Tag Archive: Nigerian Fiction

(Trigger warning for discussions of poor prison conditions and torture)

It is probable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does not need an introduction. She´s the writer everybody reads, she tops all the best seller list, and she´s well loved by book lovers of the world. Her most famous work, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, has been adapted into a film. Her books have won numerous awards and to many, she´s an introduction to African Literature. Gushing about “Americanah” or “Half of a Yellow Sun” is expected from everyone. While indeed her novels are masterpieces, very few people have actually talked about her short story collection, “The Thing around your neck”. It is a shame, because in her stories she deals with many important issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia and colonization. Her short story collection is diverse not only by including many LGBT-characters and having a cast full of POCs, but also in different story settings. She has a historical story, stories about rich people, stories about poor people, a story about writers, stories of politics. The narration also differs in tone in many stories. And while perhaps not all the stories are great, they all capture a certain truth about ordinary lives.

Ms. Adichie

Ms. Adichie

“Cell One” is narrated by a young girl, who is in fact not the real protagonist of the story. Her narration is done by casting a cynical, fed-up eye on her rowdy and small criminal big brother, Nnanamadia, and her parents who continually enable his behavior. The family is fairly wealthy and the brother in fact is heavily implied to continually even steal from his own family. His criminal behavior comes from his involvement with gangs at his university, which early in the story leads him into being imprisoned. This comes as a terrible blow to the parents, but the narrator sees this as her brother getting his just deserts. While it´s never explicably stated, this resentment most certainly comes from parental favoritism and a sense of the brother using his male privilege to get his parents to let him get away with terrible behavior. This dynamic reminded me of Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, “My brother”, where Ms. Kincaid discussed parental favoritism combined with gendered double standards: her mother would allow her brother to be a slacker while being quite tough on her daughter. While the parents are not harsh towards the girl in this story, she on the other hand has become resentful of her brother.

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The plot revolves around the family´s visits to the prison. Nnanamadia first is haughty, but slowly he starts to change over the course of the visits. He starts mentioning an old man who has also been brought to the same prison. This man has been arrested since the police couldn´t find his criminal son, and therefore imprisoned him instead despite a lack of evidence he had broken any laws, and to add insult to injury they also threat him with less respect due to him being poor.

All four of Ms. Adichie´s books covers in Finnish

All four of Ms. Adichie´s books covers in Finnish

As time passes on, Nnanamadia begins to mention and talk about the old man whenever the family visits him. He becomes more and more melancholy in his speech, talking about how the guards are nasty and mean-spirited towards a fragile man who´s harmless. He talks about how no one visits the man, and how the guards neglect the old man in favor of other prisoners. Through the dialogue, the reader begins to notice a huge change in Nnamanadia; before he was conniving and self-centered, but after his witnessing of the fate of the old man, he has begun a venture of human maturation into an empathetic person who sees outside of his own world. With every visit he goes further into his metamorphosis. A particular telling moment is when the parents bring food for Nnamanadia during their visit. Nnanamadia looks at the food, and quietly states that he wants to give it to the old man, who is not properly fed in the prison. The guards blandly and blankly state that this is not allowed; Nnanamadia just silently stares at this offering of food from the family torn and distrait at the inhumanities brought up in the gift. He´s attachment to the old man makes him want to for the first time in his life prioritize someone else besides himself.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s works were even referenced in

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s works were even referenced in “The Simpsons”

In the climax of the story, Nnanamadia is taken into cell one, where he is severely beaten as a form of torture. And frankly, when the guards tell the parents why this horror is visited on Nnanamadia it becomes as intellectually appalling as emotionally wrenching experience for the reader.

Drawing from The New Yorker in these publication of this story

Drawing from The New Yorker in these publication of this story

What makes “Cell one” such an incredibly story is that it packs many social and political issues such as corruption, harsh prison conditions and class into a narrative lodged acutely in the intimate and personal. The issues are deeply tied with the character growth of Nnanamadia and his tale of growing understanding casts the reader into an optimistic stance of the possible and hopeful side of human behavior. It is contrasted by the guard’s cruelty, which makes them a great foil to Nnanamadia. There´s an old saying in the feminist movement, “The personal is political”, which this story captures by showing how politics and corruption affect the old man’s life as well as Nnanamadia´s coming of age. By showing how the machinations of corruption detours, deforms and defeats human lives – and it is the most fundamental aspects of human existence that are at stake in these questions – Adichie´s writing is an ideal example of social commentary done with concerned focus and sure precision.

