Opinion: Don’t be deceived – Chimamanda Adichie is no Achebe

by Okezie J.S. Nwoka

Chimamanda Adichie

The Alili is a centipede; a centipede has one hundred legs. That is what it claims. The claim won the acceptance of nearly every animal in the verdant forest, giving her the benefit of an unspoken doubt.  All of the different animals believed her, save one group.  All of the animals were deceived, except for the shrewd and perceptive Tortoise.  When the Alili pranced around the market square with a foul pretentiousness, singing “Look at the wonderful me, and my one hundred legs,” the Tortoise yelled out, “Turn yourself over so that we, your kindred, may count your legs.”  The Alili was shocked, and then angered by the Tortoise challenge.  She knew she could not maintain her façade, so she ran away and became silent for a period of time.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an alili.  The question, then, becomes “what is her façade?” How has she deceived us, her kindred?  To answer these questions, one must examine how Adichie has crafted and marketed her literary career.  I humbly submit that Adichie has stolen the legacy of a literary giant for the sake of her own personal self-advancement.  Adichie has hijacked the literary memory of Chinua Achebe.  She has done this through the construction of a parasitic Achebe Complex that is made evident through her words and through her work.  From the onset, Adichie has claimed to have a special connection with Achebe, yet a critical analysis of her writing tells a different story.  She finds significance in the fact that she once lived in the same home that Achebe did.  However, what good is that fact when her work continually misses the mark— the mark set by Achebe’s high standards?  Instead of standing on the shoulders of this literary giant and paying him a true homage, she tries to topple him… time and time again.

There are three ways that Adichie does this egregious thing.  Firstly, she inappropriately deploys literary devices.  Second, her characters lack a developed consciousness.  Finally, the morals of her stories are not prophetic enough given the historical moment in which she tells them.  Let us begin counting the legs of the Alili.

The opening line of Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus reads, “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.”  The language here is deliberate.  It is intentional.  Adichie is invoking the spirit of Achebe, and placing it in the typeface of her own text.  However, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer… the centre cannot hold.”  Adichie does not hear the wisdoms of Achebe, and as result the works fails.  Take as one example the two writers’ use of folklore.  Achebe uses the Igbo folklore of Tortoise to speak to the System of Reality (as James Baldwin would call it) of Okonkwo, his protagonist in Things Fall Apart.  Because Tortoise is egocentric and places his desires before those of others, he suffers a tragic fate; his smooth shell is shattered.  Okonkwo too behaves in that manner, and he suffers too.  He commits suicide

Achebe’s poetic reflective-ness between the folklore and the novel’s characters, has no home in Adichie’s work.  She too has a story about Tortoise in Purple Hibiscus, and that story lacks the poetic reflective-ness of which I speak.  Her story of Tortoise cracking his shell is one governed by blackmail and greed.  Because Tortoise desires to survive a famine, he blackmails Dog so that he can indirectly obtain food from Dog’s mother.  Greed takes hold of Tortoise to the point where he deceives Dog’s mother, so as to eat an even larger portion.  The question now is, “which character in her novel has the tendency to both blackmail and be greedy?”  There is none; not one.

The second problem with Adichie’s work, as it relates to her Achebe Complex, is that her characters lack a developed consciousness.  Achebe’s characters act within their surroundings, speaking with history and culture and Nature.  They try to make sense of their System of Reality and imagine new ways of being, developing possibilities across space and time.  Take Obi Okonkwo in No Longer at Ease as an example.  His experiences while studying in England, cause him to rethink Igbo understandings of being and recreate himself as a “modern man”.  He defies the wisdom of the elders who raised money for him to study abroad, causing a generational schism in his family.  He also laments the corruption rampant in a newly independent Nigeria, and is constantly negotiating how to “be” within the borders of a nation defiled.  He then engages in forbidden love, expanding the possibility of the privileged sharing a romance with the outcast.  All of these factors make the moment when Clara, his lover, reveals her identity as an osu both powerful and power-filled.  It is in his reaction.  Instead of Obi jumping to embrace Clara to touch her and to kiss her, Achebe tells us that he was silent.

Adichie’s characters do not do this.  They simply react to the forceful hand of their writer, not living in the moment of their literary existence.  Take for example Ugwu in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.  In most of the novel, he is portrayed as an incredibly docile boy sent to work for a university professor and his wife.  We see him live in the shadows of the home, as a lowly servant.  We see him play with, feed, and protect Baby, the couple’s daughter.  We see him as an innocent.  Then something happens.  Ugwu is kidnapped by Biafran forces to fight, and without any notice at all the Ugwu that we know flips. He becomes a fearless soldier and a heartless rapist.  This moment, unlike that of Obi Okonkwo’s, is strange and bizarre.  One sees the same thing in Purple Hibiscus.  Every reader of Adichie must ask themselves this question, “Did it “make sense” for Jaja to protect his mother by turning himself in to the police?”  In my opinion, it made no sense.  Adichie forced that decision upon Jaja; Jaja did not act on his own volition.  The novel does not provide any signal, not even a whisper, to illustrate and contextualize Jaja’s System of Reality.  As a consequence, when Jaja sacrifices himself, it seems as though he does so as a slave of the text.  .

