Chimamanda Adichie: 2008 MacArthur Fellow

This past week, the recipients (of the MacArthur Fellowship) learned in a single phone call from the Foundation that they will each receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years. The new Fellows work across a broad spectrum of endeavors and include a neurobiologist, a saxophonist, a critical care physician, an urban farmer, an optical physicist, a sculptor, a geriatrician, a historian of medicine, and an inventor of musical instruments. All were selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.

Chimamanda Adichie is a young writer who illuminates the complexities of human experience in works inspired by events in her native Nigeria. Adichie explores the intersection of the personal and the public by placing the intimate details of the lives of her characters within the larger social and political forces in contemporary Nigeria. Dividing her time over the last decade between the United States and Nigeria, she is widely appreciated for her stark yet balanced depiction of events in the post-colonial era. In her most recent novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Adichie unflinchingly portrays the horror and destruction of the civil war following the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. Using multiple narrative voices, a precise movement back and forth in time, and prose that is at once witty and empathetic, she immerses the reader in the psyches of her characters, whose loyalties to each other and their ideals are tested as their world gradually falls apart. In humanizing the Biafran tragedy, Adichie’s novel has enriched conversation about the war within Nigeria while also offering insight into the circumstances that lead to ethnic conflict. A writer of great promise, Adichie’s powerful rendering of the Nigerian experience is enlightening audiences both in her homeland and around the world.

Chimamanda Adichie received a B.A. (2001) from Eastern Connecticut State University, an M.A. (2003) from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.A. (2008) from Yale University. Her additional works include the novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) and short stories that have appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, Granta, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.

© The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2005-2008

In Search of Tsitsi Dangarembga

You know when you run a blog, you cannot avoid checking the performance statistics, to see if what you are writing is being read at all. WordPress, the platform for this website, has a feature called “Search Engine Terms’, which tells you what words people searched in order to end up viewing your posts. Nearly daily, the visitors to Moments in Literature come through searches of Tsitsi Dangarembga, using the following terms: bira Dangarembga, interviews with Tsitsi Dangarembga, Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwean literature Dangarembga, Dangarembga new excerpt, and many others.

So people are looking for Dangarembga, people are talking. And they have reasons to. First, the world is leaning towards focusing on Zimbabwean literature, what with all the drama that the country has been going through. Early next year the world of reading will be greeted with two books by Petina Gappah, which promise to be huge successes (Gappah is a good writer), and there is likely to be hightened interest in the literature of Zimbabwe in general. 

Perhaps, the interest in Dangarembga is a reflection of what’s on the minds of many readers (I am assuming it’s not one person visiting my blog through numerous, if not obsessive, searches for Dangarembga’s works); it is a reflection of the fact that there is renewed interest in her works, or in finding clues about Zimbabwe in her novels.

Of course, Dangarembga recently published the much-awaited-for sequel to Nervous Conditions, which is entitled The Book of Not.   I am reading the book, which is adding layers of meaning to the character of Tambu. Nyasha has been silenced, the younger sister has her legs blown off by a landmine in chapter one, and , as we know, Nhamo is history.  It’s as if Dangarembga was clearing the ground for the story of Tambu to mature, undisturbed ( although it’s disturbed), undistracted (athough it’s distracted). Reading this story leads to a revisionary look at Zimbabwe, connecting the actions of the comrades during the 70s war and the now-old veterans who have been charged of causing much violence in tumultous Zimbabwe. When you look at war through the lens of Dangarembga’s books, you have the advantage of concluding that the revolution sowed the seeds of violence just as it sought freedom. I was little, but I remember that in addition to being everyone’s “brothers”, the comrades were no-nonsense discipliners, shooting village elders if they were found guilty of selling out. Old women and men were charged of witchcraft and were thrashed, activities that branded them for life (because even ten years after independence, village beatings of the witches the war had uncovered continued, for reasons ranging from a former mujubha’s wife miscarrying to reasons for rains falling in Chivi but not in Mazvihwa.) The Book of Not takes me to that world, and helps me make the connection of this culture of violence and repression that was build in the idea for the fight for independence.

