Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. It was also short-listed for the Orange Prize and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and long-listed for the Booker Prize. Half of a Yellow Sun, her second novel, was published to great acclaim last year and went on to win the Orange Prize this year. Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, Prospect, and The New Yorker among other literary journals, and she received the O. Henry Prize in 2003. She was a 2005-2006 Hodder Fellow at Princeton, where she taught Introductory Fiction. Currently pursuing graduate work in the African Studies program at Yale, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Chimamanda was one of the guest writers participating in the Kwani Literary festival in December 2006
My American Jon
There is something forlorn about Baltimore; I thought of this every Thursday when my taxi sped down Charles Street on my way to the train station to visit Jon in New York City. The buildings were connected to one another in faded slumping rows, but what really held my attention was the people: hunched in puffy jackets, waiting for buses, slouching in corners, making me wonder again and again why the dankest, drabbest parts of all the American cities I knew were full of black people. My taxi drivers were mostly Punjabi or Ethiopian. It was an Ethiopian who asked where my accent was from and then said, “You don’t look African at all,” when I told him Nigeria.
“Why don’t I look African?” I asked.
“Because your blouse is too tight.”
“It is not too tight,” I said.
“I thought you were from Jamaica or one of those places,” he said, looking in the rearview with both disapproval and concern. “You have to be very careful or America will corrupt you.”
Later, I told Jon about this conversation and how the driver’s sincerity had infuriated me and how I had gone to the station bathroom to see if my pink blouse was too tight. Jon laughed. But I was sure he understood; this was during the early months, the good months of our relationship.
We met at a poetry reading. I had come up to New York to hear the new Nigerian poet Chioma Ekemma read from her Love Economies. During the Q&A, the questions were not about why she chose to write poems without active verbs, or which poets she admired, but what could be done about poverty in Nigeria and would women ever achieve equality there and wasn’t she lucky that she could come to America and find her voice? She was gracious – too gracious, I thought. Then Jon raised his hand from two rows ahead of me and said tourism was the easiest way to fix the Nigerian economy and it was a shame Nigeria was not tourist friendly. No hostels. No good roads. No back packers. He spoke with absolute authority. Chioma Ekemma nodded enthusiastically. I raised my hand and said one could fix an economy in other ways that did not involve richer people going to gawk at the lives of poorer people who could never gawk back. There was some scattered clapping; I noticed the most vigorous came from the black people. Chioma Ekemma said something conciliatory and moved on to the next question. She was clearly thinking of keeping the peace so that as many people as possible would buy her book.
Jon was staring at me; a white man wearing a metal wristband who thought he could pontificate about my country irritated me. I stared back. I imagined him taking in my afro-shaped twists, my severe black frames, with distaste. But there was something else between us, between the chairs and people separating us: a sparkle, a star, a spark. His face was solemn when he came over after the reading and said I had really felt strongly back there and did I want to get coffee and have a little bit more of a debate. It amused me, the way he said ‘debate.’ But we did debate, about devaluation and deregulation and debt, and later, when we kissed at Penn station in a sudden press of our bodies before I got on the train, it was as if the debate was continuing, the way our tongues darted around inside our mouths without meeting. He had never been with a black woman; he told me this the following weekend with a self-mocking toss of his head, as if this were something he should have done long ago but had somehow neglected. I laughed and he laughed and in the morning sunlight that streamed in through the windows of his apartment, his skin took on a bright and foreign translucence. After we broke up two years later, I would tell people that race was the reason, that he was too white and I was too black and the midway too skewed in his favor. In truth, we broke up after I cheated. The cheating was very good, me on top gliding and moaning and grasping the hair on the chest of the other man. But I told Jon that it had meant nothing. I told him that I had hated myself although I was filled with well-being, with a sublime sense not just of satisfaction but of accomplishment.
At first, Jon was disbelieving. “No, you didn’t have a one-night stand. You’re such a liar.”
I did lie to him sometimes, playful little lies like calling to say I could not come that weekend when I was just outside his door. But I did not lie about the big things.
“It’s true,” I said.
He got up and turned down the volume of the stereo and paced and looked through the tall windows at the cars and people below. Unknown Soldier was playing. Jon loved Fela Kuti; it was the reason he’d visited Nigeria and attended Nigerian events, perhaps the reason he thought he knew how to save Nigeria.
“Why?” he asked finally.
I should not have been pleased by the prospect of telling Jon why I had cheated. I sat down on the sofa and said, “It was desire.”
It was desire. It felt as though gentle peppers had been squirted at the bottom of my stomach, a surge of pure aching desire that I was grateful for feeling and was determined not to waste.
