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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah's plot is driven by the overarching romantic relationship between the protagonist, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers, but are separated for fifteen years when she moves to America during college. Ifemelu is traumatized by an event in college that makes her no longer communicate with Obinze, but both have idolized their relationship over the years and think of it as pure, equal, and intellectually stimulating. Ifemelu has other serious relationships but they are lacking in some way and Obinze has married for convenience. The exploration of romantic relationships is portrayed in other characters but they are unequal, materialistic, unhealthy, or lacking in some way. Mixed in this overarching plot is social commentaries on racism in America, corruption in Nigeria, and xenophobia in Britain. Self-identity, mental illness, and cross-cultural experiences are explored as well. A bonanza of events and themes keep the pace hopping for the most part creating a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

Ifemelu goes to college in America and struggles with depression, employment, and making her way in an immigrant's harsh world. She gets a break nannying a wealthy couple's two children and starts a blog critiquing liberal white Americans that use charity to make themselves feel better, racism, and more. Ifemelu becomes friends with Kimberly, the wealthy white mother, who has false assumptions about immigrants and Africans; however, Ifemelu recognizes Kimberly as a decent, caring woman who is unhappy and unable to stand up to others. They become friends in spite of differences.

During her time nannying, Ifemelu dates Kimberly's cousin, a wealthy man named, Curt, who actually cares for her but he represents a privileged class that makes Ifemelu restless with him. While he genuinely cares for her, his use of privilege and entitlement creates gaps in their relationship. For instance, he gets her a green card manipulating the process to speed it up because he is wealthy while Ifemelu's other friend works three jobs trying to get his visa. Curt also turns the story of Ifemelu's experience with a carpet cleaner, who is disgusted and angry when he mistakenly thinks Ifemelu owns Kimberly's mansion to acting relieved and nice when he discovers that she's just than nanny, into a funny anecdote with his friends versus a dehumanizing experience. Even while dating Curt she thinks of Obinze and idolizes their romance. Ifemelu's blog becomes successful and she dates another man, Blaine, but again does not connect with him. She decides to leave America and go back to Nigeria. While there she tries to write fluffy pieces for a magazine that caters to rich Nigerian women but cannot do it. Each move she makes gives her more peace with who she is and what she wants in life. She decides to fight the corruption in Nigeria and becomes active in a cause. She couldn't do this in America because of the lack of cultural history but she can in her own country. She rekindles her relationship with Obinze.

The notion of being an outsider in a new culture, Ifemelu's internal restlessness, and characters searching for self-identities kept my interest more than the unequal romantic relationships - although I did find the tension and misunderstandings in cross-cultural relationships fascinating. The story addresses false assumptions that people have in different cultures not realizing that they are embracing stereotypes or racist attitudes. Africa is not a poor country that needs to be rescued by white people, black women don't need to wear their hair straight like white women, and women don't have to marry just for wealth, to name a few. The author provides a different narrative that looks at the history of America that lacks the post slavery anger and outrage. She also shows through characters such as Ifemelu's mother and a co-worker the dangers of being blinded to truths through religious fundamentalism. Adichie does not become preachy or single out any country and while Ifemelu could become too judgmental or point the finger, she retains empathy for others making her statements thoughtful. All places have issues and all have good aspects too. By having the protagonist be a successful blogger, the author is able to create snippets of biting, light, heavy, and humorous commentaries that add depth to the plot.

One of Ifemelu's blog posts examines cultural aspects of race that are not existent in Nigeria: The post's title is, "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks, in America, You are Black, Baby: Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't black in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the society of former negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad, when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up." Ifemelu doesn't consider race until she is forced to by complicated racial politics ingrained in American society.

When Ifemelu is dating Blaine, an African-American professor from Princeton, the cultural misunderstandings on race become even more pronounced. Blaine is outraged when the University of Princeton's police accuse a black man of drug dealing through racial profiling and organizes a protest. Ifemelu skips the protest; she can't relate to the history of oppression that makes Blaine so angry. This along with other incidents such as Blaine's sister Shan and his friends show the gap in her and Blaine's relationship revealing why they could not connect on a deeper level and move beyond dating.

The hair salon is an important symbol and foreshadows or reveals the struggles immigrants face dealing with white privilege, fitting-in, and racism. Ifemelu doesn't mask her Nigerian accent and the women look down on her for it. She used to speak with no accent but felt it was false and made her want to fit into America's definition of being a citizen. She watched her aunt and friend try to assimilate like this and didn't like that they were not being true to themselves. She develops her own American identity and later a Nigerian one. She grows more mature along the way and by the time she meets up with Obinze she knows what she wants and who she is. She also wants her hair natural, not artificially colored or flattened. Her identity crises are symbolized in her hair choices and the setting of the hair salon frames the story in a well-crafted way. I've only touched on a few themes and messages in the book that is ripe for many different kinds of discussions. A terrific story.

