"Something has been on your mind," he told me that morning as he buttered a piece of toast. I kept silent, slowly spooning muesli into my mouth, and he said nothing more. Why hadn't he asked me a question? Why hadn't he asked "What is on your mind?" A question was braver than a statement. A question forced a reckoning. But Jonathan avoided direct questions because they had in them an element of confrontation. His dislike of confrontation I had once found endearing. It made him a person who thrived on peace, and so a life with him would be a kind of seamless happiness.
When he did ask questions, they seemed always to seek reassurance rather than information. His first question to me, shortly after we met years ago, was about servants. I had mentioned the drivers and househelps of my Lagos childhood, and his question followed: How did you feel about it all?”
“For Jonathan to ask "How did you feel about it all?" was not really about how I felt, but about a moral code I was supposed to follow. I was to say: "I felt terrible. I worried about their welfare." But the truth was I felt nothing because it was the life I knew.”
“The train stopped at a station and I watched a couple come into the carriage.”
“Both their hands were below the table. Were they holding hands? They seemed like people who truly felt things, who touched their emotions. Their lives were lit by an inner incandescence. I tried to imagine their home, full of colour, intense flowers in asymmetrical vases, unapologetic paintings, perhaps leaning rather than hung on the walls.
They probably said things to each other in bed, and made sounds for each other, with no self-consciousness. Her arms would be thrown up above her head. His body relaxed in its sensuality. They had brief intense fights, about their jealousy and their drinking, and they shouted at each other and then reconciled with passion. I felt suddenly that my life with Jonathan, with its contentment, its pacifism, was in fact the absence of true feeling.
The woman leaned in and asked in an exaggerated whisper: "How long have you been married?"
"Too long, I said, surprising myself, wanting to match her confident and playful air.”
Read the full story here.
What was your initial reaction to CNA’s new short story? How did it make you feel?
Niki (N): I was very excited by the prospect of a short story from her. Especially because this was written for the Harpar Bazaar reader in mind. This was a story directed at a mainstream female audience but because it's Chimamanda’s writing, I still expected that distinct Nigerian female voice through which she explores the world. Initially, I thought I was getting it. The story opens and you're pulled into this world of a complex relationship that I assume is inter-racial. Chimamanda has explored this dynamic in Americanah - referring to Ifemelu and her neighbour - and provided a perspective, not cliché and with a complexity.
This story has a strong dissatisfied voice and the protagonist can pinpoint her dissatisfaction. Her man, Jonathan, is DEAD, BORING. Her relationship is making her feel like she's watching paint dry. She is with a man that doesn't like to engage even when he engages. Because of the assumption on my part that he is white, I wonder what this is like for a black woman who might be engaged with racial issues. Imagine being in a relationship with someone with whom you can never have real conversations about race? I empathise with that feeling of being stifled.
Ráyò (R): I was excited to read a new story from her — I’ve always favoured her short stories. My favourite line in this story remains: “In the quiet carriage we sat angled away from each other. We always rode the quiet carriage, but today it felt like a gift: a reason not to talk.” I loved how she immediately described both the scene and mood. I thought I knew what to expect, and so most of the story felt like she was providing details on a statement I’d read as the summary. The character’s relationship-fatigue and changed perception of her partner felt familiar. I liked that it was a story I could immediately relate to.
Assumpta (AO): Initially, I was thrilled at the prospect of a new short story by CNA. I felt a number of things after reading: intrigued, challenged but a little disappointed, to name a few. I was intrigued by the situation as the setting is familiar, and the characters hit home for me particularly because I am in an inter-racial relationship, a few weeks away from marriage. I felt challenged for two reasons: one, I was so invested in the characterisation that I feared my fiancé and I ending up like this, until I had a reality check: my fiancé is not like Jonathan. Secondly, I wondered how I would have written this differently. I was disappointed with the ending, mostly because I wanted more, and to know where it was going.
