Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

americanah

 

“Ouch! Ouch, Chimanda! Stop!”

(Oh wait.)

Don’t stop.

 

It’s me who can’t stop. I read everything Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes. I only started reading her by accident, when I was facilitating the Kuwait Book Club I never intended to belong to, and found myself reading so many books by authors I had never heard of. We were reading Half Of a Yellow Sun  and all of a sudden, I WAS Nigerian. She can do that. She uses the senses, she uses the thoughts in our head. We are really not so alien, us and the Nigerians I start to think. I have Nigerian friends, from the church. We all get along. We have a good time together.

“Not so fast!” Chimamanda tells me in Americanah, her newest book, which I put off buying until I could find it in paperback. “You are very different! You think differently! And growing up in a country where there are black and white, race becomes an issue that it is not when you are black, and everyone is black, and you are growing up in Nigeria.”

Hmmm. OK. That makes sense. I mean, I thought I was Nigerian because in Half of a Yellow Sun, I was Igbo, living in an academic community in Nigeria, and hmmmm. You’re right, Chimamanda, there were no white people around. Just us Nigerians.

Chimamanda, with her sharp, all-seeing eyes, her sharp ears and her sharp tongue make me cringe as she comes to the USA and comes up against assumptions many have about Africa. Do you even know where, exactly, Nigeria is? Do you know where Ghana is? Most Americans can find Egypt on a map of Africa, and MAYBE South Africa, but the rest is  . . . mostly guesswork. Because we send clothing and food aid to African countries, we have the idea that all Africans are poor, but that is not so, and is insulting to the middle-class and upper class Africans who travel elsewhere for leisure – and education.

I don’t know how much of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book is autobiographical and how much is fiction. I know that her observations are acute, she nails expat friendships, she spotlights our blind spots and hypocricies, and she holds you in her grip because she is no less harsh with herself – if, indeed, her Ifemelu, the main character in Americanah, is reflecting Chimamanda’s own experience. The experiences, coming here, the overwhelming differences in manners and customs, even volume of voice and width of hand expression, are so immediate, so compelling, so well described that they have to have been experiences she herself had, and had the eyes to see. She must have taken notes, because she totally nails the expat experience.

Book ads and book reviews focus on Americanah as a book about being black in America, and it truly is that – as seen from the eyes of a non-American black, as she often reminds us.

She is hard on herself, returning to Nigeria, and quick to note that much of the change is in herself and her changed perspective. While I love the romantic storyline, I was disappointed by the fantasy ending, given how self-disciplined Adichie is at keeping it real in every other facet of the novel. On the other hand, I am still trying to think of an ending that would work for me, and I can’t. While her ending wraps it all up neatly, it’s the one part of the book where her sharpness dulls.

One of the things I liked best about the book was going behind the scenes, being Nigerian, going to school, having coffee, working, going to parties with other Nigerians, chatting with my girlfriends. We’ve done things with nationals of different countries before, but you know as soon as you walk in that your presence changes things. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes me with her and no one knows I am there, observing, learning, figuring out how things are done when it’s “just us” Nigerians.

Here’s why I am a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addict. She keeps it real. She has eyes that see, and ears that hear, and a gift for capturing what she sees and hears and a gift for writing it down. She has insight, into herself, into others, into character and motivations. She is sophisticated and unpretentious, she admires and she mocks, but when she mocks, it is as likely to be self-mockery as mockery of another person, class, ethnicity or nation. Reading Adichie, I understand our similarities – and our differences. I believe she would be a prickly friend to have, but I would chose her as a friend.

Awards

● Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
● One of The New York Times’s Ten Best Books of the Year
● Winner of the The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction
● An NPR “Great Reads” Book, a Washington Post Notable Book, a Seattle
Times Best Book, an Entertainment Weekly Top Fiction Book, a Newsday Top 10 Book, and a Goodreads Best of the Year pick.

 

 

April 17, 2014 Posted by | Africa, Beauty, Books, Character, Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Customer Service, ExPat Life, Fiction, Interconnected, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Nigeria, Political Issues, Social Issues, Women's Issues | , , | 4 Comments

Americanah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Rushing from one meeting to another yesterday, I had just an hour – but during that hour, Terry Gross was interviewing one of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does GREAT interviews. She is funny, and educated and insightful; she can talk about painful topics and make you laugh and cry with her. That interview was a blessing on my day.

I started reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when I was in Kuwait. A good friend approached me and asked me to form a book club. LOL. This is a friend I can’t say no to. Every introverted bone in my body was screaming “NO! NO!” and I smiled at her and said “Yes.”

God is good. He laughed when I said “yes” and through the book club, introduced me to authors I might never otherwise read. The club was made up of many nationalities, and we read books from everywhere, unforgettable books. We read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “Half of a Yellow Sun.” Once you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, there is no going back. I wonder if I will be able to hold out on Americanah until it comes out in paperback?

This is from the National Public Radio website, so you can actually listen to the interview yourself, should you want to get to know this delightful author a little better.

‘Americanah’ Author Explains ‘Learning’ To Be Black In The U.S.

