Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Around Your Neck

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has compiled a series of elegant vignettes in her most recent book, The Thing Around Your Neck. I had just read Half of a Yellow Sun, and was still wallowing in stunned admiration, when I heard an interview with the author on BBC, and learned she had written this book, The Thing Around Your Neck.

I loved Half of a Yellow Sun. I loved Purple Hibiscus. I felt I began to understand just a little bit about life in transitional Nigeria, with all the social and political forces blowing to and fro, straining the very fabric of nationhood.

In The Thing Around Your Neck, something else happens. It shares with Cutting for Stone and other books I like the impressions of those who come to live in the USA for the first time.

“Would that the wee wee giftie gi’e us, To see ourselves as others see us . . . ”

I’ve had a lot of experience going to live in foreign countries. One of the things I learned is that most of what I learn the first couple years isn’t much. You learn a lot of things wrong. You filter everything through your own cultural biases; you judge, you interpret, you try to make sense of things that just seem wrong.

I love to watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters do this in reverse, come to America and make judgements based on their own cultural expectations. I love to see us through these eyes.

Once, many many years ago, we entertained a Nigerian in our home, and when we served dinner, steaks, he looked at his plate and said “This would feed my family for a week.” We kind of laughed. We kind of thought he was exaggerating, or even kidding. We just didn’t know. We had never seen anyone truly hungry, we had always lived in this land of plenty. We had no idea what we didn’t know. We saw only what we knew.

Each story is a gem. Each treats the expat experience, coming here, or the reverse, coming to America and then going back and seeing Nigeria through eyes which have changed.

One story I had read before, in the New Yorker magazine and loved reading again, The Headstrong Historian. It starts with a smart woman, weaving her way among the ways of her people, whose husband’s family wants her husband to take another wife. He doesn’t want to. These two chose each other, and managed to live their lives together as best they could, by their own standards. Her son disappoints her, but her granddaughter – she sees her husband’s brave, courageous spirit in the eyes of her little grand daughter. You’ll have to read the story to find out the rest.

Other stories have to do with newlyweds, with students, with love and marriage and affairs – the full spectrum of human experience, through Nigerian expat eyes. There are settings common from all three books, the college campus at Nsukka, a prison outside of town, small villages outside the city. If you read all her books, you recognize place: “Aha! I’ve been her before, in Purple Hibiscus!” You learn how to bribe the guards so you can bring in food for your imprisoned family member, you learn to keep your eyes down to show respect, you learn how Nigeria smells when the rains come, and how dry and dusty it gets during the harmattan.

I’m just sorry there isn’t another book by this author – yet – that I can read!

I guess these books that I love deal with a theme dear to my heart – that we are culturally blind to so many things, and that as human beings we are more alike than we are different. Short of packing up all our lives and our assumptions and moving to many different countries, the best we can hope for in learning different ways of thinking is for books like these by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which show us how differently we perceive things, depending on our cultures, and how alike we are in the things that we feel, as human beings.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Character, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Political Issues, Values, Women's Issues | , | Leave a comment

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus

A couple of years ago, when we had a great book club in Kuwait, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, by this author, and I was blown away. Some books you just read for entertainment, and some books have such a strong, compelling voice that it comes back to you, again and again, and you think about it for a long time.

So when recommended Purple Hibiscus, I bought it, along with The Thing Around Your Neck. Purple Hibiscus is the author’s first book, and The Thing Around Your Neck is her most recent. In 2009, I found an interview with her online; you can watch it by clicking here: An Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is an enormously talented author.

When I read Half of a Yellow Sun, I became Igbo, growing up in Nigeria. While that story was told through many eyes, I was able to be a boy from the bush brought to the college campus to be a houseboy, I got to be a wife, her sister, her professor husband. We experienced the Biafran succession, the insanity of several regime changes in Nigeria, the total fog and waste of war, through the eyes of the Biafrans.

Reading Purple Hibiscus was a little different; the story is told through the eyes of a girl, Kambili, who lives in a very controlled environment. We know from the very beginning that things are not right in her wealthy, beautiful world. Her father and mother love her, take good care of her, feed her, clothe her – and that is just a part of a bigger picture. Her father has an idea of the way things should be; he attained his position and wealth through his education by the Catholic priests and he has a rigid idea of how everything must be done. Vary from his strictures, and you get beaten, or scalded, or you little finger is broken and disfigured.

