Sunday, July 29, 2007

The verdict

Why do her looks elicit such gushing remarks from people who've seen the interview? It reminds me of a story my aunt once told me and my cousins. She was invigilating an ACCA exam, when a woman was caught cheating. My aunt said to me, "it was such a shame - she was such a fine girl". So I ask, what do her looks have to do with anything?

Actually, by the time I pushed the "enter" button twice for this paragraph, it's dawned on me. Aderonke used the exact same word I was going to use to describe her demeanour during the course of the interview - coquettish - which has come up time and again in people's comments. Her coquettishness and her pretiness are intertwined, which explains why her looks have been so apparently apparent. Her coquettish might be less plausible if she wasn't so pretty.

That said, another word also came to mind. Ingenue. But it's probably unfair to use either ingenue or coquette to describe her, as she is evidently a writer who talks and knows about serious issues. When she talks about Africa being the White Man's Burden, she does it as seriously as one would hope. It's the timing of all the other characteristics of a coquette that make us sit up - a smile, a giggle, a flutter of the eyes, a raising of the eyebrows, a tilt of the head.

My first impressions were that she's such a flirt. But on second viewing, I'm not so sure. HardTalk Extra isn't the kind of interview where you'd expect fierce exchanges between interviewer and subject. I suppose there's an argument for celebs-with-a-view to be challenged more rigourously by the media. When politicians take a stand, we say they're being partisan, or political. With celebs, we ascribe "fights for causes" to their names. It's also understandable, since celebrities are not accountable to us in the same way elected politicians are.

Aderonke called it anti-Western guff. It's a recurrent theme in her interviews, she resents the portrayal of Africa as Conrad's Dark Continent, or the Kiplingesque, White Man's Burden. During the course of the interview, she once again champions the African middle class, and reminds the world that like life still goes on for all those poor Nigerians and Africans the West is trying to save. I've always taken issue with this point of view, the middle/upper class Nigerian view that they are the average Nigerian. They are the ones returning to work in Nigeria, and imploring their friends to go back, because "Naija has improved, oh!", or "mehn, life in Naija is sweet". Improved? Sweet? Who for? Not the properly average man, woman, and child on the street. They don't have connections to government, or the financial institutions so beloved of our people, or the telecommunications industry which is the one and only beacon of anything improved in Nigeria.

Middle class Nigerian arrive in the country, and get into a chauffeur driven air-conditioned car. They see Nigeria through the prism of their car window. There's nothing average about this experience. In the same vein, it's these same middle class people who watch cable and don't recognise the West's portrayal of their continent. She says that watching coverage of Africa might lead one to think that Africans are stupid. Well, Chimamanda, quite often, Africans are stupid. I'm a journalist, and I don't think (the BBC's) coverage of Africa is biased, lacking context, or lacking balance. News organisations only report newsworthy items, we don't make up the news. If we see African children slaughtering each other in brutal civil wars, or sitting around with flies on their faces and protruding kwashiorkor bellies, then we will report it. The same way we will report brutal civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, or Shia death squads and Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Chimamanda is asking us to treat Africa more leniently.

We did an item at work once, to see if we could compare the difference between Africa's coverage of itself and the West's coverage of Africa. It was just after the Ghanaian president, John Kufuor, said the West should stop banging on about Africa's exclusive marriage to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and instead talk about good African news. Guess what. Africa knows it's backyard is filthy, and reports accordingly. If I can dig up the item, I will do so and post it up.

It's unfortunate that all people will think about Chimamanda as interview subject is her being a flirt. A friend of mine did say, though, that even she would flirt with Gavin Esler if he was interviewing her. I don't think she means any harm, and I don't think it's intentional. And for those reasons, "allow her".

19 comments:

toun said...

At least, you've clarified it for some of us - i.e. the fact that she does the "eye" thing in all her interviews. So, it's not just in this interview. That was my concern. If that's how she does her public speaking, who are we not to "allow her"? Have we written books that have earned us 5 kobo? Like Alex wrote in the last post, some of us will just prefer to read her and not see or hear her if the "eye" thing gets too uncomfortable. Shikena.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the same regard for the BBC, even though I prefer it to CNN. Even the infallible BBC is biased in many of its reports. Anyway, the link below may be of interest:

http://www.wmin.ac.uk/mad/PDF/Ankomah%20W1.pdf

Comb & Razor said...

i'm sorry... i'm still not sure i understand how expressing resentment for the constant portrayal of Africa as Conrad's Heart of Darkness equates to "anti-western guff."

nor have you explained how she is wrong in maintaining that "life goes on" for poor Nigerians/Africans even in the face of tremendous hardship. am i to take it that your contention is that life doesn't go on for them? that they don't laugh, dream, dance, cry, fight, fall in love and do all the other things that most humans do in their lifetimes?

