Friday, 12 April 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Issue of Black Women's Hair

Firstly, let it be known that I am a white female with blonde straight (ish) hair; it knows not whether to be curly or straight.  So this is a topic that I by no means know a huge amount about.  However, I am a huge fan of Chimamanda,which admittedly may allow for some bias, and I personally attended her talk on Americanah in Sheffield, in which I took notes (yes, I'm that sad and that big a fan!).  In what follows, is my view on what she has meant by her remarks such as black women's "hair is politicised" and I will endeavour to be as objective as I can.

A heated debate has broken out on Twitter regarding Adichie claiming that "African women with artificial hair suffer from low self esteem and an inferiority complex". Controversial indeed...if true.  However, having read and listened to the vast majority of interviews that have been conducted over the last few days, I am yet to find the primary source for this quote.

What I can speak confidently on, is the discussion on hair that took place in Sheffield last night which was a far cry from this outlandish remark.

A far more accurate quote that has been repeated is Adichie's comment that "hair is politicised" for black women.  This was expanded with the wonderful moderator questioning her on this and what she felt about stars such as Rihanna. Adichie spoke both humorously and seriously on the topic.  Her point was that maybe if someone like Rihanna could get rid of her "stupid, straight blonde wig" for just half an hour in her concert and show her natural hair that it could do much good: it would be a powerful role model and send a message that natural hair is okay. This was followed with her remarks that she could then replace her wig and then continue with the rest of the concert.

She also hinted at the power of the media to portray a particular image of beauty and that "straight, blonde" hair is what many girls are given to aspire to. This is certainly something I think all women can relate to, whatever your race or hair:  skin should be free of blemishes and you are fat if not a UK size 6. With hair that refuses to be either curly or straight, I have found myself straightening it over the last decade whereas in the 1980's it was all about scrunch drying with a diffuser as these were/are the acceptable way to appear.

Then  a shocking and serious point arose. Remember that Adichie lives in America; I often find myself shocked on attitudes to race in America. A member of the audience raised Michelle Obama and the fascination with her "bangs". She asked Adichie if she felt she herself had a larger role to play beyond writing about the issue and half in jest suggested she discuss the matter with Michelle Obama.  I was stunned to hear Adichie strongly express that it would not be possible for Barack Obama to be president if Michelle Obama allowed her hair to be natural.  Seriously? But sadly yes. Seriously. She went on to discuss her obsession with Michelle Obama and her fashion sense and how she follows her and pointed out how the children's hair has become straighter over time. She was deadly serious when she explained that she had no doubt that someone had "had a word" about the children's hair.

For some of us in the UK, this is shocking in the least.  However, it was affirmed a few minutes later by an American in the audience who spoke about how Michelle Obama had once had her hair sort of natural in a "relaxed, apologetic" kind of afro and there had been an absolute furuore about it. Yes seriously, Barack would not have got the votes if Michelle Obama had gone "natural". Hair matters.

What followed on from this was an even more shocking indictment of attitudes to African hair in America.  Adichie told the tale of how there had been an uproar when Michelle and Barack Obama had once punched fists on stage. 

The Obamas face each other and bump fists on stage. She wears a purple dress and he wears a dark suit. Several signs read "CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN" and several photographers take photos.

Many ridiculous reactions followed with Adichie mentioning "what are these weird black people up to?", "black panther" connotations etc.  In trying to ridicule and satirise the narrow mindedness of these reactions, the New York Times printed a cartoon of the Obamas as terrorists: 

As you can see, in Michelle Obama's case, they did this by giving her a gun and an afro! Shame on you New York Times.  And this is what Adichie is getting at: that currently, natural African hair is not acceptable and there needs to be a discussion.

The simple message is that there are places in this world where a black woman's hair is truly a political matter. If we return to Rihanna and the idea of a short amount of time with natural hair, Adichie's point is that there should be a "choice" available; a choice between having your hair a certain way because it is easier to look after or leaving it as nature intended because you are fed up of the chemicals burning your scalp, as in Adichie's case.

