As a very public figure, who has been extremely vocal about feminism, it would be natural to assume that the famed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is looked up to for her views on the feminist thought. Hence, it is not surprising that a dear friend wrote to her, asking for advice to raise her baby girl as a feminist.
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie started out as a response to that question. While it was meant for a woman as an advice book on raising her daughter, it transcends barriers of gender. It should be read by mothers and fathers of boys and girls as well as by anyone who seeks an equal society.
Adichie begins by sharing her feminist formula, that is two “Feminist Tools” as outlined below:
The first is your premise, the solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.
The second tool is a question: can you reverse X and get the same results?
The fifteen suggestions take the form of fifteen simple and lucid chapters. Adichie presents her guidelines on raising a child in the context of the feminist thought.
Adichie attacks the use of language that reinforces stereotypes. She often does this in a humorous and memorable manner, using the dry wit that she is known for.
For instance, the statement below:
Remember in primary school we learned that a verb was a ‘doing’ word? Well, a father is as much a verb as a mother.
When we say fathers are ‘helping’, we are suggesting that childcare is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture.
She explores outdated notions of gender roles and how adults unknowingly or knowingly instill these concepts into minds of children. She gives examples to show how early society reinforces gender stereotypes: classifying colours blue and pink, arranging toys in toy shops in neat gender specific sections and worse in the language we use to talk to children.
I remember being told as a child to ‘bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl’. Which meant that sweeping was about being female. I wish I had been told simply, ‘ bend down and sweep the floor properly because you’ll clean the floor better’. And I wish my brothers had been told the same thing.
Adichie addresses varied themes such as work, motherhood, gender roles, marriage, ideas of beauty and so on in a gentle but firm voice.
While she obviously addresses the more clearly visible and apparent instances of how we subscribe to gender inequality, she also looks at examples where a so-called feminist face hides subtle but pervasive inequalities. For example, a husband “allowing” his wife to work (in a society where women are predominantly relegated to domestic chores) may seem to some as progressive. But, Adichie questions if it is really so. Such instances of tokenism give a false impression of gender equality, and the book illuminates this.
The book is highly practical in nature. The fifteen chapters are suggestions and she deftly weaves in these practical tips with the theories she presents, thereby making this a guide which parents can follow.
While the tone of the book is gentle, there are some passages where she fiercely and strongly makes a point.
Please reject the idea that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive. I have no interest in the debate about women ‘doing it all’ because it is a debate that assumes that care-giving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea I strongly reject. Domestic work and care-giving should be gender neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and home.
Adichie’s work is a short but highly impactful read. It is a book you may finish in under an hour, but whose ideas will remain forever. The book is a great starting point for a new discourse on what it means to raise boys and girls equally- in the true sense of the term.
Those who are vaguely acquainted with the field of literature, or those who have only read canonical writers like Shakespeare and Charles Dickens may wonder in what way has Chinua Achebe contributed to the corpus of literature? In a grief-stricken world where war and violence in their myriad forms overpower human beings, the author’s reservoir of wisdom transports one to the realm of peace. His simple yet profound statements take readers to a different realm of thinking and bring about a paradigmatic shift in responding to a story.
Impact of oral traditions…
Chinua Achebe had a very humble upbringing. Born in the Igbo town of Ogidi in South-Eastern Nigeria, Achebe was fascinated with stories at a very young age and grew up with stories told by his mother and sister. These left an indelible mark on his personality. The strong influence of oral tradition on Achebe’s Igbo community accentuated his belief in the power of storytelling. It is thus no wonder that proverbs, sayings and myths formed a part and parcel of his story telling. Achebe sustained this interest in stories and his friends jocularly called him ‘Dictionary’ after sensing his interest for books.
Whose story is it anyway?
Achebe strongly validated the notion that “People create stories create people” or rather, “stories create people create stories”, and this idea which spells out the interdependence of man and stories made him transform the literary world. He therefore, decided to write stories which would change the perception of human beings in general and his African community in particular. As he was nurturing this interest in reading, he also recognized that unconsciously he was enamoured by white characters and despised black characters. This made him realize that a part of his personality is shaped by the stories inscribed by European writers. These stories by European writers painted a bleak picture and were instrumental in motivating Achebe to change the perception of Africa in the world. He felt it was his moral responsibility to generate awareness among his people.
In his essay “The Novelist as a Teacher”, Achebe pronounces, “There is an adequate revolution for me to espouse – to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education in the best sense of the word,” His works, therefore offer an insight not only into the nuances of the African cultural, social, economic and political life but also help the readers to discern the way stories have the power to shape culture. These stories are an indication of evolution of culture. They also indicate how change and transition influence people and shape their stories.
