AiW Guest: Matthew Lecznar
Since the turn of the 21st-century, few authors have been able to implant themselves on the global literary imagination with the kind of deftness and flare exhibited by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author’s published fiction, which includes three prize winning novels – Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Americanah (2013) – and her numerous short stories – most notably those collected in The Thing Around Your Neck (2009) – has become a mainstay of book clubs, literature courses and scholarly journals alike. However, Adichie has become better known in recent years for her ‘non-fictional’ writing and public commentary, for which she has garnered both praise and critique.
Her pocket manifesto We Should All Be Feminists (2014), adapted from a TED talk of the same name, has been commended for making feminism accessible to a younger generation of women and men. However, she has also come under fire for expressing her views about the gender identity of transgender women. These overtly political interventions have arguably begun to overshadow Adichie’s primary interest and talent: her storytelling.
Refreshingly, A Companion to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Boydell & Brewer 2017) tries to resituate the debate about Adichie’s work by focusing primarily on her fiction, and by drawing thoughtful connections between her creative writing and the wider discourses around her public politics and celebrity. The editor, Prof. Ernest N. Emenyonu, writes in the introduction that he wanted the companion to function as “‘a classic anthology’ that would […] demonstrate a thorough understanding of her art, ideology, and vision” (p. 4). An ambitious aim to be sure, and many of the essays that make up the companion contribute detailed and original insights to the debates around Adichie’s writing. For instance, several of the essays offer interesting accounts of the significance of domestic spaces in the author’s work, while others probe the limits of Adichie’s feminist literary project in their readings of the abusive patriarch Eugene’s death at the hands of his wife Beatrice in Purple Hibiscus. However, the volume as a whole seems to struggle to define what a ‘classic anthology’ of Adichie’s oeuvre should look like.
In terms of structure, the companion is made up of 17 essays; while not split into different sections, the formation loosely reflects the order of publication of Adichie’s three novels and short story collection. While this editorial decision is understandable given the range of themes taken up in these works, it tends to treat Adichie’s fictions as distinct and disconnected texts rather than as a creative whole. As such its text-by-text arrangement detracts from the volume’s broader aim of reflecting the writer’s “vibrant artistic innovations” (p. 3). Indeed, the chosen structure not only reveals the unevenness of the volume (six of the essays focus on Purple Hibiscus while only three engage principally with Americanah), but also makes it difficult to organise the few essays that do not respond to a single work from Adichie’s corpus.
The lopsidedness of this arrangement is illustrated most clearly by the pieces that bookend the volume. On the one hand, Louisa Uchum Egbunike’s opening essay usefully contextualises the influences of Igbo oral culture and colonialism in Adichie’s writing. However, her broad overview of these issues feels rather disconnected from the other pieces, which all focus on particular texts. On the other hand, while Cristina Cruz-Gutierrez’s closing analysis of hair politics in Americanah and the short stories ‘Hair’ and ‘Imitation’ does follow other essays engaged with these works, it is a shame that her effective comparative response to Adichie’s writing should be left to the end, especially as its reading of transitional narrative trajectories has ramifications for all of the author’s works.
Given that many of the essays engage with themes that cut across Adichie’s writing – including gender and racial politics, transnational migration and the legacies of cultural trauma – it might have been helpful to construct the volume along thematic rather than sequential lines. This would have created a more explicitly comparative framework for the reader and would have offered a more nuanced sense of the tropes and concerns which run through Adichie’s fiction.
A number of the essays also lack key textual and historical detail. For instance, several contributions offer interpretations of the symbolic significance of the titular purple hibiscus flower in Adichie’s first novel without quoting any evidence from the text. Furthermore, important figures in Nigerian history like the musician Fela Kuti and politician Nnamdi Azikiwe are referred to only in shorthand (“Fela” [p. 40] and “Zik” [p. 143] respectively), with no contextual notes offered to explain their meaning. These omissions, unfortunately, work to compound the confusion perceived in the broader structure of the companion. If the volume is intended to be accessible to new as well experienced readers of Adichie’s writing (and other Nigerian literatures), then greater definition and detail is needed throughout to help clarify such crucial references.
This criticism aside, several of the contributors are able to shed fresh light on Adichie’s work while grounding their arguments effectively in the established criticism. Such noteworthy essays include Edgar Fred Nabutanyi’s study of ritualized abuse in Purple Hibiscus, which uncovers a nuanced grammar in the text capable of disclosing and recovering from the ambivalent effects of domestic trauma. Another important intervention comes from Pauline Dodgson-Katiyo, whose reading of Half of a Yellow Sun offers much needed insight into the central but often overlooked character of Olanna. Dodgson-Katiyo argues that Olanna’s melancholia facilitates rather than disrupts the narrative’s broader project of mourning the losses of the Nigeria-Biafra war, and helps to convey those complex legacies to the reader.
Although the volume could have, in parts, offered a more dynamic and comparative survey of Adichie’s growing corpus, when taken as a whole, it powerfully illustrates the creative complexity and bold humanity of Adichie’s fiction. Helping to refocus readers’ attention on the expressive works that first made Adichie a global literary phenomenon, A Companion to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie represents a vital milestone in the literary scholarship of this most widely-cited and intriguing of 21st-century authors.
Matthew Lecznar is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. His doctoral research considers the artistic legacies of the Nigeria-Biafra war, and he is more broadly interested in the ways artists respond to conflicts in a range of different forms and media. He has published articles on the fiction and celebrity of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and is an editorial assistant for Africa in Words.
Ernest N. Emenyonu is Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint.