Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We have always been victims of the single story – both about places and about people. The prejudices we have come to embrace as a shield ensure we box the surrounding world into stereotypes. Then, we wouldn’t need to go into the trouble of actually getting to know more about a place or a person. As long as we have a neatly organized structure in our mind – Asia is Islam, Africa is AIDS, and the US is an evil corporate – we can reject progress and quietly exist in our own box.
I watch muss less TED talk that I would ideally like to but on Sunday I woke up to a greatly inspirational speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story. In less than 20 minutes Adichie exposes our greatest fallacies when dealing with other cultures. More interestingly, she argues that there is no such thing as a Nigerian, or American, or Bangladeshi, or Bulgarian type of character or type of story. There are people without AIDS in Nigeria and not all Americans are serial killers. I fear that the more global the world is becoming, the more we stick to our stereotypes in order to make sense of the magnitude of diversity surrounding us. We have access to almost any part of the world and yet most of us believe the single story that comfort us – which is dangerous both for literature and for humanity.
Having lived for more than 5 years abroad, I have clashed with the single story numerous times. I was both the victim and the offender. I don’t wish to count the many, many times I was regarded peculiarly because of my Eastern European origin. And then again I also believed all Italians are loud, all Chinese only study and all Indians cook smelly dishes. I haven’t quite got ridden of my prejudices yet. Reading a book from each country this year, I am adding yet another story to the picture and trying hard to think before judging and to ask before assuming.
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam had all the ingredients necessary to tempt me to succumb to my single stories. It is a Bangladeshi book, it is written by a woman, and it has the word muslim in its title. Zealous fanaticism, here I come. That is what I thought initially. The Good Muslim surprised me pleasantly. Not only was it historically educational, as it follows the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh and the subsequent liberation, but it was also an awakening revelation about the Bangladeshi culture.
In The Good Muslim Anam simultaneously explores the years just after the liberation from Pakistan and the decade that followed the liberation, through which Bangladesh was struggling with its newly gained independence. The legacy of the war is disastrous – physically and emotionally crippled men, hundreds of raped women, destroyed villages and towns, and a child nation, which is desperately trying to make sense of it all.
Several years after the end of the war Maya decides to leave her home and family in Dhaka for a simpler life in Northern Bangladesh as a country doctor. Leaving behind her dream of becoming a surgeon, Maya finds her mission in helping women through childbirth. Thus she is confronted with many women raped by Pakistani soldiers, who have been turned away from their families and who are seeking abortion to get rid of the sin they are carrying. As a good Muslim and a good Bangladeshi citizen Maya has been well-trained:
‘Defiled by the enemy. The child in your womb is a bastard child, a vial of poison. You must not allow it to come into this world. You must not give it the milk of your breast. WHat has been done can be undone. You must not live with it for the rest of your life. You must not mother this child.
One might think that the worst part of a liberation process is the war conflict itself. Wrong. The worst comes only after that. Even liberated, Bangladesh is still struggling. There is another Dictator in power, the majority of the war crimes remain unaccounted for, war criminals are freely wandering the streets and the raped women, sorry, the war heroines as they call them, are forced to leave Bangladesh for Pakistan since they are no longer pure. In this state of anarchy, Maya decides to return home after 8 years of exile and to confront the demons she left behind.
The majority of the novel focuses around Maya’s relationship with her brother, Sohail. Unable to cope with the memories from the war, Sohail turns to religion for answers. According to the author, the title is a form of a question. Who is the good muslim indeed? The religious fanatic Sohail, who burns his books, abandons pure pleasures from before the war, and preaches the values of true Islam? Or the progressive forward-thinking Maya, who devotes her life to saving others? The clash between brother and sister escalates as Maya is unable to understand her brother’s escape into faith. Unable to grasp that for him faith is a way to seek redemption and to fight the post-war psychological effect – a source of security that would explain both the brutalities he has witnessed and the brutalities he himself has performed.
The Good Muslim is a valuable insight into Bangladeshi history and into Bangladeshi culture. Told mainly through the eyes of Maya, the novel poses painful questions and forces the reader to evaluate some of his strongest beliefs. Who is after all a good muslim, a good believer, and a good human being? Are we really able to accept transformation in the people closest to use and accept it, even though we might strongly disagree with it? And when does a nation’s struggle for liberation end – when the war is over or when the nation is finally reborn into a healthy state of its own? The Good Muslim is ambitious, powerful, and entertaining – and Anam is almost poetical in her mastery of the language.