The third problem with Adichie is that her stories lack the prophetic gravitas necessary to challenge the social problems of her contemporary moment.  She writes just to write.  Now, there is no problem with writing for the sake of writing.  In fact, doing so can lead to new and innovative literary expressions.  However, if one chooses to write that way, one ought not claim to be something else.  Do not be a puddle calling yourself an ocean.  Achebe’s work was and still is a critical component of human liberation.  In his text Home and Exile, he writes, “I did not really want to see the score of narratives between me and my detractor settled by recourse to power, other than the innate power of stories themselves.”   He knew that freedom could not be attained through the barrel of a gun, but through the broad exchange of human narratives.  Achebe’s writing prophetically spoke to a historical moment filled with holocausts and wars.  It was a modernist moment, yet his writing transcended that moment by speaking to something larger, something bettered.  The battles of today have new morphologies and writers writing on the shoulders of Achebe must adapt.  Writing prophetically in a post-modernist moment requires humbling one’s narrative for the sake of allowing other narratives to exist, no matter how “bad” they are.  It is a game of convincing and cajoling, not one of force.  The meta-narrative has been damned.

The question, I now ask is, “How could the literary community even consider Adichie to be Achebe’s protégé when she does not speak prophetically in the post-modernist moment”?  In a CNN interview, Adichie talks of banning Western stories like Cinderella, banning them as if this were the Third Reich.  This deeply contradicts Achebe’s ideological position, a position that allowed for all stories to exist.  Adichie’s novels are not about making the world better.  They are about selling themselves.  A friend of mine tried to convince me of the opposite by defending Adichie’s contributions to feminism, particularly as it relates to Nigerian women.  I responded to her with the following:

There are so many problems with Adichie’s work I do not even know where to begin.  Suffice to say middle-upper class Nigerian women have a system of reality that differs drastically from poor Nigerian women.  How, then, does Chimamanda dare to speak on behalf of those impoverished women?  How dare she?

I would not dare criticize any woman’s right to share her narrative.  But when there is an attempt to [use] that narrative to eclipse another’s narrative, there is a PROBLEM.  Adichie did not begin anything!  Read the works of Yvonne Vera of Zimbabwe and you will see an African woman who understood feminism and womanhood.  Read Butterfly Burning; your eyes will open.  To say that African [women] have not [begun] a dialogue about their womanhood pre-Adichie is simply ahistorical.

It is here that you may be asking yourselves, “Who the hell is this kid?”  Well, I am an Igbo-American who wants to continue in the tradition of prophetic liberation writers like Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Yvonne Vera, and others.  A few months ago the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa extended an invitation to me to join their community of writers as a Masters in Fine Arts student.  And I am thrilled.  I am also fearful, fearful that the greatest literary minds can be quickly deceived— tricked into thinking that something is,  what it is not.  I have been consoled by one of my favorite African writers, a man who I consider to be my literary father, a man who said that I should not worry about such things.  Still, the treatment of Black literature by the West concerns me, and I hope there can be more dialogue centered on resolving this issue once and for all, once and for everyone.

I admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a great deal.  She is, in fact, one of the reasons I applied to MFA programs in the first place.  The way she draws parallels to Achebe is the way I draw parallels to her.  She was born on September 15th, which is three days before my birthday.  She was born in 1977 and I was born in 1988, i.e. repeating digits.  We are the same shade of brown.  We both have parents who pushed us to study medicine.  The list goes on.  Still, I refuse to let my love for Chimamanda jeopardize the fate of African literature and the future of my own stories.  I do not know if Chimamanda ever met Chinua Achebe.  I have.  As a student of Brown University and a concentrator of its Africana Studies Department, I have interacted with Chinua Achebe several times.  The first time I told him my name, he let out an “Oooooohhh Okezie!” as if we had met before, as if we were old friends.  I remember that moment, because it was the moment that I decided to try to continue his project, the project of our ancestors, the project of being free.  Don’t you want that? Don’t you want that Chimamanda?  Let me count your legs.  Something tells me that with time, you will have one hundred.

*Read the original piece on SaharaReporters

Comments (17)

  1. Hey Okezie,
    Your piece is an unjust and unwarranted criticism of Adichie’s work. Her work reflect who she is and reveals her perspective as a writer. Every creative individuals has the right to to their perspective in their work. She does not have to write like Achebe to be authentic igbo (Nigerian writer). And mind you, it is important to be yourself with the fact that anything and everything is possible to explore as a writer or artist in creative practice. I am a painter/sculptor myself; that I admire some of the eminent and internationally reknowned arstists does not translate to me producing works that reflect what theirs is all about. My work simply reflect my experience and perspective of happenings and activities of now, merged with historical precedence. If you want to continue writing in the tradition of Achebe, good for you and ride on. But dont castigate another writer for writing the way she wants to lest multitudes do same to you on your work. Being born in 1988 makes you 27 years old and your immaturity in intent. Focus your attention more on writing positive and great pieces that will make people proud of you. Cheers

  2. Dear Okezie,
    I think the person you just described above is yourself and not Adichie. Perhaps, you should turn and let us count your legs. Your ideas and criticism here are far from being Achebe’s project. Perhaps, you were just seeking attention. Now you have it, I hope you would be able to deal with it.

