Wednesday Feb 28

Adedayo Som Oluwatobi Adedayo writes from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in Osun state, Nigeria, where he studies English Language. He was recently long-listed for 2019 Koffi Addo Creative Nonfiction Prize. He is a member of the award-winning news agency of the English department, OAU, Nasels Communication Bureau. Some of his works have appeared on the Internet. He tweets @som_august and poses on Instagram as som_august and pries into peoples' timeline on Facebook as Som Adedayo.

On Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's ‘Imitation’

In the short story, ‘Imitation', the second in her collection of short stories, The Thing Around your Neck, Miss. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie right from the opening sentence sets out to hit a target. ‘Imitation' is simple, clear, but above all that it is vibrant: it is, as if fitted with a secret accelerometer, alert to vibrations, movement, and nudges, even those that seem too unnoticeable. In a second, Nkem, the protagonist who currently resides in America, ‘is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel’ as she listens out for her friend’s voice on the phone, in the next she is pouring herself a glass of water in the kitchen, leaving it on the table, untouched, and in the next she’s flashbacking to her days in Lagos, and yet, who knows, in the next she might be telephoning her husband. It is this vibrance that pockets the reader into the story’s suspense. The reader is therefore compelled to watch as she, Ms. Adichie, twirls the dart within her fingers, levels her gaze at the target, and throws. Since he or she may not be able to predict the next nudge, the reader cannot help but stare in awe, as though under a spell, at the moving dart as it trails towards Miss's destination.  

‘Imitation' opens as thus: ‘Nkem is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend.’ With such electric opening it is certain that Miss is nakedly presenting a tale on what she is, apart from writing, best known for—feminism. From each word and sentence the reader can feel the lavender of feminism wafting elegantly from the page. The theme is all there, in the choice of words, in the voice, in the characters’ internal compositions and external interactions, and, most especially, in the storyline. The lavender presentation of feminism brings back to memory Acimen’s book of essay, Allibi, in which he writes about his encounter with different lavender.

Spectacular about Miss's target is the tone of the voice in which the story is told. The tone is brisk, bold, unbleached by any iota of fear, and in fact a better adjective than bold could be aggressive. It is aggressive probably because it thrives to engage the reader on the treatment of the theme (feminism). In adherence to the law of thought—precisely law of excluded middle—the tone is asking the reader to take just a stance on feminism, to either be a feminist or not, that is, neither none of the two stances nor both. On the whole, it is reminiscent of Miss's sentence in her book length essay, Dear Ijeawele: ‘Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of women, or you do not.’

The voice is to some noticeable extents not the third person narrator's or the implied author’s (Ms. Adichie's) in that the protagonist, in addition to being whom the story resolves around, is completely the center of consciousness. It is therefore Nkem's. Yet considering the prominent and bold feminist that Miss is, it not an unforgivable transgression to call the voice hers. (She indeed calls herself Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men.)

Ms. Adichie presents ‘Imitation' in a way that suggests gender inequality occurs when the victim is being blindly submissive to stereotypes which traditionally relegates the female gender below the male counterpart. Even the adherents of Jacques Deridda’s concept of Structuralism, which claims meaningfulness is determined by binary oppositions in which one of the terms governs the other, have given the female-male dichotomy as a main example of the concept. These geniuses, the masterly scholars of the concept, feel that because there is a presence of phallus in males and the absence or loss of the same (a vagina) in females, therefore males could, according to the traditional thought, be seen as dominant (a substitute for lord) over females. The environment surely has influence on her, the victim’s, mind and it is natural for human beings to unconsciously subscribe to such environmental forces as norms or culture. Yet, although it might be risky, one can always break or reject stereotypes. Hence Ms. suggests women, even when the patriarchal culture seems strongly rooted, could thrive for equal right with the male gender. The rainbow, Miss seems to say,—though the sky appears too high for the mouth’s reach—can always be tasted.

Nkem is from eastern Nigeria, the part of the country habituated by the Igbos whose social and political traditions, a few decades ago, most especially, radically places the male above the female. She has been beguiled with her patriarchal background, her mind harnessed by norms which only make her and other women less human and she, too, has blindly subscribed or submitted to the patriarchal background. She, as prescribed by societal stereotypes and norms, believes because she is a ‘wife' she is inferior or unequal to Obiora, her husband.

Nkem’s blind submissiveness to stereotypes that seek to make her and other women less human, like twins, comes hand-in-hand with inferiority complex. On her first meeting with Obiora, she has, as though premeditatedly, totally relegated herself below him which, most likely because of his wealth, does seem automatic but which should not be. Inferiority complex, though not considered positive, is natural to occur in some humans and it is not a scary sight that Nkem also has the mentality. But relegating herself on the ground or premise that she is a woman is more dreadful than a nightmare. Why should she relegate herself below him just because she is female?

She was nothing like the wives of his friends, the kind of women who went abroad and bumped into each other while shopping at Harrods, and she held her breath waiting for Obiora to realize this and leave her. But the months passed and he had her siblings enrolled in school and he introduced her to his friends at the boat club and he moved her out of the self-contained in Ojota and into a real flat with a balcony in Ikeja. When he asked if she would marry him, she thought how unnecessary it was, his asking, since she would have been happy simply to be told.

Because Obiora is her husband and norms have it that husbands should be the central murals on the walls of women’s lives, she has indeed made him the motif of her pattern of thoughts. Her subconciousness is wired about him. She has her thoughts centred around him, and her thoughts not centered around him, if there could be any, are incomplete, and when such thoughts become inevitable, they are, like a fish flying in the sky, strange and out of place. She does only what Obiora considers as right.