Cover for

Cover for “The thing around your neck” in Swedish

“Cell one” is a breathtaking tale, and despite not being a novel, has all the great elements of a literary magnum opus. It would, in my opinion, be also amazing to see this story adapted into a film. The prose is perfect, even in the advents of the young girl’s resentment, and the wondrous personal honesty of the voice of the narration flings the reader along an engrossing plot filled with heartbreaking events. This is political fiction at largest and finest.

Buchi Emecheta is a Nigerian born writer living in London. She was born in Lagos to Igbo-parents (a minority in Nigeria). Emecheta was married at the tender age of sixteen and moved to London with her husband. After six years of marriage, they separated. She took an honors degree in sociology while supporting her five children all by herself. Her first book, “In the ditch” was published in 1972; it was a short story collection about her experiences as a poor single mother in London. After that she has published several works, including the highly-praised “The Joys of motherhood” and “Second-class Citizen”.

“Second-class citizen” tells the story of Adah, whose life events are similar to Emechetas. The novel starts by telling about Adah’s childhood. She is lucky enough to go to school, to only be promised as a wife to a man she’s never met. When she has her 16th birthday, Adah moves to London to live with her student husband, with home she has two children with. Her husband, Francis, takes his time with his studies, while Adah struggles along to try and feed the whole family. As time goes on, Francis becomes less and less interested in his studies, while bullying Adah to bend to his will. Adah also realizes that the Londoners don’t like blacks very much.
Adah suffers racial discrimination out in the world and gender discrimination at home. She realizes that since she is a black woman; she will be viewed by society as a second-class citizen.

Nigeria’s Flag

Emecheta’s language is gentle and frank. Emecheta looks at Adah’s situation with sharp eyes: she critics Francis and other African men for being male chauvinist and patriarchal, but she also critics the Londoners and other Europeans for being racist and not very understanding towards African immigrants. Adah is shown as a typical Nigerian woman: her value is measured by the number of sons she gives birth to. Adah’s hard work is being taking for granted; when she voices her opinion she is met by anger. She does what she can to help her children, knowing that she is the only one they can rely on.

Emecheta gives a pretty hopeless image of the role women have in the Nigerian society. At the very first page of the book it is told that Adah’s parents didn’t even bother to record her birth since “She was such a disappointment to her parents” that were expecting a boy. When Adah has her first child, Francis’ parents become deeply disappointed and angry that their first grandchild is a girl. Emecheta makes it clear to the viewer that Adah has to deal with people that don’t even consider girls to be worth giving birth to. Adah also gets to start school later than her brother Boy. Unlike Boy, she must give up her studies for the family. Her job is to make her husband look good and fortunate. Adah is also just people always blaming women when things don’t work out. There’s a scene where, after fighting with her husband and being beaten by him, she goes to a church to pray. There she meets another Igbo person, a man, who is able to guess that she has had a fight with her husband. The man then offers Adah that they can pray together, asking God to get her husband to forgive her. Adah then thinks to herself: “Typical Igbo way of thinking. It is always the woman’s fault if there’s been a fight between a husband and his wife”.

Violence is also a subject that is explored in this novel. It is not graphic or a major part of the book, but it’s still a powerful subplot. Francis occasionally beats Adah when he thinks she’s not being obedient enough. Adah just lets it happen, until she decides that she’s had enough. After a while, she starts to defend herself by hitting him back. Showing him that she won’t be intimidated by his fist.
Adah’s ideas and own wishes also collide with the English society. She is unable to get help when she needs it because of cultural misunderstandings and prejudices. She can feel the hostility from whites as she walks down the street.

“Second-class citizen” is a book that deals with the subject of oppression in a realistic, touching way. Emecheta’s prose is easy to read and truly gives an insight to what it’s like to be a Nigerian woman.