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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The subject of Africa and Africans and the relationship of Africans to Americans is one of my fascinations. I read Ms. Adichie’s novel, Americanah, with that fascination firmly in place. But the book was just ironic, sarcastic, and insightful enough to make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d enjoy meeting the author, and I don’t think she would like me very much. (According to one character in the novel who may or may not speak for the author, “American conservatives come from an entirely different planet,” obviously not a good one.) I feel as if Ms. Adichie, assuming her characters speak for her in some respects, would have something sardonic and probably also uncomfortably perceptive to say about me and my interest in Africa and my WASP background and my conservative Christian worldview.

Through her main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, especially Ifemelu, the novelist has a lot to say about Nigerians and “Non-American Blacks” (NAB’s) and American Blacks (AB’s) and American Non-Blacks and Brits and other Europeans and poor people and rich people and bourgeois middle class people and everyone else whose weaknesses and foibles Ifemelu manages to expose and ridicule and deflate. Thought provoking, yes. But Ifemelu is also self-absorbed, sometimes pitiable, and irresponsible and unreliable. In short, she’s a real person with a sin problem, although she wouldn’t use that term.

Ifemelu is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. She leaves Nigeria partly to escape from the lack of choices there and from her dysfunctional family and partly to study in the U.S., the land of opportunity. She finds that when she comes to America, she suddenly becomes “black”, a category she never considered one way or another back in Nigeria. She is subject to the racism, overt and subtle, that American Blacks encounter and deal with all of the time in this country. And she also becomes “African” in the eyes of many Americans, black and white, who tell her about their charitable contributions to an orphanage in Zimbabwe or their trip to Kenya or their love for Mother Africa, as if Africa were one big country, and of course, she would identify with people and entities half a continent away from her own nation and culture.

Ifemelu, however, is an honest and incisive thinker, and she forges her own identity in the U.S. She eventually becomes a blogger with a widely read and profitable blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She writes about race in America, about black women and hair, about subtle and not-so subtle racism, about Michelle and Barack Obama, about her own experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., and about the people and interactions she observes. Her blog posts about race in particular prick the consciences and destroy the pretensions of many of her readers. (The unrealistic part, of course, is that she makes quite a bit of money as a result of the popularity of her blog. How many rich bloggers are there?)

Americanah is a smart, penetrating, rather dramatic look at the immigrant experience and at the emigrant experience and at the experience of returning home. But it made me feel the way I feel when I’m in the company of intellectual people who spend their time mocking and pointing out the defects of those who are “beneath” them, outside their little clique. Americanah is an opinionated book, and it’s not a kind book. The characters in the book are honest, possibly right about many of their opinions and insights, but not very compassionate or forgiving.

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.
Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.
“Is it good?”
“Yes.”
“It’s a novel, right? What’s it about?”
Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing. Ifemelu disliked the question; She would have disliked it even if she did not feel, in addition to her depressed uncertainty, the beginning of a headache.

At the risk of being relegated to the realm of all the Kelseys of this country, despite my lack of “liberal” credentials, I will say that Americanah is about the Nigerian immigrant experience, both in the U.S. and Britain. It’s also about the issues and stresses of being a black woman in America, specifically in the Northeastern part of the U.S. And it’s a novel about romantic love, and lost love and recovered love. The ending, like the detail of the money-making blog, struck me as unrealistic and unlikely. But I did learn a lot along the way.

Warning: Self-absorption and sexual license abound in the novel, just as they do in the real lives of many, both Africans and Americans. That part of the novel is almost too realistic.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novel from a Nigerian/American author is classified as young adult fiction in my library, probably because the narrator is fifteen years old, but I think it will resonate with adults of all ages, and with readers around the world because the themes–abusive relationships, religious legalism, freedom, and the source of joy–are all universal themes.

Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother Jaja live with their mother and father in a wealthy or at least upper middle class Catholic home in Enugu, Nigeria. Their father’s strict, legalistic Catholicism pervades the family’s life, from twenty minute prayers before meals to reciting the rosary on car trips to fasting before mass every Sunday. Not only is the family required to be strictly Catholic by Kambili’s papa but they are also held to a stringent schedule made up of course by the father. Kambili has conflicting feelings about Papa: she is pleased, even thrilled, when he approves of her words or actions, but of course when harsh punishment comes her way, Kambili is crushed.

Then, the catalyst for change enters the life of this silent, repressed family: Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma invites the children to visit her home in Nsukka. Aunty Ifeoma is a widow, a teacher, much poorer than her brother, but the joy in Aunty’s home is overflowing and overwhelming for her love-starved niece and nephew. Kambili and Jaja learn another way of life, without rigid schedules and authoritarian rule-keeping, and most of all without fear. Kambili, who comes across as much younger than fifteen throughout most of the story probably because of her repressed childhood, doesn’t know what to think or do with all the freedom that she is given in Aunty Ifeoma’s home, so she mostly does nothing and remains very, very quiet, even silent. Jaja sees the possibilities of freedom and becomes rebellious. However, it is the children’s meek, long-suffering mother, who has also suffered abuse at the hands of her husband, who takes the most surprising action of all.

