On Dear Ijeawele By Chimamanda Adichie, Difference, Love And Suya: A Dialogue Between Basit Jamiu & Hauwa Shafii Nuhu
Basit Jamiu & Hauwa Shafii Nuhu are both editors at Afro Anthology Series. You can reach them on Twitter via @CuratorBasit & @WaasiShaffii.
This conversation took place in Nigeria.
Basit Jamiu: Dear Ijeawele is a feminist manual that is many things but unique. It doesn’t in anyway say anything new from what Chimamanda Adichie had been saying on interviews and also what other writers particularly Nawal El Saadawi, a great writer, had also written passionately about in her books. I failed to see the caption “unique” that many of my friends ascribed to this book.
Hauwa Shafii Nuhu: Dear Ijeawele is certainly unique. (And I should state here that unique does not necessarily translate to “better”). Because when we read about feminism and theories spun from it, there’s an intellectualizing of the word, such that you are aware that you are reading something from an intellectual, just like Nawal El Saadawi does. Which is great. What Saadawi writes are essays. Dear Ijeawele isn’t a collection of essays, it is more informal than that; it is a letter to a dear friend. The problem with that sort of perspective—of intellectualizing—is that it is almost impenetrable for people who aren’t already feminists, or who are just on their way to unlearning misogyny. In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie uses basic examples, she is informal and cheeky more than once, (which is not found in, say, Saadawi’s writings) which makes it more accessible. When I read essays and theories about feminism that I agree with, I am unable to share them with certain friends. When I read Dear Ijeawele however, I could immediately share the book with friends who think that feminism is an unfounded man-hating movement. The book is both an initiator and a grounding.
Basit: If Dear Ijeawele‘s uniqueness is in its simplicity then I certainly agree that it was greatly achieved. I find the tone very informal and largely accessible. I feel that Nawal El Saadawi is accessible too and uses storytelling to buttress her stance. I am a big fan of Nawal El Saadawi. I will recommend Women at Point Zero alongside A Daughter of ISIS for your friends who feel feminism is an unfounded man-hating movement.
In the last suggestion, Chimamanda briefly wrote about the acceptability of difference, “Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal.” This is so apt and lovely. I am aware of the damage that comes from being different, particularly its deprivation of privilege. I am also aware of how harshly the society judge people who are different or choose to be different particularly the Muslim women who choose to wear Hijab. We hear horrible and terrible stories of Islamophobia everyday from friends and social media. This morning, you shared a story of a Muslim woman who tweeted about losing a potential company job simply because she was wearing a hijab. It is appalling.
Hauwa: You are absolutely right. I highlighted that part about difference in Adichie’s book so that I could go back to it whenever I wanted. It is a reminder that is necessary. It was simply so true and apt. It’d seem that we as a society have successfully moved from an era where difference is beautiful, to an era where difference is not only scorned at, condescended upon, but also actively oppressed. Yes, the story about the Muslim woman who was refused a job simply because of her hijab. I personally witnessed an occurrence like that in Kano—a city supposed to be largely Islamic. A shopkeeper had called a friend of his to inquire about a woman who was looking to be a shopkeeper in the store adjacent his. He was asking her to come over for an interview with the owner of the store. And when about to hang up, he said “abeg, tell her make she no wear that thing wey she dey wear. That hijab.” After the person on the other end of the phone said something that I assumed meant she would not be willing to not wear her hijab, the man said “na him be say she never ready to find work be that.”
After his phone call, he turned to me to attend to me as I had been waiting for him to finish. I was clad in full hijab reaching my ankles. And it was clear that I had heard him. He looked at me with a tinge of awkwardness but not guilt.
Basit: It is shameful how some people are so quick to assume that a woman clad in hijab is ignorant and uneducated. I remember a peculiar thread on Twitter by Zahra Zara Danejo about a banker who used a condescending tone towards her in the bank because she was wearing a hijab and the shock that came after when the banker became aware that Zahra is not just educated, unapologetic but articulate. I am curious to know if you have had a similar experience as a Muslim woman too and how you’ve managed it. I do not believe that the society is as harsh towards Islamic men as they are with Islamic women. The stories of men losing their jobs solely because of their choice of religion are almost in existent.
Hauwa: Yes, Muslim women seem to suffer more in the hands of an intolerant society because of their faith, as opposed to Muslim men. I want to say it’s, perhaps, because we are more visibly Muslim—because of the hijab and stuff. But then, there are men who are just as visibly Muslim; the beard not kept in the popular, fashionable way, but in accordance with Sunnah. They wear a rosary round their wrists, or necks, or just hold them. There is the dressing too. This is why I have come to the conclusion that even though it is islamophobic, it is also misogynistic. (There’s a lot of unpacking to be done here but perhaps we will come back to it later). I’ve had people look me dead in the eye and tell me that I am oppressed because I am dressed differently from them, I’ve had people tell me that I need to be saved because I adhere to a religion different from theirs. I’ve had a woman say to me, “I still can’t believe you are Muslim,” in a way that said how can you be such a great person only to taint it all by being Muslim. As though it was a terrible shortcoming on my part.
