am proud to be half Igbo, also from Anambra state (yes I told her that when I got my book signed, and my family surnames and my Igbo name, she was duly impressed and inquired some more. I’m sure if I dig hard enough we can find some common ancestor, Nigerians are all related, she also made a point of saying how Glorious may hair was and how she was proud I was wearing such glorious hair – allow a girl to be gassed for once in her life), but she has made me proud and excited to be part of a long, colorful, heritage that embraces great writing, and now hair.

What a Queen. A real, bona-fide African Queen.

Adichie in a recent Ted Lecture: Again, what a Queen:

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