The story is terribly sad. The depth of the dysfunction and abuse in the family is revealed slowly, a little at a time, until it becomes overpowering. Papa is not a wholly evil man; he publishes the truth about the government in his newspaper and he is generous to the poor, to family, and to many others. But of course, this generosity and honesty displayed to outside world makes the secret, petty evil that Papa perpetrates inside his home even worse.

I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative arc of this novel by telling what it is generally about. I don’t think so. Ms. Adichie is quite skilled in the way she spins her story, and she enlists our sympathy as readers for all the characters in the novel, even Papa to some extent. One senses that he is caught in a web of legalism himself, and he cannot see a way out. That emotional captivity certainly doesn’t justify the abuse, but it explains to some extent why the children and their mother take so long to escape and why their feelings about Papa are so contradictory and confused.

Recommended.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

As the opara (eldest son) of the family, Kingsley O. Ibe has certain responsibilities: he must make his parents proud, study hard, and become a great man. But times are hard in Nigeria and in spite of Kingsley’s degree in chemical engineering, he cannot find a job. In spite of Kingsley’s father’s great knowledge, hard work, and superior educational background, he cannot work because of his illness, diabetes. And Kingsley’s industrious and skilled mother is losing her tailoring business because of changes in technology and the time it takes to care for his father. Kingsley’s brothers and sister need school fees and books and uniforms, and his girlfriend, Ola, “the sugar in his tea,” may not be able to marry him unless he can show the ability to support a wife and family.

So slowly, inexorably, Kingsley is sucked into the business of his rich uncle, Cash Daddy. Kingsley becomes a 419-er, breaking the law and bilking foreigners so that he can do what is right: take care of his family. (The number “419” refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud.) It’s a sad story, and the author, who lives in Abuja, Nigeria, develops the story deftly with just the right amount of sympathy for Kingsley and his plight mixed with enough detail about the heinous scams he perpetrates to make us have mixed feelings at best about this character.

The culture of corruption that pervaded this story made it a striking companion to the nonfiction book I read just after it. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is set in Mumbai, India, where Ms. Boo spent three years researching, interviewing and observing the residents of a Mumbai slum that has grown up near the bright, sparkling Mumbai International Airport. The full title of the book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. There’s not much hope in the story. The central characters in the book are a family of Muslim garbage brokers who buy scavenged garbage from their fellow slum-dwellers, sort it, and take it to recycling centers to sell again. The same culture of overwhelming, near-inescapable corruption, bribery, and governmental chaos keeps the garbage pickers of Mumbai in poverty and despair just as the fictional Kingsley Ibe in Nigeria is unable to escape or retain his integrity in an environment and governmental structure that only rewards cunning and dishonesty, not integrity or even educational attainment and hard work.

I just cannot imagine living in a country where bribery is the only way to achieve a semblance of justice, where votes are for sale, and where the poor are not only poor but forced into slavery, prostitution, and degradation. I suppose I am way too middle class American WASP, but I had to keep reminding myself while reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers that this book was nonfiction, that these were real people. And while the first book, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, was fiction, the things that happen in the book were real. 419-ers exist. People who work hard to get an education are unable to find jobs in a broken economy. People are turned away from hospitals because they cannot pay exorbitant amounts of money for simple health care. People like Kingsley turn to lives of crime and extortion because they see no other way to provide for their families or to survive.

I kept asking myself as I read Ms. Boo’s book, which reads like a novel: where are these people now? The Annawadi slum was slated for destruction/removal; has it been removed? What happened to the families that Ms. Boo writes about in her book who are dependent on trash from the airport to resell for basic necessities? Did the book itself change the lives of these people in any way? For the better? For the worse?

“The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

“It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”

I Do Not Come to You by Chance was awarded the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, first novel Africa.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

Related articles:
The Letdown of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Paul Beckett.
An Outsiders Gives Voice to Slumdogs: Katherine Boo on her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Reform, in the Name of the Father by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
The Book Boys of Mumbai, NYT Book Review by Sonia Faleiro, January 4, 2013
Meet the Yahoo Boys: Nigeria’s email scammers exposed by Jim Giles.

Angry Wind by Jeffrey Tayler

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel by Jeffrey Tayler. Recommended by Nancy Pearl in Book Lust To Go. Book #1 in my North Africa Reading Challenge.

