We all change a lot once we get to university. I am certain that when I eventually leave university and later in life get asked the usual question “Who were your inspirations when you were a young woman learning to find herself?” one of the first names that will come to mind will be Chimamanda Adichie. There are many aspects of her work I know I will never be able to fully identify with (I am so white I don’t even tan). But her work resonates with me as a human, and more specifically with me as an optimistic book-worm of a woman.
The first book I read by Adichie was Americanah, and I was transfixed. For four days (and yes, I may have neglected the essay due that week) I simply could not put it down. Try as I might, its colourful cover kept materialising in my bag, and when I wasn’t actually walking somewhere, it barely left my hands until I’d turned the last page. I couldn’t explain what got me when I finished it – I simply didn’t have the words. Having just dropped an English Literature course nearly exclusively focused on white western masculine literature, my vocabulary to discuss anything else was limited. I could not really verbalise how profoundly that book changed my outlook on life, how the experience of reading it affected me. But I can give you an image of what I looked like reading it. I caught myself laughing out loud in the quiet coffee shops in which I took refuge from the insanity of the library during exam period, and received many a puzzled look from customers glimpsing my face changing with what I read.
That in itself made me grateful for the book’s existence. After I’d been asked multiple times why I said it had become my new favourite book, I really thought about it. The answer presented itself simply, in just one word: Ifemelu. I think back to this wonderful heroine in moments when I get upset, and remember to stop giving a shit about what people think. I could use other fictional women from books as strong female role models. But that’s not what I want. I want women full stop. Women with their strengths and weaknesses, their moments of fragility as well as the times when they kick ass. And that’s what I found in Chimamanda Adichie’s books.
Half of a Yellow Sun came next. I felt my insides sink and swell as the book transported me into the history of the Nigerian Civil War and the struggles of sisterhood. Once again, when I think about my bond to that book, it isn’t the breathless story that stays with me the most, it’s Kainene. Hers is not one of the three points of view from which the book is written, yet she stands out like silver fireworks. She is a fascinating, magnetic woman whose apparent lack of beauty and warmth hide an iron will and depth of feeling which no other character in the book can hope to comprehend. She is broken and irreverent, and imbues the pages of Adichie’s books with a fierce life that is both inspiring and heart-breaking.
After reading these, I decided to buy We Should All Be Feminists for Mother’s Day, and thought I’d take a cheeky look before wrapping it. Half an hour and a few tears later, I’d read it cover to cover and was filled with a mixture of admiration and inner peace. I’d read so much feminist theory and had so many discussions about equality of the sexes. But never had I encountered such a concise, inclusive, heartfelt expression of the thoughts I’d struggled to find the right words to describe. This short text alone gave me clarity and helped me define my feminism in the midst of a lot of – quite frankly – convoluted and sometimes even hateful essays on the subject.
Purple Hibiscus made my list of hardest books to read, on a purely emotional level. I couldn’t put it down, but after some chapter my mother found me trembling, mouth open in shock. Young Kambili’s account of the daily abuse her whole family suffers from at the hands of her fanatically devout father is one of the most memorable writing styles I’ve ever encountered. Every page reinforces the sense that she is a ghost in her own life, gripped by fear of disappointing her abusive hero, and it completely broke my heart. Yet, true to her genius, Adichie also wrote an incredibly optimistic book, with Aunty Ifeoma as the mother I aspire to become, slowly filling the book with the promise that happiness is possible even in the worst of times.
Adichie gave me books that were brave, fearless, complex, funny, terrifying, and intensely human. So this is not a book review, but a thank you for Adichie and the books she has given to the world.