Perhaps, that’s why everyone is now looking for Dangarembga, to see a deeper analysis of the Zimbabwean situation as it is prefigured, as well as analyzed, in the novels? Perhaps, assuming it’s indeed everyone that’s searching for Dangarembga.

I too have been looking for Dangarembga, some way of contacting her, an email address, etc, because I had a whole class seeking to ask her some questions about this issue of Nhamo dying to give room for Tambu to become…, or was it something to do with why she took very long to write the sequel. I too have been searching, and here is another reason: I have begun work on a story that features Tambu, but my Tambu will die much sooner than anticipated, and Nhamo, oh, he will be alive, perhaps briefly becoming a soldier (not comrade), and then growing up to leave Zimbabwe for South Africa or some such “overseas”. I want us new Zimbawean writers to start creating characters that communicate with the iconic characters of our literature.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has begun to reinterpret characters out of Things Fall Apart, giving them new life.

So anyway, people make frequent Dangarembga searches that point them to this blog, which, I think, is phenomenal.

Telling the Zimbabwean Story

The news that Petina Gappah signed a transcontinental two-book deal is great for Zimbabwean and African literature. She is a one of the new voices of Zimbawean literature who are adding a new layer to the country’s literature, and the time is right: the Zimbabwean writer has much to say at this time.

The writer (novelist, poet, playwright, momoirist) has much to tell. Asserting that this is the time for writer raises the question of whether there is ever a time that is not for the writer, but, seriously speaking, THIS, right now, feels like one of those times when you can stand up and shout it: This is the time!

The difficult times have created great tension in the writer, whose heart has bled, but has not always had the opportunity, sometimes not even the time, to write country’s story. Now, as change happens, the writer is working; the writer is working on something, and that something may not even be about the Deal, the MOU, or the way forward; this something (let’s call it the subject), may be about Nehanda as a baby, or about the early eighties, about Bob Marley in a Harare hotel in 1980. Whatever the theme or style is, this tension, this abuse of, this shock treatment to, artistic patience might surprise you with a renaissance. A new chapter of African writing is opening….

Congratulations to Petina Gappah and to all the other Zimbabwean voices that are about to rise to prominence.

Women Writing Zimbabwe: A Review

The new short story anthology by Weaver Press, Women Writing Zimbabwe, delivers the high quality readers have come to associate with the publisher’s products. It contains fifteen stories by fifteen strong female voices of Zimbabwean literature.  When I recieved the book last week, I was in the middle of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Selected Poems of Derek Walcott, but I have since set the two Nobels aside for an adventure into the rich terrain of the newest Weaver stories.

So far, I have read Zvisinei Sandi’s “In Memory of the Nose Brigade”, Petina Gappah’s “In the Heart of the Golden Triangle”, Valerie Tagwira’s “Mainini Grace’s Promise”, Pat Brickhill’s “Senzeni’s Nativity”, Sarah Manyika’s “Mr Wonder”, and Rumbi Katedza’s “Snowflakes in Winter”. Sandi’s story would bring back memories to anyone who remembers the USA/UBA days at the University of Zimbabwe in its satirization of the life of the Nose Brigades versus the SRB (Strong/Severe Rural Background) girls on campus. I wasn’t involved in much campus social life as a student at the UZ, but I remember the conficting values of those students who considered themselves worldly with those who oozed a certain too-rural aura, two camps that tended not to mix, except around exam time, when study groups were formed to balance out potential (some SRB’s tended to be useful resources at such times), but this is just the surface of what the story really deals with: in its simplicity, it exposes the false sense of security, hence the deep-set insecurities of girls who considered themselves more important than the rural grade. Sandi does a good job of exposing some of the superficialities of the Nose Brigades in their efforts to act different and superior–the SRB’s get the last laugh.