Adichie is a novelist and as such, she is concerned with writing about characters--fully-formed, reconizably human characters that are not necessarily defined by their suffering or the poverty of their surroundings or automatically cast as "The Other."

i really don't get why this idea is so offensive to you.

there's a lot more that i find problematic about your post (especially regarding the idea that the media is not dreadfully imbalanced in their coverage of Africa) but i guess i'll wait until you straighten me out on the first point.

Comb & Razor said...

my bad... one other thing i wanted to just mention in passing:

now granted, i don't know your actual level of personal intimacy with Ms. Adichie, but i found it deliciously ironic that you would take issue with her "coquettishness" and "ingenue-ness" while referring to her exclusively by her first name in a very overly familiar--and yes, diminutive--fashion, even applying the label "chimamanda" to the post as casually as one might talk about "Britney," "Lindsay" or "Lily."

you have to admit it's kinda funny, yeah?

Nkem said...

Like you say, she's a novelist, and it's her job to form well rounded characters. But it's also the job of every other African writer, and we shouldn't expect the West to tell African stories for Africans. What she could say is that Western writers don't do justice to African characters in their books, and it would be a fair point.

However, of course life goes on for poor Africans, but that isn't news. News is different. No news organisation ever said life goes on for young Britons even though house prices have shot up and they can't afford to get on the property ladder. It works in books and literature, which is what she's doing. More power to her elbow on that. But complaining about watching news in the US? What does she want them to report? That Yar'Adua opened a well today?

And to answer your second question. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a handful and a mouthful. Chimamanda is shorthand, and not over familiarity. I'm sure there are no other Chimamandas (a name she made up)out there, and if I refer to Chimamanda, you know who I mean. If I wrote about a literary James, would I mean Joyce, Baldwin, or the Apostle James?

Comb & Razor said...

okay... so newspeople's imperative is different from that of novelists. fair enough.

but have you thought that when you get down to it, what Adichie is doing is not so much criticizing the media's fulfillment of their imperative as it is defining and explaining the imperative of her own work?

the media's got its job to do and i suppose they succeed in doing it within their self-defined parameters. they report what is newsworthy, and in this society, we have decided that "more newsworthy" often means "more horrific"--even on the local news, it's a litany of rapes, murders, contrived health scares and general paranoia.

if one were to interpret the Western world just by some of the things seen on the news, most of us would never leave the house! but pretty much everybody understands "well, this is not the whole story of what is going on here... they're just reporting that which is 'newsworthy.'"

Africa does not have that luxury. most people in the West have never and will never go there. they haven't read books from there (many don't even know that Africa has books, or writers) so they interpret it solely by the "newsworthy" stories in the media.

in that context, it's quite understandable that Adichie would feel the need to explain her work a bit... to clarify that no, these are not far-flung fantasy fables she's writing, they are the lives of "real" African people that you don't see in the media because they're not "newsworthy."

and yeah... "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie" is a mouthful! but "Adichie" has fewer syllables than "Chimamanda"...

Ngozi said...

Since I have been reading African Shirts, this is the first time I have to say, I agree with your every single word.

I get irritated when African writers/politicians try to say the portrait of Africans in Western media is inaccurate or doesn't speak the whole truth or the multiplicity of African existence. The reality is life on the continent is brutal and short. There is so much darkness. Yes, there are moments of joy and laughter, but the norm is pure darknesss, violence and injustice. When people hack on about the existence of Middle class Africans, this is so tired. How many are there really? Do they compare to the 80 or 90% of the population who live in abject poverty? I don't think so. Even Adichi herself in her Purple hibsiscus described so vividly the violence and tyranny of the middle class family. So is she not also contributing to reinstating that image of the African horror? Kudos to Adichie for writing about what she knows, but it is tired when she hacks on about what the west are doing and not doing, just like Mrs Iweala. By writing her book, she is already giving us a perspective. It is in fact the west who have allowed us to have a perspective on the other side of nigeria by giving her the space and freedom to write and think (all the fellowship/masters etc.) and also publish her and promote and give her awards that Nigerians can now celebrate (even though they are not making any effort to nurture that spirit in the country). By publishing and awarding her, they enable a different story of Africa to be told and heard. I wish people like her will come back and live in Nigeria full time. It is not easy. If I wasn't born here I would have absolutely no reason to live here. Call it self-hatered or what have you, but there is too much horrors going on here for sensitive souls. We probably live in a worser time than Conrad's horror horror.

If anything, the West under-report the violence that takes place in Africa - just check out Nigerian media and even Nollywood and you will see it there.

so thank you Nkem for clarifying and thank you for speaking up in a climate where you dare criticise Adichi.

Anonymous said...

so basically she's a woman writer and you don't like it.

Moi... said...

