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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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Why Does Society Hate My Body?

In Adichie’s short story, “Tomorrow Is Too Far” from the collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, a young woman accuses her society of having disabled her body. She also indicts herself for physically doing to her brother’s body what her society did to hers through the modules of ideology. An unnamed female protagonist who had a Nigerian father and an African American mother, and who is a resident of the USA, gets a call from Nigeria, informing her that her grandmother has died. The call initiates a remembrance of a past incident that she had suppressed.

The story’s second-person-singular narrative point of view lends it a Freudian air. The voice is that of the protagonist’s superego, her conscience, which reminds her, in a therapeutic manner, of her missteps. “It was the last summer you spent in Nigeria, the summer before your parents’ divorce, before your mother swore you would never again set foot in Nigeria to see your father’s family, especially Grandmama.”27 The temporal and spatial situating of her wrongdoing makes the protagonist’s guilt more pronounced. She was about 10 years old when, overcome by a powerful sense of unfairness against her and in favor of her brother, she consciously caused his death. Eight years later, she has to face her nemesis. She is no longer in the fiercely agitated mode that marked her actions then; she is now haunted by guilt following the full realization of her wrongful deed. This is most visible in her reaction at receiving the call from Nigeria:

you leaned on your office desk, your legs turning molten, a lifetime of silence collapsing, and it was not Grandmama you thought of, it was Nonso, and it was him, Dozie, and it was the avocado tree and it was that humid summer in the amoral kingdom of your childhood and it was all the things you had not allowed yourself to think about, that you had flattened to a thin sheet and tucked away.28

The amoral kingdom of her childhood refers to her quasi-sexual games with her cousin, but more specifically to her hatred of her own brother, Nonso. With the advantage of hindsight, and aided by the voice of her conscience, she now judges her past in unmixed terms. But at the same time she invites the reader to adopt her perspective and to understand what led her to cause her brother’s death. This is where Adichie asserts her demand on the reader to imagine fairness. Why was the protagonist agitated? Why did she cause her brother’s death? The protagonist’s sense of guilt endears her to us, and thus, we begin to empathize with her. She is just like any of us. But she was offended. What offended her sense of justice was Grandmama’s preference of her brother, because of his gender. Grandmama worshipped the male in Nonso, and consequently began to teach the boy the technologies of survival in their harsh patriarchal and parochial world. She remembers exactly what Grandmama did: “Grandmama let only your brother Nonso climb the trees to shake a loaded branch, although you were a better climber than he was ... it was the summer Grandmama taught Nonso how to pluck coconuts.”29 The narrator emphasizes the fact that the protagonist was a better tree climber than her brother in order to draw our attention to a breach of fairness. Grandmama did not act according to principles of merit but according to the privileges that the patriarchal order granted Nonso as a male. The protagonist herself saw Grandmama’s actions as unfair; she interpreted that as Grandmama not wanting her to thrive as a human being. Indeed Grandmama had disabled the girl’s body with the help of the system that she was promoting. Why could Grandmama not sense the pain she was inflicting on the girl’s body by her failure to recognize the girl? But the truth is that Grandmama had been conditioned to block her empathy against the protagonist. Yet, one still wonders why she would act against her own interest. I will return to this question further on.

Thus far in the story, two things become obvious, none of which contributes to human flourishing. Firstly, Grandmama works against her own gender. Secondly, there was an unspoken enmity between the siblings due to the imbalance in the way their sexes were constructed and enacted in society. This chasm between the two siblings ultimately led the protagonist to begin to think of the elimination of her brother. Her anger is, of course, misdirected because she blamed her brother for her own misery. But there did not seem to be any other way for her to interpret the anomaly of her world. To underline the unfairness in the system, we are reminded again that the protagonist knew that her brother was not superior to her. “You were better at things that did not need to be taught, the things that Grandmama could not teach him.”30 Adichie draws our attention to the source of inequality between men and women. It is not in their bodies as such, but in society’s interpretations and definitions of these bodies, in tradition, heritage, patriarchy, or other abstractions that society has invented in the name of order. These abstract categories harm the individual because they overlook their specific histories, their stories; they deny women their rights as humans.

As Adichie states in her talk, women are taught from childhood that their positions in society are inferior to those of men. The degree to which they are taught to accommodate themselves to inferior positions equals the degree to which men perceive themselves as superior.31 It is then no surprise that Nonso effortlessly occupied the space created for him by his world. He began to enjoy male privileges, and to the detriment of his sister. He was to his sister what a white person is to a black person in a racist Western society. Strictly speaking, what troubled the protagonist was not specifically Nonso’s body; it was not superior to hers. What troubled her was the ontological status that his body occupied in that culture. But part of the tragedy of their situation was that the protagonist was not in the position to realize that it was the system that made Nonso’s body a direct threat to hers. The boy’s exercise of male privilege made the difference between his body and hers. It was what made him lovable to Grandmama, and consequently what infuriated the protagonist, made her the evil one. Knowing that the problem was not with her own body, but with that of her brother, she wanted to mar the supposed perfection of her brother’s body, “to make him less lovable.”32 That was why, when Nonso began to exercise the art he learned from Grandmama by climbing the avocado tree, she, the protagonist, frightened him by telling him that he was close to a poisonous snake called “tomorrow is too far.” Nonso lost his grip on the tree branches and fell.

