Although every person has their own coming of age moment, I feel like I had two — when I fully grasped what it meant to be a Black woman in the world, and when I redefined what it meant to be a Nigerian woman. While Maya Angelou’s writing was critical for the former, it was Chimamanda Adichie who played an integral part in the latter.
When most people see or hear my name, they immediately know that I’m Nigerian. When people meet me and learn that I spent the majority of my life in the United States, including the formative years of my childhood, sometimes they’ll say, well you’re American, not really Nigerian. I very much beg to differ.
I like to say that I was raised in a Nigerian household in America. So yes, we may have physically been in another country, but within the four walls of our home, Nigerian — and specifically, Igbo — traditions, values, foods, language, and cultural beliefs reigned supreme. The best evidence of this is one time when my older brother had gotten into trouble and was getting a beating, he mumbled something about telling his teacher. My dad paused to tell my brother that he was more than welcome to tell his teacher, and if she dared come to our household to tell him how to raise his children, he would beat her as well. So yeah, I was definitely raised in a Nigerian household.
And though this cultural tension between the ways of the world we came from, a world I left at too young of an age to remember, and the ways of the world we lived in now, which were foreign and unfamiliar to my parents, often caused me a serious headache, I grew to find value in and an appreciation for my Nigerian upbringing. For example, I particularly enjoyed the values of education and faith that were prioritized in our household. The two have really shaped who I am, who I’ve become, and the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
But if there’s one thing about Nigerian culture that I have always struggled to accept, it was the role of the Nigerian woman.
I got into many arguments with my mom when I was a kid because there were things I was not allowed to do that my brothers were allowed to do. Or things I had to do that they didn’t have to do. Or ways that we were treated unequally. I had to stay in the kitchen and watch my mom cook, while my brothers were allowed to play. When we went to parties, I had to help serve food and put chin chin on tables, while my brothers sat and enjoyed malt. I once was grounded for an ENTIRE YEAR for telling my older brother to shut up, when he told me to shut up all the time. I wasn’t allowed to go to so many school social events — countless sweet sixteens and bar mitzvahs, school dances I helped organize since I was on student council, and junior/senior prom in my junior year when a senior boy actually asked me to be his date. And yet my brothers, especially my younger brother, lived their lives under a completely different set of rules.
Looking back, I know my mom battled between what it meant to raise a strong Black girl and what it meant to raise a good Nigerian girl. A strong Black girl is multi-faceted, chases her dreams, works hard but rests well, and has her own money and aspirations. A good Nigerian girl defers to the wishes of the men in her life, serves quietly and without complaint, has no property to her name, and is valued by her ability to bear a son.
I was protected from the full strength of the “good Nigerian girl” cultural expectation in a few ways. My mom was always slightly rebellious, having been the kind of kid to run away from home when it was her turn to do the dishes. She turned down men her father told her to marry and moved to a country he didn’t want her to move to. She gave my dad an ultimatum to stop smoking and drinking and essentially get his life together. My parents were more equal partners than any other Nigerian couple I knew. So even though I felt like I had it bad growing up, I knew that it could have been much worse.
That background was important because, in order to understand why Chimamanda Adichie means so much to me, you have to first know what the cultural expectations and norms for Nigerian women are and have been for generations.
In her writing and the way she lives her life, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has completely redefined what it means to be a strong Nigerian woman. She speaks openly and prominently, she is not defined by her choices to be a wife and a mother, and she consistently challenges the status quo. But she does it all without disdain for Nigerian culture or society, but quite the opposite. It is her immense love for her heritage, her people, her country, and the world that inspires her social commentary. She seamlessly brought two words together that I had never before heard in my life: African and feminist. She encourages us all, but especially African women, to TAKE UP SPACE, a complete contradiction to the “good Nigerian girl” mindset that is drilled into many of us Nigerian girls (and I’m sure many other girls) from birth.
Americanah will always be one of my favorite books of all time. But Chimamanda’s impact on my life has been much bigger than her books, and even bigger than having had the tremendous honor of being invited to her home for an evening. She is a role model for the kind of woman I want to be — one who exists independent of her spouse, who challenges cultural, societal, and gender norms both in words and deed, and who inspires a generation of Black girls to experience the world differently.