On their first outing when he orders a wine that tastes sour on her tongue and tells her she will soon like it, she brings herself to like it immediately. While staying with their children in America she takes a number of computer courses because Obiora says it is a good idea. She does listen well enough to, and chooses to take as the truth, his mythical stories behind the African art (Benin mask, Ife bronze head, etc.). She simply lives her life for him. She seeks to please Obiora who, being her husband, must be an idol. Ms. writes, ‘Nkem sighs, runs her hand through her hair. It feels too thick, too old. She has planned to get a relaxer touch-up tomorrow, have her hair set in a flip that would rest around her neck the way Obiora likes. And she has planned, on Friday, to wax her pubic hair into a thin line, the way Obiora likes.’ Because he is her ‘husband’, she has—adhering to societal norms and stereotypes—dogmatically built within her heart an Obiora who will be definitely wiser, greater, than she is, who is to be worshipped, revered, to be listened to, to be obeyed. Meanwhile the claim that he should have these qualities (wisdom, greatness, reveredness, worshipability, etcetera) has no relevant connection with the sole premise that he is a husband: being a husband isn't the reason why he should be wise, great, revered, obeyed or worshipped.

Obiora is rich. He is rated by Newswatch as one of the Fifty Influential Nigerian Businessmen. He, as soon as they get closer a bit, puts upon himself her family financial burden and when they get married he solely sees to the need of the family. Nkem remains a ‘full housewife’ who merely takes care of the children. While Obiora works hard to attend to their needs, she puts in nothing into the family purse. The reader begins to wonder whether by subscribing to Obiora lording over her, by subscribing to Obiora placing himself above her, she is trying to make up for not contributing to the family purse.

It is no false that his wealth has made her an unequal of his, but then wealth is not the focus of marriage instead love is the bedrock, ìpinlèsè, the foundation, upon which marriage is built. Love is the rim inside which marriage is tenderly fixed. When love is out of marriage, no matter what replaces it, it is no more a marital relationship but some sort of other relationships. Just as when the rim of a spectacle is removed such spectacle is no more a spectacle but some sort of other things such as hand lens.

Here, although love is not out of Nkem's and Obiora's marriage, its primary role as the bedrock of marriage has been taken up by wealth. It is clear that wealth comes before marriage. Obiora cares about his wealth than he cares about the love between himself and his wife. He makes Nkem live in America with the children while he stays in Nigeria to give more time to his business and only occasionally visits them, his family, in America. The first two years he visits twice a month but ‘getting more huge government contracts and not wanting to loose them, the contracts, he only visits twice in summer.’

Yet it is undoubtful that he truly loves her.

He did not ask her to meet him at a private guesthouse, like all the other men, but instead took her to dinner at the vibrantly public Lagoon restaurant, where anybody could have seen them. He did not ask her to meet him at a private guesthouse, like all the other men, but instead took her to dinner at the vibrantly public Lagoon restaurant, where anybody could have seen them.

Then it can be inferred that Obiora might be—maybe unconsciously?—sticking to the norms, the expected, that is, that husbands should lord over their wives. It is also true that his wealth makes him see himself as some kind of lord over Nkem. But then since there is tendency he could feel the inequality between himself and his wife, Nkem, infringing on their love, he should neither be totally exonerated nor the blame should solely be on environmental forces as norms or stereotypes.

The storyline is a quick happening, brilliantly interspersed with flashbacks and stream of consciousness, cohesively and coherently flowing towards Miss's target. ‘Imitation’ finally tails down at Miss's target when at the end of the story Obiora comes home with the first original African art—a life sized, stained, turbaned Ife bronze head—they shall have.

Obiora and Nkem are a huge fan of African art and do collect African art very well but have never for once come across an original. They merely collect imitations. Even from the beginning of the story and beyond. Now that an original has been brought into the house, into the home, into the family, there surges from Nkem’s life an oasis of originality, of freshness, of newness, of pure genuineness. The symbolism portrayed by the original Ife bronze head is the sauciest, juiciest, spiciest element in the story. It is the code to unleash the ultimate meaningfulness from the story's linguistic bank.

Nkem as soon as the original african art comes into her home puts on a drape of the true expression of herself; she truly becomes herself, that ideal woman who isn’t less human as her male counterpart.

Her metamorphosis (or meowmorphosis) into an ideal woman is in progress. It starts from the heart where she begins to doubt his, Obiora's, knowledge and takes effect on her lips when she finally has a say in the decision making of her connubial home. She for the first time has a real ‘we’, consisting of him and her in persons, between her lips and not the imitation ‘we’ which merely pretends to have her and him in itself while in reality it contains only him.

Generally, there is a brilliant metaphorical equation of African art to women. As imitation art are caricatures of the original arts so is a woman deprived of her equality based on her femaleness a caricature of the ideal woman who because she, the ideal woman, enjoys equal rights as her male counterpart is human.

Ms. ends the story with, in the reader's mind, an impression that there is no better way to reach her destination, to hit the point, láti kan ojú abe ní ìkó, than she has done.

In the shower, as she soaps his back, she says, “We have to find a school for Adanna and Okey in Lagos.” She had not planned to say it, but it seems right, it is what she has always wanted to say.

Obiora turns to stare at her. “What?”  “We are moving back at the end of the school year. We are moving back to live in Lagos. We are moving back.” She speaks slowly, to convince him, to convince herself as well. Obiora continues to stare at her and she knows that he has never heard her speak up, never heard her take a stand. She wonders vaguely if that is what attracted him to her in the first place, that she deferred to him, that she let him speak for both of them.

“We can spend holidays here, together,” she says. She stresses the “we.”

“What … ? Why?” Obiora asks.

“I want to know when a new houseboy is hired in my house,” Nkem says. “And the children need you.”

“If that is what you want,” Obiora says finally. “We’ll talk about it.”

She gently turns him around and continues to soap his back. There is nothing left to talk about, Nkem knows; it is done.