“We have to go further back, to 2005. I’m in Warri, in Delta State, I’m working as a doctor, and my mom and I are having a fight. She’s saying, You’re stagnating, you read medicine and you haven’t gone further, you could do better! I was happy, I was in this quiet place becoming a provincial doctor, but in Nigeria that is a lack of ambition, so my mom was angry. She showed me a photograph in a magazine of a young woman with beads in her hair, and she said, Look at this small girl, she has written a book of horticulture, about flowers—you could do something like that. She didn’t care what I did, really, she just wanted me to do more. So she told me, Write books! Don’t just sit there dishing out Tylenol. I said O.K. So I got a computer and started writing.”
Eghosa Imasuen was twenty-eight. He was living near his parents, in a small city some two hundred and fifty miles southeast of Lagos. He read a lot, mostly thrillers and science fiction, pulp paperbacks he bought from secondhand bookshops for a dollar or less. “Literature to me was recommended reading in school, which was Chinua Achebe. ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God,’ ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God,’ ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘Arrow of God.’ I tried to read Ben Okri once—I couldn’t get past page 10. […]
When Chimamanda read Barack Obama’s memoir and learned how his father had deserted his white American wife, whom he had married despite already having a wife in Kenya, she judged the father less harshly than Obama did. “It’s easy to understand it as deceitful,” she says. “But I don’t see it that way. To be an African man of that time, to have this privilege of being educated, often by people in your home town contributing money to pay part of your school fees—not only do you owe them money, you owe them in an emotional way, because you’re a shining star for them, you’re theirs. Then you go off and fall in love with somebody who would not be acceptable to them, and you feel torn. Often, the village wins. And so, reading Obama’s book as a person who was familiar with stories of that sort, part of me wanted to say, It’s not that he didn’t love you.” […]
She had always imagined that she would marry someone flamboyantly unfamiliar—she pictured herself shocking the family by bringing home “a spiky-haired Mongolian-Sri-Lankan-Rwandan”—but the man she ended up marrying, in 2009, was almost comically suitable: a Nigerian doctor who practiced in America, whose father was a doctor and a friend of her parents, and whose sister was her sister’s close friend. Before they had a baby, she spent about half the year in Nigeria, and her husband would join her when he could. But her husband doesn’t want to be apart from the baby for too long, so now she spends less time in Nigeria. “One of the perils of a feminist marriage is that the man actually wants to be there,” she says. “He is so present and he does every damn thing! And the child adores him. I swear to God, sometimes I look at her and say, I carried you for nine months, my breasts went down because of you, my belly is slack because of you, and now Papa comes home and you run off and ignore me. Really?”
In America, they live in a big, new house in a suburb of Baltimore, on a cul-de-sac alongside four other similar houses arranged in a semicircle. In “Americanah,” she describes Princeton as having no smell, and her neighborhood has no smell, either. It is calm, spacious, bland, empty—the opposite of Lagos. If she looks out the window, she sees nothing. She doesn’t know many people in Maryland, and doesn’t want to. She can go out and people don’t recognize her. It’s a good place to work.
In Nigeria, when a woman in her family had a baby, all of her female relatives came to help and she lay in bed like a dying queen. She loved the idea of that in some ways, but when she had her baby, in Maryland, she instructed her mother not to come for a month. She realized afterward that she had internalized what she took to be an American notion, that having help with a newborn was something to be slightly ashamed of. You were supposed to do everything on your own, or else you weren’t properly bonding, or suffering enough, or something like that. […]
Her husband told her that her father had been kidnapped, and she screamed, then vomited, then started to cry. Her father had been in a car driving from Nsukka to Abba, but he had not arrived. When her mother tried to call him, his phone was switched off, as was the phone of his driver. Two hours later, her mother received a call from his phone: the kidnapper told her, Madam, we have him, and hung up. Her mother had not called Chimamanda to tell her the news, fearing she would have a miscarriage.
She pulled herself together and started making phone calls. She called the governor of Anambra, her home state. She called the American consul-general in Lagos, because her father was an American citizen, through his two elder daughters, who were born in Berkeley. The American consul sent a Nigerian-American F.B.I. agent, a kidnapping expert, to her mother’s house; he told her mother what to say when the kidnappers called back. Chimamanda called the house to talk to the F.B.I. agent. He told her he was a big fan and had read all her books. Later, she would find this funny.