On whether I have similar experiences, I have quite a lot of them. How I deal with it is by laughing in their face; I laugh so hard at their comments that they are forced to see their stupidity. But there are times when the situation simply isn’t funny, where laughter simply will not do because there is a kind of anger that does not give room for it. Like once when a woman told me to take off my hijab because it was making her uncomfortable. Or when once in a hotel, I came downstairs to the reception to make inquiries and the lady looked at me in my hijab and gave me what I think is the dirtiest, most condescending look I have ever seen in my life. She had been on the phone and I had waited for her to finish before making my inquiries as to where the restaurant was. By the time she finished, the dirty look was still on her face. When I spoke to her in English, she looked surprised but still had the look on her face. I was surprised at how hurt I was, actually. Still, I said nothing. I ended up not going to the restaurant anymore, I went back to my room.
Basit: The effect of this constant shaming of Islamic women can be harmful to their mental health and confidence, no?
Hauwa: Yes, it sure affects their mental health and confidence. If you had asked me this five months ago, my answer would have been no. But one time after I stepped out wearing a hijab, about to go out with an acquaintance, and she looked at me as though I was wearing something disgusting, I was so affected by that look I went back inside to check myself out again in the mirror. I think that’s when I started to realize that all of these experiences were straining and would begin to affect my confidence if I didn’t check myself.
But again, I’m curious. Have you, as a Muslim man, had any unkind experiences or receptions from people in cases where you were visibly Muslim?
“Dear Ijeawele isn’t a collection of essays, it is more informal than that; it is a letter to a dear friend. The problem with that sort of perspective—of intellectualizing—is that it is almost impenetrable for people who aren’t already feminists, or who are just on their way to unlearning misogyny. In Dear Ijeawele, Adichie uses basic examples, she is informal and cheeky more than once, (which is not found in, say, Saadawi’s writings) which makes it more accessible.“
Basit: Certainly. So many people I’d met had complimented my way of dressing in the most condescending way possible and had also challenged my intellect because of it. I hear people say often, “Why are you dressing like an aboki,” and other inflammatory remarks which are exhausting to mention. Aboki as you know is a condescending term used for uneducated northerners by non-northerners. It is draining to think about the level of stereotype that is still attached to northerners even down to their way of dressing. The single story syndrome is still so cancerous that even some literary minds are not left out. Also, I have been privileged to have met and worked with people who accepted my difference in the most normal way that Chimamanda had put it in this book. But enough about difference, Hauwa.
Let’s talk about love. Chimamanda had said so many amazing things about love in the past. I have watched an interview where she said, “I love love.” And she had said it like someone who is capable of writing about love in the most powerful way. And you know, she can. Her books, amongst many things, are about love. In this book, Chimamanda mused about love too. She wrote, “I think love is the most important thing in life. Whatever kind, however you define it, but I think of it generally as being greatly valued by another human being and greatly valuing another human being.” Why is love the most important thing in life? Why not money? Don’t tell me money can’t buy love because I wouldn’t know how to believe you.
Hauwa: Truly, Adichie writes exquisitely about love! The love stories embedded in her books are often the most well-executed, for me. They reach deep inside your heart and bring it to its knees. They touch the fabric of your humanity and say look, there’s beauty in the world.
Why is love the most important thing in life? Phew. I’m not sure I agree that love is the most important thing in life, I don’t know, I have always been averse to that idea. Because for one, love cannot stand alone. We have each experienced or at least witnessed situations where love was simply not enough. We have seen cases where people have been hurt by the same ones who claimed to love them, and yet we could not dispute the existence of that love. We have seen parents who would undoubtedly say they love their children but who refuse to respect them, or create a safe space for them, who in the quest to protect them, end up visiting brutality upon them. A case study is the recent essay on Catapult by Lucia Edafioka. So, is love still the most important thing in the world, in a case like that?
And yet I love love; how it is powerful enough to disrupt all the things you hold dear, how it steadies your stance as you walk into unfamiliar territory, how it holds your head and heart simultaneously. But take away respect, understanding, and other variables and see how ugly love can become. And yes, a person can love you and lack these variables. How about you, Basit? Do you think love is the most important thing in life?
