Sunday, 12 February 2012

Reading Chimamanda

I almost do it everyday when I pass by the small second-hand bookstore in Sunningdale. I  give a glance to those two baskets laying by the mobile wooden shelves outside. Two baskets, one green and one yellow.  When you come in the mall, where the bookstore is just the second on your left,  you can  start having a view of the shop windows but until you get close to its door, you won’t see the two precious baskets… There are just two of them but to me they always look like two treasure boxes, the ones you can often encounter in fairy tales. When I first see the yellow one I bend and start looking inside, slowly my eyes goes through the title on the back of the books….till finally I find the book. That particular book which I wanted to have in my library or the book I never knew was ever written but sure now  it will open me towards enchanting worlds and will make me do an important encounter.  Then I do a step ahead and I see if also the green basket has a small treasure for me. Sometimes I’m lucky even the green basket has a book for me!

In one of those ordinary days where my eyes gazed at those tiny baskets, I found for just 5 Rand (almost 0.50 cents of a euro) a short story collection by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had already read a Half of a yellow sun and loved it.  I admit I don’t read often short stories, there are few writers whose short stories I like. But when it comes to choose I rather would choose a novel to read than a collection of short fiction. Also about my writing I always asked myself why haven’t I produced yet a short story collection, having explored different kind of writing, from novel to drama, from poetry to youth. I have told myself that short stories can’t fit my style, can’t give me enough “space”… but maybe it’s just an excuse, their “time” is too tight. Maybe short stories are there inside me but is not the right time for them to come and breath on their own, because we writers know that stories need strong characters to be able to part and live on their own… a weak character will soon call from far away asking help, saying he/she has failed and you will start feeling like a distorted  mother who wasn’t able to grow her ….. self sufficient in a world full of challenges and traps too.

Anyway, back to Chimamanda, I found The thing around your neck, which I didn’t’ even know it was ever published, and started reading it after a couple of days I bought it. Sometimes I intentionally wait . I put the new book on a shelf of the library, while maybe I still have one or two more to finish on my bedside table. I wait until the time my curiosity will be too much pressing me that I ‘d go to take it from the shelf and start listening to its voices.

I read the stories one by one, following the order in which they are in the book, and I just simply added it in the list of short stories I like . As I expected deep inside me, I made many encounters in the book,  some new some old ones.  I encountered many people I’ve stumbled upon in my life... that is one of the magic literature creates in its hidden corners . Friends, colleagues, students, fiancés from African countries who had just come back from the past (far and recent) through Chimamanda’s pages, reminding me how the world meets in small places sharing similar experiences in different latitudes.

Set between Nigeria and Usa, the stories underline a world full of stereotypes. On one side, the provincialism that American people show when it comes to relate to African people, thinking they all come from the same country, speaking the same language and eating the same food, thinking that Africa is only “one country”. That same provincialism that requires from migrants, especially those from the African continent, an unfair adaptation to the new life… more than an adaptation is like a forced conversion… changing name, changing, language, changing fashion, changing food, changing family history… a change that worth only one thing, the most important to migrants: being accepted.  So the question rises, is to be accepted has a so high price? Is that the only way? And if someone is not ready to pay that rice what will happen then? It’s a risk that Chimamanda leaves to her characters (especially women), they know that price is unequal and they start considering the time and way to change and break the deal which compromise their identity. After reading it, I once more reflected on how it becomes useless talking about integration, multiculturalism, interculture, cross cultural exchange, when host societies still have a problem with their own history and cultural identity. If the is a distortion rooted in their culture we can’t expect to speak about being across borders. I think once the distortion in mended we can start afresh thinking at how is being, living, writing, speaking, reading, across borders. In my life in Europe I met many migrants full of that anxiety of being “accepted”; ready to change their tribal names in Christian names, ready to hang their caftans and suits made with hand-made fabrics, to wear cheap clothes “made in China” that makes everyone resemble to one another; ready to convert to fast food instead of their delicious yassa, byriani, pilau, zighinì, matoke because the smell reaches the houses at the end of the road; ready to hide some particulars of their family history such has your father works in the bank in Dar es-Salaam while is a farmer in Lunga Lunga, saying your father has only one wife while you are the first born of his third, saying your brother is studying in secondary school while he has stopped going to school and started working as a mechanic on the outskirts of Nairobi. And without forgetting that most people consider Africa a “one country”, I start numbering all the times I had to explain that Africa is a continent, that in Africa there are thousands of different languages and that when someone start asking if I know the African language as my daughter’s father is African, I have to precise that I don’t know African language, I just know Kiswahili because Kiswahili is the language my daughters’ father speaks and he is not just African, he is Kenyan.. where people speak Kiswahili. It’s hard to say, but if the first time it get’s funny and a smile stretches your lips, after a while you get tired of explaining trying to let people percept things the way they are, with their own precise identity.

On the other side I encountered characters who live in Nigeria and here too, stereotypes proliferate  especially when it comes on gender issue where women are supposed to be the symbol of a passive acceptance on men’s rule, but Chimamanda narrates about how they react, how they just leave… turn the page, no matter what,  tired to be submitted to a old fashion corrupted and contaminated society. Also in my life in Africa (in some countries), I saw people reacting to what the common habit says, I witnessed people rising their voice and opening a breach in a corrupted system and leaving the main road for a secondary one.

I would recommend this book to all those who think Africa is a “one country” (One Monday of last week, Jumping Monkey Hill, The thing around my neck), to all those who think that we  have to be accepted so we have to forget who we are (is never like that… it’s an illusion and not the truth – The arrangers of Marriage) to all those who think that we have to stand without complains by the side of rule even if the rule is wrong (The American Embassy, Cell one), to those who believe that prejudices on Africa and Africans are over (you can’t imagine how many people believe so!).


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