“Desire?” Jon was watching me. Maybe he was thinking that it had always been good between us. So I got up and held him close and said that even though it had been a physical desire, the act itself had meant nothing because my self-loathing made pleasure impossible. Jon did not push me away. He said, “The sin is not the sex, Amaka, the sin is the betrayal. So it doesn’t matter whether or not you enjoyed it.”
That all-knowing tone of Jon’s had always made me stiffen. If the circumstances were different, I would have asked him – did the people at Yale teach you how to talk about things you know nothing about with such authority? I had often asked him this in the past. Such as when, two or so months into our relationship, I arrived at his apartment and he kissed me and gestured to the table and said, “Surprise. Tickets to Paris for three days. We leave tonight. You’ll be back in time to teach Tuesday.”
“Jon, I just cannot jet off to Paris. I have a Nigerian passport and I have to apply for a visa.”
“Come on, you’re an American resident. You don’t need a visa to go to Paris.”
“No you don’t.”
After I showed him on the Internet that Nigerian citizens who were resident in America did in fact need a visa to get into Europe – a process that required bank statements, health insurance, all sorts of proof that you would not stay back and become a burden to Europe – Jon muttered “ridiculous” as though it was the French embassy and not he who had been wrong. We did go to Paris, though. Jon changed the ticket dates. We went together to the French Embassy but I went alone to the window where a woman wearing silver eye-shadow glanced at me, at my passport, back at me, and said she would not approve the visa because Nigerian passport-holders were high-risk and it seemed suspicious to her that I was going to Paris for just three days. “But…” I started to say and she made an impatient gesture and pushed my documents across under the glass. Jon got up then, tall and sinewy and angry, and told her I was going to Paris as his guest and my documents included his bank statements and my employment letter and insurance and everything else, if only she’d look at them. “We’re together,” he added, as if it was necessary to make it clear. The woman smirked. She said I should have explained myself better. She made a show of looking through the documents and said the visa would be ready for pick-up in two days.
It filled me with a dizzying pride, how Jon would often stand up for me, speak for me, protect me, make me omelets, give me pedicures in the bubbling foot bath, slip his hand into mine as we walked, speak in the first person plural. “O na-eji gi ka akwa: he holds you like an egg,” Aunty Adanna said admiringly when she finally accepted that I was serious with a white man and asked me to bring him to lunch. Aunty Adanna was one of those Nigerian immigrants who, when they spoke to white people, adopted a risible American accent. I took Jon to her seven-room home in Columbia, outside Baltimore, and suddenly she was calling her son ‘Mek,’ my bewildered teenage cousin whom we had always called Nnaemeka, and talking about how good he was at golf. She spoke of fufu and soup, which Jon had eaten many times before in New York, as if Nigerian food could not be worthy unless it was like something American. This is like your mashed potatoes, she told him, this is just like your clam chowder. She spoke of her swimming pool needing to be drained. She told anecdotes about the patients at her medical practice. Jon asked when last she had been back in Nigeria and she said it had been six years; she could not bear the dirt and chaos and she did not know what the matter was with all of those corrupt people in government. Matter came out sounding like marah. Even though Jon had not asked, she proudly told him she had lived in America for eighteen years, that she had sponsored my trip here eight years ago after my Nigerian university kept going on strike after strike. I stabbed the chicken in my soup and said nothing. I was ashamed. I was ashamed that she did not have books in her house and that when Jon brought up Zimbabwe, she had no idea what was going on there and so to cover my shame I muttered ‘philistine’ as we drove away. “Nigerian doctors and engineers and lawyers don’t read anything unless it has the possibility of leading them to bigger paychecks,” I said. Jon laughed and said it had nothing to do with Nigeria, it was the same for the American bourgeoisie and, leaning over to kiss me, said that Aunty Adanna had been sweet, the way she was so keen to make him comfortable. It wasn’t sweet, it was pathetic, but I liked that Jon said that and I liked that he wanted to be liked by my family.