Adichie believes that it will be at least 100 years before a natural afro will be acceptable in the White House and I don't know about anyone else but this seems absurd.  Adichie has certainly achieved her aim of getting this topic discussed and let's hope it can influence attitudes.  A cynic would point out the media coverage it is gaining for her new novel, Americanah. However, I find it sad that sensationalised headlines or apparent quotes are overshadowing a much deeper issue that every human on the planet should be questioning. As Adichie says "there is no such thing as colour blind".  Race matters. But each race, and appearances of race, should be accepted.


As suspected, there was no such quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sadly there are still people misquoting her on Twitter.  A few hours after writing this, a response from Adichie appeared on 4th Estate Books website, setting the record straight.  You can read it here:'Of course I never said African women with Brazilian hair have low self esteem. That's absurd.' The article that was supposed to have this comment in can be found here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: 'My new novel is about love, race... and hair'

Oh, and my most exciting news of the year? 4th Estate Books tweeted me thanking me for this post and informing me that "Chimamanda enjoyed".  One very happy fan!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I have failed miserably to write this post for many months.  Chimamanda is not just one of my favourite authors, but also an inspirational figure to me and I am just not going to be able to do her justice. 

Picture the scene: an incredibly wet and muddy Hay festival; wind gusts making the various tented arenas creak, sway and flap; slopping through mud in wellies; layers upon layers filling all the space in your raincoat; hood up and pulled tightly around your face; in other words, glamour count at a minus figure.  You are waiting excitedly to see the author of a book you are in the process of reading, when suddenly along glides an incredibly glamorous female in high heels, gorgeous dress and shawl and perfect make up and hair.  I'm not talking of those orange-tanned, bleach-haired horrors of supposed glamour but of someone who just simply oozes stardom.

Yes, Chimamanda and all her glorious charm had arrived.

She is both eloquent, educated and intelligent. Those who know me, have often had to put up with my rages regarding politics and Adiche held no fear in directly commenting of those in her home country of Nigeria and of passing wry comments about those a little closer to us! Below are links to her renouned TED speech entitled "The Danger of the Single Story" and her 2012 Commonwealth Lecture that I saw at Hay-on-Wye, "To instruct and delight: a case for the realist novel".  Both are worth your time!

I highly recommend all of her writing and have had her next offering on pre-order for months.  For now I will allow you to discover her brilliance and her charm.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

Image from: 

Despite the many accolades held by this author, I have not read any of his previous works.  I am aware from reading other reviews that this particular book seems to be a departure from his usual style to the point of being unrecognisably his.   The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and true to form for winners of this award, the book appears to have split opinion.

Written in the first person narration of the character of Tony Webster, the book is arranged in two parts.  In the first, Tony takes us back to his school days in the sixties but when it was "only [the sixties] for some people, only in certain parts of the country". We meet his three friends which include the more serious and intelligent Adrian Finn.  Adrian has joined the group part way through their time at school.  We learn of Tony's first serious relationship during his college years and the subsequent hurt and humiliation he suffers.

In the second half, we are sped forward to a retired Tony who has led a life in which he has developed "an instinct for survival, for self-preservation" and "had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded". He has had a successful career, married, had a daughter and gone through an amicable divorce, remaining friends with his ex.  He has led an ordinary life without risks.

However, when Tony receives a letter from an unknown solicitor he is forced to reassess his life and memories. The mother of his first proper girlfriend has left him documents and a small sum of money. He remembers the humiliation he suffered during his weekend "meeting the parents" at the hands of his girlfriend's brother and father but recalls the mother more kindly.  But why has she remembered him? Why leave him anything? As Tony seeks answers to these questions, he begins to recognise that "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you witnessed".  Tony spends most of the novel "just not getting it" but eventually he has to consider whether guilt travels through enough linked chains that he is implicated.

The novel is driven by character rather than plot which some readers can dislike.  However, what better way is there to delve into humanity and a human mind?  This is exactly what The Sense of an Ending does.  As the group of boys approach the end of school in the sixties, they hold philosophical debates to prove their intelligence and worth.  It is almost a way for them to grope in the dark for a sense of who they are.  My only criticism of this book is that I find this younger Tony often jars with the older Tony in part two.  By retirement age, all traces of this side of his character have apparently disappeared.  When it does very occasionally resurface, it feels almost as though the author has slipped back into the voice of Tony is the first part of the novella.  