Basit: Love is important, not necessarily romantic love, any kind of love really. I am not sure love is the most important thing in life. It is more apt to say love is the most important feeling in the world. In my list of importance, health will rank higher than love. I believe love is a great feeling and it is magical to love and be loved in return. It is understandable why so many songs and stories are about love because it is universally relatable. Romeo and Juliet is one of the oldest and equally the most popular books in the world; it is about love. A friend once told me every book is about love, I am not sure I believe him but I see why he would make such an ambiguous statement.
I am currently a few pages into An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma and I am quick to assume that it is going to be an encompassing tale of love amongst other things, I may be wrong but I will find out. I am also aware that you just completed the reading of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. A beautiful tale about love, friendship, death, and a woman’s enduring relationship with a dog named Apollo. I have always been fascinated with humans relationship with pets. This relationship, when translated into a story, is sensational and powerful. J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend which are both award-winning books, capture a man-dog relationship quite succinctly. What do you think about Apollo and his relationship with the narrator? Do you have pets?
Hauwa: No, I don’t have any pets. The relationship between Apollo and the narrator was a painfully beautiful one. It started like most enduring love stories, out of tolerance and not love. Let me make an allusion here. I am a fan of Game of Thrones. In a scene where Caitlyn Stark is seen trying to persuade her son Robb Stark into marrying the Frey girl and not the woman of his heart, she tells him of how the love story between herself and Ned Stark had not even started as one. They weren’t in love at the time of their wedding, but they tolerated one another until gradually the love came out of the furnace. She went on to say that that sort of love, even though lacking the fiery passion of young urgent love, was the sort that lasts most. I was unsure whether I understood her, which means I was sure I didn’t agree with her. But while reading Sigrid Nunez’s book, I saw what Caitlyn Stark had said come into motion between Apollo and the narrator. And oh, it was beautiful. Perhaps, it was the dreamlike delicacy with which the prose was handled, making every second precious and intensely beautiful and aching, or maybe it was simply the amount of heart and soul pulsing through the process of the grief and friendship and companionship, but suddenly I found myself wishing I had a dog. This surprised me greatly because I don’t particularly fancy dogs, or cats, or any pets at all. And it is for this reason that we read; that if we do not find an ally, we at least find a contradiction that ends up looking like an ally. That we are challenged about things we think we know about ourselves.
Have you experienced something like that in the hands of a book? Has a book swayed you into changing an opinion on what you thought you knew about yourself, or on anything at all?
Basit: Ah, there must have been but none that I can remember at the moment. I am often greatly moved when I read a good story. I get this feeling of being more alive, more attuned with the world. Great books help me see the world as it is; a place where there is as much joy as unhappiness. Our human condition is constantly being shared as global moments unfold; a few months ago, we share in the historic moment of Lucas Modric as he broke the doupoly between Messi and Ronaldo to clinch the Ballon d’or but today, we are sad over the tragic loss of Emiliano Sala. The constant creation of good and bad memories is inevitable.
In the beginning of the Fifth Suggestion, Chimamanda wrote about the importance of reading, “Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child.” I love the above quote so much. Reading is more important to me than writing. By reading, I gain more knowledge about the world, I understand my society more, and by reading, I can see and feel both the basic as well as the complex workings of the human mind. I read mostly for the pleasure of sentences, for the flow of rhythm. I read to escape from the choking weight of survival in Nigeria. A few weeks ago, I reread Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat—this is my sixth reading—and I am still greatly moved by the way the writer wove such a graceful personal story about her family and the political history of Haiti. I am also drawn into a story through its voice and it’s attention towards inventive sentences. Sometimes, I am so captivated by the voices collected by Svetlana Alexievich in War’s Unwomanly Face that I could feel and hear the voices of all the women as they narrate their personal stories of World War II. I am at once reminded of the enduring power of humans in the face of suffering, loss, and the relevance of nonfiction as important archives for history. Relatively, Dear Ijeawele is nonfiction written by an African and it has been widely read all around the world and also a required reading in some countries. I know so many people that don’t ordinarily read nonfiction that have read it and loved it. Does this mean anything at all for the development of creative Nonfiction in Africa?
Hauwa: I’m not sure Dear Ijeawele‘s wide readership means anything at all for the development of nonfiction in Africa because as much as it is an important book, a book I love so much, it is not your typical creative nonfiction.