In Anthills of the Savannah he states, “It is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story…that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us,”
Perhaps, the universal appeal of stories and the direction offered by them enabled Achebe to reflect their worth and place change at the centre of his fiction. His characters are also seen to be influenced by this transition from tradition to modernity. Achebe deeply values traditions but at the same time, he is open to positive transformations in the African communities. He is credited with the invention of modern African literature and called ‘The Father of African Literature’ as his works present an objective interpretation of traditions and represent the vicissitudes of modern life. The interpretation and representation of Africa proffered through Achebe’s texts is an extension of his thoughtfulness as a writer.
He has written five significant novels, namely, Things fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. These novels critically delineate the falsified history of Africa conceived by the colonizers and neo-imperialistic agencies. Besides this, they also provide a beautiful rendition of the African culture and traditions and the interaction between human beings.
Oral tradition, which is the hallmark of African tradition, is weaved into his writings through folk tales, myths and proverbs. This is not merely to embellish the work of art, but also to serve a definite purpose of dealing with different aspects in the lives of the people of Africa. He has bestowed on literature a nuanced voice by deliberating on notions of art, peace and humanity.
Art, according to him, is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. He condemned art which merely gave pleasure and endorsed that art must be instructive and move beyond the pleasure principle. He deployed art through stories, proverbs and narrative techniques to demystify literature in all its contours and thus, transformed the field of literature with his creative endeavours.
Achebe exemplified art to explore the nuances of culture and to give a voice to his people. This has given an impetus to debunking the myths which perpetrate stereotypical depiction of the Africans. It has also assisted in dismantling the subversive colonial ideals. Apart from this, Achebe has written innumerable essays which exemplify his role as a teacher and bear testimony to the fact that he has a social vision.
In one of his essays titled “What has Literature got to do with it” from the book Hopes and Impediments, Achebe outlines the way literature is concerned with change. Change is possible after reflection and contemplation. A society which is conditioned with misplaced beliefs may expect a revival after understanding the role of literature in revealing the truth.
Achebe deserves these accolades because he is one of the writers who has communicated the angst of marginalized beings through his thematic exploration, creative narrative strategies and profound sensitivity. Colonization had indeed created a negative impact on the traditional values of people. Third world nations are still succumbing to the ideology of those in power. As ideology and power dynamics are deeply entrenched into the gamut of knowledge, the truth about the third world nations does not receive an effective understanding.
The neo-imperialistic agents distort the essence of the nation and further the suppression of the natives. The ideology seeps into the workings of the nation, challenging the role of leaders. Achebe seeks to redress the most crucial issues of leadership as it is affecting the African nation and the world. The clamour in Nigeria due to ineffective political leadership receives a perceptive interpretation in his postcolonial novels like A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah. These two novels initiated a positive step by engaging the readers with modern world leaders and their failed relationship with people. Leaders can mould the world through sensitivity and empathy and a deep connect with human beings. Achebe’s philosophy was genuinely embedded in humanitarian values and he endeavoured to depict the harsh realities of modern life where power corrupts people and drives them towards selfish pursuits.
An authentic voice…
Achebe continues to remain one of the most authentic voices on the African literary landscape and his contribution to the world of literature will always bring a sense of hope to the dispossessed and solidify their belief in self-worth. He remains a beacon of hope and his voice will continue to guide all those who seek expression and articulation of feelings and emotions for the larger benefit of the world. His commitment and sensitivity has established the ground for other writers to explore the misrepresentations of culture and, at the same time, the social role has recreated a vital essence of truth, dignity and wisdom for all the beings.
J. C. Echeruo’s assessment succinctly expresses the mammoth role played by Achebe in the literary and social field when he says, “Achebe’s is both an absolute achievement and an achievement in context. It is absolute in the sense that his novels demonstrate that it is possible for a writer with his roots firmly planted in the local African soil and writing in a foreign language to produce work that is authentic as regards local colour and universal in terms of the humanity and the empathy that informs it”.
“Why did Kattappa kill Bahubali?” was probably one of the most asked questions before the release of the second movie. People came up with thousands of theories…as well as websites and chats dedicated to discussions!
While the story of Kattappa and Bahubali is at the forefront….and the public soon knew the answer to this much-asked question…..let’s take a moment to reflect on other stories of this fictional kingdom. These are stories that deserve elaboration.
If the tale of Bahubali has created a fictional world in the minds of people…the creators must indulge people! For this by-no-means-easy task, S.S. Rajamouli, Director of the record breaking blockbuster Bahubali turned to one of the most esteemed names in historical fiction writing- Anand Neelakantan.