Part of what makes this book so compelling is that while the environment is Nigeria, and, to us, exotic, the climate of abuse is the same everywhere. It’s a dirty little secret, even in the wealthiest of families, you keep your mouth shut to stay alive, and to protect your family’s image. Abuse is no stranger to rich or poor families, and can only stay alive because people stay silent.

Kambili, fifteen when we meet her, lives a tiny, small, scared life, following the weekly schedules her father prints out for her and her brother and posts over her desk. She hears her mother beaten over the smallest failure, imagined or real. Her mother miscarries twice due to these beatings, and her father tenderly cares for the mother whose miscarriage his beatings caused. It is crazy-world. Kambeli and her brother are expected to take first in every class; if they do not, they, too, pay a severe penalty.

Just as the political climate in Nigeria starts to tremble and fall apart, so, too, does Kambili’s life, and in the falling apart, comes new ways of doing things, new perspectives, new risks and even learning to run, to laugh, to be ‘normal’ as other children are. She is blessed to have an aunt at the university, no where near so wealthy as her family but able to cajole her father into letting the children visit with her. The aunt, Ifeoma, laughs, and encourages her children to challenge other’s opinions respectfully, and who grows the very rare Purple Hibiscus. Her heart aches for Kambili and her brother, and she tries to give them space to figure things out for themselves, and to chose what they want for themselves.

It is a scary time in Nigeria, a time when men can come to the door and take someone away, and you don’t know if you will ever see them again, or how damaged they will be if they return. Kambili’s own life is full of a similar terror, but the terror is inflicted by someone who she loves, and who loves her.

I love the soul of an author who can write a book like this, a book that makes me feel like in another life I was a Nigerian. I can’t begin to think I know much about Nigeria now, but having read three books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I have the broad outlines of the divisions which traumatize and fracture Nigeria to this day. Even better, I understand how very different the cultural expectations are from our own, and how very similar we are as human beings.

This is a great read. It is inspirational. You might even learn something. You can find it on

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Family Issues, Law and Order, Leadership, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues | , | Leave a comment

Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle was a hugely popular best seller in the USA, and it must have been while I was gone. A part of me remembers reading a little bit about it and deciding it wasn’t my kind of book, but after reading Half Broke Horses, I had forgotten what the subject matter was and was excited to have another Jeannette Walls book I could read.

Big mistake. This book is nothing like Half Broke Horses.

Or maybe it is. Maybe what I loved about Half Broke Horses was the voice of an amazing woman, and maybe what kept me reading The Glass Castle is the voice of an amazing child who tells a heart breaking story. Or maybe it isn’t so heartbreaking, because the children survive. They are scarred and damaged, but never so damaged or loony or self-deceived as their parents.

I don’t like reading books about kids whose parents don’t take good care of them. Oprah chose a lot of those books in her book club. These books depress me. I cannot imagine how parents can be so self-absorbed, how they can take on the responsibilities of children and then not put those children first. How can they?

The Glass Castle stars the daughter of Lily Casey Smith, who is the mother of Jeannette Walls, and her husband, who is Jeannette’s father. The book opens with little three year old Jeannette proudly cooking up a hot dog. Her mother is busy painting and has told her to find something to eat. Her nightgown catches fire, and she is terribly burned. She spends a long time in the hospital, which ends with her father taking her out in a hurry, bundling her into the car, already loaded with her family, and “doing the skedaddle” which is leaving town just in front of the bill collectors.

This is her life. From time to time, their alcoholic Dad will take a job and bring home some of the paycheck (he drinks and gambles most of it) and when he won’t work, on rare occasion, their mother will take a teaching job, but the kids have to get her out of bed in the morning, have to grade her papers and make her lesson plans. Often there is not enough for the family to eat. They don’t stay in one place; they ‘skedaddle’ before they are evicted for non-payment of rent. They eat cold food – when they eat – because the parents didn’t pay the electric bill.

The Dad is smart, charming and cajoling, and when he is sober, the kids learn amazing things from him, and educated engineer. Unfortunately, he is not often sober. He chases after alcohol and he chases after women; the people in the towns where they live know it and the children learn to know it, too, to their constant humiliation. When he wheedles money off his kids, and promises to repay, he asks “Have I ever let you down?” The answer is so stunningly obvious as to be heartbreaking – Yes. Yes, again and again and again.

The Mother is equally irresponsible. One time, when the family is starving, she is in bed and occasionally goes under the covers, where Jeannette discovers her mother has a chocolate bar hidden that she can eat – while her children go hungry.