5 Smileys








Monday, July 3, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


Image result for exit westMohsin Hamid's, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia," imitated the style of a self-help book using the rarely used in fiction second person point of view. In "Exit West," Hamid again shows his willingness to take risksin a realistic story that uses metaphors and imagery that gives magical setting transitions a slightly surreal flavor. The magic places the readers' focus on the before and after flight of two immigrants fleeing a Muslim country in an unnamed war to countries that are hostile toward them upon arrival - it eliminates an exploration of the immigrants' journey. This heightened the psychological exploration of the immigrants for me, but some readers might not like the author's splat of magical realism. I listened to the audio book and Hamid's use of repetition and the excellent narrator made it memorable and easy to understand. "Exit West" is layered with many themes and timely as it reflects the current globalization, countries slant toward nationalism, and displacement of people from wars, to name a few. Some might like the romance, or the independent spirit of the female protagonist, different characters' struggles for self-identity, and a myriad of other topics. 


Saeed and Nadia, live in a Muslim country being overtaken by militants. They are progressive and enjoy modern technology until their city becomes overtaken by militants. Day-to-day living is replaced by anxiety and fear causing the retreat of people from public to private spaces to the point that they are afraid to go to funerals. When Saeed's mother is killed by a stray bullet people are afraid to come to her funeral and his father insists that Saeed and Nadia leave the city. Saeed's father will not go with them for he knows he will slow them down and he wants to remain where he's lived his whole life. He recognizes that his son has no future in a city were drones, killings, and bombs oppress everyday living. However, the father feels the past and its memories offer him more than the future and so he stays. The father and son know they may never see each other again.

When Saeed and Nadia immigrate through magical doors (literarily) to a refugee camp in Greece, then London, and the U.S., they encounter hostility from mobs of people who are "natives" that use violence against the newcomers. Saeed and Nadia are oppressed in their new homelands. They try to make their way and find an identity but it is difficult as an outsider. Their experiences show Saeed drifting to people like himself and how he finds comfort in their shared experiences and religion; whereas, Nadia drifts towards diversity and tries other clans. The two experiment with finding their identities. The end of the story shifts toward a romantic narrative and the previous plot tension gets a bit lost as the two go their own ways.

While the story is about migration and marginalization for Saeed and Nadia, it also reveals that people who live in the same place can feel like foreigners in their own city as well. Their home changes around them as can be seen in Saeed's father's lifetime. His city was mostly free and safe before militants started killing civilians and disrupting government operations. Two minor characters who fall in love at the end of the novel show a blending of those who migrate and those who stay in a city their entire life. Even though the immigrant does not know the language, he communicates through hand gestures with the man who has lived there his whole life. They fall in love and are happy revealing positive futures are possible where diverse people can coexist side-by-side without fear and hatred. The suggestion is that society is better or enriched when people can choose to live where they want and call home in whatever country they live. Fear and anxiety stunts not only the potential for an individual to live a full life, but also an entire society's.

Magical doorways are a metaphor for migration, globalization, and technology. The two people pass through doorways to Greece, England, and California. The author doesn't focus on the immigrants' journey; instead he examines where the protagonists came from and what happened after they arrived in their new countries. This exploration of displacement allows the author to focus on the psychology of what the characters are going through as they migrate. Not everyone will like the technique, but I thought the surreal moments enhanced the characters emotional turmoil of adapting to new situations and represented the unnameable displacement a person feels when uprooted from his or her home country. It's a bit like wading through a thick cultural fog.

The magical doorway metaphor reminded me of Skype and how I can live thousands of miles away from my loved ones and yet can see them on a computer and chat, just like a magic mirror in a fairy tale. For me, his book captures the international displacement I feel traveling the world. I haven't been home in twelve years and that seems to be a major point in the book. Not to mention, with technological advancements in computers, transportation and more, migration in today's global world is much more rapid than thousands of years ago.

Doors can also symbolize open and closed nations. Nations can close their borders by fear and wanting to live in the past like Saeed's father. Opportunities are open or closed to immigrants like Saeed and Nadia when they arrive in their new countries. Windows are another metaphor that the author uses that express the future as one with possibilities or not. The window in Nadia's apartment has beautiful views only to have to be covered as the threat of bombs sending shattered glass throughout the apartment grows. She describes the changes from a light apartment to one that is dark and where she and Saeed cower away from the window. There is quite a bit going on in this quick read and I've only touched on a few. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys