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‘Imitation’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is about a Nigerian couple whose marriage symbolizes false identities that they maintain to assuage their negative feelings from one another. Nkem, who lives away from her husband in America, plays the role of the submissive wife in order to please her husband, but it is clear she is not as vocal as she wants to be. Obiora, who continues to live in Lagos and visits Nkem two months out of every year, thinks of himself as a man of reverence who should have the freedom to do what he pleases with other women which result in infidelity. In the story, the Benin mask represents Nigerian culture and the tendency of people to hide their true selves.
In general, American culture is very different from Nigerian culture; in Nigeria, there is strict class consciousness, but in America, it is acceptable for housegirls to become friends with their employers. America has long since done away with old-world concepts. In other words, American culture is more egalitarian, as illustrated by the quote, ‘The madam/housegirl line has blurred in the years she has had Amaechi. It is what America does to you, she thinks. It forces egalitarianism on you. You have nobody to talk to, really, except for your toddlers, so you turn to your housegirl. And before you know it, she is your friend. You’re equal’. Nkem longs for home due to such negative feelings towards Americans which are not deemed as unusual feelings that immigrants have. It is almost as if she tries to comfort herself with memories of Lagos as she ‘is staring at the bulging, slanted eyes of the Benin mask on the living room mantel as she learns about her husband’s girlfriend’. She is hyper-focused on the mask as well as on the similarities between her and her housegirl because to her, they are all she has left of home. She fixates on the masks like many other immigrants who fixate on aspects of their own cultures, especially when they are feeling lost.
Secondarily, masks have the ability to conceal a person’s true identity while they can also appeal to emotions. It is not uncommon for people to show only one side of themselves to others. People feel comfortable presenting the side of themselves that they think is advantageous to them while holding some part of themselves back. For instance, in the reading, Nkem cuts her hair to look more like the woman Obiora is having an affair with. As she raises the scissors to her head, ‘She pulls up clumps of hair and cuts close to the scalp, leaving hair about the length of her thumbnail, just enough to tighten into curls with a texturizer’. The cutting of the hair represents the urge to change her identity, as she is feeling insufficient in who she truly is compared to ‘the other woman.’ This relates to the Benin mask because it covers up who she really is, and makes her feel more accepting of herself. Unfortunately, she feels like she lacks luster, has been dismissed, and is sad. Nkem wants to feel like ‘the only woman,’ so the mask represents her longing to be with her husband, and calls her identity into question, which results in her having mixed emotions.
On the other hand, Obiora’s perspective on the Benin masks is different. Yes, they are a symbol that represents a tradition from home, but he also views the masks as a status symbol. In Lagos, tribal leaders had masks that made them feel important because only special people who were considered custodians could play the role of protecting them with the masks. Obiora himself wants to feel important as well which is why he collects them and likes to talk about the stories behind them. He also does not care much for American customs compared to the way Nigeria does things so his collection of masks makes him feel superior to Americans as he does not stray from his own tradition. This, in turn, also makes him feel like a ‘Big Man.’ In all actuality though, his status symbol is irrelevant to Americans.
Lastly, the Benin mask is a representation of an illusion of equality. Inequality is very evident in their marriage as Nkem does not have a voice and no autonomy whatsoever. In the beginning, Nkem wanted to believe her husband, but did not even though she was too afraid to interject and chose to ignore the signs which resulted in, her instead, believing in an illusion. When she asked Obiora if he liked her short hair he responded, ‘Anything will look good with your lovely face, darling, but I liked your long hair better. You should grow it back. Long hair is more graceful on a Big Man’s wife.’ He makes a face when he says ‘Big Man,’ and laughs”. Obiora does not see Nkem as someone he respects, but as someone to help maintain his status. When Nkem ignores what she wants out of the relationship and stays quiet, her actions further confirm Obiora to be the ‘Big Man’ which is the way he likes it. She did not realize that her not saying anything was, in turn, allowing herself to become suppressed. Towards the end of the story, when the truth of her marriage is revealed to her, she finds her voice in stating, ‘We have to find a school for Adanna and Okey in Lagos.’ She had not planned to say it, but it seems right, it is what she has always wanted to say”. The ‘mask’ was removed.
While anyone can hide behind a mask, in reality, they can serve more than one purpose. In Imitation by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Benin masks represent Nigerian culture and the tendency of people to hide their true selves. Adichie shows this through different aspects of Nkem and Obiora’s marriage. While not every culture has Benin masks, everyone can understand the impulse to embrace the defense mechanisms that Nkem and Obiora utilize. It is all too normal for people to ignore their truth in order to remain comfortable in their situation. Although it may seem easier to hide, eventually, the truth can wear on a person and the mask can grow heavy. As shown by Nkem, this may be very difficult, but removing the mask is the only way for those that are caught in lies to recapture their truth and gain equality in their relationships.
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