Some years ago, at one of my reading events in Lagos, a young man in the audience raised his hand to ask me a question. His question was: “Are you an African Writer?”
Now at first glance this is a particularly peculiar question. I was born and raised in Nigeria, I wrote a novel about a central moment in Nigerian history. I speak Igbo, one of the indigenous Nigerian languages. I have only one passport, which is Nigerian, and by all accounts, Nigeria is in Africa. Yet I was being asked if I was an African writer. This, by the way, was a question I had been asked a few times before and always by a fellow African.
But before I go further with this “African Writer” question, I would like to talk about writing itself. I have been writing since I was old enough to spell. I do not remember a time when I was not drawn to stories, reading them, writing them, finding them.
I have this memory from childhood: sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car, looking out of the window, and suddenly feeling a melancholy pang, a kind of muted mourning, because what I saw through the window as we drove were stories, so many stories waiting to be told, and I knew that I would not be able to tell them all.
When my writing is going well, it gives me what I like to describe as extravagant joy. And when it is not going well, there is no greater source of depressive anxiety.
Because of its hold on the emotional boundaries of my life, because it is central to my own sense of who I am, my writing is a deeply private act. If I did not have the good fortune I have today of being published and read – and of being honoured with the PEN Pinter Prize – I would be somewhere, unknown, unread, but writing.
And yet it is too simple to claim that writing is a private act, end of story. If it were so, I would write in a diary and put it away in a drawer. I write because I have to. I also write because I want and hope to be read. And so an audience – or the possibility of an audience – moves writing from a private to a public space.
Who do I write for? The most honest answer is that I really do not know, because I never consciously think of an audience while writing fiction, but perhaps an answer that is more comprehensible is that I write the kind of fiction I like to read. And so I write for whoever enjoys the kind of fiction I enjoy.
After my first novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, but did not win, a woman in Nigeria, a stranger who came up to me at the airport, told me, “Congratulations. We will win next time.” Her use of the word “we” moved me very much.
There was in this “we-ness” a kind of collective ownership of my work, a kind of pride that spoke not only to my achievement but to a larger collective triumph.
And when I did win a few years later, I had many moments of being hugged by strangers in Nigeria, being told that I had represented us, and I, too, in some ways came to see it as a prize for Nigeria, and for Africa, because I was the first woman from there to win – although of course I alone got to keep and spend the prize money.
But the glow of this we-ness dims too quickly. Or perhaps it remains bright but sits alongside a shadow, and that is the shadow of expectations. Because to talk about our winning, to gesture to this collective ownership of a literary prize, is a statement about a shared identity. A shared citizenship. But herein lies the conundrum: the person who is hugged at the airport is the citizen, the representative of Nigeria, of Africa, and yet the person who is the citizen is not quite the person who is the artist.
Proust wrote that a book is a product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. To this I would add that the two selves are not entirely disconnected – how could they possibly be? – but that there is a certain unhinging between the two, much as there is in the character of Ezeulu in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God who, when he is performing his sacred duties as the priest of Ulu, becomes another person, another version of himself, a self as different from, and yet as genuine as, the self he is in his life as a farmer.
Still, artists are also citizens. It would be dishonest to suggest that our art were entirely disconnected from our lives as members of a community. I am reminded of my Social Studies teacher in primary school in Nsukka who would often say, in a booming voice, as a preface to answering any question at all – MAN IS NOT AN ISLAND. Neither is woman, I think.
Our art is shaped by where we come from. The South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele writes that under apartheid black South African writers wrote mostly short stories because of the urgency of their political condition; their political space shaped the form of their fiction.
It is difficult in the West to talk about the connections between creating and citizenship because of the general ideas placed around art, that it is a thing apart, that an artist by creating suddenly becomes a citizen of an imaginary and apolitical land of other artists. There are people in the West who use the term “political” almost as a pejorative in reference to a work of literature. (I emphasise the West because in parts of the world called developing, art is often not seen as automatically separate from politics.)
It is in some ways true that art is a thing apart, because unlike politics art functions in grey spaces, it humanises, it goes below the surface.
But we also live in a world in which the nation-state dominates, in which the value the world gives us as human beings can be determined by the passports we carry.
I cannot imagine what it is like today to be a writer who has a Syrian passport, or who is a citizen of Yemen, or El Salvador, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries in which an artist’s freedom of movement, and perhaps freedom to create, is constrained by political realities.
For me, travelling with a Nigerian passport means carrying the weight of assumptions. It means to be, at many ports of entry, automatically suspect. To travel with a Nigerian passport is to constantly confront the sneering disbelief of immigration officers when I say I am a writer, it is to be asked to step aside for more questions, it is to feel that you are guilty of something.
