Greater Minds: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s take on Melania Trump

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie satirised Donald Trump in her short story, The Arrangements.
  • Her perspective on Trump’s wife, Melania, pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
  • Both Mrs Dalloway and Adichie’s Melania struggle with unrealised lesbian desires.
  • The title refers to the nature of the marriage as much as to arranging flowers.

Photo1

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2014 (Howard County Library System [CC / Flickr])

It takes a very particular talent to open a story with a flower arrangement and then to build a tale about the state of a life and a nation around it. Virginia Woolf pioneered floral fiction with Mrs Dalloway, a tale of a society hostess in 1920s England. More recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie simultaneously paid homage to Mrs Dalloway and satirised the human wrecking ball of American politics, Donald Trump, with The Arrangements, a short story in the New York Times.

Clarissa and Melania

While Woolf’s protagonist was the fictional Clarissa Dalloway, The New York Times wanted controversy so Adichie gave them a fictional portrayal of Mrs Melania Trump. Having recently dabbled in Trumpfiction myself with Prime Minister Johnson, I can only tip my hat to an author who knows how to do it properly.

The opening sentence makes the homage explicit. Mrs Dalloway begins:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

The Arrangements begins:

Melania decided she would order the flowers herself.

The similarity of the two sentences is impossible to miss, but also draws attention to the differences. First of all, there is a difference in cultures: a 1920s English woman might be

Photo2

Donald and Melania Trump in 2011 (WEBN-TV [CC / Flickr])

accorded the dignity of being a ‘Mrs’ but had to go and get her flowers herself. A modern trophy wife only has a first name to call her own. While it’s much easier for Melania to order the flowers, the convenience denies her a reason to leave the house dominated by her husband and infested with step-daughters.

Melania is far less her own person than Mrs Dalloway. We’ve all seen her silently following Donald at his campaign rallies, but she remains very much in the shade of her husband and step-daughter-in-chief Ivanka. Melania’s silence provides a blank space into which Adichie has projected the sort of desires, fears and unrealised dreams that paraded through Mrs Dalloway’s mind on her Odyssey through London.

A match burning in a crocus

Like Mrs Dalloway, the fictional Melania is not entirely unhappy but feels that something of life has passed her by. In Mrs Dalloway’s case, much of it revolved around her

Photo3

Virginia Woolf in 1927 [Wikimedia Commons]

unrequited and unexpressed passion for her friend Sally Seton:

Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over – the moment.

Anyone who has ever felt passion for a woman will recognise the metaphor of the match burning in the crocus, but it’s couched in a way that avoids being too specific about Mrs

Dalloway’s lesbian leanings. Mrs Dalloway herself is confused by them, and unable to reconcile them with the person she and everybody else think she is. Woolf herself thoroughly understood and explored her passions for other women, but Mrs Dalloway’s confusion was already pushing the boundaries of propriety, and so of publication, in 1925.

Adichie’s Melania is similarly frustrated by a passion for her pilates instructor that she only partially acknowledges to herself:

Melania felt deflated. Had she expected Janelle to offer to give her a massage? It was so silly of her.

Photo4

(Etienne [CC / Flickr])

Had Janelle meant anything more by “warm bath”? She was trying to read what was not there. But she would not allow herself to be sad. There was the evening to look forward to.

In a society where lesbian passion is universally known about, if not universally accepted, Melania is not confused by the nature of her feelings, as Mrs Dalloway was, but by why she feels them at all. Her memories of a past lover refer to a man. Melania’s reading of what is not there reads more like a desire for intimacy of any sort rather than a suppressed sexual preference.

Melania arrangements

In my own rather puerile attempt at Trumpfiction, I implied that any suppressed leanings were on the part of Trump himself. I remain certain that a man who brings penis size into a Primary debate and marries a succession of similar-looking blonde models is struggling to hide something centred below the waistband.

Fortunately for the New York Times, Adichie is a more mature writer than me, and I presume a more mature person, than I am. Her Trump is unambiguously heterosexual. He and Ivanka do, however, tend to arrange Melania as she might arrange flowers

“Melania looks great, but we have to think about how to make her more relatable for the convention, maybe less contour makeup and her smiling and not squinting so much,” Ivanka said just two days earlier, at a meeting with Donald’s campaign team. Melania was seated there, next to Donald and part of the meeting, and yet Ivanka spoke of her as though she were invisible.

Melania takes a silent revenge, reading a newspaper and smiling at the fantasy that it was

Photo5

Melania Knauss-Trump in 2016 (Marc Nozell [CC / Flickr])

‘her’ Janelle that was poking fun at Donald’s hair. It’s hard to blame her for that.

The real Donald and Melania

It’s safe to assume that Donald Trump will not be best pleased if he ever reads The Arrangements, or more likely, if someone tells him about it. Having read it, I find myself more interested in what Melania herself might think. I know nothing about the woman, but I like to imagine she’d give it the same secret smile that her fictional counterpart gave to the story about the donald’s hair. What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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