Tag Archives: Africa

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah is an ambitious novel about race, love, and belonging. It’s a rich work that sheds light on being black in America and being middle-class in Nigeria.

Americanah follows lfemelu, a Nigerian girl who moves to the US for college. Adichie’s own biography inspires the plot. Like Ifemelu, Adichie relocated to Philadelphia for university in her late teens. Like Ifemelu, she went on to hold a fellowship at Princeton. And like Ifemelu, she eventually moved back to Nigeria (though Adichie still spends part of her time in the US). The way the novel reads reflects this closeness to Adichie’s own life. It comes across like her collected observations on cultural issues — most of which pertain to how being black alters your experience of being American.

Although Ifemelu has dreamed of living abroad, a host of social, economic, and cultural problems conspire to make America never feel like home. The trauma she suffers in her adopted city of Philadelphia also estranges her from Obinze, her high school beau, whom she’d planned to marry.

While Ifemelu’s early years overseas are replete with the pains and dilemmas of poverty, her fortunes reverse when she lands a babysitting job for two wealthy kids. This leads her to a relationship with Curt, who is part of the East Coast old money scene. Borrowed privilege abruptly replaces financial troubles for Ifemelu. Curt helps her land a cushy job, showers her with the fruits of his fortune, and inserts her, however tenuously, into an élite social circle.

Yet this newfound socioeconomic bliss has a dark side, and it turns out it’s her. Or, more precisely, her skin. Race mediates Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt, with her employer, indeed with everyone in America.

This is one of the “American tribalisms” Adichie aptly describes in the novel. The term works well, and it’s also nice to see her fight fire with fire when it comes to belittling descriptors often used against Africa.

Race hijacks the novel just as it hijacks Ifemelu’s life. In Nigeria she never really thought of herself as black. But in America she can’t escape it. Even small things — like whether she wears a weave or an afro — are laden with judgement. They affect everything from job prospects to restaurant service.

Unfortunately, even the white folks who abhor racism dare not speak of the issue. It’s a taboo that eventually breaks up her relationship with Curt. He’s a minimizer who tries to interpret the racism Ifemelu faces as a series of innocent misunderstandings. While he thinks he’s smoothing her world’s rough edges, this alienates and disempowers her. She’s silenced by his rationalizations. Or if she rejects them, she appears unreasonably angry.

Either way, there’s no room for her experience of being black in America. And this experience stands Pan-Africanism on its head (at least in its racial forms). Black people of the world are not united, the novel seems to suggest. Instead, being black is a uniquely American experience worlds away from being African, which, at least in Adichie’s Nigeria, is mostly nonracial: to be Nigerian is to ignore the racial othering African Americans face on a daily basis.

Consequently, despite great career opportunities in the States — she is at turns a successful race blogger, an invited diversity speaker, and a Princeton fellow — Ifemelu ultimately quits America and head back to Lagos. She even gives up her long-term relationship with Blaine, the African American Yale professor she found after Curt.

There she starts a new blog about the Nigerian well-to-do’s foibles. Much as her US blog explored American cultural fault lines from the perspective of an outsider (an “American African” not an African American), her new one draws attention to sensitive issues locals want to sweep under the rug: rampant materialism, pretentious charity, the state’s rough treatment of the poor. And she also falls back in love with Obinze.

This is where the novel turns sentimental. It’s also where the structure shows weakness. Ifemelu and Obinze have not seen each other in well over a decade. They have not spoken in years. Obinze has married an ultra-kind, ultra-understanding, and ultra-attractive woman with whom he has a lovely daughter. There are also some 400 pages of American life separating this bookended Nigerian love story. (At almost 500 pages, Americanah is a long novel.) Yet somehow they wind up back together.

This does not work well because it’s improbable and because the novel’s focus is elsewhere. The real heart of this book is in the race question.  There’s enough material at its core to make a full novel about that issue alone.