Gappah, wow, what a narrator she can create, sharp like a razor and still managing to make you laugh while your heart bleeds. She experiments with the second person narrative point of view, giving the narrator an intrusive quality, much like a violation of your readerly space, because the story she tells could easily sound like your story, then you become aware of the gender differences between you and the narrator and you understand the protagonist as a person who could easily be your sister, niece, aunt. In a humorous way, Gappah exposes the deterioration of family relationships in the context wealth, where the wife knows of the husband’s extra-marital affairs, but her main concern is that he better carry condoms around in order not to bring the dreaded diseases home. The “small house” (that is, the mistress) ,no, that does not bother her that much, and even if it did, she met this man as his mistress, so then she focuses on enjoying the wealth.

This theme of wealth and the deterioration of morality is also the focus of Manyika’s story, whose narrator is satirical in her indictment of the moral decay. “Mr Wonder” starts in Avondale, Harare, and takes us to San Francisco (familiar terrain: Golden Gate Park, twenty-hour fitness) and back to Harare. Through some emotional and marital blackmail, the wife is able to make the husband purchase her an  American vacation. Of course, that works for him since he will have all the time to meet new women back home, while the wife in the USA flirts with young, handsome males. Meanwhile, the family driver who is made to accompany her discovers that he can use his religion to raise money as an African guru. When he is about to settle in a San Francisco of dollars, the family returns to Zimbabwe, and his dreams are derailed. The story returns to Zimbabwe too soon, and too playfully, but the reader is required to fill in the gaps. I would have wanted to see more of San Francisco, perhaps the woman actually getting in an affair that works, creating a “small house” of her own. Still, the linguistic acrobatics of the story and the richness of the implied possibilities make this story worth investing fitfteen minutes in reading it. 

 Pat Brickhill’s story was at first frustratingly slow and nearly pointless, until I realized that these distinct qualities are the source of its strength. It is not deceptively simple; it is different, focused on giving ordinary details about ordinary characters doing ordinary things. It pulls you in with its opening: “Parched roadside, grass, crackling leaves.” Then we are taken to a village, where, it seems, the narrator is intent on showing everything she sees on the terrain and the lifestyle of the villagers, until hers becomes cute story about caring and loving, the desire to raise and care for a child. Oh, when you see that it celebrates life for life’s sake, you want to read on, and before you know it, the story is beginning to interest you, even though you remember that you wanted to stop reading it on page two. By the time you finish you want to defend your rationale for having spent nearly thirty minutes reading it, but now you are holding a new baby with the characters. Who would dare say that’s a bad thing? Life portrayed; life celebrated.

I first read Tagwira’s story when it first came out on African Writing Online, and I remember its shocking ending. It is the kind of story you read and you become really upset. I can see it causing some to cry. The Mainini’s sin in this story is her state of victimization, and to Sarai, the niece, Mainini cannot be a victim of HIV/AIDS, a kind of how-dare-you turn of events. Her promise was to continue taking care of the orphaned Sarai and her siblings. Tagwira is a true advocate of the impoverished and AIDS-stricken, a voice of the disadvantaged.

 Rumbi Katedza’s “Snowflakes in Winter” is the story of Zimbabwe’s Diaspora, exposing the lives of Zimbabweans away from home. After the story takes the reader through the challenges of life away from home, the assault on cultural values that can easily happen, the restlessness and the confusion, it ends by emphacising the importance of family. Like most of the other stories, it has an element of humor that’s almost unbelievable given the circumstances the characters are in.

That’s what makes Zimbabwean literature breathtaking, that while it may send you to tears, some of those tears might just the creeping in of joy, when one feels the tug of hope even where hope seems impossible. This is a book of diverse stories that demonstrate to the reader that the fictional characters coming out troubled Zimbabwe have much to teach the world about endurance, impossible joy, and hope.

Robert Giroux, Publisher, Dies at 94

The New York Times reports that “Robert Giroux, an editor who introduced and nurtured some of the major authors of the 20th century and who rose to join one of the nation’s most distinguished publishing houses as a partner, making it Farrar, Straus & Giroux, died Friday in Tinton Falls, N.J. He was 94.”  Read more.