Life is pretty amazing at the moment, in that it is challenging, eye-opening, teaching, mesmerising, and constantly surprising me with good things. I am learning new things from new people who have sparked my interest. I am also finally open to reading different things and, by doing just that, finally shedding some of my European ignorance.
For years I stuck to fantasy books, and I still love them dearly, but it seems part of my desire to delve into the unrealities and only potential realities of fantasy stories was that I had good enough reasons to attempt escaping my own reality, to fill the hole my own unhappiness had left behind. Now that I am doing better in my own life it seems I can handle realities again.
I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus the other day and delved into a world I knew nothing about. Just like the worlds in the fantasy novels I enjoy it was foreign to me, except in this case it’s not “world-building”, but reality, history.
Africa became the synonym for my own ignorance
I knew nothing about Nigeria before, nothing about West-Africa. To me “Africa” was just a continent, something geographical, but mostly it was a synonym for my own ignorance of that general area. I was aware I was lumping a lot of countries and ethnicities together, but it seemed like a subject impossible to tackle, especially given my general geographical incompetence and disinterest. Geography, to me, is nothing without a story. And Adichie finally gave me those stories.
I’d started reading Purple Hibiscus before but had put it aside again. Somehow it hadn’t felt right for me at that time, like I couldn’t handle it but was aware of the potential lurking there. This time the spark caught, and I ploughed through it in less than a week. After that I read Americanah, which put everything that was still so foreign to me in Purple Hibiscus into a more relatable framework by putting it in context with America – something I am, at the very least, exposed to by the popular culture I consume.
As a queer female-identifying person discrimination is, of course, something I think about and am aware of. But as a white woman in a European country where there are barely any black people (our immigrants predominately came from Turkey, the Balkans, etc.) race is something I am much less experienced with. Or, rather, I have experienced it differently.
Americanah: American Black ≠ Non-American Black
The differences between American Blacks and Non-American Blacks were nothing that had ever occurred to me, since it it something so very specific to the U.S. Everywhere else in the world (or so I assume) a different skin colour still very much stands for “came from somewhere else”. Reading Americanah was absolutely mind-opening in that regard.
Thinking I’d just stick with my Adichie phase I started reading Half of a Yellow Sun next. I’m shamed but I admit my complete ignorance: I didn’t even know that the title referred to the Biafran flag. All I had heard of Biafra, being born almost 13 years after the state collapsed, was the term “Biafran children” when referred to the bloated stomachs of malnourished kids “in Africa”. Again, the lumping together of so many different identities.
Half of a Yellow Sun, and Adichie’s other work, is doing what school history classes failed to do (not that they ever even tried): Getting me interested in the history of the African continent and, lo and behold, even its geography. It is teaching me about Nigeria by telling me a story about people. People in Kano, in Lagos, in Nsukka. And through those people Nigeria is coming alive for me and becoming more than just a spot on a map that I can’t pinpoint.
And that is why stories are so incredibly important: The only way we can ever learn about something foreign to us, other than travelling there, is by learning and caring about people – even if they’re just characters in a novel. And, maybe, that way we can also learn to care about actual people, living and struggling human beings, even if they’re a world away. Even if only their deaths and never their lives are ticking the boxes of European newsworthiness.