The author’s voice is never self pitying, she just lays it all out and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Each child escapes the family as soon as possible; the children plan and save their money to get out, first sending off the oldest sister, then Jeannette, then the son. They all head for New York, where they find work and support themselves. Like bad pennies, Mom and Dad show up in New York, cadge meals and money and join the ranks of the homeless in New York, going from food pantry to soup kitchen, and diving dumpsters for their worldly needs.

This is not a feel good novel. The good part about it is that children can survive this kind of criminal neglect, and become a successful author as Jeannette Walls has done. I am so glad I read Half Broke Horses first, because her grandmother is such an admirable character, whereas her parents are scum and I just felt so angry when I read the matter-of-fact descriptions of their behavior that I was glad they were not where I could get my hands on them.

I don’t know any parents as bad as Rose Mary and Rex Walls, but I know I believe this – if you choose to marry, and if you choose to have children, know that children require time, and love, and energy, and patience. Know that if you have grand ambitions, or an addiction, or a character flaw, you won’t be able to provide for your children’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, unless you are willing to sacrifice your own needs and wants. While the children in the book loved their parents, they recognized that their parents were sadly lacking in the parenting roles. The way these children were neglected will make me remember this book for a long time.

Would I recommend it? Yes. It is a gripping book, at times even horrifyingly humorous, as when Jeannette figures out how to find lunch food in the garbage cans when all the other kids have finished eating. It is not a feel-good book. It is a horrifying indictment of self-absorbed, neglectful parents, parents you will love to hate.

If I sound a little overwrought, it’s because I worked with the homeless. We were able to help many, but I also ran into families like this family, families who would prefer not taking any help if it meant they had to play by the rules, you know, rules like “you have to take care of your children.” We had all kinds of classes and forums and mentors to help with learning skills, like feeding children well on a small budget, learning to discipline, simple skills, survival skills.

The problem is that these skills require self-discipline, and many of the parents would rather not take help than have to exercise self-discipline. I saw women who would sacrifice their children for their current boyfriend, a woman who was severely angry with her daughter for reporting a family member had molested her, a man who didn’t want to take a job that would ‘tie him down’ when his family was starving. I saw this, with my own eyes, and there is no way you can MAKE people take good care of their children. You have to ask if the children are better off with these parents, or ‘in the system.’ Not a pretty choice.

This book, too, is on Reading it is like watching a disaster on CNN. You don’t want to believe it is happening and you can’t look away.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Biography, Books, Character, Community, Family Issues, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Road Trips, Social Issues, Values | , | 2 Comments

Jeannette Walls: Half Broke Horses

About a month ago, I picked this up off the stack of “Read Me’s” . . . ummm . . . errr . . . one of the stacks of “Read Me’s.” (If there is some sort of emoticon for mild embarrassment, insert it here; one of my fatal flaws is acquiring book I WANT to read and having more books than I have time to read.)

I think Amazon recommended Half Broke Horses to me, and I didn’t know why. They keep track of what I buy and make recommendations, which over the many years I have been using to buy books has become more and more relevant to the kinds of things I actually buy and read. So I bought Half Broke Horses, and another one recommended by the same author, then put them in the stack. It is only because I had read whatever I put on top of them that I ended up reading.

I casually started reading, without a lot of anticipation. The first chapter starts off in the early early days of our country, in the wilds of West Texas, as a girl and her younger brother and sister are out checking the cows, who suddenly go crazy, even jumping over fences which under almost every circumstance successfully pen them in. The young girl recognized something strange was going on and figured it was a flash flood coming, got her siblings up in the tree and keeps them awake all night, as the flood hits, hoping the tree will hold and not wash away.

What is your first thought, reading that? Mine was – Where are her parents?? No one is out searching for them?

The next day, the flood recedes enough for them to make their way home back to a primitive dwelling hollowed out in the high side of a riverbank, dirt floors, dirt crumbling down on them, dark, small, smokey. Yes, there is a mother and a father, and they love their children, but these are very different times. These are hard times, where there is no grocery store, no nearby doctor, where babies die and children have fatal accidents all the time. Life can be short and brutal. The kids have some schooling, mostly at home, they learn to read and write and add and subtract, so they can keep track of home related business. They also work hard, every child has work around the ranch that needs doing, and work comes first or the family won’t survive.

