It is 1983. Susan Sontag and John Berger are alone in the studio, sitting face-to-face at a small round table. The spotlight is on them, and reflects a few ways behind them so that we can see the dull red-and-black-patterned walls. John’s hair is richly grey. He’s wearing a dark jacket over a white shirt and dark yellow pants. Susan wears her hair in the usual, signatory style: full and black, parted not quite in the middle, with a single lock of grey combed right, the only evidence of her fifty years. Her look is frank, daunting. She is also called the Dark Lady of American Letters.
The title of that episode of Voices is ‘To Tell a Story’, and they’re discussing their different approaches to writing stories. They disagree on many things, so that, in the end, it becomes a long, very-intellectual argument. One is intrigued by what each of these writers has to say, and how much it can differ from the other. On fiction, John says, ‘…because it will exist both everywhere and nowhere. And it is that displacement of place and time which makes something fiction, it seems to me.’
He goes on to say, ‘As soon as soon as one reads a story, when we read other people’s stories, we have an idea of that place, but it (the story) becomes part of our experience, and therefore is displaced from where it really took place. I mean, it seems to me that fiction is something which goes beyond its immediate time or its immediate place. And it’s exactly that which makes it fiction – or what we call fiction.’
Susan disagrees: ‘I don’t have that experience. Of course, it’s true that I’m not where the story is taking place. But if you’re talking about some kind of traditional story telling which is grounded in a particular place – if I read a story of Tolstoy, I think I’m in nineteenth century or early twentieth century Russia, I don’t think it’s taking place everywhere- ’
‘But it applies to you and your experience of life,’ John cuts in.
‘Not necessarily, no. It might instruct my experience rather than apply to it. I mean, I’m not looking to see myself in stories, any more than I’m trying to express myself when I write stories. I don’t think stories are necessarily universal because they are read by different kinds of people…I think it is the particularity of story-telling, and the fact that we now have available to us stories from different parts of the world, that fascinates us. And I do not ask that the story address my experience; I ask that my experience, so to speak, make it possible for me to understand the story. I’m not looking for myself in the story.’
What John means is quite clear: there’s a sense of displacement about fiction that makes it apply to our experiences, that gives it that admirable quality of relatability. But I’d always wondered what Susan meant. And I do not ask that the story address my experience; I ask that my experience, so to speak, make it possible for me to understand the story. In a way, I cannot say I didn’t understand what she said (the words are quite clear), but what she meant, really meant, escaped me.
Then, sometime back while reading Americanah for the second time in four years, that meaning finally came. And when it did – in the toilet, while I was taking a too-long shit – I said softly, ‘Oh my god!’
The first time I read Americanah, at 15, I’d found it terribly boring. Adichie’s style is too predictable, I complained. The book is too long! The Nigerian dialogues are too phony! She uses too many adjectives! Although I’d enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun immensely, this one just didn’t do it for me. But at 15, freshly out of secondary school, I knew NOTHING. I knew nothing of racism, of the peculiar Nigerian religiosity of Ifemelu’s mother, of the unending series of coups in the 80’s and 90’s. Nothing of sexism (heck, I had never even heard the word!), of the corruption that throttles Nigeria, of the big men with potbelly that went after young girls like Aunty Uju. At 15, freshly out of secondary school, I’d not experienced true love, not known heartbreak, could not imagine such implicit transformation as Ifemelu experiences in America, or the sense of failure that must have been Obinze’s companion in London. At 15, freshly out of secondary school, I did not have the experience to make me understand – and enjoy – the story.
But since then, I’ve read Teju Cole and Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee and Zadie Smith and James Baldwin and Susan Sonatg and John Berger. I’ve developed a strong interest in politics and history and poetry. I’ve read article after article in The Economist and The New Yorker. Since then, I’ve fallen in love, and had my heart broken. I’ve stopped wearing skinny jeans, and tight clothes and, ultimately, underwear. I’ve been employed twice. Since then, I’ve had a surfeit of experiences that have placed me in a good position to understand Americanah – and enjoy it.
One afternoon in February, I went to a secondary school in my neighbourhood to see the Principal, and because he’d stepped out, I had to wait twenty minutes in the compound. It was break time. The students were all over the place, running about the compound, hanging from the balconies, laughing, playing. The school isn’t grand: a modest two-story building put together without much consideration for fashion, and then rubbed over with yellow and blue paints. Running the length of the ground-floor is a line of classes – three? four? – belonging to the most junior students, and a room serving jointly as the sickbay and the Principal’s office. It was here on the balcony of this ground-floor that I stood, bent over the parapet, watching the little ten-and-eleven-year-olds jumping all over the place.
The colours of their uniform are quite clichéd. The boys wear ugly blue trousers. For the girls, while the juniors wear blue pinafores, the seniors wear skirts. Everyone wears a white shirt (long sleeves for the seniors, short for the juniors), and black shoes. It isn’t grand, but it works.
In the week before that day, I’d read Chimamanda Adichie’s new book, Dear Ijeawele, and also watched her say in an interview that gender isn’t biology but sociology, and as I watched the children play, the girls running, the boys chasing, or, sometimes, the boys running and the girls chasing, a thought formed in my mind: ‘Children are gender blind. That’s how they’re born. That’s how they play.’ A clear thought, in simple words. Children are gender blind. It had never occurred to me before. And that shocked me: how something so obvious, so ridiculously obvious, had escaped me. Now I wonder, if I hadn’t read Adichie’s feminist manifesto, would I have observed those playing children and eventually had that thought? And if I hadn’t observed those playing children and eventually had that thought, would I have understood Adichie’s feminist manifesto?
In the days that followed, I would imagine myself as a newly-born baby in 1998, and think that it is impossible that I’d been aware of my gender when I was two months old, or even two years old. Gender became dissolved in my mind, reduced in its very essence. Maybe when a male child is born he has a penis and when a female child is born she has a vagina, but that’s just about it. And that’s biology, a kind of sorting system, something that has to be gotten over with in order that one may focus on more important things, like actually living. But it is how the society reacts to this biology that creates a divide. So gender, which is the least important thing about a person, a mere sorting system, becomes the most important thing.
Now, what if places were switched, and boys are socialised to be the weaker ones, the vulnerable ones, the subjugated ones? Because that can happen, too. The mere fact that boys have penises or are biologically stronger than girls does not make them immune to these things.
Yes, girls may be emotional and sensitive and all that. These claims are true, and it’d be stupid not to accept them. But when we make these claims, we never stop to ask ourselves why. There are more black men in American prisons than white men, but that doesn’t mean black men are naturally criminals. There’s nothing in the biological composition of black men that makes them naturally predisposed to crime. No. That’s sociology. The American society is set up so that black people have little else than crime. In the same way, in gender, biology really doesn’t matter. What matters is sociology. Because when you tell a person that this is what they are, over and over again, that’s what they’ll become. And that’s why it’s so important that we begin to raise our children differently, like Adichie presses. Not just our girls, but our boys, too. So that we can all go back to that blissful time before all prejudice, when we were all ten-year-olds on the playing field, and nothing mattered more than the thrill of the race.
Written by Atanda