I had never felt that love I read about in books, that inexorable thing that made characters take all sorts of unlikely decisions. By the time I met Jon, I had convinced myself that the feeling was like an orgasm; a certain percentage of women would never have one after all. At first, each long weekend with Jon in New York was a pleasant break to look forward to after teaching three days a week at the Shipley school. Soon, each weekend became something I longed for, and then something I needed. I realized that what I felt for Jon was becoming an inexorable thing when I saw the flyer advertising a teaching position in a New York City private academy on a board outside the general office and immediately went in to ask the secretary Nakeya if she knew more. She shook her head and said it wasn’t a good idea. “They like you here and you’ll rise quickly if you stay, Amaka,” she said. I persisted. She said the academy was a good place although the pay at Shipley was better, the student body there was richer, though, and the class size smaller. She added in a lower voice that they were a little conservative and it was best if I took my twists out for the interview. “You know how our hair can make them feel threatened?” Nakeya asked with a smile. I knew. Why adults would feel threatened by hair has never ceased to amaze me but, after I called the academy and was asked to come in for an interview, I removed my twists and straightened my hair with a hot comb that burned my scalp. I was even willing to buy blond dye. I wanted the job. I wanted to be in New York City with Jon. I had been rashly honest at my Shipley school interview, telling them that I had just graduated from Johns Hopkins graduate creative writing program, had published only a few poems in journals, was struggling to complete a collection, and was unsure how to make a living. For the academy interview, I decided I would be more circumspect. I told the two white men and one Hispanic woman that teaching was my first love and poetry my second. They were attentive, they nodded often as if to show approval. I didn’t tell Jon about it because I wanted to surprise him but after I got the e-mail only three days later, thanking me and telling me they had selected a better-qualified applicant, I told Jon. He smiled, his big generous smile. He asked me to resign from the Shipley school, to move in with him and take some time off and focus on my poetry and, if I was worried about not paying rent, I could do so in kind. We laughed. We laughed so often during the early months. I put up an advertisement for sub-letting my Baltimore apartment, put my furniture in storage, and moved in with Jon.
Later, almost two years later, on the day I told Jon that I had cheated, I wondered whether my moving in had contributed in some way; perhaps things would have been different if I had stayed in Baltimore, visiting for long weekends. That day, it took hours of side-stepping each other, of drinking tea, of Jon lying face up on the couch, before he asked, “Who is he?”
I told him the man’s name, Ifeanyi. We had met years ago at the wedding of a friend of Aunty Adanna’s, he had called me a few times and then, recently, he moved from Atlanta to Harlem and we met for coffee and the desire happened and we took the train to his place.
Jon said, “You gave him what he wanted.”
It was an odd thing for Jon to say, the sort of thing Aunty Adanna, who persisted in speaking about sex as if it were something a woman gave a man at a loss to herself, would say.
I corrected Jon gently. “I took what I wanted. If I gave him anything, then it was incidental.”
“Listen to yourself, just fucking listen to yourself!” Jon’s voice thickened and he got up and shook me and then stopped, but did not apologize. “Amaka, I would never have cheated on you. I didn’t even think about it in the past two years, I didn’t think about it,” he said and I realized that he was already looking at us through the lens of the past tense. It puzzled me, the ability of romantic love to mutate so completely. Where did it go? Was the real thing somehow connected to blood since love for children and parents did not change or die in the way love for romantic partners did?
“You won’t forgive me,” I said.
“I don’t think we should be talking about forgiveness right now.”
Jon was the kind of man for whom fidelity came easily, the kind who did not turn to glance at pretty women on the street simply because it did not occur to him. He sat down on the couch and I felt a terrible loss because I had become used to knowing that he was undisputedly there, to the cultured ease in the life he gave me, to his upper-class tickets and his boat and house in Connecticut and the smiling uniformed doorman in his apartment building. Even though I had shrugged, non-committal, the two times he brought up marriage, I often thought of it. The first time I told him I was not sure I wanted to get married. The second time I said I was uncomfortable about bringing mixed-race children into the world. He laughed. How could I buy into the tragic mulatto cliché? It was so much bullshit. He recited the names of our – his, really – biracial friends who seemed perfectly fine with being as they were. His tone was arch, superior, and perhaps he was right and it was bullshit but this was truly how I felt and it did not help that Jon approached my misgivings about race with an intellectual wave of his hand.
And who says that race did not play a role in our break-up? Who says we were not lying all those times we clung to the comforting idea of complexity? It wasn’t about race, we would say, it was complex – Jon speaking first and me promptly agreeing. What if the reasons for most things didn’t require blurred lines? What about the day we walked into a Maine restaurant with white-linen-covered tables, and the waiter looked at us and asked Jon, “table for one?” Or when the new Indian girlfriend of Jon’s golf partner Ashish said she had enjoyed her graduate experience at Yale but had disliked how close the ghetto was and then her hand flew to her mouth after ‘ghetto’ and she turned to me and said, “oh, I’m so sorry” and Jon nodded as if to accept the apology on my behalf. What about when he, Jon, said he hated the predatory way a black man had looked at me in Central Park, and I realized I had never heard him use the word predatory before? Or the long weekend in Montreal when the strawberry-haired owner of the bed and breakfast refused to acknowledge me and spoke and smiled at Jon and I was not sure whether she disliked black people or simply liked Jon and later in the room, for the first time I did not agree that it was complex, at least not in the way I had agreed all the other times. I shouted at Jon – the worst thing is never being sure when it is race and not race and you’ll never have this baggage! And he held me and said I was overreacting and tired. What about the evening we attended a reading at the Mercantile Library and afterwards Jon’s friend Evan, who wrote travel books, told me he was sure it had to feel like shit when ignorant people suggested I had been published in the Best American Poetry because I was black and Jon merely shook his head when I told him that the ignorant people had to be Evan himself because nobody else had suggested this. And what about the first time I met Jon’s mother? She talked about her Kenyan safari in the seventies, about Mandela’s majestic grace, about her adoration for Harry Belafonte, and I worried that she would lapse into Ebonics or Swahili. As we left her rambling house in Vermont where she had an organic garden in her backyard, Jon said it was not really about race, it was more complex than that, it was that she was too hyper-aware of difference and consequently too eager to bridge it. “And she does that with me, too. She likes to talk about only the things she thinks I’m interested in,” he said. This he did often: a constant equalizing of our experiences, a refusal to see that what I experienced was different from his.