Thoughts on Jonathan and the unnamed narrator’s relationship?
R: I liked the exploration of thoughts that many wouldn’t readily admit to. How, after being with someone a while, you may start to feel lonely or get riled by the very things you once loved. I liked that I could feel the character’s restlessness and confusion at what seemed like sudden, intrusive thoughts that have invaded her mind and which seemed to taint all her actions on the train.
I thought she was spoilt though, wanting him to be brave enough to ask questions yet not being brave enough to ‘force’ the conversation herself; adjusting her behaviour to match what she had (wrongly) perceived as the other couple’s coolness. Yet, I found myself annoyed at the heights of Jonathan’s pacifism, his lack of reaction to her “too long” in response to the question of how long they had been married. And, in that, way, I felt some compassion for her again.
AO: The relationship between Jonathan and the unnamed narrator made me feel sorry for them and as a result, it left me somewhat sad and introspective about the nature of relationships in general and how to avoid such a scenario. CNA accurately describes an uncomfortable and familiar situation that many couples find themselves in.
Tobi (T): I agree with R in that the story explores the odd restlessness and/or longing that tends to come in relationships, especially long-term ones. Initially, I assumed a distance between the couple stemming from Jonathan’s passive resistance to engage, and thought she was completely entitled to her resentment — I mean, anyone would be; What do you have a life partner for if they can’t pick up on little things?
Perhaps, from the get-go, the narrator had felt somewhat ‘boxed’ by the disparity in their values and personalities, yet it took time and a certain longing to make her uncover this; to make her realise that she may never have fully accepted him, and this is what happens when you fall out of love with someone. The quirks, paraphrasing, that once charmed become the very same things that get under one’s skin.
Her longing transcends beyond Jonathan; I think it is also a longing for (old) self. A longing to know that she is still beautiful; to feel felt, and loved; to feel young and yearned for. To me, she wanted something new, something different, and you can tell this from the conclusions she makes about the couple, just on sighting them. “I wanted to quip, to keep them interested in me” she said, longing so much “to match [the Italian lady’s] confident and playful air.” This was as much about her as it was about Jonathan — if not more of her.
Another striking element from the story was on ‘servants’ and the subject of morality.
N: I've been having this conversation recently, and I think it boils down to the western idea that there is only one way to live. For all their books and supposed travels, there is a lack of knowledge about how economic dynamics affect the work force. Sure in Nigeria, we need to have regulations about how domestic staff are treated because there is a great deal of domestic and verbal abuse — often the thin line between domestic work and modern slavery.
When it comes to having a maid, a driver or a gardener, I would say that these are ‘needs’ borne of the economic composition of the country. Many of these individuals hope to use these jobs as a means of saving for University, a stop point before marriage or a full time job. Some people have maids that have worked for the family and cared for all the children and so the bond goes beyond employee - employer relationships.
R: When I read that, my thoughts were that his problem was also one of language. If you think of a person as a servant, then you’d definitely feel weird about it because it also connotes images of economic unfairness. If you think of them as household staff, then it’s no different from anyone else providing you with a service and getting paid a fair wage for it.
IS: The question “how do you feel about it all?” is probably one of the most beautiful questions that can be asked, and Chimamanda uses this part of the story to unpack a very crucial aspect of the Nigerian society. I think it's interesting how the question causes us to critically regard that aspect of our culture. Because in Nigeria, it's normal; it's not a thing we think of. There are people who are, in essence, servants and so, I don't see it as an effect of the language used. It's not really the word ‘servants’; it's the very prevalent (and misconstrued) idea that it's almost our right as Nigerians to have people who we lord it over.
I think the question challenges us to deal with our notions of who these servants are, and our interactions with them. I find that we (Nigerians) are always so quick to come to the defense of our needs for hired help within the family structure as if the absence of them would create a kind of power vacuum. In many ways, it does create a power vacuum - however, one that demeans another’s relevance in a society; one in which prestige is somehow dependent on how many people are at your service.
