There is only one book I have ever read that made me physically jump up and down with exhilaration. Upon reaching its last page, I was overcome with the feeling that all my initial thoughts and beliefs and values about the world had been quietly rearranged. It was magnificently disorienting, as if my mind, prior to that moment, had been an unfocused photograph which was now finally clear.
This was not a book of philosophical revelations. It was not written by Albert Camus. Or Dickens. It was not even written by a man. The name of this book is Americanah, and its author is a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel has been quickly categorized, or perhaps I should say ‘dismissed’, as a ‘race’ novel. Someone broke the mould and actually wrote a full story of honest racial discussions; this was not a case of tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, sitting back and calling it activism. This needed acknowledgement. This needed labels – loud labels. Thus, critics were quick to sprinkle their reviews with such glittery adjectives as ‘bold’, ‘courageous’,‘astonishing’ and here are the best ones – ‘rambly, angry and brave’. (I noticed a bunch of white, suburban women on Goodreads called it ‘too much’)
Some of us had only one response to Americanah – ‘finally’. And a large portion of this ‘us’ consists of women of colour. Why is this book such a gift and such a grace to us? Perhaps because we have grown up reading stories about people with pale complexions, who live in places with sunny, comfortable names like Fairfield, and are called Hannah and Elizabeth, names that spill smoothly off the tongue – names completely unlike our jagged ones. Many of these stories are riveting and well-written; they are undoubtedly good literature. But they are not ‘our’ stories. They do not form that magical bridge between their voice and our ears, that bridge of understanding that truly powerful writing creates, which makes us sit back and say, ‘Yes. That’s it.’
After I read Americanah, I researched Adichie in a frenzy. I devoured the rest of her books and articles, her TED talks and even her fashion choices. Somewhere along the way, she became the paragon of the woman I aspired to be, the invisible hand I chose to grasp and lead me into my own womanhood. Because her words made me feel more than comfortable in my skin – they made me feel proud.
I loved Adichie because she wrote about women who are told they are not strong enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, pale enough, NOT enough and made it sound like poetry, both brutal and soft. She wrote about feminism, before Beyoncé glamorized it. She wrote about girls like me, chasing after self-love and not knowing what that means. She wrote about women living in a man’s world and exactly what that means.And I thought it was a miracle. No one, I felt, had been this fearless and sensitive when writing about society in the age of misunderstandings and microaggressions.
Adichie’s crystalline prose is a mirror and we see ourselves in all the ways we try not to. If you open up her books, you find a face with all the makeup wiped off; it is full of truth. But what makes her writing so extraordinary, is that its power does not announce itself through a loudspeaker. Her words are quiet lightbulbs flicking on in the mind, rather than violent protests of ink.
One of my writer friends once said that Adichie writes beautifully but is sometimes too much of a ‘social warrior’ and this is a bit aggressive. I bristled. And then I realised that my friend simply had the luxury of calling the storm too loud while sitting in a soundproof room; as a male, it was not his anger to question.If Adichie’s writing is aggressive, it is an elegant aggression, mixed with equal parts hope. And I say too loud is better than too silent – women are tired enough of being unheard.
Adichie once said: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
And this is why the greatest gift Adichie has given me is the confidence of owning myself. Reading her stories, her mosaics of colourful, broken life-pieces, I have become less afraid of writing about my own experience as a person of colour, as a female and as an Indian – even if I know my words could make society, beginning with my own mother, wag its finger. I have unearthed my own feminism and let it dangle like a charm bracelet. Because I owe this to myself and because I deserve it. And, perhaps like Adichie, writing is the only path I can take to come home to myself.