June 27, 2013 2:39 PM
Americanah

When the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was growing up in Nigeria she was not used to being identified by the color of her skin. That changed when she arrived in the United States for college. As a black African in America, Adichie was suddenly confronted with what it meant to be a person of color in the United States. Race as an idea became something that she had to navigate and learn.

The learning process took some time and was episodic. Adichie recalls, for example, an undergraduate class in which the subject of watermelon came up. A student had said something about watermelon to an African-American classmate, who was offended by the comment.

“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘But what’s so bad about watermelons? Because I quite like watermelons,’ ” Adichie tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

She felt that her African-American classmate was annoyed with her because Adichie didn’t share her anger — but she didn’t have the context to understand why. The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was not taught to students in Nigeria. Adichie had yet to learn fully about the history of slavery — and its continuing reverberations — in the U.S.

“Race is such a strange construct,” says Adichie, “because you have to learn what it means to be black in America. So you have to learn that watermelon is supposed to be offensive.”

Adichie is a MacArthur Fellowship winner and author of the novels Purple Hibiscusand Half of A Yellow Sun. Her new novel, Americanah, explores this question of what it means to be black in the U.S., and tells the story of a young Nigerian couple, one of whom leaves for England and the other of whom leaves for America.

The title, she says, is a Nigerian word for those who have been to the U.S. and return with American affectations.

“It’s often used,” she says, “in the context of a kind of gentle mockery.”

June 28, 2013 Posted by | Africa, Biography, Books, Character, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Entertainment, ExPat Life, Kuwait, Travel | 2 Comments

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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com.

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

An Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This interview is with a woman I admire very much, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has a new book out, a collection of stories, called The Thing Around Your Neck. Her most recent prior book, Half of a Yellow Sun, which tells of the three year struggle of the Igbo people to secede from Nigeria to create the independent nation of Biafra, and won the Orange Prize for Literature in 2007. The book is a total WOW.

April 18, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Books, Community, Cross Cultural, Fiction, Interconnected, Living Conditions | 4 Comments

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I Do Not Come to You by Chance

This book, the first novel from Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, is hilarious, with moments of pathos, and a fresh point of view.

Amazon.com recommended it to me as I was busy buying books by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; I thought ‘OK, I’ll read a series of Nigerian books as part of my summer reading.

Young Kingsley Ibe is the family’s first born male, and with that status goes many privileges – and responsibilities. After graduating with a Masters in Chemical Engineering, he has no success in his search for a job with an oil company in Nigeria, and consequently loses the love of his life, Ola, to another who has secure employment.

Worse, his retired father has a stroke, and the family discovers that with all the fees required, they haven’t enough for his continued care, so Kingsley must approach his uncle, Boniface Mbamalu, more familiarly known as Cash Daddy, for funds to transfer his father to a long term care facility, and, later, for his father’s funeral.

Serious Kingsley’s eyes nearly pop as he sees the life his uncle is living, cars, women, designer watches, shoes, suits and all the trappings of new wealth. Soon, his uncle makes a convincing case for Kingsley coming to work for him, the better to help out his family of mother, brothers and sister, now that he is the senior male in the family.

Kingsley discovers he has a gift for the work – which is writing 419s, those scam letters which I frequently publish in this column. I loved being on the inside, learning how strong possibility e-mail addresses are netted, how response e-mails are massaged – not unlike fund raising techniques by charitable organizations in the US. Kingsley’s education helps him achieve enormous financial success in a very short time – but he finds that all the cash and designer goods in the word do not solve his problems nor make him happy.

I learned a lot about how successful many of these scammers are, and how the money made is spread throughout the Nigerian communities. The author takes a balanced view, balancing the way the cash makes life easier for people – a lot of people, because the rich man has many obligations to his community, balanced against the disgust, and sick fear felt by his religious mother and aunt, and his one time girlfriend, when they learn the work he is doing. They are disappointed that a man of such promise has sunk to making so much money in a dishonest way. The book also does not deal sympathetically with those who have given or lost money to the scammers, nor, in my opinion, does the ending satisfy.

This is one of the funniest parts of the book – a group of Nigerian scammers is about to meet with a representative of a major US investment firm. He thinks he will be meeting with the Nigerian Minister of Transportation to discuss building a new airport; the reality is that Cash Daddy, in disguise, will be pretending to be the minister. Kingsley protests that Cash Daddy looks nothing like the minister, and Cash Daddy responds:

“Let me tell you something . . . Me, I really like these oyibo people. They’re very very nice people. See how they came and showed us that the ground where we’ve been dancing Atilogwu has crude oil under it. If not for them, we might never have found out. But Kings,” he dragged in his dangling foot and sat up in the tub, “white man doesn’t understand black man’s face. Do you know tht I can give you my passport to travel with . . . Even if your nose is ten times bigger than my own, they won’t even notice?”

It was a fascinating book. I understand better now why 419 scams work. (419 is the section of the Nigerian criminal code making scam e-mails a crime; thus the crime is called ‘a 419’) There are some very funny and very insightful moments in the book. It is no where near the level of literature that you experience with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but there is more humor, and the book shows a more modern day Nigeria. Not a bad summer read, but not great literature.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | Africa, Books, Character, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Financial Issues, Fund Raising, Humor, Living Conditions, Scams, Work Related Issues | , , | 2 Comments