But of course citizenship goes beyond a mere passport. It is a sensibility. A sensibility, I think, that is often shaped by where one’s formative years are spent.
While I have a great affection for America and live part time in America, and have come to consider it a second home, I was not formed in America’s churning cultural crucible. I did not grow up there, and I’m not sure that I can ever truly be an American since I will never understand the game of baseball.
Citizenship, for a person like me from a country like Nigeria, in a continent like Africa, is not just a sensibility, it is also a condition. A condition that arises from being what I like to call “inhabitants of the periphery”. And what do I mean by inhabitants of the periphery? I am not merely referring to political expressions like Third World, but to the phenomenon of being outside the centre in ways more subtle than mere politics, in ways metaphysical and psychological.
I do not mean merely having what Chinua Achebe called a history of the dispossessed, but also inheriting and experiencing, as an essential part of one’s personal history, an accumulation of uncertainties, or to borrow from the title of the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s novel, a “nervous condition”.
We are a people conditioned by our history and by our place in the world to look towards somewhere else for validation. We are conditioned to learn a lot of untruths and half-truths about who we are, and some of us make the choice to consciously unlearn these, but even the very act of unlearning takes on a colonial colouration and feeds into our nervous condition. We are conditioned by the knowledge that we come from a place that has long been derided.
If I walked into an average classroom in any Western country and asked the students to tell me what comes to mind when I say “Africa”, at best the answer would be something about safaris and beautiful zebras and giraffes. At worst it would be the usual stock images of poverty and war and helplessness. Western literature, Western film, Western photography all have a long history of seeing Africa as a place defined by what it does not have. There is no need to overstate this here. We are conditioned by that knowledge. What this conditioning results in, I think, is a curious mix of defensiveness and aspiration.
Among Nigerians, complaining about our problems is an art form. Most conversations quickly become a litany of complaints – about government corruption, no light, no water, etc. But if a foreigner were to say the same things, to recite the same litany of complaints, Nigerians would become defensive, sometimes angrily so.
I have always been curious about this brand of defensiveness – which I myself often exhibit, by the way. It seems to me that we have it because we assume that the complaining Nigerian is aware that Nigeria is not only about its problems, is aware of the human complexity, knows of the intelligence and ingenuity of people, knows how they cry and laugh, knows what motivates them and what they aspire to and what they find meaningful. And we suspect that the foreigner does not know these other stories about us and so we worry about being defined solely by what we do not have and by what we are not. And so our defensiveness emerges.
Still, linked to this defensiveness is a certain aspiration. The same Nigerian who is angry about a foreigner writing or talking about our problems in a one-dimensional way will be thrilled when that same foreigner says something good about us, or admits one of ours into some esteemed foreign rank. It would have to be a foreign rank in the so-called West, of course, which is where our education conditions us to look towards for validation.
Some years ago, my Nigerian publisher told me a story of a man who had told him that I was not authentic because I was guilty of what this man called “writing for the West”. When my publisher responded by saying that my novels were widely read all over anglophone Africa, the man then said I was still not authentic because I published first in the West.
Now this anecdote would ordinarily be unremarkable – if not for a little postscript: this same man, a short while later, contacted me to say that he had started writing fiction and asked if I would help him get published in the New Yorker. What, I wondered, was more representative of inauthenticity than that bastion of Westernness, the New Yorker? And I should say that getting people published in the New Yorker is a power I very much wish I had.
Higher power: the South African writer Bessie Head wrote of building “a stairway to the stars”
And so to be a Nigerian writer published in what we call the West is to be a repository of both pride and suspicion. It is to be scrutinised for the right kind of African representation. You are required to perform the rituals. You are required to bow to the expectations of citizenship.
Once, years ago, I discussed this question with a Senegalese friend, a brilliant academic historian. He told me quite simply, “You no longer belong to yourself.”
And what he meant was that by making the choice to write and publish realistic fiction about a place like Nigeria, I have become, to many people from where I come from, a part representing a whole. There are now expectations of citizenship that come with my writing.
But on whose terms do I no longer belong to myself?
And that is why that question I was asked, “Are you an African Writer?”, was not about geography but about loyalty.
And my answer was “No”.
I have no objection at all to being African, in fact it is all I know how to be and so I cannot possibly be anything else. And so my answer to the question “Are you an African Writer?” was no, and not because I am not proudly African – because I most certainly am, and the idea, by the way, of being proudly anything, of linking pride and identity, is a preoccupation of people who are inhabitants of the periphery; if you are in the centre, you have the automatic privilege of not needing to declare your pride, because your place in the world has never been in question.
