The complexity of culture

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

Stream of Consciousness

Culture is really interesting. I think, for the most part, I never truly understood the complexity of it. It’s easy to reduce this multifaceted concept to visible artefacts and stereotypes. The celebration of different cultures usually involves colourful presentations of food, flags, and traditional clothing. While these things are all part of a culture, there’s much more.

Culture feeds into our being and shapes our personal identity. It affects our ways of thinking and learning, ways of communicating and our cognition and emotions. As a result, growing up with more than one cultural identity can offer a more multi-layered perspective and insight, based on the plethora of worldviews you have been exposed to. However, it can also be challenging. I know one of the biggest challenges of having more than one cultural identity is never feeling fully part of a particular culture. It’s easy to conflate cultural identity with this idea of essentialism, that in order to ‘be’ a particular thing one has to need to meet a list of requirements. In other cases, I can imagine this feeling coming from a sense of not being fully understood or integrated or even feeling disconnected from a particular culture.

For diasporans, like myself, there can be this want to reconnect to their culture. A want to attain knowledge or simply extend appreciation. Movies, historical sources, music or visiting a particular place are all great ways of delving into a culture. For me, I felt the most connected to my Nigerian self through reading fiction. We underestimate the power of fiction when we see it solely as a method of escapism or a realm world that doesn’t exist. I’ve found that literature brings to life experiences and ideas that no other medium can capture. 

I’ve read books written by Nigerian authors from different generations and I’ve seen themes such as motherhood, marriage, and even death take on different meanings. The concepts weren’t entirely different, a lot of them I was actually familiar with. There were many fascinating themes discussed in the context that I understood. I could connect to the distinct voices and perspectives many of the characters presented.

Apart from themes and subject matters, even down to the minute details of the speech and mannerisms of characters, I saw how parts of my identity were affirmed by these books. The books didn’t just bring deeply buried memories to life and they weren’t just relatable, but I actually learnt things. 

I didn’t grow up learning about Nigeria’s postcolonial past and civil war in a classroom. Even if I did, the cynic in me can imagine a one-sided history lesson. I’ve read fiction about postcolonial realities and they were riddled with oppression, poverty and hardship, and this notion that political independence didn’t bring the nation stability or prosperity. Even now, 60 years after Nigeria’s independence, the 1st of October is where social media erupts over the discussion of whether Nigeria should celebrate its independence as a state.

Surprisingly, I understand it. I read a book where its author symbolised Nigeria to be a child who didn’t want to be born, but also who will fight with death. The amalgamation of over 250 ethnic groups by the British birthed a country that probably shouldn’t exist but is existing anyhow. I understood the paradox of the history of what it means to be Nigerian through a book that has made-up characters and originated from imagination. 

Literature provides us readers with a unique experience. Whenever we discuss art expressions, the role of the recipient is typically underestimated. There’s a sort of agency that comes with reading, where through our interpretations we can navigate how we let a book speak to us. We execute the images of settings and characters in our minds. We can choose to disagree, to question things, and to talk back at narrators. We can choose to draw things out while ignoring other things, we can dictate when we stop reading, or read more than once. I have books that I haven’t gotten past the first chapter and books that despite having read cover to cover, I keep going back to.

There’s a freedom to interpret books, not in a way where we no longer see the author as the instigator of a speech act, but in a way where we allow our intuition to receive the message. In a way, we can extend this agency to our identities. Where we choose what we relate to, the parts we reject and the parts we embrace.