Liminality in “The Headstrong Historian”

Within his reading of Things Fall Apart, Ato Quayson questions Biodun Jafiyo’s genealogy of “interstitial or liminal” post-colonial self-fashioning, arguing that such liminality actually begins with the writing of African experiences in Euro-phonic languages. In Adichie’s “The Headstrong Historian” the inherent liminality present in the story’s use of English language is highlighted and complicated in that the story itself is one of language acquisition. Quayson puts the ambivalence of liminality as follows: “on the one hand, the loss of a pristine culture is regretted, but this is mingled with an awareness of its more reprehensible potential. And on the other, the ruthless economic competition of urbanization and Westernization is deprecated while an awareness of the greater possibilities of vertical mobility, self-fulfillment, and freedom is registered” (124).

Within the three generations of Nigerian’s presented in “The Headstrong Historian,” Adichie seems to be delicately teasing out these various contradictions, which come into being with Anikwenka’s Catholic education and his acquisition of English. Indeed, Nwamga first notices his changing attitude toward his education when he lapses into English. At first, she is proud the power it affords him. The injustices done to her by her cousins-in-law are reversed through the upward mobility granted to the newly-christened Michael, but of course this comes at a price:, the end of the “pristine tradition,” the rupture of mother and child as Nwamga realizes that Michael now “inhabited a mental space that she was unable to recognize.”

Just as Michael’s violence against his tradition threatens to present a purely destructive image of the contact between two cultures and the liminal selves that it constructs, Adichie gives us Michael’s daughter, whose names are telling in themselves. She is both Grace and Afamefuna, or “my name won’t be lost.” Afamefuna, presents the most complex image of liminality. Through her relationship within the Western discourse of History she is able to redeem tradition’s role in her own self-fashioning. From within the mental space that her grandmother would not recognize, she is able to, in some degree or another, begin bridging the rupture. Ultimately, her name is not lost, and though there is a degree of ambiguity as to whether or not the sense of rootlessness she feels is assuaged, there is a real sense of reclamation.

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