Real stories, honestly told

Jessica Murphy

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie believes in the power of literature to reveal our common humanity, even in the darkest moments. Speaking at the 15th annual Commonwealth Lecture, she argued that realist literature engenders understanding and empathy, both of which are lacking in government policy and decision-making.

The Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a story to tell. In fact, she has many stories to tell – from her childhood fascination with the ‘bagel’ (to her, a mysterious and elegant-sounding entity) to tales of the darker human truths that emerge in times of warfare. At the Commonwealth Lecture, held on 15 March at the Guildhall in London, Adichie illustrated how storytelling can not only fire the imagination to dream of unknown people and places but also has the power to “infuse the real with meaning”.

“Books are immensely powerful. Inherently powerful. A power that often transcends the creator,” she said, acknowledging both the importance of literature in a cultural context and its ability to be more than simply words on a page. Addressing the 2012 Commonwealth theme of ‘Connecting Cultures’, Adichie argued for fiction’s unique ability to unite people, to provide a shared experience and to fill out the statistics and estimates of news reports and history books with a different kind of information, a different kind of understanding. “Of course, we must know about the dead and the dying,” she asserted. “And of course, these figures and facts are essential, but they must, they should, coexist with human stories. We should know how people die but we should also know how they live.”

Adichie has written two novels, both of which use universal emotions to explore communities and experiences that may seem far removed from those of her readers. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, follows a young girl’s struggle to grow and mature in an abusive household in post-colonial Nigeria. While the setting maybe alien to her predominantly Western audience, the themes are all too familiar: coming of age, the conflict of a dysfunctional family and the bewildering, and sometimes terrifying, search to find one’s own way in the world.

In her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, she moved on to frame her intensely personal stories within a larger historical context a family drama set during the Biafran war of secession, which took place in Nigeria during the late 1960s. Despite the grand themes of war and independence, Adichie explained that her motivation was not to create a historical account of the Igbo people’s struggle for independence – it was more personal, and more universal. The desire, instead, came from wanting “to write about love, friendship and family, and how war changes all of that”. The book illustrates how her use of emotion-based realism can make an isolated and foreign conflict reveal the universal truths of love and family.

It is this ability to expose truth, Adichie argued, that makes realist literature so important and so necessary in this increasingly divided world. “Realist fiction is not merely the recording of the real, as it were… In telling the story of what happened, meaning emerges and we are able to make connections with emotive significance. Realist fiction is, above all, the process of turning fact into truth.”

In her lecture, Adichie recounted the ancient Greek tale of Diogenes the Cynic who carried a lantern in daylight through the streets of Athens, seeking an honest man. She related this search for the essence of humanity to the process of reading. In her youth, she read many accounts of war, conflict and colonisation but, she explained, “While I may very well know the facts, I did not really know the truths. Bloodless words like ‘pacification’ and ‘amalgamation’ and ‘indirect rule’ were the facts, but the truth was in the human stories.” Thus, she argued, it is in the telling of these human stories that reveals the truth. “To read realist literature is, I think, to search for humanity as Diogenes did – but hopefully with much less cynicism.”

Adichie suggested sending packages of realist literature to heads of government around the world, in the hope that “it would make government policy take into account the parts of us that prove we are not merely a collection of logical bones and flesh”. In the world of politics and policy, literature has a vital role to play: to reveal the humanity that is often overlooked by governments in their decision-making. And beyond the politics, in the global world we all inhabit, literature becomes even more indispensable. She concluded, “We should read human stories to be instructed and to be delighted. But also to remind ourselves that we are not alone. That we, in the words of Pablo Neruda, ‘belong to this great mass of humanity, not to the few but to the many’.”

About the author:

Jessica Murphy is Assistant Editor of Global: the international briefing


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International