Faith Adiele must be a blast at dinner parties. From her time spent as a Buddhist nun in Thailand to her televised reunion with her father and siblings in Nigeria, the new Mills Distinguished Visiting Writer certainly doesn’t lack impressive stories—nor does she lack the talent to tell them. Her memoir Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun earned her the 2005 Pen Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir and received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Adiele’s story begins on a farm in the rural town of Sunnyside, WA. She was raised by her Finnish grandparents and her mother, from whom she inherited a passion for social justice and a thirst for adventure. Her love for writing bloomed early too — she was already writing as a toddler (or so she’s heard) and was a published poet by 15.
They were a family of progressive Democrats in a community made up primarily of evangelical or Mormon Republicans, but that wasn’t the only reason Adiele stood out. Her brown skin was a lingering reminder of her Nigerian father, who had returned to Africa when Adiele was too young to know him. Her parents’ relationship had begun while they were both in college — her father was an exchange student — but it ended abruptly when he was called back to his war-torn country.
With Nigeria engaged in a bloody civil war, her mother did everything she could to prevent the young girl from asking about her estranged father, shushing people who brought up West Africa in Adiele’s presence.
“I thought [the secessionist Republic of] Biafra was a bad word. I thought it was like a curse word and that’s why I wasn’t supposed to be hearing it,” she said. “I didn’t realize that [my mother] was trying to not let me know what she suspected — that my father had been killed.”
It wasn’t until she unexpectedly received a package from her father at age 12 that her mother, with a relief Adiele did not understand at the time, realized he was still alive. Many years went by before she heard from him again.
When she was 16 years old, Adiele’s itch for adventure became hard to ignore. As she prepared for one of her first trips out of the country, she pestered her mother for legal documentation, which caused her mother to face the fact that she could no longer hide the history of Adiele’s birth.
Her mother explained that Adiele was not born in a Spokane hospital, as she had previously been told. In reality, she was born in a home for unwed mothers, where her mother’s parents sent her for refusing to have an illegal abortion. Kicked out for wanting to keep the baby of a man her parents did not approve of, Adiele’s mother relied on the kindness of strangers before reconciling with her parents for her baby’s sake.
Adiele was shocked by the knowledge that her progressive grandparents had objected to her mother’s relationship with a Nigerian man. The unexpected information forced her to reevaluate the way she thought of her family.
“These people I’d been living with my whole life, who I adored, I had to realize that these were the people who had created this situation for my mom,” she said.
“That was interesting and very complex. It was like, so my father’s kind of a hero in this story but he’s gone and my grandfather is not a hero, but he was there for me and he raised me.”
The complexities of her racial and national identities were just as complicated when she started at Harvard University, her alma mater. Boston was hostile and cruel, a racist town where, in her words, “you felt like you could be killed at any moment if you were black and in the wrong neighborhood.”
The dynamics of race, class and gender on Harvard’s campus were no easier: the African students rejected her for being too American, and the Black students didn’t understand her African-Finnish identity or her feminist politics.
“I just felt like I was asked to choose between my two races and cut out my gender and I just felt like there was no place for me at all,” she said. “I felt like I could not articulate what was going on so I just imploded.”
Unable to handle the stress, she flunked out.
Little did she know that what felt then like total failure would ultimately result in spiritual and intellectual growth. At Harvard, when a student flunks out, they have no choice but to take a year off. Adiele’s year off began to look a whole lot better when her friend suggested she look into a year-long study abroad program in Thailand. Having already spent a year there in high school as a part of an exchange program, Adiele’s instinct told her she needed to go back.
“It was the opposite of the Harvard experience,” she said. “It was a place where they were not going to make me choose between being black or white,” she said. “It was a place where I could just be myself. For me it was just like coming home.”
As a part of the program, Adiele had to pursue an independent research project. She chose to study Thai Buddhist nuns and, in an act that surprised even herself, she committed to ordaining at the end of her research. As a nun, she took a vow of silence and devoted much of her day to meditation, all while living on one meal a day. This profound experience prompted her to begin writing again, an activity she had taken a break from at Harvard in order to pursue other disciplines. The journaling she did in Thailand eventually took the shape of her memoir Meeting Faith.
At 26, Adiele felt the pull of her Nigerian heritage. As part of a PBS documentary called “My Journey Home,” cameras followed Adiele as she went to Nigeria to find her father for the first time. She returned home with the memories of a warm, welcoming family and siblings she never knew she had, including a sister who is her spitting image. She also returned home with a new passion for her craft.
“I think it was going to Nigeria when I was 26 and meeting my dad and my siblings and not knowing how to articulate that experience — that was when I really started writing again in earnest,” she said.
She hasn’t stopped since. She is currently busy finishing up her social/cultural memoir Twins: Growing Up Nigerian/Nordic/American, and is hard at work teaching both fiction and creative non-fiction to Mills students. So far, Mills’ emphasis on social justice has made Adiele feel right at home.
“The things I did want to do in writing and teaching were to empower people and use literature as a way of engaging with the world and learning about things, but at a lot of institutions that I was at… that was actually seen as a detriment,” she said. “I felt like I had to keep that stuff under restraint but I was like, ‘that’s my strength!’ So I feel like here, the things that I care about are the things that matter to the institution.”
Adiele admits she never saw herself following in the footsteps of her mother, who was a teacher. It was Mills English professor Elmaz Abinader who recognized her gift for connecting with students immediately after inviting her to co-teach a memoir workshop at Voices of Our Nations Arts, a summer workshop for writers of color in San Francisco. Soon after their initial encounter, Abinader nominated Adiele to join the Mills faculty.
“I had seen her teach and she makes it joyful — filled with spirit and enthusiasm and acceptance of the people she’s with. She’s not only a great memoirist but she has done travel writing, writing for children — she brings a variety of experiences and expertise that fills gaps in our programs,” Abinader said. “In addition, she’s a woman of color who has been recognized in the mainstream, not by compromising or whitewashing her story, but by telling it honestly.”