Birdsong by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2010
The magic trick:
Telling the story of one thing but really telling the story of something else
“Birdsong” tells the story of a young woman’s affair with an older, married man. The setting-specific stuff about Nigeria is unique, but for the most part, we’ve heard that story before here in our little New Yorker world of short stories. Young woman tired of being the other woman? Meh, kinda boring.
But this is a very good story. There’s more than meets the eye. Turns out that Nigeria setting stuff wasn’t simply “unique.” It’s essential. This is a story that is just as much about a young woman’s desire to leave home as it is a story about her affair. The hints are everywhere. The descriptions of the city are not loving, they are tired. The descriptions of the people around her are not flattering. The narrator wants more. More power, more respect, more attention. It isn’t happening in her relationship, nor is it happening at work, nor is it happening in Lagos. It’s a far more complicated story than it might seem. And that’s quite a trick on Adichie’s part.
“I’m not like other men, who think they can dominate your life and not let you move forward,” he continued, propping himself up on his elbow to look at me. He was telling me that he played the game better than others, while I had not yet conceived of the game itself. From the moment I met him, I had had the sensation of possibility, but for him the path was already closed, had indeed never been open; there was no room for things to sweep in and disrupt.