"I'm a journalist, and I don't think (the BBC's) coverage of Africa is biased, lacking context, or lacking balance. News organisations only report newsworthy items, we don't make up the news."


Now, I really doubt your credibility as a journalist! For you to utter such nonesense shows that you've been totally brain-washed by the big corp you work for. It is widely known that the Western media are biased especially their report on Africa just like how US media is biased on reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In both cases, only one aspect of the story is told. I live in Nigeria and I'm not from the middle class (in fact very far from it...I dropped out f school cos my parent could not afford to pay the fees) and yes, things are hard. But there is good in this country. We are poor and their are daily horrors (just like everyother country) but there are still good people and good stories to tell. There are ALOT of Nigerians that are doing extraordinary things...helping the less priveledged etc but do the western media report about it? No! There are state goverments that are doing good things for their state (and I don't mean Donald Duke only) but do the West report about it? No!

It is easy for you to sit there and write utter rubbish when you yourself can't even remember what this country looks like and I will tell something, Mr Journalist: Just like how we have the horror stories, there are good stories. The media should at least for ONCE show the good side of Africa (I don't mean South Afrca!!!)

Comb & Razor said...

ngozi said:
Kudos to Adichie for writing about what she knows, but it is tired when she hacks on about what the west are doing and not doing ... It is in fact the west who have allowed us to have a perspective on the other side of nigeria by giving her the space and freedom to write and think (all the fellowship/masters etc.) and also publish her and promote and give her awards that Nigerians can now celebrate (even though they are not making any effort to nurture that spirit in the country). By publishing and awarding her, they enable a different story of Africa to be told and heard.

hate to sound like a broken record here, but i still don't understand where you people are getting this whole "railing against the West" thing.

maybe i haven't read/seen enough interviews with her, but in this this particular interview, it seems that she's expressing the inadequacy of trying to glean the full, complex picture of African life solely from the stories shown in the (western) media.

if anything, i hear her voicing dssatisfaction with the Western media, not some mighty, monolithic concept of "THE WEST."

whether or not you think her beef with the media is justified is an issue worthy of debate... but it's not the media that publishes her or awards her fellowships, so your point here really doesn't make any sense at all.

Omodudu said...

Invigilate LOL

Richard Onyeocha said...

Chimamanda writes about what she knows best: Nigeria from a campusy middle class perspective. One might focus the criticism by suggesting that African normalcy for her is always written in terms of African middle class normalcy. The question whether the 85% in absolute poverty in Nigeria live anything like normal lives (especially the urban poor) is moot. One has to balance issues of representations of everyday life that reflect the minor joys with the realities on the ground, and avoid any possible romanticism.

The particular flaw in her argument on Hard Talk Extra was to reduce western perspectives on Africa to what she watches on CNN. Why should CNN be held to be the exemplar of Western media? Perhaps this is her American perspective on the media at work. With so many alternative channels of information available in the West, why does she continue to privilege Ted Turner's perspective on the universe?

Moreover, if Nigeria is such a normal place, why does she not live there all the time, instead of living in the place she claims is the source of all bias? This is not to say that I think she really ought to do this; rather, it is to suggest that there is something that is not quite fully normal about a place that a successful novelist cannot call a full-time home.

VOTP said...

Basically, what Nkem is saying is if these (bad) things weren't happening, the BBC wouldn't be able to report them........

Moi, I don't think its fair to knock Nkem's crediblity as a journalist for that reason - his job is to give an accurate account of what is happening right? Sure you might want to sugarcoat it with a bit of "A tale of two cities" - let's do a split screen of the starving orphans and the rich despots living extravagantly on the other side of town - "Oh look he owns that same car that P Diddy does" - then we can feel good that at least people know we have Bentleys in Nigeria!

I digress.....and when you say "good things", I am hoping that you mean things that create opportunities for the underprivileged who would not have had those opportunities otherwise. My philosophy is that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. The poor and oppressed masses deserve to be heard and sometimes these stark documentaries are the only way their voices can be heard - journalists like Nkem owe it to them to tell their stories to the world - how they go about telling the stories is a different matter and is something that requires a lot of skill and careful consideration to ensure that the individuals concerned are not portrayed negatively, in terms of their capabilities and ability to succeed if given the chance.