    You seem to be a talented and a promising writer. However,I will advise you to adopt a more humble attitude. And just write, so that we can see what you have to offer.
    Action speaks louder than voice.

  3. To use literary knowledge to commit literary attempted murder by subterfuge!
    To weild the pen to cannibalise the the pen in a form of literary myopic penury!
    How uncharitable the design and structure of this pointless critic of celebrated literature!
    It is clever by only a quarter to invoke the cause of defence of African literature by disguised incestuous mugging. This is like a masquerade hiding behind his garb to vent his fury against his siblings.

    It is condemnable, whatever the writers intentions are, which clearly are not noble! He should make his point by demonstrating what a true disciple of Achebe should be by writing his own books in the footsteps of Achebe tradition. Adichies niche is carved and already crowned internationally, not as sn "Achebe" but as a Chimamanda (Adichie).

  4. Egoyibo Okoro wrote what was on my mind. This is what we call sheer bad-belle in Naija!

  5. Young man/woman,its a nice piece,I like your desire to continue Achebe’s legacy,but you can’t be Achebe,neither can Adichie. Achebe is Achebe,Adichie is Adichie,and you will be you. Continue what you are doing,put your feet on the ground,leave Adichie alone,be yourself. I like your style,I like you trying to identify with the Igbo tradition of telling stories,go ahead. God bless.
    NB. Adichie said she intentionally didn’t want to meet Achebe,to preserve her own individuality,but they met once,and he told her “Jisie Ike”. I will also tell you “Jisie Ike”. Daalu

  6. I haven’t read any of her work I most confess.Being a novelist isn’t a child’s play.I expect to read one authored by you.Mind you Mr. critic that alili or ariri is milipede,never a centipede as you said.Guide your words.Chimamada is a great writer & author.

  7. It is a good write up but personally I think u should be the guilty one not Adichie

  8. I see a tortoise in disguise….why the critical contrast between Achebe and Chimamanda's Literary works….you don't throw stones except you know your boundary is threatened.

  9. This is ridiculous. Of course Adichie is no Achebe, nor should she.
    Yes, she said he inspired her, there is absolutely nothing wrong in copying your inspiration.
    It takes time to mould personality.
    Achebe start when we had fewer, if any, writers. But Adichie started at a time when many had taken up the pen and paper project.
    This is an unnecessary attack on her and am highly tempted to call it a cheap attempt at popularity.

  10. My dear man I would have you know the alili is not a centipede but a millepede. Your piece sounds like a fine one though I can’t be sure- am not a student of literature you see.
    However, like someone else have commented, Adichie’s claim of Chinua Achebe as a mentor should not make her lose her individuality. Surely Achebe himself stood on someone’s shoulders too see far as he did. Yet, he carved a niche for himself, the reason we are making these comments.
    Quit counting the Alili’s legs bro. I look forward to reading your book someday. The way you sound I feel I will enjoy it much the same way I enjoy Achebe, Adichie and countless others

  11. You are finding leverage to sell yourself…you want to count Alili’s legs to make yourself known to the village”…cheap shot.

  12. beautiful piece. I understand the view of this writer and i think some of it is true. But i object to a whole lot too, it is only natural for her to relate her similarities to Achebe, this writer did also. Nothing is wrong with that. But i agree to the errors in the conclusion of ‘purple hibiscus’, it didnt end well…. Make i kukuma end here. Beautiful piece

  13. You write beautifully, my dear, No doubt!
    But I think this is an unjust attack on Chimamanda Adichie. I have read all Chimamanda’s works and I find them all great reads. They have their own peculiar wisdom and its refreshing how her characters turn out. If they don’t sound “Achebe-ish”, how is that bad?! I don’t understand.
    Are you saying in order to be a TRUE protege of late Achebe, Chimamanda must write like him? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to losing her own individuality and style of writing?
    Moreover when she said Cinderella ought to be “scrapped”, she meant that, it tells a fairy tale that is, most often (if not always)the reality.

    I am a writer (unpublished) and an avid reader of all genres of Literature. I studied my LLB in Nigeria and I have no lofty claims to knowing Achebe or having ever seen him but I am a huge fan of his works. He made reading fun for me growing up, with his many legendary works (The drum, The flute, Chike and the river, Things fall Apart, etc) and the relaxed writing style he employed. And, I would like to believe that when I do become published, he would “nod” from the grave and say “that is my legacy”. Not because I spout proverbs but because I continued his legacy of writing about Africa, in a pure and realistic way.

    I look forward to reading your own works (filled with proverbs, I guess!) and critiquing them. I really do!

  14. Well, I have listened to adichie deliver a speech and have also read her purple hibiscus. I am not a writer, I read books for fun and also to acquire wisdom but I don’t think her work is bad.

    The way we see and conceive things differs so I will advice you let her be rather than find error in her work though criticism is a good thing; makes us to be a better person after all.

  15. Chai….this piece is beautiful…ewo!!! I hope to read ur works someday….

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