As sixth-formers, the boys often discuss definitions of history and when Tony recalls Churchill with a statement that history "is the lie of victors", his teacher reminds him that is fine as long as he also remembers it's "the self delusions of the defeated".  This has particular resonance for Tony in his later life when he has to face up to his version of his own history.

This novella, in a short space asks us to think about the reliability of history and question the reliability of our own memories.  Do we really remember events or do we twist them to satisfy our own egos? Why do we not remember certain elements of our life? Why do the detail get lost? 

Time is an important theme throughout and we are asked to view it as irregular rather than a constant, regular ticking.  As Barnes discusses the speed at which we travel through our lives, he uses the novella's structure to  demonstrate: we speed through sections of Tony's life and slow down and examine other parts.

Imagery and language of law are evoked repetitively.  Yet, I have yet to put my finger on why.  Is it used as a contrast to heighten the unreliability of ourselves? To demonstrate that there is often in life, little definite, much that is grey rather than black and white, guilty or not guilty?  The book certainly asks us to consider how far guilt can travel.

Much criticism for this book has come from "not getting it".  Certainly, not all the answers are provided.  some regard the short novella of trying to contain too much.  For me, "not getting it" is part of the meaning of the book and so why should we be given all the answers? There is a sense in this novella of a character trying to grasp hold and concrete something fluid that just flows through your fingers.  The reader is left with this same feeling.  The book raises many questions that I am still pondering days later.  For me, this makes The Sense of an Ending a superb novella.  It remains with me; it has me thinking.  

I very rarely re-read books but this is certainly what I'll be doing with this one.  It has many layers and so much to discover.  I want to spot the clues I missed, question the Larkin references and use of imagery and ponder some more.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Hay-on-Wye and the Festival


It has been a long time since I have blogged. Those pesky GCSEs are mostly to blame. Normally I have more time in the school holidays but during Whitsun week I went to the Hay Festival. If you don't know about this wonderful place find out more about the festival here:

and the town, nicknamed "the town of books" here:

I can guarantee that you will not have seen so many books in one place before.  Everywhere you look is another bookshop and the streets are literally lined with book shelves heaving under the weight of second hand goodies.

The route I take to the little town involves a toll bridge but cost is minimum and it is rather a treat!  We have fondly nicknamed it the "troll bridge":

It is like a little magical gateway into a world of books!

The children's festival is to be particularly recommended.  My children thoroughly enjoyed seeing Andy Stanton, Jacqueline Wilson, Tony Robinson and the incredibly storyteller and author Atinuke (amongst others).

The weather was atrocious but, go prepared and it's really not a problem as most of it is undercover including walk ways.  Just be ready for mud and creaking marquees as they are battered in the gales.

Most authors do book signings straight after their events but be aware that very occasionally there are limited tickets for this so book early.  It can also mean waiting a few hours! We were fortunate enough to meet Jacqueline Wilson:

Photo: The twin wannabes Beka and Bexi actually meet the great Dame Jacqueline Wilson!

Authors hold a question and answer session at the end of their talks and it was fantastic seeing my daughter have the confidence to hold her hand up and ask a question she had thought of all on her own. 

Both of my children were inspired by these events.  Having listened to Ian Rankin, my son decided he wanted to write a detective story.  He has been scribbling ideas down in a variety of notebooks around the house ever since. He has decided he wants to be an author.

These events are therefore, in my opinion, worth every single penny.  My children came out buzzing and with new idols in their lives.  I did too, but she deserves a post all of her own!  

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Why Bother Reading and the Death of the Bedtime Story.