The result is a leap into the past…rewinding into time…going back to an era when the Queen Mother, Sivagami was but a young seventeen year old girl, haunted by memories of witnessing her father’s execution. The strong image of Sivagami, is entrenched into the minds of the viewers. She is undoubtedly one of the most powerful characters of the film. Her decisions spur the chain of actions and reactions that make the movie. The prequel to Bahubali thus tells the story of this mighty queen….in a much-awaited trilogy. The Rise of Sivagami is the first book in this series.
We see Sivagami as an orphan, ready to avenge the death of her father who served his kingdom Mahishmathi. He was executed and labelled a traitor. As we pass through the annals of history we uncover a bustling metropolis that hides dark secrets…a world where politics is as ruthless…where people play power games to reach the top….where the elite exploit the oppressed and marginalised to serve their selfish needs.
Sivagami recovers a manuscript that holds clues to her father’s death. But, this is not the story of Sivagami alone. There are many parallel plans and events lurking in the darkness… noblemen who seek power, the dark underbelly of the kingdom where slave trade and prostitution thrives, the pervasive caste and class system, a group of tribals who are looking at dethroning the king as well as an all-women band army who are bravely fighting to stop the slave trade. There are other stories that also move hand in hand with the story of Sivagami. The book gives an insight into Kattappa as a young slave, and the genesis of his unflinching loyalty to his masters. This is a world that echoes a social and political scenario that is familiar to readers in any part of the world even today.
Despite being woven as a part of the Bahubali magic, the book stands strong in its own right as a story that deserves to be heard….Neelakantan is a master storyteller who weaves in all these different stories from Mahishmathi’s past, to present a compelling narrative that will be difficult to put down. Revenge…betrayal…suspense…cruel twists of faith…this book has it all. The fast paced narrative plunges right into the exciting story to reveal a surprising conclusion….
Would it go the Hobbit way and have the prequel as a movie? I think it would be a great idea….though for now, since I will soon know why Kattappa killed Bahubali, I’ll wait with bated breath to know about the next series of turn of events in The Rise of Shivgami!
Clearly…the Bahubali fever will not cease……the Before the Beginning series will ensure that the legends from Mahishmathi continue to enchant readers!
Westland Publications Limited, 2017
Thanks to the proliferation of social media, we are able to access varied points of view and make up our own narratives. When my friend Rupa, recommended that I hear the TED talk on “The danger of a single story” by acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I did not realize that it would open my eyes to a hidden lurking danger that I might not even have been aware of. The talk was given in the year 2009, but remains relevant to the current global scenario.
Adichie begins the talk by citing her own example- how as an early reader, the British and American children’s’ books that she read, really impacted her and how she started writing fiction, inspired by the novels she read as a child. Several elements crept into these early stories- elements that may not have been a part of her experiences as a child growing up in Nigeria. Her stories and characters had a seeming resemblance to what she read- they talked of the weather, drank ginger beer and ate apples…just like the foreign characters in the books she read. Luckily, as she matured she discovered African writers, and this broadened her horizons. In her words: “It saved me from having a single story of what books are”.
In the talk, she recognises that while these ‘foreign’ books opened up new worlds for her, they also had unintended consequences. Using personal anecdotes to draw out the nature of these consequences, she says, “What this demonstrates I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children”.
As the talk progresses she illustrates how we often have single stories about people, and cultures. Through the prism of her experiences in Nigeria and her consequent education at University in the USA, she illuminates the danger of these stories…these narratives that creep into our collective consciousness and destroy the possibility of alternative realities.
She explores the notion that literature often (and sadly) is the cause of these single stories…and more dangerously, different versions of the same story! She also throws up the idea that power plays a role here….the power of who chooses to tell the story and how.
The lucid but powerful talk is laden with strong one-liners. “Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” she says, appealing to the audience that “stories matter….many stories matter”…which is why we must not “make one story the only story…”
As a mother, my takeaway from this insightful talk would be to expose my child to multiple stories….diverse narratives…not only in literature and the books that we read, but also in life!
BOOKS BY Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a ‘frantumaglia’, a jumble of fragments” she explains in the book. She talks at length about her novels. “They ripened during the years when I wrote privately. It’s as if I found them by painstakingly organising countless narrative fragments”.
By the end of the tome, that has been beautifully translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein, it seems as if you have entered the depths of Ferrante’s soul, without so much as a glance at her face!
Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s latest novel captures the emotional complexity of family life. All this, against the background of a very impoverished childhood. It all starts off in a very simple manner. “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, where I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks” begins the novel. The narrator, Lucy, is forced to recuperate in hospital. It starts off seeming like a simple story. But, it delves right into the complex web of human emotions and how the past impacts the future.
Lucy’s stay would have been uneventful, but for an unexpected visitor- her mother. The book captures a rare wealth of emotions through their conversations. The mother and daughter have not seen or met each other in many years. It is a visit that forces Lucy to go back to her past- to her childhood. Her mother begins to tell her stories, exchanging gentle gossip from her childhood in Amgash, Illinois. This seems to reconnect them. They are not emotionally expressive. They seem unnaturally restrained with each other. Yet, her mother’s presence brings a powerful joy that seems to illuminate the pages.