“Are you an African Writer?”
I said no because I have increasingly been troubled by the subtle and not-so-subtle constraints that the question implies.
At that same public event in Lagos, another young man told me that he had been a keen fan until I began to do what he called “talking about this feminism issue and this gay issue”, which he hoped I would stop, otherwise he could not continue to support me. I appreciated his honesty but suggested to him that it might be best to keep his support to himself.
He was referring to my opposition to a Nigerian law that criminalises homosexuality, a law I find not only deeply immoral but politically cynical. He was also referring to a speech I had recently given about feminism, using concrete details about Nigerian life, in an effort to start a much-needed conversation about the full and equal humanity of women.
It wasn’t so much this young man’s disagreement that mattered, it was the language he used to voice it, the language of citizenship. I could not, as an African, claim to be a feminist because feminism and being African were mutually exclusive. Feminism was a sickness of the West, and one I had appropriated by being poisoned by the West. As for gay people, homosexuality was un-African, and my supporting the rights of gay people meant a disregard of African culture.
Harold Pinter wrote that in his life as a writer and creator he agrees that something can be both true and untrue. But in his life as a citizen he does not agree. He must know what is true. And what is false. I have thought about this often – and have quoted it often – because it articulates so well this sense of unhinging, this tension I feel.
I did not choose to speak out about social issues because I am a writer. But my writing gave me a platform to speak about issues that I have always cared about. I do not think that writers should necessarily speak out on political issues, but I also do not think that art is a valid reason for evading the responsibilities of citizenship – which are to think clearly, to remain informed, and, sometimes, to act and speak.
Art can illuminate politics. Art can humanise politics. Art can shine the light towards truth. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes politics must be engaged with as politics. And this could not be any truer or more urgent today, with the political landscapes of many Western countries so blatantly awash in what Harold Pinter called “a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed”. We must know what is true. And we must call a lie a lie.
Still, I am left often with a strange feeling of vulnerability, as though pulled in two opposing directions. I do not want my art judged narrowly on generic ideas of citizenship, and yet I do not want to use my art as an armour of neutrality behind which to hide. I am a writer and I am a citizen, and I see my speaking out on social issues as a responsibility of citizenship.
I am struck by how often this speaking out is met, in Nigeria, not with genuine engagement, whether to agree or disagree, but with a desire to silence me. A journalist once helpfully summed it up for me: people don’t like it when you talk about feminism, they just want you to shut up and write.
And yet even the writing, the art, has its own burden of expectations. That question “Are you an African Writer?” is also about the people who tell me that, as an African writer, I should not write about sex in my fiction. Or that as an African writer I should not write about a subject that is likely to divide Africans or a subject that portrays Africans in a bad light. Or that an African would never do something that my character did in a novel. Or that an African would not use a word that a character of mine had used. Or that an African would not make the choice that my character had made.
Flora Nwapa, a pioneer of African women’s writing in English, wrote wonderful, witty fiction about women in a world that she described in her own words as “dominated by men”. But in many interviews she stated clearly that she was not a feminist.
What is feminism anyway? I think Rebecca West said it best: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” But for formality’s sake, let us use this definition: that feminism is an acknowledgement of and a desire to change the fact that men have in most if not all of the world had social, economic and political privileges solely because they are men.
Flora Nwapa’s work both acknowledged and showed a keen desire to complicate this phenomenon of male privilege. She gave women agency. She showed the full, complicated complexity of women. But she would not accept that she was a feminist.
Obviously “feminism”, because of its history in the West, is a contested word. Perhaps Nwapa rejected it because it was a word that was seen as too representative of the concerns of middle-class white women, which were not always the same as those of so-called Third World women. Or perhaps Nwapa rejected it because, as I suspect, she wanted to comply with an expectation of citizenship, to perform citizenship, to declare her loyalty at the altar of authentic Africanness, one in which feminism did not exist.
Some years ago, I began to call myself an African feminist in response to that idea of feminism and Africanness being mutually exclusive. And then, a nice young Nigerian woman told me, after reading an interview in which I had said that I was an African feminist, that feminists were just angry women who could not find husbands. I then thought that I had better modify things even further and call myself a Happy African Feminist. It was all partly tongue-in-cheek but it did reflect a certain anxiety and ambivalence that I felt.
