Faith Adiele is the author of the recent Shebook, The Nigerian Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems, a surprisingly hilarious short memoir about what it means to have fibroids. Below is an introduction to Adiele’s fascinating life history, which was featured in the PBS documentary “My Journey Home.”
So, Nordic you say?
“Like so many Americans, my maternal family came here via chain (member by member) immigration at the turn of the last century. Our Swedish ancestors arrived not long after the American Civil War, reaching Chicago just in time for the Great Fire, and eventually settling to rural log cabin life. One Finnish relative landed on a major stop on the Underground Railroad before going insane, leaving his wife — a non-English-speaking teen fleeing servitude — to a life of single motherhood and constant Westward movement.
After a brief stint panning gold in Alaska, my free-thinking Swedish grandfather (Old Pappa) and Finnish grandmother (Mummi, a.k.a., Portland Snow Princess of 1932) purchased farmland taken from the Yakama Indian Nation in the Pacific Northwest and tried their hands at becoming good, middle-class Americans.”
But how did the Nigerian get mixed in?
“In the early ’60s, my precocious 17-year old mother Holly became the first in the family to go to college. There she met a similarly pioneering international student — Magnus, the son of a Nigerian Latin teacher. After stints in London during the African independence movements and the American South during Civil Rights activity, Magnus was working on a third degree in rural Washington. For three months — before my grandparents separated them — Holly and Magnus were the only interracial couple on a campus of 10,000 students.
For a year they exchanged passionate letters about politics, occasionally meeting in secret, until cultural differences and Magnus’s move to eastern Canada led to a break-up. A few weeks later, Holly learned that she was pregnant. The doctor predicted twins. Tossed out by her parents for refusing a back-street abortion, she contemplated suicide.She then spent 6 months in a home for unwed mothers, where — as the only white girl planning to keep her baby, and the first interracial baby at that — she threw the place into disarray.”
And the American part?
“When I was born, my mother gave me 3 names — one Nordic, one African, one American: Faith. Eventually, with help from surprising quarters, my mother managed a return to college, raising me fiercely in Seattle housing projects on African storybooks she wrote and illustrated herself, government-surplus cheese, and strange grains she had no idea how to prepare.”
“She never married. Eventually she reconciled with my grandparents, and we moved to their farm in southeast Washington State. There, in a segregated community of white landowners and Latino farmhands, I — the lone African for miles — lived an idyllic, rural life, Mummi and Tati gossiping in Finnish at the kitchen table, a wreath of candles in my Afro on Swedish holidays.
Our family kept the true circumstances of my birth hidden from the community — including me. While baking pulla, however, I learned other family secrets: white children sold into servitude, wives left behind when bigamist husbands remarried in America, fathers thought long dead but actually institutionalized. My legacy was strong women whose menfolk disappeared to unsettled countries, to mental institutions, to the barn with a bottle of vodka.”
What about the war?
“When I was 4, two of my aunties were murdered in the anti-Igbo killings of northern Nigeria. Forty-eight hours later, my father caught a ship home — before ever getting the chance to see me. He wrote to tell us from the middle of the Atlantic, additionally anxious about what his newly independent country held in store. Modern Africa’s first civil war soon erupted, and my mother labored feverishly to keep the infamous images of starving Biafran children from me. After two years of her letters returning unopened, she assumed my father was dead.
A year after the Biafrans surrendered, we received a letter from my father, who’d found our address in the ashes of the ancestral compound and written to say he was alive. Though his home had been destroyed and family members killed, he chose to stay to rebuild Nigeria. He married and rose quickly to high political office in Nigeria’s oil-rich Second Republic. Then, when I was 12 years old, his letters — the sole link to my black heritage — stopped. Yet another family member disappeared across the ocean.”
What happened next?
“College — my first exposure to real live blacks! — came as quite a shock. When, on New Year’s Eve, my uncle threw me out of the house, and a coup ended democracy in Nigeria for the next 16 years, I pulled the covers over my head and proceeded to flunk out of Harvard. When I awoke from my daze months later, I found myself in the Thai forest — head and eyebrows shaved, about to ordain as a Buddhist nun.
After my return to the USA and successful graduation, I dreamed about meeting my first Nigerian, a security guard who taught me how to pronounce my surname correctly. Suddenly, wherever I went, I encountered Nigerians, all of whom spoke reverently of my father. When, unexpectedly, I was offered a yearlong fellowship to the University of Nigeria, I scurried home to consult my mother. Handing over my father’s love letters and instructive messages to me as a child, she cheered: Go!”
“Enthralled by the optimistic young Turk recounting the lived history of African nationalism and 60’s race relations on the page, I left for Nigeria, determined to retrace his own return home after a decade spent schooling abroad. I found a country straining beneath harsh military rule and the corrupt legacy of colonialism. Narrowly escaping clashes between soldiers and university students sparked by worldwide IMF and World Bank protests, I discovered to my surprise that by African standards, I’m considered white.
As news of my arrival spread, I met my father — whose chest is home to both a pacemaker and a bullet — for the first time. Cultural misunderstanding and mutual suspicion plagued our attempts to reconcile. Once I learned that I — an only child for 26 years — had three teenage siblings, I redoubled my efforts and was rewarded by my father the chief’s pronouncement upon introducing us: “This is your sister from America. You love her.” My sister resembled me so much that villagers mistook me for her spirit double, a pale ghost returned from the netherworld. Together we traveled to our ancestral village, where I visited war sites and tried to uncover what had happened during my father’s 14-year silence. On New Year’s Eve, I was crowned princess of our clan.”
Faith Adiele Now?
Learn about Faith Adiele’s current projects; find her latest books, blog posts, speaking events and more on her website. Plus, read Adiele’s new short memoir, The Nigerian-Nordic Girls Guide to Lady Problems, only at Shebooks!