To some, sitting down with a book is a very old fashioned pursuit.  Indeed, even in my interview for a place on the English teaching course, the comment was made that "let's be honest, when we get home we are more likely to put the telly on and relax watching a program than open a book". actually, not me.  Many people today feel reading is boring when there are so many other things to be doing. It is the eternal battle of an English teacher to get students excited about literature rather than the latest film or computer game.  We certainly don't appreciate the privilege we have of being able to read and access material so easily.  Our libraries are totally undervalued and are therefore facing the big axe in the current economic climate and independent bookshops are battling for survival.
However, I believe reading is incredibly important and can bring a great deal to our lives. I think we'd all be surprised how much we do actually read if we thought about it for a moment.  The "Google it" generation may not sit down with a book but they still have to read the information from their Google search to gain the knowledge they have craved.  Yet it is a skill that is taken for granted and often dismissed.  We forget that there are still many in the world that are denied this life line and can only dream of being able to interpret the strange symbols around them.

However, I digress. It is my belief that reading literature undoubtedly aids intelligence.  Although I mainly read fiction, novels are often based around a topic that I gain an interest in, and inevitably decide to find out more about. I learnt a little about history during my GCSE but reading books has led me to discover far more.  

Literature itself has its own history and seeing how this fits together and how authors have influenced each other, expands your general knowledge so much more than watching a quiz show.  Reading Harry Potter and discovering the mythical creature "basilisk" which then pops up elsewhere creates a spark of interest to discover more. In fact, the ability to make links, in my opinion at least, encourages a growth in intellectual ability.

Much is made today of "reading" media.  It even appears in the National Curriculum for English. The advantage literature has over film though, is that it requires more intelligence to imagine the pictures in your mind rather than have it decided for you and served on a plate.  This is one way in which I have had a breakthrough with students.  They have on occasions commented that they have preferred the book and when asked why they have realised it was because they were able to imagine it in their own way.  I have never thought, before writing this, of questioning the lovely adolescents that I teach on why they would rather hand over control to a producer.  Why when they argue over what they wear, eat and do with their loved ones, are they happy to accept someone controlling and stifling their own imaginations? Imagination is crucial.  How would we have new inventions or discover so much about the world if people didn't have the ability to imagine other possibilities, or to use one of those horrid phrases "to think outside the box"? See? Reading is even important for business!

I also believe reading is good for the mind and stress.  Sometimes life can just seem like too much to bare.  To be able to escape into another world and leave your problems behind, to give yourself some head space, is magical and exactly what can be achieved with a good book.  However, this is perhaps more about what I gain personally from reading and therefore belongs in a separate blog post.

The final point I want to make is arguably the most important. Much is said of the standards of literacy today. Many people forget that there is a much higher percentage of people able to read today than in the past.  Yes, there are still those that can't which is unacceptable. However, from my limited experience in education there is clearly a problem with the relatively simple task of writing sentences.  Many students can not recognise that their sentence simply doesn't make sense or that they should be writing "They were" instead of "They was". The government's answer has been to include learning on sentence structure and such like in the National Curriculum.  My son, still in Primary, can tell me all about the differences between simple, compound and complex sentences and terms such as embedded and non-finite clauses.  Now I am from an era where this was not taught and have since had to learn it as a teacher.

So how come I don't have literacy problems? How come despite all this explicit teaching, there are more and more students failing to write grammatically correctly? READING!! If you grow up being read stories and having reading time before you go to bed and then continue reading throughout your life, you are continually exposed to grammatically correct sentences. You may not be able to understand or explain why a sentence is written correctly or not, but you are able to write properly and recognise when something's not right.  With more time spent in front of a TV or computer screen (my own children included), the advent of text talk, informal emails etc., children are inevitably less exposed to the written word and so should it really be any wonder that there are lower levels of written literacy?

Is it too radical to suggest that less time should be spent on teaching specific rules and more time given to the enjoyment of literature? I am of course biased and these are merely my own thoughts and musings but I really feel at the very least that the loss of the traditional bedtime story or reading is a loss for society.  As a child, this is a special time to spend with a loved one, curled up relaxing before sleep listening to tales.  It is a moment of bonding as well as an important part of learning to read.  As a teenager or adult it is that time to slow down, come down a gear or two and relax before sleep.  How often to you wake in the morning feeling exhausted, having been churning over your problems and to do list in the night?  Time out is essential.  Reading is essential.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Jolly Phonics - Is it me or is this wrong??