Now I find it completely unnecessary to twist myself out of shape in my eagerness to perform citizenship. I am a feminist. And it is an identity I will define for myself. But it demonstrated to me the power that comes with the very act of naming something. Until I had to confront that label “feminist”, I was simply a human being who from childhood had been aware of and alert to the many ways in which the world did not grant the same dignity to women as it did to men. But confronting that label “feminist” suddenly meant that it had power, especially presented as it was as something in opposition to Africanness. And because I wanted to perform citizenship – at some deep unreasonable level I sometimes still want to – that label gained much more power than it really deserved.
Allow me to tell a little story. I was visiting my ancestral hometown, Abba in Anambra State. It was 2003. I had at that point strong, romanticised ideas of my hometown – I still do. I love the rhythm of listening to old people talking, and I do so with a keen wish that I could speak their beautiful, proverb-rich version of Igbo rather than my modern, English-influenced Igbo. I would take walks and think to myself: my great-grandfather walked on this land, my great-grandmother planted this tree, that sort of thing – all of which gave me a simple lasting contentment.
So it was 2003 and I was walking from our country home to my family’s ancestral homestead to visit my uncle. It was in the middle of Harmattan. The soil was baked and the dirt roads were cracked, the cracks sometimes widening into large gullies. Two girls were walking ahead of me; they were local – I had earlier seen them chatting to one of the bread-hawkers on the roadside. They were walking, talking and laughing, and then one of them slipped and fell. She said something as she fell. I expected that it would be something in Igbo, perhaps a common exclamation like “Ewo!”. But the exclamation that came out of her mouth, in English, was “Fuck, fuck!”. My first thought was that I needed to write that down in my notebook. My second thought was that if I wrote that scene in a short story, the Esteemed Gatekeepers of African Authenticity would dispute it and would prefer that she break into an Igbo elegy, complete with proverbs.
Now even I wished she had said something else. But what made that scene interesting, and perhaps fiction-worthy, was that she did not. And for me, what is essential in fiction is what HG Wells called “the jolly coarsenesses of life”. The expectations of citizenship, however, often get in the way of engaging honestly with this jolly coarseness.
One of my favourite novels is The Dark Child by Camara Laye, a book of startling beauty, defiant optimism, and the most layered nostalgia. The Dark Child is about a quiet childhood in the plains of Guinea, a book which begins with the simple sentence, “I was a little boy playing around my father’s hut,” and then leads us into a world of wonderfully realised characters: his father is a goldsmith who makes gold trinkets, his mother has supernatural powers, he observes festivals, hunting, rice harvest, the transition to manhood, school and girls.
Camara Laye published this book in 1953, in the heat of the anti-colonial struggle, and some African critics felt that the book was not sufficiently scorched. An African critic famously asked him: “Was it really like that for you, brother?” What the critic meant was not only: “Was it really that easy? Was it really that happy?” But also: “How dare you betray us? How dare you not show your anti-colonial rage?” But for me, Camara Laye’s beautiful novel was anti-colonial because it quietly and insistently portrays the complex humanity of people whose humanity had been made negotiable to justify their exploitation. And it refuses to allow a reader to look away from this.
The expectations of African citizenship certainly affect how a writer is read, but obviously not only by fellow Africans. To carry that label “African Writer” in the so-called West is to be a voice to explain your country’s politics.
It became clear to me shortly after I was first published that my work was often looked at through a political lens. I would do public readings and often be asked or even be told that my novel was a political allegory, that my abusive father character represented Nigeria’s brutal dictator. Why, I wondered, must my characters somehow represent something political? Why must I always have words like “socio-political” linked to my work? Why am I not asked about the interpersonal relationships between the characters? About love?
Obviously I know the reasons – that modern African novels have their roots in the anti-colonial struggle and that so little African writing is known outside Africa that the easy response is always to read it as some sort of native explanation of an unknown place; that it is almost impossible for a novel to be read first as a story of human beings before being read as, say, an allegory of a political situation.
But it does not change the truth, which is that when I sat down to write the father character in Purple Hibiscus, I was not thinking, “I shall now write an important allegorical representation of Nigeria’s military culture.” Instead a character had come to me, with a hushed voice and an almost broken spirit, a teenage girl who was nothing like me and who I wanted to explore.
That question “Are you an African Writer?” is one I have been asked many times, and there are times when I have answered “Yes”, a yes that reflected my ambivalence but also my anxiety not to be misunderstood. I belong, was what my “Yes” said, I belong. But that “Yes” often came with a whisper: “But you must let me belong on my own terms, on multiple terms, for that is the essence of art.”
I would like to end with some words from the South African writer Bessie Head, who lived most of her life in Botswana. When she was asked the question, “Why do you write?” her response was this: “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.”
This essay was presented at the British Library by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as winner of the tenth PEN Pinter Prize. The prize is awarded annually to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world