In this book journalist Jeffrey Tayler writes about his travels through the Sahel, “the transition zone in Africa between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical forests to the south, the geographic region of semi-arid lands bordering the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in Africa.” His journey began in Chad and took him through northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Morocco, and Senegal. So some of the countries Mr. Tayler writes about are a part of my designated North Africa region.

Beginning with Chad, in 2002 Mr. Tayler, a typical, young, liberal, religionless writer makes his way through the countries of the Sahel. Most of people are Muslim and black. Christians are a tolerated minority or a persecuted minority. Black Muslims are the leaders in government and in business in tis part of the world, and yet most of the leaders that Mr. Tayler meets are somewhat dismissive and even ashamed of their African heritage and want to claim Arab ancestry and lineage. Racism is alive and well in the Sahel, and very dark-skinned men tell Mr. Tayler that their families are of Arab extraction, not African. I found that interesting . . . and sad.

Mr. Tayler is something of a linguist, fluent in several languages including Arabic and French. His linguistic ability was quite helpful in getting him accepted in the villages and cities of the Sahel. Many Muslims accepted him and called him “brother” because he spoke Arabic, even though he told them plainly that he was not a Muslim. Others respected him because he spoke French, the language of European colonialism in Chad and Mali and Senegal.

His English was not so useful, and I found the misunderstanding and outright lies that were prevalent in the region concerning the United States to be quite disheartening. This trip took place soon after 9/11, and yet the people that Mr. Tayler talked with were somewhat anti-American and especially anti-George W. Bush. Then again, maybe Tayler found what he was looking for. He has a conversation with a government official in Chad, and the official says,”Your president, this Bush fils, he came to power by force. . . . I mean he manipulated the electoral process using his money. . . . Bush and his men see gold before their eyes, and that’s what’s driving them to attack Iraq.”

Mr. Tayler has no answer. “I didn’t know what to say. I would not defend elections in which only 24 percent of Americans had voted for their president, who in the end was put in office by a Supreme Court that split along party lines, just as civil war had divided Chad into Muslim and Christian factions.” Really? Our elections, specifically the Bush/Gore election, are comparable to the corruption and manipulation that goes on in most of Africa, in those countries where they actually hold elections at all? And our Republicans and Democrats are comparable to the Muslim/Christian split that has precipitated violence across the Sahel region for years? When’s the last time you heard about a Democrat/Republican shooting war? And has anyone set fire to the local Democrat headquarters in your town lately? Mr. Tayler could have put up a better defense of our democratic system had he wanted to do so.

I found out lots of other interesting tidbits about the region along the southern border of the Sahara:

Ethnic tensions: “Hausa, along with Fulani, dominate northern Nigeria and much of Niger, too. Fulani consider themselves, thanks to their history of jihadist Warring, high caste and above Hausa; and a Fulani-based elite rules northern Nigeria.” “We don’t let our girls marry the Hausa, because they’re not really Chadians.”

Jeffrey Tayler finds the few Christian converts that he meets in Chad to be downtrodden, “vanquished people.” He thinks that rather than missionaries preaching the gospel of Christ, there should be missionaries promoting “enlightenment philosophy” as the cure for ethnic and religious wars in sub-Saharan Africa. I personally find his faith in Voltaire, Rousseau, science and evolution, touchingly sanguine. If he thinks that Muslims will quit killing Christians and vice-versa if we just teach them all to appreciate the principles of the French Revolution, he hasn’t studied the French Revolution.

Ezekiel, a Christian in Muslim northern Nigeria: “If anything happened to an American here, the whole town would flee back to their villages, fearing the bombing that would come from your government. After all, the U.S. is the world’s policeman.”
Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of “the world’s policeman” role that we have acquired, either. Can we do something to get a reputation, not as policemen, not as bullies, not as rich exploiters, but just as friends and helpful benefactors? How?

Mali: “For four decades now, France, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the United States have subsidized Mali’s misere–and they show no signs of stopping. Foreign aid makes up a quarter of the country’s GDP and totals roughly $500 million annually. What have aid workers accomplished here over the past forty years? There is no satisfactory answer.”
When I read evaluations like this one, I am inclined toward the Ron Paul doctrine of foreign aid (even though much of what Mr. Paul advocates seems to me to be dangerously naive and simplistic).

“Congressman Ron Paul opposes foreign aid to all countries on constitutional, practical, and moral grounds. On a moral ground, Congressman Paul opposes foreign aid as it takes money from poor people in rich countries and gives it to rich people in foreign countries. From a practical standpoint, Congressman Paul notes that the amount of foreign that actually reaches those who need it is dramatically reduced after the numerous levels of bureaucracy within each government is paid for the distribution and any corrupt politician then takes their cut.

I could write lots more about this book and the thoughts and ideas it sparked in my mind as I read, but since I’m not writing my own book, I’ll leave you with my recommendation. It’s a good and insightful read, in spite of my difference in worldview with the author.