“We are assuming a sensitive, dangerous line of public ownership of a person.”
I have just finished reading Richard Rorty’s book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, whose intriguing analyses of ‘truth’, perception and the role of language in building our realities made me wish I had taken a philosophy class in my undergraduate years. More so given the fascinating brouhaha over writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about the Caine Prize in the Boston Review. One feels as though the ‘African’ writing world is such an accurate depiction of African politics.
I read the interview before I read about the outrage her comments had evoked, and upon first reading, I did not find anything untoward about the interview and the comments about the Caine Prize. It was the usual, candid Chimamanda tone and I took the comments about the Caine Prize to be another of the many reiterations I have read so often online from other African writers that a ‘Western Prize need not be the harbinger of the best fiction in Africa’. My surprise, then, at the outrage her comments sparked. It seems to me as though it was all blown out of proportion, and highlights the danger between that rickety bridge of words and interpretation. By the time I had finished reading about the outrage, I had in my mind the idea that Ms. Adichie said that ‘the best African fiction is in my inbox’. When I went back to read her comments, I was surprised to find that they actually read ‘I don’t go to the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction…I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good.’
What ensued is, for me, an impressive demonstration of her power, and the effect her words have on other African writers today. For, how else can it be explained that an opinion, in the form of a response to a question, from Ms. Adichie – she did say ‘writers who she thinks are very good’ – can be taken as a proclamation of a universal truth, for which she is then dragged to African writers court and summarily shot down? It must be realized, though, that the ‘responsibility’ that Ms. Adichie is deemed to have to African fiction is one that has been thrust upon her by others, by virtue of her prominence, and one which is tainted by others’ personal views and prejudices, for which it is unrealistic to expect her to adhere. What does this mean? It means that perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves what is really making us so angry.
I understand why one may perhaps be hurt. Being hurt that she did not read one’s story is one thing (for I am certain it would be flattering to any writer to have her say she enjoyed one’s work), but to explode about it, as though indeed she has an obligation to be interested in one’s writing, and trying to hold her accountable for this, is another thing completely. I hope we can understand that what Ms. Adichie actually said, and what we all interpret her to have said, is not necessarily the same. If you ask me, I would say, in summary, that she said she does not think a Western Prize is necessarily the harbinger of the best African fiction. If you ask another, it is interpreted that she said the best African fiction is only found in her inbox. But then, what does this mean? It means that the true arrogance lies in trying to hold her accountable for our interpretation of her comments, for our hurt, which
1) is less the result of her words than it is our contextual interpretation of ourselves in relation to said words and,
2) becomes personal, i.e. our responsibility and not hers.
I differentiate between the legitimacy of hurt (which is completely legitimate) and the responsibility of such hurt (which does not belong to Ms. Adichie). For how we feel and react is not so much about what is said but rather how we receive it, process it and channel it, in relation to our own perceptions about ourselves, others and the world around us. It is why, perhaps, we are able to differentiate between private hurts, which are our own responsibility to deal with, and real public slights, which from the very beginning have a malicious intention.
In relation to Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, this is a questioning of the relevance of our own ‘truth’ in relation to the ‘truth’ of others, and whether or not others need to be so publicly held accountable to our ‘truth’, rather than theirs. We have assumed responsibility for Ms. Adichie’s truth, which is no longer really her truth in our hands but has become relative to and tainted by our own truth. In turn, we have taken it for granted that we have a right to demand that she be responsible for our truth. We, in fact, do not have this right. Our claiming it, in no way legitimizes it.
One wonders if it is expected that she should have said the ‘politically acceptable thing’. The need to react to her views, the impulse to let it be known very publicly the unflattering opinions one holds of her, moves the nature of her comments from the realm of the public and general to that of the very specific and personal. This sort of nonchalant rage is an interesting oxymoron in that it illuminates two elements,
1) the sensitization to Ms. Adichie’s public importance
2) a simultaneous attempt, through acknowledging this importance, to distance oneself from it.
I understand this hurt, this moment of outrage; however, it cannot be publicly legitimate, but rather becomes a private legitimacy that is expressed on a public platform. It becomes easy to confuse the two. The pressure on Ms. Adichie is not due to her statements, for, if one reads her opinions and views in interviews from the time of Purple Hibiscus, they have not really changed; it is due to her status as a prominent writer. Should this, therefore mean that we expect her to alter her views? Become a little bit more watered down, take out that animating fire which makes her such a delight to read, not only through fiction but through her interviews? I hope not.
I think, perhaps, we have come to confuse Ms. Adichie’s writing with her persona. We are assuming a sensitive, dangerous line of public ownership of a person. For though we are entitled as readers to own her work, let us not be arrogant enough to confuse this with ownership of the writer.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is the author of Shadows and a Maytag Fellow for MFA Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.
The views expressed in this essay do not reflect the opinion of Saraba Magazine.