My skin was a mass of prickly, raised bumps because of the frigid temperature in the media room with a projector turned into a makeshift classroom. The air was always so icy in that room, able to zap through even the thickest and fluffiest of sweaters, encouraging teeth to chatter.
The year was 2011. I was a graduate student in a pseudo MFA program, a program I applied for and told no one about except for my boyfriend at the time, because I had been yearning to become a better writer after plateauing just two years after leaving J-school. I needed to feel the magic about writing again. I needed to be excited about pieces I was working on, about sitting down to write, even. That excitement had dried up and disappeared it seems, lost in the shuffle in being unable to find a full-time writing position for almost two years after graduating.
I’d survived the first two semesters of grad school, much to my surprise, much to the sacrifice it had been. I was still a full-time reporter, spending eight hours every day calling, emailing and scrounging the internet for newsworthy tidbits in the metro Atlanta area. I somehow found a way to balance both of these worlds — the world of reporting which I’d haphazardly, unexpectedly fallen in love with during my college years and the the new world which seemed to be opening ahead of me, of writing that existed outside of reporting.
But then again, I can’t say I really survived more like fought desperately to remain afloat. My typical day was eight hours of doing reporting followed by four hours in being in class by the evening. Then driving nearly an hour to get how at the end of each day and doing it all over again, three times each week. Looking back, the time and effort I exerted for grad school seems out of reproach. I don’t know how I managed it but reaching for our dreams often seems second nature even if we are embroiled in situations and environments which leech from us.
This course, in the icebox classroom, was one on intercultural communications. It was an entire semester dedicated looking at how we can communicate with each other, internationally, with the cultural cues which often differ. And how to reconcile those differences so communication becomes smoother and reciprocal. Each of us had to pattern an avatar, a person of a certain age, gender and nationality and then choose a book which was representative of the fictional avatar we had created.
I chose Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s first novel and the first book of hers I read which touched my heart. When I heard some weeks ago that’d she be in Arlington doing a talk at a local library, my heart sang and fluttered with joy. This would be the moment to soak up the knowledge and prowess of a writer, a woman I admired so deeply.
And while, for a lot people, the admiration and respect they have for her is merely just because of her talent, her eloquence and precision of which she speaks (evident in the many lectures she has given and TED talks which she’s now known for) and how she seems to have effortlessly captured the world’s attention by interweaving her Nigerian heritage into her works, it’s much deeper than that for me.
I think about when I first started reading Purple Hibiscus back in grad school. I think about how I was in a precarious, fragile state of discerning both my Black American and Nigerian identity. I think about how reading that book gave me the courage to even begin to accept both parts of me as real, tangible and not warring at each other in the most violent of ways.
And it moves me to tears. Just like each work of hers has ended in a pool of tears in my lap, with a few stray tears tapping on the pages, making them wrinkly and noisy.
I read Purple Hibiscus and started to imagine that being Nigerian wasn’t something weird or misunderstood, as I had been led to believe throughout all my childhood and the teasing I had received for my name. And the rampant questions about whether or not my father was a prince or king, commenting on the “smelly” food that Nigerians often ate and calling me cruel names which elicited rounds of giggles from my classmates but a barrage of tears for me in private.
I read The Thing Around Your Neck and felt so intimately how being Nigerian impacts so many things and how Nigerians, Africans, are human, too. We are not some spectacle to be examined underneath the looking glass. There are complexities surrounding our relationships with others which are real, just like everyone else has.
I read Half of a Yellow Sun and ached for my ancestors and the atrocities of the Biafran War. The stolen lives, the stolen sense of peace, the stolen memories marred by a war which shattered families and hope for a better future.
I read Americanah and understood to a greater degree what my father, an immigrant to this country nearly 40 years ago dealt with. How he must have felt confronting what it meant to be Black in a country predisposed to othering him instead of trying to understand his difference. I understood to an extent that I had never before how difficult that must have been and how assimilation, though detrimental to me and my sisters who went through most of our lives lacking the proper context of what Nigerian culture and tradition is, was a means of bitter, double-edged survival to him. From softening his accent (which after all these years still rings through) to opting that people refer to him by his English, more widely known name instead of his proper Nigerian one.
And while hearing her speak last week, it was comforting. It was this same sense of a gentle understanding, of being made to feel that who I was, Nigerian, is okay.
She was candid in talking about her father’s kidnapping and visibly emotional. She apologized if she at all seemed off but admitted it had been hard to cope for her because her family means so much to her. Instead of just speaking for an hour, she spent her talking time taking questions from the audience. She paced herself as she spoke, being careful to insert the needed pauses, the emphasis on certain words and to laugh where she saw fit. But there was also a sense of ease, grace and calm that ran underneath each of her words.
It was an ease, grace and calm I hope to one day as effortlessly impart to others who come into my space and come into contact with me. It was refreshing and admirable.
There was a point where someone asked Chimamanda what her name meant. And as she explained the meaning of her name, my God will not fail me, there was hushed silence that fell over the room.
A sense of awe.
It was the same sense of awe I felt as I lined up behind many, many others after a thunderous round of applause was given after her answering questions was concluded to get my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun signed, a book signing I didn’t even know would be happening until after I had arrived and found a seat.
Those manning the line apparently told everyone to write their names down on a slip of paper to expedite getting their name spelled in the front cover of their books. I missed this, completely, although I wondered what the slips of paper everyone was holding were for. I didn’t think to ask because I was so enraptured that she was literally sitting feet in front of me.
Then it was my turn and I was rendered speechless. I silently put my book down in front of her, turned to the cover page where she was signed. She looked up to me as to ask what my name was and I feebly said, “Nneka.”
She looked back up at me and repeated my name, with a smile, “Nneka.” Saying it in the way I’d heard my name pronounced all my life by my father, deep and throaty with the strong, Igbo Nigerian accent which I’d always loved (and wished I had).
And yet again, all the feelings of insecurity surrounding my name and all the pain it had brought, all the teasing, all the declarations about how weird or strange my name was, all the mispronunciations, all those asking me if they could call me something else because pronouncing my name the proper way was too much of an inconvenience for them — were quelled and I was reaffirmed in that moment. There is beauty in my name, there is acceptance, there is a knowing. I am a Nigerian Igbo woman.
And I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie, a fellow Nigerian Igbo woman. She knew my name. She recognized my name. She said my name. She knew how to spell it. There was no hesitation. No head cocked to the side in confusion. There was no awkward pause. There was no attempt to ask me to spell it again and again and again (and still spelling it wrong). She knew how to spell it. She wrote my name in a couple of strokes, one and done.
There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because of that. There is beauty, there is power, there is a resting I can reside in because I am me.