From Jonathan and the unnamed narrator’s relationship to the interracial couple that boarded the train and with references to ‘the American’, there’s an element of multiculturalism relayed in the story. How reflective of our global village, today, is the story?
IS: What makes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie one of my favorite storytellers is that she's an observer. She perfectly captures the quirks and aspects of these characters’ differences without spelling it out word for word. In such a short story, she explores five different cultures, and thinly yet effectively gives the reader a glimpse of the various cultures. From the fashion consciousness of the Italian to the preciseness of the Japanese, she brings them to life in a unique way.
Chimamanda realises that the easiest way to cut through existing stereotypes held is to speak to the parts of us that observe these differences, especially because we continue to look for diverse and authentic expressions - such as media outlets - of cultural experiences. She knows the story could fall into the hands of a Nigerian who has a driver or an Italian who carries that European laissez-faire approach to life. Per consequence, this piece reflects as much as possible, the experience of anyone who picks up a copy of the magazine or reads it online.
N: The quip about British relationships to American accents was spot on. I have heard many British people complain about the sound of an American accent especially in public spaces. There is a reservedness to British people that is reflected specifically in the cultures tones of the upper class and middle class Briton. Having the inter-racial spile specifically be a different pairing from that of the protagonist and Jonathan explored the fluidity of love in the modern age. Around London especially, there are couple pairings disregarding race and choosing attraction. So for me, this was spot on.
T: To some extent, I think the story is a fair representation of the world today; howbeit painting two pictures. One on the strained relationship and cultural differences between the Brits and Americans, as well as other nationals. The Brits are seen as up their — and conservative; Americans are considered as obnoxious and loud. I think it reflects the rising intolerance and microaggression in our societies: some passive, others aggressive in their expression.
On the other hand, as N points out, it shows how much more fluid and open ‘millennials’ are as compared to the older (and traditionalist) generation; a certain level of tolerance. Perhaps because we have been more exposed (for lack of a better word), in terms of travel and media, younger people seem to be more accepting of colour and change. I’m however weary about this level of romanticism when applied to politics.
Let’s separate the story from the author - Chimamanda. Had it been written by someone else, would you still think the same of 'How Did It You Feel About It?'
N: There is a tendency to love certain things or at least blindly champion them because of the source, so I walked into this story, ready to be floored. The story had a strong start and a disappointing ending. This is a failing any author would have had for me. There seemed, based on surface reading of these strangers relationship, a decision to continue to settle. Perhaps as someone who is not married, I lack true understanding of what it means to honour marital vows, and maybe that's what this story aims to reflect. The idea that there is a reason you chose that person to make that commitment to in the first place, and staying the course can be inspired by one simple thing. For her, it was the feeling watching him sleep at night gave her and it was a enough. As for me, I've never experienced that.
T: Truthfully, I hurriedly clicked on the link because it was Chimamanda. Prior to the piece, I hadn’t read any of her short stories so I wasn’t expecting anything in particular; I was, however, almost sure that it would be captivating, and it would leave people talking for a while — and it did. I found the story really immersive, not because of her writing, but because I could relate to the narrator.
Having been in a long term relationship, I felt like she was telling a story of a phase I never put to paper. This also meant that I was a little too aware as I read on, and I could tell how it would play out. I guess for this reason, partly, I was rather underwhelmed with how it ended - there was nothing solid to appreciate. I was certainly even more sour knowing it was her, and she didn’t come through with as much as was given to her.
R: It’s hard to separate it and know for sure, but I’d probably still feel the same way I feel about the story. As it is, I felt like it hadn’t been fully explored, like the other couple’s conclusion that they were married best friends was baseless, and the character’s sudden nostalgia was contrived. Yet, it is a story I have already read more than once--I don’t know if I’d have done same if it wasn’t by Adichie.
Now, tell us, how did you feel about CNA's new short story, and our interpretation of it?
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