The Line of No Return

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a fantastic column which appeared in the November 30, 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune (All rights reserved. It led me to the writer, who has just published a remarkable first novel, called Purple Hibiscus, which I’ll soon be talking about more in the Book Table section.
Here, meanwhile, is the lede of a story about her by a writer named Bron Sibree which appeared in the January 2, 2005 editions of the South China Morning Post (rights reserved!). I love Adichie’s quotes.:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still coming to grips with the acclaim for her first book, Purple Hibiscus. Since this politically inspired, coming-of-age novel became a contender for last year’s Orange Prize and Man Booker Prize, the Nigerian-born, US-based novelist’s book and life have been the subject of intense media scrutiny in Britain, North America and Africa.
“I find it really intriguing to see how differently people react to the book, and I’m really amused by some of them,” she says.
Adichie, 27, expected it to provoke some irritation in Nigeria. But advance copies of the novel she wrote during her masters degree in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University incited outrage for its portrayal of families and Christianity. “For lots of people in Nigeria, it becomes more than just literature,” she says. “It becomes me saying something about us.”
Nor is Adichie surprised by the reaction to her novel in Britain, where it is to be released in paperback this month. The novelist has received some of the most extravagant praise lavished on a first-time novelist, thanks to what she says, with a chuckle, is Britain’s “post-colonial lens”.
“I think in some ways for them, it’s, ‘How much damage did we do in Nigeria?’ and, ‘How much is she reflecting it in her book?'” she says.
“Most novels from Africa are seen in this way in the UK,” says Adichie, who grew up under the military dictatorships of General Babangida, then General Abacha, who executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. But she was taken aback, and “most amused” by the US reaction to the book, where in the main, it has been lauded as a novel on family abuse.
“I’ve had people saying to me, ‘Oh, it’s interesting to know that abuse occurs in other parts of the world’,” says Adichie, who – after fending off a barrage of questions about her own family in the wake of the novel’s success – gets in early: “I grew up in a moderate Catholic family, and a very happy one.”
Purple Hibiscus chronicles the impact of politics and religion on a well-to-do Nigerian family through the eyes of 15-year-old Kambili.
“If I had to go back and write a first novel again, I would write Purple Hibiscus,” says Adichie. “When I think about Nigeria, it is home, but it’s also a place I feel very strongly about, and that I’m very worried about. Some of the things that worry me are religion, and the role it plays, and politics. I wanted to write about those, but I didn’t want to write a preachy book.”
She has written a novel that captures childhood, the beauty of the natural world, along with the horrors of religious fanaticism, domestic and political violence. Kambili’s sheltered world, and that of her brother Jaja, is circumscribed by the rules laid down by her wealthy Papa, whose strict Catholicism and espousal of human rights make him a revered figure in the community, yet a tyrant at home…
Dateline: Lagos
Light creeps over all of us standing in line outside the U.S. Embassy. For the first time, I see the blues and pinks of the buba the woman in front of me is wearing. And the hawkers and touts walking around are no longer shadows; I see their scarred faces, their calculating smiles.
I have been in line since 4 a.m. Some of the people in front of me spent the night in a tent opposite the embassy.
I wish I had not come back to Nigeria to renew my U.S. student visa, I wish I had done it in Britain or Canada. Then I chastise myself. This is my country. The reason I did not bother to go to another country was that I knew I would be asked to return to my “home country.”
The touts swarm around. “I have serious connections inside the embassy, Auntie,” one of them tells me. “Just 1,000 and you will enter today for sure.”
I would not give him 1,000 naira even if I had it to spare. The 12,000 naira visa fee is steep enough. As the sun rises, I estimate how much the embassy will make from the people in line today. They will give visas only to a fraction of these people but will take almost $100 worth of naira from each of them. Perhaps $40,000 for today. Conservatively
When I finally get to the entrance, the Nigerian guard looks through my passport. “Passport photos?” he asks.
I hand them to him.
He notices they are the same photos I have used in my British visa. “Get back!” he says. “Go and take another picture and come back! You cannot wear the same dress in two passports!”
I stare at him. “What does it matter as long as the photo is not more than six months old?”
“Are you insulting me?” he asks. “Are you insulting me, eh?” I turn and leave. Insult means many things to us Nigerians. Our self-confidence is so fragile that anything — a challenge, a correction, a question — could well become an insult.
When I come back the next day, with new photos, I am relieved to finally get into the cool embassy building, with garish paintings on the wall: an American girl holding a Nigerian flag, a Nigerian holding an American flag. The room is crowded. Preening and smirking, guards walk around, with comical jaunts to their gaits. Once in a while, they call out names and people rise eagerly, nervously, and walk to the interview booths.
Babies cry. There are many children here, because the Americans do not believe you when you tell them how many children you have; they have been known to give visas to four out of five children in a family.
The man beside me says that he is a philosophy professor and teaches at a college in Atlanta. A white woman comes in, with short hair that sticks up on her head like brush bristles. She is the director of the visa section, the philosophy professor tells me. She holds a loudspeaker to her mouth: “Raise your hands if you are here to renew a student or a work visa! Raise your hands high! I can’t see! High!”
Her tone makes me feel as if I am in primary school again.
“Keep the hands up! O.K., down!” She is wearing a multicolored caftan — the sort of thing a foreigner will wear to look African but an African will never wear. A child has walked up to her and is holding onto the caftan, looking up at her and smiling. He wants to play.
“Get this kid off me! Get this kid off me!” she says. “Who has this child?” She shakes her caftan as if to shake the child off until his mother goes and picks him up. “He just likes you,” she tells the woman. The woman glares at us. “You think it’s funny? O.K., I won’t tell you what I wanted to tell you about the interview process. Go ahead and figure it out for yourselves.”
She turns and walks away. The room is immediately mired in worry. “We should not have laughed,” somebody says. “You know white people do not see things the way we do.”
“White people don’t play with children,” another says. “Somebody should beg her not to be angry.” “I hope they will still interview us.”
The philosophy professor is incensed. “Can you imagine her talking to people in America or Europe like this?” he says. “She wouldn’t dare.”
I nod. I am as angry as he is — because of the collective humiliation of being in this soulless lounge, but also because of how quickly my people have forgiven her unprofessional rudeness, her infantile tantrum.
I am acutely aware of the complex layers of injustice here. The first is the larger injustice of our history, the benignly brutal colonialism that spawned vile military regimes — events that made this scene possible. Then there is the injustice of this glaring power dynamic: our government cannot demand that we be treated with dignity within our own borders. And, saddest of all, the injustice that we perpetrate on ourselves by not giving ourselves value, by accepting it when other people strip us of our dignity.
When it is my turn, the young American who interviews me says that she grew up in Philadelphia, where I lived for a short time during college. She is friendly and warm. She tells me that my new visa will be ready the next day. Later, when I tell my friend about this woman, I am told how lucky I was to get one of the few good ones.
As I leave the building, I hear the philosophy professor yelling at a man behind a glass screen. “How can you say I am lying?” he asks. “Why don’t you call Atlanta and verify? How can you say I am lying?”
He has not been as lucky as I have been.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of the novel “Purple Hibiscus.”

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