The heroine, Lily Casey Smith, is a real person, the grandmother of the author, Jeannette Walls. This is called a true-life novel. From all the stories she heard about her grandmother growing up, and from knowing her grandmother, and from all the legends about her grandmother she was able to verify, she built a skeleton, and then filled it in with conversations and even a few events that she had to imagine.

Lily Casey left her family at 15 to ride her horse 25 days across Texas to take a teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse. (My jaw dropped, too!) After several years of teaching, she goes to Chicago to become educated and licensed as a teacher, marries, annuls the marriage, returns home, finds a teaching job, races horses, marries again, has children, has a huge ranch, loses the huge ranch, manages a huge ranch . . . her story is bigger than life, but so is the person of her grandmother, who never falls apart, but looks life in the eye and copes with it. Better than coping, she dominates.

Her major opponents are tough economic times, and dramatic and devastating weather conditions. Rain can fail to fall for months, cattle can die in an unexpected cold snap. At the best of times, you have enough to eat and a roof over your head.

I never wanted the book to end, and, in a sense, it didn’t. Jeannette Walls big best seller, The Glass Castle, takes up with just a little overlap where Half Broke Horses leaves off.

Here is what I loved: I loved the voice of Lily Casey Smith. She’s the kind of woman I want for a friend. She’s smart. She has a sense of how things work in the world. She experiences tragedies, but she doesn’t let them hurt her self-confidence. She can be beaten, but she always gets up again. She’s a problem solver. She never once lets being a woman get in the way of being the person she was born to be. She overcomes. She doesn’t sugar coat; she tells it as she sees it. And you know you can count on what she says to be the truth as she believes it. I truly hated for this book to end.

You can find this book at used under a dollar to new hardcover around $15. It is worth every cent.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Cultural, Financial Issues, Living Conditions, Marriage, Social Issues, Women's Issues, Work Related Issues | 2 Comments

Saudi Women Drive Today

From today’s BBC News:

Saudi Arabia women drive cars in protest at ban

Women in Saudi Arabia have been openly driving cars in defiance of an official ban on female drivers in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

The direct action has been organised on social network sites, where women have been posting images and videos of themselves behind the wheel.

The Women2Drive Facebook page said the direct action would continue until a royal decree reversed the ban.

Last month, a woman was arrested after uploading a video of herself driving.

Manal al-Sherif was accused of “besmirching the kingdom’s reputation abroad and stirring up public opinion”, but was released after 10 days having promised not to drive again.

“All that we need is to run our errands without depending on drivers,” said one woman in the first film posted in the early hours of Friday morning.

The film showed the unnamed woman talking as she drove to a supermarket and parking.

We can’t move around without a male”

Maha al-Qahtani
Female driver

“It is not out of love for driving or traffic or the experience. All this is about is that if I wanted to go to work, I can go. If I needed something I can go and get it.

“I think that society is ready to welcome us.”

Another protester said she drove around the streets of Riyadh for 45 minutes “to make a point”.

“I took it directly to the streets of the capital,” said Maha al-Qahtani, a computer specialist at the Ministry of Education.

Religious fatwa
On Twitter, Mrs Qahtani described the route she had taken around the city with her husband, saying: “I decided that the car for today is mine.”

Her husband said she was carrying her essential belongings with her and was “ready to go to prison without fear”, AFP news agency reported.

One woman who asked not to be named told the BBC driving was often considered to be “something really minor”.

The ban is one of a number of restrictions Saudi women face in daily life

“It’s not one of your major rights. But we tell them that even if you give us all the basic and big rights, that you are claiming are more important than driving, we can’t enjoy practising those rights because the mobility is not there.

“We can’t move around without a male.”

The motoring ban is not enforced by law, but is a religious fatwa imposed by conservative Muslim clerics. It is one of a number of severe restrictions on women in the country.

Supporters of the ban say it protects women and relieves them of the obligation to driver, while also preventing them from leaving home unescorted or travelling with an unrelated male.

But the men and women behind the campaign – emboldened by uprisings across the Middle East and Arab world – say they hope the ban will be lifted and that other reforms will follow.

Amnesty International has said the Saudi authorities “must stop treating women as second-class citizens”, describing the ban as “an immense barrier to their freedom of movement”.

The last mass protest against the ban took place in 1980, when a group of 47 women were arrested for driving and severely punished – many subsequently lost their jobs.

The women were angered that female US soldiers based in the kingdom after the war with Kuwait could drive freely while they could not.

June 17, 2011 Posted by | Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Saudi Arabia, Shopping, Social Issues, Women's Issues | 2 Comments