‘The Headstrong Historian’ by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2008

The magic trick:

A huge narrative momentum shift near the end – not through plot but through awareness

Great story. This one follows an almost relentlessly linear path for most of the text. We get the story of Nwamgba, a woman in southern Nigeria just as white Englishmen start showing up with imperial designs. She marries. She struggles to have a baby before finally having a son. She wants very badly for her son to succeed. She very much mistrusts her now-dead husband’s cousins. The story covers lots of ground and many years in a focused biographical kind of flow. As Nwamgba grows older, it seems her entire way of life will be forgotten as English/Christian culture becomes more and more present.

Then suddenly, as we near the end, things change quite suddenly. It’s a remarkable momentum shift, in the form of Nwamgba’s granddaughter. It feels triumphant, joyous even.

And that’s quite a trick on Adichie’s part.

The selection:

To pay her bride price, Obierika came with two maternal cousins, Okafo and Okoye, who were like brothers to him. Nwamgba loathed them at first sight. She saw a grasping envy in their eyes that afternoon, as they drank palm wine in her father’s obi; and in the following years—years in which Obierika took titles and widened his compound and sold his yams to strangers from afar—she saw their envy blacken. But she tolerated them, because they mattered to Obierika, because he pretended not to notice that they didn’t work but came to him for yams and chickens, because he wanted to imagine that he had brothers.


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