And Richard, I'm sure she only used the word CNN figuratively - that can't really be the only news channel she watches! :)

Anonymous said...

the reality of the matter is that people living in the west have many alternative media for them to turn to about information on Africa that is not solely from the mouth piece of a Ted Turner, Murdoch or BBC. It is these numerous alternative voices that enables children of the West to seek an alternative perspective on Africa.

when we say the West is bias in its representation of Africa as a negative, violence place, that is true and even African Shirt will not deny that. but so is Nigeria and other African media. However, at least, Westerners have alternative options for information that Africans don't have access to.

comb & Razor, when you say it is not the media that publishes or awards her fellowships, you actually fail to fully grasp the power of the media and the publishers overrelance on the media. Do you think that fellowship and awards and best-seller list come because the writer is good or the publishers have some magic wand? Go ask Bloomsbury and J.K. Rowling and they will tell you that without the media, we would not have the first billionaire writer that is J.K. Do you think universities (especially American Ivy League universities)just dole out fellowships like that because of a person's brillance? I don't think so. go check the fact. You get a little bit of fame (which by the way is essentially created by the media)and they come running to your door step. Do you think that Fidelity bank would have sponsored the recent Chimamanda's writing workshop that they did if she had not been in the news before or won the Orange. I know people in Nigeria who have approached these same banks for support for this kind of work, do you think they were interested? hell no. As everything in the world we only want to associate with success and not the process of achieving that success. And this why even dim wit politicians in Nigeria cultivate a relationship with the Media.

All of this is not a sour grape against Adichi. She deserves her winnings and the accolades, but I just think we need to be realistic about the fact that the media invent and reinvent celebrity (Adichi) as much as they do victims (Africa). As a media created celeb, Adichi can rant against them for their portrayal of Africans as helpless victims. Yet, it is this very media who give her the space to have her say. do you think you would have heard of Adichi without the media? I doubt it. Like somebody said it, it is the media that make or a break a person. If the media decides that they don't want to hear her voice/noise no more, you will see how they will quickly they shut her down. In as much the media creates its own bias, it also generates its own form of internal critique by allowing oppositional voices like Adichi.

Lets not under-estimate the power of the media in making and breaking people.

Comb & Razor said...

i'm going to assume that the last anonymous commenter was ngozi.

so, yeah, ngozi... i myself work in publishing and i'm aware of the role that media plays in creating literary superstars like Adichie. however, they do not publish her books and they are not the *sole* architects of her success.

and truthfully, even if they were, would that render them utterly immune to any criticism on her part? for real, that extreme "never bite the hand that feeds you" attitude is one of the biggest problems we have built into modern African culture.

and as for these "alternative voices" on Africa, what exactly are these "voices" you're talking about, and to what degree do you believe that the average westerner seeks out these voices? not counting hardcore Africa students, that is.

what Adichie is talking about is the readily-available image that the average westerner has of Africa. most people don't look any further than that to find out if there is more to the continent than child soldiers and AIDS or what have you, and why would they, really?

as i've said before, more than anything, what Adichie is doing is not really crusading against the media, but just trying to give some context to her own for those who have no concept of Africa beyond what is seen in the media.

i'll admit that i empathize with her because i have myself been in the position where i've had to explain and defend the authenticity of my work because it didn't have enough horror in it for western audiences to recognize it as "African."

uknaija said...

Comb and razor has said a lot of what I'd like to say. I'd only add the following 9muddled and in a hurry):
*to richard onyeocha- In the US, from my limited experience while on holiday there CNN is the most "moderate" readily available channel in hotel rooms
*on middle class Nigerians- yes I suppose you'd call me middle class but I don't think that in Nigeria being middle class completely shields you from the reality of poverty- existence is precarious and the lives of the poor and rich are far more intertwined than in the West, but I digress

*Nkem, I'd buy your story about what was newsworthy if the BBC reported many of the ugly things that happened here as well. But you know they don't, you remember how I first got in touch with you...

And the instances where they refer to Africa as if it were one country? Remember the African withcraft and child abuse stories?

*and finally to Ngozi, yes nigeria is hard for sensitive souls but we appear to be in the minority there as everywhere, no?

uknaija said...

Oh and by the way, Richard. James Baldwin found he couldn't live in the Us either- so what is normal?

Richard Onyeocha said...

To UK Naija:
Yes but would Baldwin leave the US to write in France nowadays? Arguably France has more serious race issues than anywhere else in the West right now. Many black (and African) writers are making good in the US; no one returns to Africa with success (so far) - look what happened to Ngugi..

On your point to me about class: if the middle class is so entwined with the poor in Nigeria, how come Chimamanda does not write about this?

It seems to me that no matter how precarious one's materially blessed status hangs over the edge of the precipice of poverty, many middle-class Nigerians are remarkably adept at filtering out the brute realities of the masses of impoverished, vulnerable lives in their midst..

Everchange said...

I can't believe I missed this! I completely agree with you. Any Nigerian who doesn't consider Victoria Island the center of life in "naija" will admit that things are bad. Comfortable nigerians are few and far between. Anytime I drive into VI, I am stunned at the contrast between the island(s) and the other 90% of Lagos. It is quite surreal seeing those palm-tree-lined paved streets. No wonder some bloggers announce that "Lagos is improving!"