Indeed, the section after her move back to Lagos is mostly extraneous. For one, her observations on Nigeria are not nearly as broad in scope as those on the US. Her America encompasses the poor and rich. It gets at the whole country. Her Nigeria, however, reflects a southern Christian élite. Although her observations about this group are piercing, they’re narrow.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Adichie may have included this. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is a validation. It says Lagos isn’t a place to be from, it’s a place to go. And her focus on the well-to-do — whose worries include convincing your significant other to buy you a new car and increasing your gossip magazine’s circulation — shifts the conversation about Africa away from stereotypes of fly covered children. It shows a side of the continent many don’t know.

Yet one of the consequences of Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria — without Blaine — is the novel reads like it rejects cross-cultural communication. There seemed to be nothing fundamentally wrong with Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship. Her choice to leave for Lagos shocked him. Indeed the decision was shocking, because it seemed grounded in nothing more than a vague feeling that she couldn’t be with him because he was simply so… American.

This makes Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze all the more disappointing. In some ways it flies in the face of her anti-racism critique, as it implies people “belong with their own.” While Adichie surely wouldn’t support such a proposition, the narrative seems to suggest as much because Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze lacks grounding and her relationship with Blaine seemed rich.

Nigerian questions aside, Adichie’s treatment of race in America shines. What Americanah says about being black in the US is akin to what Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question said about being Jewish in the UK. Its observations penetrate, and it holds nothing back. The entire skin tone hierarchy comes in for close and witty analysis. The book explores all the possible relationships between black, Latino, Asian, and white Americans in settings as diverse as the classroom, the workplace, the hair salon, and the internet. The book is a major contribution to the cultural conversation on this question.

And while it also speaks volumes to the immigrant experience, plumbs the depths of long-lost love, and sheds light on southern Nigerian élite culture, these subjects are like birds resting on a cow: relatively small, and tenuously connected to the main subject. Had they been left for later treatment, the book might have had a more pleasing unity.

Nonetheless, Americanah brims with intelligence and sensitivity. Adichie is razor-sharp and her emotional acuity impresses. Her third novel is deeply considered, highly readable, and well worth checking out.

 

Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.

Style No. 83: Tanka

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The air fills with sound,

The arm joins the boys in orange.

Grandmother’s concern

Is for what’s hidden away,

The odd man’s for a thing known.

DSC_0593

A bright-eyed boy smiles,
Bites his lip, pupils glinting
In the day’s warm light,
His cheeks recall mother’s meals,
His brows trace dreams scratched in sand.

 

Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

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Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi - Review

Hamish Hamilton, 2013. $30. 318 pp.

The title of Taiye Selasi‘s virtuosic debut novel, Ghana Must Go, reveals several layers of meaning. It connotes a cheap plastic travel bag used by Africans and others on the move, and so suggests dynamism and possibility. Yet it also stands for something tragic — the forced deportation of over a million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983. And so this alliterative phrase speaks to the book’s core theme: the flourishing and fragmentation of a family on the move.

Ghana Must Go is the tale of Kweku Sai, a surgeon of poor Ghanain extraction working in the US, and his family. His wife, Folasadé Savage, is a Nigerian refugee who forwent a promising law career to support her husband and their four children. Their triumphant story of immigrant achievement — buying a good suburban home, sending the children to fine schools — is shattered when Kweku, afflicted with shame, abruptly leaves his family. Having been wrongfully dismissed from his hospital post because a wealthy patron died on his operating table in a risky procedure, he embarks on a secret court battle against his employer only to squander the family’s savings and ultimately be found out by his son. Unable to face this defeat, he simply drives away and doesn’t come back.

Like a bomb, this unexpected loss breaks the family apart, and the children are variously sent off by their mother to college and the homes of relatives, leaving only the youngest in her devastated hands. In this way each member is set on a lonely, difficult path that comes to yoke them all with emotional burdens and a deficit in family ties.

But when Kweku, now living in Accra, drops dead in middle age, Folasadé and the four children must go to Ghana and bury him. This leads each on a poignant emotional journey through memories of a shattered family, and ultimately forces them to address the fraught relations they have developed with each other over the years.

This work is compelling from all angles. Ghana Must Go was much-anticipated, and it doesn’t disappoint. Selasi introduces readers to a little-known world — that of elite African migrants who move seamlessly between Lagos and London, Boston and Delhi, and so forge identities that transcend easy categorization — but the inner lives of its inhabitants are instantly recognizable. The novel has the emotional force of a freight train, and is liable to have readers teary eyed before reaching the final page, even those not of rheumy stock. And not only is it highly readable — turning the page is never an effort — it’s also penned in edgy, breathtaking prose that will have even seasoned novelists green with envy.