Narrating events and news about their past, immediately brings back to Lucy’s mind the poverty-ridden childhood where the family lived akin to outcasts in a rich relative’s garage. There are some touching images, like for instance, an acquaintance who observed Lucy and other children grabbing a bite from something thrown in the dump.
It is through these reflections that Strout brings out the indelible impact of childhood on a person’s life. In this case it was a deprived one. But, it invisibly guided the course of Lucy’s life, impacting her decisions and her future.
Lucy’s current life is a far throw from her childhood. She is a mother to two girls. She lives in New York with her husband and children and is a struggling writer. As she confronts her past, her future seems to crumble. She faces the realities of her marriage and career as a writer. Her reflections on her past are interspersed with the direction that her life takes in the future.
The book is a short, simple and lucid read. My Name is Lucy Barton draws us gently into the complex weave of emotions, bringing out ties that bind a family together, especially a mother and a daughter. Like a true maestro, Strout plays with form in this narrative. There are different ways of telling a story. She chooses to narrate the tale in a simple, straightforward but sublimely touching manner!
Penguin Random House, 2016
Writer Rosalyn D’Mello’s first book, A handbook for my lover, makes a firm imprint on the much neglected genre of erotic memoir writing. What does one expect from a memoir of a relationship? This one goes beyond the normal confines of a love “story”. It chronicles the relationship between the young writer and her partner who is twice her age. This is done in a completely, and refreshingly non-chronological way. She describes the essence of their relationship in brutally honest terms. It takes you through their relationship without being voyeristic at all, engaging in some simple and some deep philosophical meanderings. Furthermore, given her literature background, there is a generous striking of literary quotes and references!
This is a book where the delicate sensual prose is all pervasive whether she is describing love, eating or the mere act of living! It elevates common actions and feelings to a pedestal where only good language can take them. It would be right to say that perhaps the more erotic parts of the book are in the descriptions of food!
Writing erotic fiction or an erotic memoir may seem easy. In truth, this is not always so. When this genre coincides with a personal memoir, it lays the self bare. In a society like ours, it takes a lot of risk and courage to do that. There is the risk of baring one’s relationship and its core, and the doubt if it will be able to take in this kind of scrutiny. In this case, I believe that the risk has paid off!
This is an apt read if you want to devour some really good writing and observe a compelling use of language while getting a glimpse into the life of a young modern Indian woman- a woman who is clear about her demands and desires even while she negotiates her way into the relationship, celebrating the transient with great aplomb!
Published by Harper Collins, 2015
Namita Gokhale sets her historical novel, Things to Leave Behind, in a time that has been relatively unexplored in fiction. Set between 1840 and 1912, the novel follows the lives of Tilottama Uprety, her daughter Deoli, missionary Rosemary Boden and Deoki’s husband Jayesh. Fate brings them together in the idyllic Eden Asham, where the arrival of artist William Dempster sets another series of events rolling. The scenic Kumaon, full of Himalayan beauty is the locale where the story unfolds.
The lives of the characters are not untouched by the changing social and political scenario. The beauty of the narrative lies is how Gokhale weaves the pulse of the changing times into the story. For example, the sepoy mutiny that sends ripples across the county, leads to a series of events where, in retaliation, Tilottima’s uncle is hanged as well. Tilottama briefly encounters the enigmatic swami Vivekananda, questioning him in her quest for knowledge. We encounter reimagined names of people and publications that were lost somewhere down the ages.
What comes out more strikingly is how the rigidity of the caste system imprisons the free will of the characters. Through these characters, one can relive the society of the times. Gokhale’s painstaking research makes the story and setting as realistic as it can get.
In a sensitively orchestrated tale one can see how the characters develop and come to terms with the way their lives unfold against the background of the times. The injustices of the caste system, double standards of Indian society, the impact of the newly established British empire- all these play a key role. We can see how they are bound by the shackles of convention and of duty. We can feel their angst as they try to take in what they want from life and break some of the chains that bind them.
One may love the simple but obstinate Deoki, feel sorry for Rosemary or sympathise with Jayesh. But, it is the irreverent Tilottama, wild and ever curious and a highly spirited woman who will undoubtedly win the reader over. In the society where anti-British sentiments were on the rise and people were moving to an ideology where they were willing to die for their country, Tilottama was trying to break the tight personal chains that bound her, ardently wondering “To dare and die, or dare and live?”.
Namita Gokhale, the Founder and Co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Bhutan Literary festival, Mountain Echoes, brings history to life back with this fantastic and touching tale.
Published by Penguin Random House India, 2016