I recently had the pleasure of hearing the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie speak. She was publicizing her latest novel – Americanah. When I first saw the advertisement, I said to myself, ooh, I must go, but I didn’t realize how much I respected her until I got to the library where she was speaking. The woman had me at hello! I was left in awe, like a Beiber stan at a Beiber concert. Serious. I didn’t know I had it in me.
First of all, I didn’t expect her to sound so Nigerian but her accent and deep sultry voice reminded me of a good friend of mine. She was down to earth and hilarious. Seriously, despite the fact that the hall was packed, likely with several other aspiring writers in awe, I felt like she and I were having a girlfriend moment. This especially as she read from her book. As she laughed. And as she shared her obsession with natural hair – well reflected in the novel. She spoke about procrastinating with all those YouTube vloggers on natural hair, and she and I were immediately on the same page. It felt good to see someone on stage in my image. Eh, but the woman is truly obsessed with natural hair. Hair is not just hair, oooh!
As I sat there listening, smiling, I thought, my goodness, I want to be like her. When I stood in line to get my copy of Americanah autographed, I started to conjure various versions of the conversation I would have with her when it got to be my turn. Hi, I love your writing. No, too bland. Hi, thanks for being a voice for that “Other Africa” – the one that I know, the one that is not sexy enough for mainstream idea. Mmm, too much. Hi, … Wouldn’t you know it, when I got up there I was struck by her beauty, her lovely smile, her intricate cornrows, her presence itself that all I could manage was pushing my book into her hands. When she cocked her neck as if to say aren’t you going to say anything, I pushed my book farther into her hands. She peered at me with captivating eyes and I could feel she was analysing me the way an author analyses her surroundings.
You know, as an artist (which an author is), you see the world differently, and you are always watching looking for inspiration. As an aside, a Ghanaian “journalist” had made online contact with me on a dating website in the recent past, and dude told me, TOLD ME, I should TELL ME something to inspire him. He’s not serious! It’s not my job to tell him anything, he can read the world just like the rest of us who claim to be writers. NEXT!
In any case back to my encounter with Chimamanda. Yes, shoving my book into her hands brings us into first name basis. Actually, she’s always been first name basis with me because we have friends (or acquaintances) in common. I guess that is another reason why I’m so in awe, because she is honestly “one of us”.
After leaving the signing table, I found myself unable to actually leave the library where the event was being held. Her presence was like a magnet. I found myself standing next to a woman who also seemed to be unable to leave. She didn’t have a book and had not waited in line. We struck up a conversation during which she also admitted to feeling unaccomplished in her life then marveled that I was doctor. Turned out she was a lawyer and I immediately thought to myself, what is wrong with us? Here we are, a doctor and a lawyer and a we feel unaccomplished. We are truly our own biggest critics. I told her about my poor show in front of Chimamanda and since the line was coming to an end she decided she wanted to have a few words with her, and so I could tail along and redeem myself. So I did, and ended up watching as she had a sweet and short conversation during which I nervously blurted I love your shoes. Ha! Ha! But you should have seen them. They were geometric works of art.
I felt inspired. Obviously I blog and it remains to be told whether I do that well or not. But I love writing and always have. When I was in primary school I wanted to write and illustrate my own books. Somewhere along the way, I was Africanparented into medicine. Tiger mother children think they are unique. Ha!
I used to write magical tales. Actually, when I was 10 or 11 I wrote a book titled The Adventures of Basel. It was probably short story sized but hey, at that age a lot of words equaled a book. I wrote it initially in my last few months in Germany, though at the time, I did not know that my world was about to change. I revised it a couple times after. When I was done with it I wrote it out on lined executive style paper then created a cover out of blue construction paper and used a red knitting wool to sew the book together. On the cover, was my masterpiece artwork. I was so proud of that book…until a year or so later I was in Ghana and conversing with a schoolmate about our love of writing. We decided to swap our books and I was so embarrassed when I got mine back. Sweet Valley High books were all the rage back then and she had written in that style about boys, dating, flirting, gossiping, etc but with black characters, while my dear Basel was an auburn haired orphaned young lad somewhere in a Sweden (or was it Norway?) of centuries ago off on an adventure where he travels to foreign lands and meets lots of different people. Though I don’t remember the story clearly, and hopefully the book is somewhere in storage in Ghana, I do remember that he had auburn hair because I had acquired an Oxford dictionary during my revisions of which I made good use.
I was embarrassed because it was very clear right then and there that I had not written from an authentic vioce. It’s also clear to me now though that the girl whose book I read didn’t speak with an authentic vioce either. JSS in Ghana was nothing like Sweet Valley High.
In any case, all this to say that books by Chimamanda and other contemporary Africans, Afropolitans and pan-Africanists are a wonderfully dignifying rebirth for me. Finally, here is a language that I understand in my bone marrow itself. Mm-hhmm! Unapologetic writing by writers writing what they want to write and not what an industry has told them should be the African voice.