And what about Jon’s wife? Jon was divorced from a woman who he described as brilliant and needy. She lived in Cambridge but was on sabbatical in Europe and so did not feature in our lives during the first months, the good months. Then she came back and began to call often. She was unhappy, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, she wasn’t tenure-track, she had given up on her book. Jon often put her on speaker and said soothing things to her about hanging in there and ended the conversation by mentioning me. I have to go, Amaka and I are late already. I have to go, I’m cooking Amaka dinner. On the evening we were to go and see Thom Pain off-broadway, she called and hung up after only a minute or so and he said she was awfully drunk and had called to confess that she still loved him and felt bad that he was with someone else and worse that the someone else was black. He was laughing. I wanted to cry. I am tough, believe me, but that day, as I stared at the high-heeled sandals I was about to slip on, I wanted to cry. All I said was, “I can’t go to the theater.” This woman whom I did not know had brought out in Jon something I loathed with a visceral lurch in my chest: an inability to show necessary outrage. For this new power of hers, I resented her. When, finally, we met, her unremarkably small breasts delighted me, the lines around her eyes and the saggy skin of her neck delighted me. It was at Ashish’s garden party. She wore a pretty jersey dress and a limp string of green beads around her neck and smiled too brightly as we were introduced.
“Jon has told me so much about you,” she said.
“You sound different,” I said.
“When you call Jon puts you on speaker so I can follow the conversation and you sound nothing like you do on the phone,” I said, smiling.
She looked away and then back at me before she excused herself to go find a drink. When I went to the bathroom, I was not surprised that she had followed me. She was standing by the door when I came out.
“It’s not real,” she said.
“What’s not real?” I asked. I was bored with her. I was a little disappointed that Jon had not been with a less predictable woman.
“What you’re doing isn’t real. If it was, he wouldn’t be trying so hard.”
I turned and walked back outside to the party, hoping she thought I was taking the high road when the truth was that I had no idea what to say in response. On the day that I told Jon I had cheated, about eight months after that garden party, I repeated her words to Jon and said I had never told him about it because a part of me had always suspected that it was true.
“That what was true?” Jon asked.
“You were trying too hard to prove that my being black didn’t matter and it was as if it wasn’t a good thing and so we had to pretend it wasn’t there and sometimes I wanted it to matter because it does matter but we never really talked, truly talked, about any of this…”
Jon started to laugh. “This is rich,” he said. “Now you blame it on race? What are you talking about? We’ve always talked about everything. And you told me you didn’t even remember I was white!”
I had indeed said that and it was true, but only when we were alone, when we were silent, when we sat side by side and watched a film, or lay side by side and passed New York Times sections to each other. And yes, we did talk about race, either in the slippery way that admitted nothing and engaged nothing and ended with that word ‘complexity.’ Or as jokes that left me with a small and numb discomfort. Or as intellectual nuggets to be examined and then put aside because it was not about us (such as when he read somewhere that mainstream women’s magazine sales fall with a light-skinned black on the cover and plummet with a dark-skinned black.)
Jon was still laughing, his bitter laughter.
“I should leave,” I said. “I’ll go and stay with Aunty Adanna for a while.”
“No, wait.” Jon got up. “Will you see him again?”
I shook my head.
“Does he mean anything to you?”
Again, I shook my head.
“We can talk. Maybe we can work through this.”
I nodded. He placed his hand on my chin and gently tilted my head up and looked into my eyes. “You don’t want to, do you? You want to make this look like my decision but it’s really yours. You don’t want to be forgiven. You don’t want to work through this,” he said, with that all-knowing authority of his and I stood there and said nothing.
A week later, I was back in Baltimore, a little drunk and a little happy and a little lonely, speeding down Charles Street in a taxi with a Punjabi driver who was proudly telling me that his children did better than American children at school.