Creative nonfiction is a very important part of literature, and by extension, life. It is in nonfiction that we find fragments of ourselves in the words of another person whom we perhaps might never even meet. Writing moves more than anything I know in the world, it is as magical as it is precious and I cannot express enough how grateful I am for its existence. There is heart in creative nonfiction. One might argue that there is heart in fiction too, and one will be right. Think The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. Think The Fault in our Stars by John Green. Think The Only Story by Julian Barnes. But it is different with nonfiction; there is no performance in creative nonfiction, just a person writing because their heart is full and they need to empty it without really emptying it. Joan Didion’s memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, comes to mind here. It was more or less a way of documenting time and all the things stuffed inside her. So does Yiyun Li’s magnificent Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Both books are delicately written, and yet flow very naturally; with no need to make any particular event happen; just the recounting of a string of events.
In reading creative nonfiction also, there is the knowledge on the part of the reader that what they have in their hand—all the horror and pain, or all the joy and beauty—is an account of real life events. But this can also be a not so good thing, for some people. I have heard people say that they stay away from reading nonfiction because if it gets too much, they cannot console themselves with the knowledge that it is a work of fiction.
But since the publication of Selves, I can say more and more people are being drawn into nonfiction in Africa, it is a wonderful thing to witness. I know you love nonfiction, I mean, you curated Selves, but do you write nonfiction?
Basit: Yes, I do. The last work I published was a creative nonfiction piece which appeared in Saraba Magazine’s Issue 22. Creative nonfiction has never been more visible and appreciated in Africa than it is now; A Stranger’s Pose, Selves, Safe House, as well as Known and Strange Things are all creative nonfiction books that have been warmly received in Africa and beyond. As one of the editors of Afro Anthology Series, you are aware that our goal is to improve the visibility of creative nonfiction in Africa, pushing it to the point where it gets the same attention that its two sisters—fiction and poetry—get all the time. I am indeed motivated with the growing readership of personal essays in Africa, I really hope it gets better and bigger every year.
Let us quickly look at this quote before we close our conversation, Hauwa. In this book, Chimamanda wrote, “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking—domestic work in general—is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.” I can assure you that I know so many men that are literally terrible at cooking. If many women considered cooking as an important, must-have skill in their future husbands, then, I can also assure you that most men may never find a wife that will be able to tolerate their terrible cooking skills. Will you be able to tolerate a husband that is obviously a bad cook?
Hauwa: It so happens that all the men I know, or perhaps I should say most of the men I know are actually great cooks. A man either cooks, or he doesn’t. Because when a man voluntarily cooks, you can be sure he does so because he genuinely wants to, and if he’s doing something because he wants to, there’s a greater chance of him excelling at it. This allowance is present because of the social conditioning that cooking is only for women. So, in most households, the woman does not even have the right to say she does not like cooking. She has to cook. If there are better female cooks than male, it is only because only women are given the orientation to cook. And so when they keep cooking and cooking over years, they metamorphose into good or decent cooks. Practice, they say makes perfection, right? So, maybe we should all give the same cooking orientation we give to women, to men. If we do, there’d be less terrible male cooks.
On whether I can tolerate a husband who’s a bad cook, he will have to learn. Everything is learned. If I’m a good cook, it’s not because I was born with a cooking manual in my vagina. It’s because I learned to cook. Translation: he can learn too. Now, I don’t particularly love cooking myself. And the quickest way to build resentment in a relationship is for one party to be continuously subjected into doing a thing they don’t want, every single day. That relationship will crumble.
Basit: I agree with you completely. There will surely be less terrible male cooks if we give the same orientation we give women to men. Many men I know are open to learning culinary skills. Now that our conversations has turned to cooking. I have a foodie confession to make; I find myself waking up very early in the morning now craving the warmth of shayi and in the night the feel-good taste of suya. So, lately, my days have been starting in the corners of Maishayi and ending in my favourite Maisuya joint and I am really surprised by this obsession because, well, I know I am a foodie but this new place that my taste is taking me has remained largely uncharted in the past. But trust me, I am not the one to question the needs of my body. So I have surrendered, and I am very pleased to be guided by my taste and cravings. Have you ever seen a female Maisuya or Maishayi in Nigeria?
Hauwa: Haha. Now that we’re talking about suya, have you tried cooking noodles with suya cut into tiny cubes inside it? You pour the pre-cut chunks into the noodles only when it’s almost done, so you can retain the taste of the spices embedded inside the suya. It’s wonderful. No, lol, I haven’t seen a female maisuya or maishayi.
Basit: That makes the two of us, Hauwa. As for the noodles with suya, I can’t wait to try it!
Hauwa: You should. If you can, look for what the Hausas call Balangu. It is often mistaken for suya by non-Hausa speaking people. But it tastes even more divine, more spiced. Usually arranged on a stick (and no I’m not talking about those ones coated with powdered kuli. The sticks here are usually shorter). It’s perfect for noodles.
Basit: Kai! Zan dandana shi yau da yamman nan!
Hauwa: Zai maka dadi sosai!