There were no demands until the next day. This was the usual method: kidnappers delayed, so that you worked yourself up into a panic. The next day, they called and demanded five million naira—around fourteen thousand dollars—and told her mother that if she told the police they would kill him. They didn’t call for another day. On the third day, they demanded ten million naira. There were laws against taking out too much money at once, but kidnappings were common enough that the banks made an exception.
She was terrified that her father was dead. When the kidnappers called her mother, her mother had asked to hear her husband’s voice, but the man on the line refused. Her father was diabetic and didn’t have his medicine with him. The F.B.I. man told her mother to forge an emotional connection with the kidnapper, so she called him “my dear son,” and told him she was an old, old lady, and begged him for mercy. The family made a plan to drop off the money. The kidnappers knew all about them: they said that Okey or a particular son-in-law could go, but no one else. Okey drove to a point on the highway near Nsukka, then, as instructed, set off on a motorcycle taxi for the designated meeting place, carrying ten million naira in a sack. Nobody knew if he would be seen again. They had heard that sometimes a family member would bring the money, only to find that the victim was already dead, and then be killed himself.
Okey rode on the back of the motorcycle, talking to the kidnapper on his phone. The motorcycle driver asked where they were going, there was nothing around here. Okey said to him, Just keep driving. When they entered a forest, the kidnapper told Okey to stop. The kidnapper told him not to look to the right or left, just keep walking, then drop the bag. Okey obeyed; the kidnapper on the phone told him to leave. Back at the house, the family held their phones, willing them to ring and afraid that they would ring. Then her father was delivered. […]
Her child is two. Soon she will have to go to school and become part of the world, and this brings up several quandaries that Chimamanda has postponed thinking about. She recently wrote a short manual on rearing a child—“Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions”—but although she is now a published authority on the subject, and holds fully formed opinions on questions such as how gender stereotypes imprison boys as well as girls, she finds that when one descends from principles to logistics things become complicated. She cannot create a child in the way that she can create a character, of course, but she can choose the setting and the language of her daughter’s childhood, which is already to choose one set of possible selves over another.
She wants to raise her child in Nigeria, because she wants her to be protected as she herself was protected, growing up there: not knowing she is black. Someday she will talk to her about what it means to be black, but not yet. She wants her daughter to be in a place where race as she has encountered it in America does not exist.
Even as a privileged Americanah, she found that arriving at an American airport was often jarring—a reminder that she was once again black and foreign. And it wasn’t just the white customs officers who hassled her. “There is a certain kind of black American that deeply resents an African whom they think of as privileged,” she says. “Privileged Nigerians especially. My husband and I have got to the airport and they’ve said to us, You’re Nigerian, I bet you have twenty-five thousand dollars in your bag, let’s see it.”
Her neighborhood in Maryland is more diverse than most, but it’s still America. She moved into her current house just before the 2016 election, and when, the morning after Trump won, she began reading about post-election vandalism in Baltimore, and about how someone had spray-painted “nigger” on a black woman’s car, and how Trump had been elected not by the white working class after all but by suburbanites, she started to panic. She became convinced that her new neighbors had guns and were going to shoot them because they were black and supported Clinton. All day, she refused to leave the house. Then the doorbell rang, and it was the neighbors bearing welcome gifts, and they turned out to be a Japanese couple, a Bangladeshi couple, a white-black couple, and a lefty white couple. She was so relieved that she almost cried.
“There aren’t enough middle-class black folks to go around,” Bill said. “Lots of liberal white folks are looking for black friends.”
On the other hand, raising her daughter in Nigeria would mean that she would likely learn much sooner, and more definitively than she would in America, that she was a girl. She doesn’t want her to know that too early, either. Of course, there was sexism in America as well, but nobody was going to say to her in an American school, You! Go to the girls’ line. In “We Should All Be Feminists,” she told the story of her ambition, when she was nine, to be class monitor, because the monitor was empowered to patrol the classroom, holding a cane, and write down the names of noisemakers. Told that the child who scored the highest mark on a test would become monitor, she concentrated hard and attained the highest mark, only to be told by the teacher that the monitor had to be a boy. The boy who got the second-highest mark duly took up the post, although he was unsuited for its responsibilities. “The boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling the class with a cane,” she said, “whereas I was full of ambition to do so.” Should her daughter grow up cherishing similar ambitions, she did not want them thwarted.
Larissa MacFarquhar, “Writing Home: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Comes to Terms with Global Fame”, New Yorker Magazine, June 4 & 11, 2018 Issue
Added to diary 11 June 2018