It is telling the pea that lies in Chimamanda’s mattresses. Plainly so. The pea is about girls and women in Nigeria and in America. It is about Igbo, ke kwanu? It is about cassava rice and papaya wine. It is about lost femininity and the forgotten woman.
I am ten pages into her first novel, The Purple Hibiscus (2003), and this part of the book – Breaking Gods. Palm Sunday – already reads like the first story of her short stories collection ’The Thing Around Your Neck’. The similarities are stark and tedious: Peugeot 504, a girl (Kambili Achike) with a brother, mother and father. The story is narrated as seen through the eyes of Kambili growing up in Nigeria during the coup; finding identity and her place in society.
The bland similarities notwithstanding, she continues to weave the tapestry of her stories with a flare and panache that confirms what (the late) Chinua Achebe said about her: “…here is a [new] writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”. Her story telling remains as easy as birdsong, her uncomplicated sense of humor is unmatched and the imagery is arresting.
Her new book – Americanah – was published in the UK in May 2013. Kwani? Trust shall publish the book in Kenya later this year. I made every effort not to read the reviews or excerpts about the book but it was futile trying to stay away or even avoiding them anywhere the name Chimamanda was mentioned. So I read the one in The Sunday Times Magazine, written by Francine Prose. Off the top of your head, guess what centers the book’s theme? You are right: a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, in America. Her lover, Obinze, is in Britian. “Both contend with a somewhat different approach to the questions of race, nationality and social class. Ifemelu is a sharp observer, with a gift for identifying and capturing those aspects of culture that seem entirely normal to Africans and Americans – and odd to those who come from elsewhere…. Ifemelu becomes the author of an anonymous blog on various observations about Americans blacks”.
I shall come off as pessimistic but I am already sorely disappointed about the book. I hate to say this, but this novel Americanah may just be the last I ever read of Chimamanda.
Chimamanda is a feminist. And feminism is the awful burden that she thrusts on the shoulders of her lead characters; a common denominator in all her novels. Maybe it is the neurosis from which she writes, or maybe the responsibility to shout it from the rooftops is a decision she swore upon. Maybe. Or maybe it is me; maybe I have outgrown her work’s traction or maybe the theme is beginning to pall on me. Maybe.
But I shall give her another chance. I shall buy the book. I shall attend the conversation or creative writing workshop that Kwani? shall put together. And I shall carry the book with me so she can sign it. And when I get a chance to shake her hand and look into those gorgeous large eyes (I have made you queasy back there, aye?), I shall ask her the question that has plagued my mind for a long time now: what are you all about Chimamanda?1