Liminality, Diasporic Melancholia and “Small” Redemption: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s
It is often being said that some of the best things in one’s life are those that occur by chance. It is by a happy coincidence that I came across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a day when I was sluggishly switching between television channels. When I halted on BBC an inter- view was about to start so I lingered. The interviewee was a young African woman wearing a colourful caftan, her cornrowed hair and subtle makeup highlighting her charisma1. She was a writer and was to talk about her upcoming novel titled Americanah. I was not disappointed for tuning into this interview for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie immediately struct me as a person of great interest; her eloquence, intelligence and overall sophistication lured me in and I spent the next half hour watching her speak about her novel, her writing career, her interest in the social construction of gender and the place that Nigeria holds in her heart. This woman left an enormous impression on me and made me feel inspired.
Ever since that afternoon Americanah entered my books-to-read list, though it took me four years to actually buy the novel and read it. It was well worth the wait. In the novel Adichie records the life of Ifemelu, a young, middle-class, educated Nigerian girl. The author employs a non-linear narrative scheme which follows Ifemelu through her childhood and adolescence in Lagos, to her brief studies at the university in Nsukka and her subsequent journey to the United States of America in order to complete her education. The moments that define Ifemelu’s life are her relationship with Obinze, her high school sweetheart and the decision to leave him and Nige- ria due to the ongoing uncertainties caused by the governmental crisis in the decades following the Biafran war2.
For the purposes of my analysis I turn to Homi Bhabha’s theory of cultural difference. He posits that hybrid identities, that is identities which are positioned in-between cultural contexts, comprise the ideal cultural translators. That is the case for their positioning in the fluid “third” space at the crossroads of cultures renders hybrid identities capable of negotiating and articulat- ing difference. In the present paper I embed Ifemelu’s migration to America in the broader dias- pora of Africans to the United States which is undertook in search of more favourable education and career prospects. That said, I would like to suggest that diasporans could potentially comprise the par excellence hybrid identity that Homi Bhabha has championed in the development of his postcolonial theory of identity formation. His is a model which I valorise for its sheer optimism and deconstructive prowess and it is my intention to explore whether Bhabha’s hybridity theory finds an application in the novel.
I shall argue that Americanah poses a substantial challenge to hybridity- and mimicry- based cultural identities by accentuating the very limitations of these models; namely, that they seriously overlook the psychic trauma caused by the loss of cultural authenticity due to the dis- connection from the motherland and by the identity reinvention undertaken in the host country. It is my thesis that Ifemelu is affected by diasporic melancholia. Adapting Sigmund Freud’s concept of melancholia in the context of diaspora theory I seek to demonstrate that the inarticulate loss of the motherland and the position in-between cultures disorients and traumatises the subject. I posit that the feelings of ceaseless restlessness and vague yet constant dissatisfaction that the subject experiences point to the trauma of identity loss, a psychic wound that only the physical return to the motherland can heal.
To begin with Homi Bhabha’s theory of cultural difference, I find most fruitful for the purposes of my argument his concept of hybridity and the third space. The concept of hybridity has been considered negative and offensive for it is associated with miscegenation and impurity (Mizutani 28). Bhabha moves away from such pejorative views of hybridity and valorises it for its deconstructive power; he views hybrid identities as being capable to better negotiate and artic- ulate difference because they are located in-between cultures. It is Bhabha’s contention that “a new hybrid identity or subject-position emerges from the interweaving of elements of the coloniser and colonised challenging the validity and authenticity of any essentialist cultural iden- tity” (Mizutani 30). Thus, the theoretical concept of hybridity enables the “Other” to voice its ex- periences and challenge the dominant voices of white imperialism and supremacy. In The Loca- tion of Culture, Bhabha employs the term third space to denote “the locale of the disruption and displacement of hegemonic colonial narratives of cultural structures and practices” (295) which is the topos where hybrid identities are positioned, that is at the crossroads of cultures. Their being situated in the ambivalent third space is perceived as an advantage by Bhabha because this posi- tioning endows such identities with the potential to upset the dominant discourse.
The ambivalence that characterises the third space allows me to introduce another key no- tion for my analysis, namely the notion of liminality. Fetson Kalua explains that Victor Turner developed liminality as a theoretical concept when he was studying the limen, that is the middle passage found in the performance of African tribal rituals where subjectivity is located in a threshold position (23); it is in-between the subject’s initial identity and the new one which is to emerge when the initiate has successfully come through the rite of passage. The limen is a “mid- dle state, a state of transition, or a border zone”, “a process of celebrating dynamic spaces of cultural change characterized by shifting identities.” (23) Turner has noted that during the median state of the ritual the subject enters “a period of disorientation” as it is caught in the flux of inhabiting “new forms of identity at any point in time” (24). The implication of this condition is that the ritual initiate displays invariably “protean, ambiguous and sometimes diametrically opposed attributes such as alienation, confusion, amorphousness, ambiguity and/or individuality”. (24) The limen then, or the third space, clearly transcends structure and representation, it is a form of displacement and that is why Bhabha valorises it; it results in “the slippage of signification that is celebrated in the articulation of difference” (Bhabha 1994 245) and comprises “an expanded and ex-centric site of experience and empowerment.” (6)
Diaspora as a theoretical concept has been developed and elaborated by various scholars, Khachig Tölölyan, Paul Gilroy, Avtar Brah and Stuart Hall being some of the most influential. Although there exist certain differences among the definition of diaspora each scholar proposes, it is the general consensus that diasporas are the result of the displacement of a segment of a na- tion’s population from the homeland to a new host nation. This uprooting is caused by violence or coercion of some form. In the context of the novel, I view Ifemelu’s migration to the United States as part of the larger African diaspora at the end of the 20th century that is brought about by the ruling military regimes in many African countries, Nigeria included, and the instability and scarcity of means and opportunities these entail. The word diaspora is derived from the Greek word «διασπορά» which is formed from the core “σπείρειν” and the prefix “δια” and means to scatter, to disperse (Helmreich 245).
1 Unfortunately, I could not find the said interview online. I located an excerpt from it which you can find in the works cited section.
2 Nigerian civil war, or Biafran war: fought between the Nigerian government and the state of Biafra from July 6th 1967 to January 15th 1970. The secessionist Biafra was comprised of the states in the Eastern Region of Nigeria and was populated mostly by the Igbo ethnic group. Adichie is of Igbo origin.