My eight year old daughter is one of those children who was really not ready for school and learning to read and write until the age of seven.  Unfortunately her confidence has been dented in the three years of schooling she has so far endured.

However, now some progress is being made, I purchased a Jolly Phonics Activity Book for her to do at home. It contains stickers which she just loves and a variety of fun activities.  I chose one which contained phonics that I know she has not yet managed to retain.  Now she is in year 3, apparently phonics are no longer used because of course they have already learnt them!

I was looking through it before showing her so I could be sure of what was required and make sure I could guide her to the activities she would enjoy, learn from but be achievable so we could boost her confidence when I came across the activity aimed at recognising the sound.

For the "ou" sound (think ouch), you are asked to draw a line from the pictures of things that contain the "ou" sound with the big "ou" letters in the middle.  That's all fine.  However, the pictures it contained were: "house", yep get that; "hedgehog", yep get that this is the one they have to realise doesn't contain the sound; and then "owl" and "cow"!  Yes they have the "ou" sound in them but they are clearly made by the letters O and W not O and U.

Now maybe it's just me, and I would very much like to hear other people's views, but surely this will then lead to my daughter being unable to read the word "cow" and trying to spell it "cou"??!!

Surely it is more beneficial to teach in a group all the phonics that will make the "ou" sound?  For example, focus on the "ou" sound for a length of time but teach that it can  be made by, "ou", "ow" and any other combinations of letters to make the same sound.

I'm now left unsure what to do and feel as though actually I can't use half of this book for fear of confusing my daughter further than she already is.  I am a teacher but at high school level so this really is not my field. I very much want to use a multi-sensory approach and have her make sounds out of a variety of materials etc.  Does anyone know of a better resource I could use to teach the phonic sounds in a more sensible, less confusing approach?  Surely I can't be alone in thinking this book is really taking the wrong approach?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

Available 26th April 2012. Published by Transworld Publishers.

Before this book comes out on sale, pencil it into a couple of free days in your diary because I promise you that you will not be able to put it down once you start.

The story revolves around the unlikely setting of a remote lighthouse on an otherwise uninhabited tiny island with the death and suffering of World War One as its backdrop.  The keeper Tom and his wife try and fail to have a baby until one day, one is washed ashore in a boat.  The father has died but the baby is very much alive.  Tom and Izzy stumble into a fateful decision that maps out bucket loads of heartbreak where no happy ending is ever going to be possible.

Right from page one, the characters and settings leap off the page...or rather you are flung into the heart of them.  Stedman is a remarkable writer who manages to carefully balance the utter beauty in her prose to avoid any hint of pretentiousness. Through economical smatterings of the most mesmorising imagery such as how Janus Rock, "dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easilt plummet to Antartica", she makes every word count and before you know it, the characters and places are real and alive with only a little having been said about them.  Who ever thought a lighthouse could be a wonderful place to be?  Yet you find yourself there, feeling Tom's passion and care of the light; feeling as if you too are there being shown around by Tom himself.

As the characters and ever harsh landscape and weather become real and breath, so do the emotions and tragedies of the various characters in the novel.  I imagine some readers may decide the plot is predictable but this is part of the book's immense ability to break your heart.  You know that there can't be a happy ending; the author ensures you feel everyone's pain.  How many tears you cry, how often your heart is broken, the ebb and flow of emotions is the unpredictable plot.

Not many books reduce me to tears; the last one to do so was A Thousand Splendid Suns.  The Light Between the Oceans made me cry more. As the character of Ralph put it so eloquently "Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can't tell which is which until you've shot 'em both, and then it's too late".  The Light Between the Oceans is a tale of two good people who face those two tangled snakes that stubbornly refuse to be separated.

I can not praise this novel enough.  It is by far my favourite for some considerable time.  Make no doubt about it, it will become a film but no director or actor could ever come close to matching the magic that has been written.

It is even more astonishing that this is a debut novel.  I am already excited for the next.  Stedman is clearly one of those lucky devils that was born to write.