I mentioned earlier that Grandmama was not aware of the workings of the ideology that demeaned her own body. It is telling that Grandmama, who is of the same gender as the protagonist, was the one to demonstrate to the protagonist the supposed inferiority of their gender. Why then did Grandmama work against her own self-interest? Judith Butler wonders why subordinated individuals become attached to their subordination, and thereby willful instruments of their own subjection. She observes that “power that at first appears external pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity”33 She suggests that “the subject is effect of power in recoil.”34 The subordinated is created by the power it is resisting, and in so doing becomes dependent on that power relation. Might this also be the case of Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop some bonds with their captors? Interpreting Nietzsche, Butler argues that “the peculiar turning of a subject against itself... takes place in acts of self-reproach, conscience.”35 As Althusser argues:

ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by the very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey you there.”36

Echoing Althusser, Butler states that “there is no formation of the subject without a passionate attachment to subjection.”37 In defending the institution that subjugated her, the individual believes that she is asserting her importance.38 One of the sad aspects of the narrative, “Tomorrow Is Too Far” is that the protagonist, Grandmama, and Nonso were trapped in a tragic situation that was not of their own making. Grandmama relied on tradition for the justification of her actions. “Girls never plucked coconuts.”39 Grandmama, to be sure, did not privilege boys for just being boys; she did so to perpetuate the Father’s name, or as Butler would argue, to sustain the source ofher subjugation. Her conscience has trapped her in a condition that disables her. This is evident in the rigorous distinctions between the ways she treated her granddaughter and the ways she treated Nonso and Dozie, her other grandson, obviously from her other daughter not mentioned in the story. In Igbo tradition, men have no right of inheritance in their mother’s natal homes. Right of inheritance is handed down through male lineages, through the fathers of families. Patriarchy functions in the name of the father, effectively dispossessing all mothers and daughters.

Adichie’s choice of the name of the protagonist’s father reveals the overarching patriarchal epistemologies that undergird the system she is addressing. Nnabuisi in Igbo means “Father is the figurehead.” The choice of this name reveals her sardonic attitude towards patriarchy, especially given that Nnabuisi is absent. He is not a resident of Nigeria; he is a US resident, and he visited Nigeria as a tourist. He is no longer bound to Igbo traditions. Given his absence, that is, the absence of the man in whose name Grandmama operates, it is absurd that Grandmama would subject her granddaughter to the pain of unfairness that results from her obvious preference of her grandson. Why exactly would Nnabuisi still control and disrupt the relationship between Grandmama and her granddaughter? Helene Cixous suggests that this is not exceptional; it is precisely how men have succeeded in destroying women. She argues that “Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs.”40

Adichie suggests that all the parties in this system were controlled by a blindness they were not aware of. As Althusser argues, ideologies function precisely because of the physical absence of the direct beneficiaries of the system they sustain. How could they and society become aware of the forces that rob them of their humanity? Could Grandmama have realized the unfairness of her position if she were to put on a veil of ignorance? Would she actually prefer a society in which her gender was ontologically fixed in an inferior position? Would she willfully inflict pain on her granddaughter if she knew that there were better alternatives?

As much as “Tomorrow is Too Far” centers on challenging the patriarchal ideology in Igbo society, it is also about empowering women. The story involves the narrator’s self-discovery and self-affirmation. It is her heightened sense of self that alerts her to the deep-rooted unfairness of the patriarchal system, a system that a priori had condemned her body as inferior, unworthy of being protected and nourished by Grandmama, the bearer of the light of tradition. The degree to which the protagonist loves herself equals the degree to which she abhors the condition that condemns her to an inferior position in society.

Susan Andrade has discussed Tsitsi Dangarembga as one of Adichie’s genealogies.41 In Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, Tambudzai, the sharp-witted narrator, declares in the novel’s first sentence that she was not sad that her elder brother, Nhamo, died. Indeed, she was relieved to learn of his death. It literally opened doors of opportunities for her.42 Part of Dangarembga’s triumph is in showing how Nhamo and his uncle Babamukuru embodied the unfairness of patriarchy. Nhamo’s death becomes figurative of the possibilities available to women if patriarchy were overthrown. Andrade is correct in identifying Dangarembga as Adichie’s foremother in this respect. Both writers have in common a search for fairness in a world that is inherently unfair because of the privileges that men enjoy in their societies. However, Adichie tempers the perceived rawness of the female character by having her nameless protagonist fall in love with Dozie, her cousin. Her love for Dozie is simultaneous with her hatred of Nonso, thus reminding us of her major concern: the love of self, not the hatred of men. Her love of self can only flourish in an atmosphere of fairness. It is no accident that the penultimate section, in which we learn of her evil deed, begins with her reference to the period of her “first self-realization.” The pain of Grandmama’s preference for Nnabuisi’s son was also inflicted on Dozie. When the protagonist developed a crush on him, she developed a love for yet another neglected person. Her love for Dozie is a cry for solidarity with her fellow victims of the patriarchal unfairness. If Dozie had been a girl, the narrator would still have developed a deep love for her because of their shared experience of unfairness. In this context, feminism becomes, for Adichie, a means to create solidarity among men and women. Fairness to all is the foundation of that solidarity.

Another important distinction between Tambudzai and Adichie’s protagonist is the latter’s realization of guilt. To be sure, Tambudzai never caused the death of her brother; therefore, she has no reason to feel guilty. Yet the reader feels closer to Adichie’s protagonist because of her (protagonist’s) realization of her guilt; we see her “weeping standing alone under the avocado tree.”43 Her admission of guilt allows us to understand the degree to which she has been victimized by the patriarchal order. We empathize with her given that her guilt makes her more vulnerable and human.

In the subsequent section, I discuss what her realization of guilt implies to her understanding of fairness. I will first establish a thematic link between the short story and Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus, which also treats patriarchy as a hurdle to social justice and human flourishing.

 
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