Birdsong by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Finding Independence

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The short story, “Birdsong,” was written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and takes place in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s about an angry young woman who had an affair with an older, married businessman. The affair proceeded somewhat predictably, but the woman’s anger and her observations about her place in Lagos made this story work very well. It brings into focus the contrasts between how men and women in this circumstance are dealt with diversely and delineate how we change ourselves and the extent to which we can lose our true selves in our relationships. “Birdsong” is similar to her other novels and short stories, as it is a close study of Africans in transition. The writer used literary devices, mainly imagery and symbolism, to explore the underlying motif of stagnation. Adichie used symbolism and imagery to demonstrate how the protagonist is stuck between dependence and independence. 

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First and foremost, imagery is presented right at the beginning of the story. The protagonist describes her lover’s wife as a somewhat perfect and beautiful woman:

...In the glare of the hot afternoon... she was looking down at me from the back seat of her jeep… but then I stared back, at the haughty silkiness of the weave that fell to her shoulders in loose curls, the kind of extension called Brazilian Hair and paid for in dollars at Victoria Island hair salons; at her fair skin, which had the plastic sheen that comes from expensive creams; and at her hand, forefinger bejeweled... She was beautiful... with wide-set eyes sunk deep in her face, that “beautiful” was the easiest way of describing her... (Adichie 3)

This quote kind of conveyed the protagonist’s insecurity towards her lover’s wife. She felt as if she could never compare to her, “I knew that she thought I behaved like an irresponsible, vaguely foreign teen-ager: wearing my hair in a natural low-cut, smoking cigarettes right in front of the building, where everyone could see, and refusing to join in the prayer sessions our boss led after Monday meetings” (Adichie 4). However, she still bided with her lover and persisted in their affair. She wouldn’t leave him thinking he was not like other men, even though her lover does not love her such a lot as he's simply fascinated or pleased by her, just like others within the narrator's life. Not many folks take her seriously, maybe attributable to her lack of ambition to 'settle down.' Her lover's waning awareness of her interest in him slowly erodes as he makes mistake after mistake simply evitable if he paid enough attention to her to urge to understand her well. He shares similar jokes along with her as he will together with his wife, which she sees as one of the ultimate straws in their relationship.

Furthermore, her lover continued to make the protagonist believed that “he wasn’t like other men, who think they can dominate your life and not let you move forward” (Adichie 5), while simultaneously doing things to make her depend on him more. He said, “You’ll want to settle down soon ... I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way” (Adichie 5), at that moment she felt as though her hopes of being with him for good had collapsed. Yet she still proceeded with that fragment of hope in their relationship:

I should have got dressed, gone back to my flat in Surulere, and deleted his number from my phone. But I stayed. I stayed for thirteen months and eight days, mostly in his house in Victoria Island—a faded-white house, with its quiet grandeur and airy spaces, which was built during British colonial rule and sat in a compound full of fruit trees, the enclosing wall wreathed in creeping bougainvillea. (Adichie 5-6)

In this quote, the author uses imagery to describe how nice her lover’s house was, and the fact that it’s in Victoria Island symbolizes how wealthy he is. She wanted to leave him; be independent and go back to her old life, but she didn’t. She was somehow enchanted with this charming, married businessman. She’s confused about her feelings, she got used to him that she couldn’t leave him. She became dependent on him, and he liked that. Being with her lover seemed to have changed her a lot, “He liked birds. Birds had always been just birds to me, but with him, I became someone else: I became a person who liked birds” (Adichie 6). She became a whole new person staying with him, she felt empty before but then she had someone to depend on to fill that emptiness.

On top of that, Adichie used symbolism to further reveal the protagonist’s independence in the story. She takes this perspective to its limits and merged it with her own personal experiences, such as not being greeted while men around her are. She felt that everything was always moving even if I wasn't. In the story, she mentioned about the protagonist being “suspended in air” after being insulted by her lover’s driver, “He still did not look at me. Rage rose under my skin, making me feel detached and bloodless, suspended in air; I could not sense the ground under my feet as I climbed out… (Adichie 11). In this quote “suspended” symbolizes her being stuck at that moment, she was furious and at the same time belittled. It’s because the driver had made her felt her lover’s wife’s power that she could never possess because she’ll never be his wife. She then told her lover about what happened but he seemed to side with his driver and defended him, which made her angrier. She started to confront him and made a stand. The author is slowly revealing the protagonist's independence or her desire to be independent. After that incident, her lover kicked her out of his house and when he didn’t call her, she didn’t bother either. Right when she is finally recognizing her independence, her lover called after five whole days. “I should not have gone back—I knew that even then” (Adichie 13), she came went back to her lover, again, she was dependent on him. While they were having dinner at a restaurant, she noticed that the waiters and servers just greet her lover and not her. She felt degraded and she addressed the situation:

“Have you noticed that they never greet me?” I asked my lover. “Well . . .” he said and adjusted his glasses. The waiter came back, a sober-faced man with a gentle demeanor, and I waited until he had opened the bottle of red wine before I asked, “Why don’t you greet me?” The waiter glanced at my lover, as though seeking guidance, and this infuriated me even more. “Am I invisible? I am the one who asked you a question. Why do all of you waiters and gatemen and drivers in this Lagos refuse to greet me? Do you not see me?” (Adichie 16)

Here, the author is exhibiting the protagonist's covet to be seen and be recognized. The feeling of being nearly inconspicuous as a woman, which the author also experienced. It’s an experience that's tough to recreate by its very nature but is something that's also generally neglected because people are intimidated to discuss it. But in the story, the protagonist stood up for herself and made them know how unfair and sexist they are. She didn’t care about what her lover would say, she knew to herself of what needed to be addressed. The protagonist was enlightened and from then, she kind of renewed herself, “... as though bits of my skin had warped and cracked and peeled off, leaving patches of raw flesh so agonizingly painful I did not know what to do…” (Adichie 18-19). The author used the bird as symbolism here to show that the author is now ready to move forward and be free, free from depending on anybody but herself. She used imagery to describe how the protagonist is feeling while she is slowly renewing herself after the affair.

Overall, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie utilized imagery and symbolism so well in illustrating her short story’s underlying motif, which is the stagnation of the protagonist between dependence and independence. The writing in this short story is underrated but powerful. Adichie was able to take evidently usual and daily narrative and turned them to emanate emotion and construct full-bodied images in the reader’s mind. The story tells us that it’s not that easy to gain independence when you are in a relationship wherein the other person makes u depend on them a lot, that you lose yourself. As in the story, the traffic began to move the moment she stopped depending on her lover and when she finally learns to be independent. You will become independent the moment you find yourself and be assertive of what you believe in. You have to let go of the things that keep you from doing that, in order to become fully independent and no longer be stuck in between. 

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