While readers may stumble on the rare opaque sentence, this doesn’t detracts from a voice that will put Selasi on the map as a dazzling stylist. Indeed, lover of fragments and parentheses, Selasi uses these devices to great effect. In a book that is a portrait of a fragmented family and the tempestuous inner world of its members, these forms resonate so well with the subject matter that the pages vibrate in your hand. One can’t help feelings as though involved in a brilliant and merciful experiment, as if Don DeLillo were a highly sensitive Afropolitan woman (her term). The result is a novel that will gratify lovers of literary fiction’s leading edge to seekers of emotional insight — Ghana Must Go has wide appeal.

The action in this story of betrayal and forgiveness — father abandons family, family scatters and struggles, father dies, family is reunited — is compelling in its own right. But where Ghana Must Go really shines is in its treatment of perception and feeling. This is first and foremost a psychological novel, and one that provides an extraordinary window on the human heart. And so, while it will be of particular interest to those interested in Africa, the narrative is universal. It’s about the complex web of relationships between family members — siblings with siblings, children with parents, and vice versa. And even though the Sais lead unusual lives in foreign cities like Accra and Lagos, one can’t help feeling their predicament is the same faced by all. Immigrant or not, every reader will find something to identify with in this deft exploration of all the thing left unsaid between brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

Indeed, Things Left Unsaid would be an equally suitable title for this book, as page after page it hones in on the difficult silences that haunt us through the years and complicate our relationships with loved ones. This is where Selasi shines. She has a knack for not saying things, for avoiding the obvious path and so demonstrating precisely how people are — often afraid to say what matters, to risk vulnerability. Here she walks the fine line between analytical observance and emotional indulgence, managing revelation without schmaltz, and dissection without detachment. It’s a fine balance, and she strikes it well. And in the end, when the tension is just right, her characters step up to the plate and put their hearts on the line in ways that will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page.

Ghana Must Go is one of the rare debuts that has it all — edge, heart, pace, and style. Whether you’re interested in gorgeous writing, impassioned storytelling, or Africa and the diaspora, Selasi is a revelation on all counts. Certain to be one of 2013’s stand-out titles, Ghana Must Go is a must read.

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Thank to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this title.

Style No. 79: Ode

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O donkey in thine glory! As you scour the dust for hearty snacks, a frisson of happiness quivers through my very soul.

O donkey in thine glory! As you scour the dust for hearty snacks, a frisson of happiness quivers through my very soul.

O orange miracle!

In your majesty,

You’ve placed a near spherical

Whistle in the hands of he

Who is a young boy.

And he bloweth sounds

of fine joy,

and profound

thoughts charm

his unbound

mind as an arm

wrapped around

him connects to a look

at the distant crowd.

O friendship in thine splendour!

O nervous ladies with their secrets!

Let us watch them glide

past and not forget

The delicate way their shawls hide

Concealed objects.

And to strange men behind,

Let us genuflect

And revere their knowing minds

And how our hearts shook

With life to see that opposite look.

 

Style No. 78: Permutations

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Young a dressed boy orange in his blow deep, whistle thought in. Arm his friend, best the eyes wrapped him, around the in crowd distance. Object a nervous secret passes, by a head on her grandmother a meanwhile shawl man beneath. Knowingly the hidden serious other looks way behind them.

Goats a clicked in this 2012 village Malian.

Goats a clicked in this 2012 village Malian.

 

Style No. 75: Anagrams

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A nugoy boy sdersed in groane lowbs his thelwis, peed in hothguto. His tebs derfni, arm pewdarp unroad him, yees the dworc in the casdinte. A vunrose thomgrednar sapses by, a tersec jebtoc dinhed neebat the lawsh on her edah. Hamnewlie, denbih them a ursiose man kolos glokwinyl the eroth yaw.

My endirf Hamidou Guino, on the odar nera Ouéllessébougou, Mali.

My endirf Hamidou Guindo, on the odar nera Ouéllessébougou, Mali.