Americanah

Chimamanda! Chimamanda! Did I say Chimamanda! Ah Americanah swept me off my feet and has had meIMG_0117 deep in reflection for the past 3 weeks.  That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time after finishing a book.  I found myself rereading passages after I’d finished it. I couldn’t get enough.

Americanah is Adichie’s third successful novel.  It’s the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who are Nigerian and they meet and fall in love instantly at school.  It’s the story of their love, their growth, and their immigration stories.  The central character of the novel is Ifemelu who is young opinionated and intelligent.  We follow her from Nigeria where she leaves the love of her life, Obinze,  and her parents to immigrate to America and live with her Aunt Uju and cousin Dike.  There the ups and downs and harsh reality of life in America, for immigrants, shape the story as well as Ifemelu’s character.  She develops with each new situation and new character she meets.  She slowly shapes into a woman with each relationship she has.  For with each boyfriend comes new lessons to learn.  It was wonderful to watch her grow and make mistakes.

Readers may feel that Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is non-existent, however their love story is non-conventional but oh so passionate and runs deep.  Adichie constructs the novel to contain themes that are pertinent and that have not as yet been dealt with in such an outright way.  Race, immigration, natural hair, and blogging are the central themes that drive the story.  You’re probably thinking race and that you know what she’s going to say. Wrong! You don’t and frankly you’ll be a little surprised at times, happily surprised and maybe a little uncomfortable.  Adichie deals thoroughly with all the different sides to race.  You get the points of view of the Africans, the African immigrants (Americanahs), the African-Americans, the white Americans, and other races.  Some may not appreciate her African-American view and feel as if she’s slighting us but I had to admit that I know African-Americans that I’ve heard saying a lot of the things she writes in the book.  Adichie’s views may at times come off as semi-rants but the context in which she writes them are fitting.

The novel was written in third person, which is lively and amiable, just like a good friend accompanying you throughout the 477 pages.  At times the third person was Ifemelu speaking and Obinze but most of the time I felt it was Adichie expressing her personnel opinions.  All in all, I loved that because those passages were filled with the most stimulating and thought-provoking lines.  To aid in telling this story Adichie uses blog entries which Ifemelu writes while in the United States to talk about race.  Through these strategically placed blog entries Adichie examines all the uncomfortable angles around the subject of race.  At times they made me laugh aloud, smile, or just say a subtle yes.  I hadn’t thought so much about race from an African’s point of view, much less an African’s view of race in the United States.

Immigration was the next ubiquitous theme.  The heart-rendering immigration stories of Ifemelu in the United States and Obinze in England paralleling each other depicted the difficulties they were going through, while showing their growth as people – lack of money, being homesick, looking for jobs, being illegal, dealing with unsavoury characters, and constantly searching and not finding.  It was funny that through all the difficulty of immigration they both had, they always  seemed to turn to reading or books for comfort, which I found astounding.  The books mentioned in Americanah are A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipul, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama.  Each book mentioned has ideas relevant to the scenes where they are mentioned in Americanah.  Adichie is trying to reinforce her ideas through the recurring accepted ideas of an old British classic, a story about an Indian living in Central Africa, a highly respected classical African work, and a novel written by an African-American president who had an African father.  I love the way The Heart of a Matter is mentioned in the beginning by Obinze’s mother and how things come full circle at the end when Ifemelu says how much she likes The Heart of a Matter and how much the story means to her.

Amongst these two real subjects, natural hair is wedged in throughout the story here and there.  The novel opens with Ifemelu in a salon getting her hair braided.  This was a symbol of many things – African-American women being a slave to their hair and trying to tame it at all costs to fit into American society, the workplace, etc., It’s also a place where one is meant to open up and exchange stories about themselves and often be judged, and a place which has a lot of cultural value in the African-American community for getting women together and getting men together.   The hair salon is like a meeting of cultural similarities for Africans and African-Americans.  We see Ifemelu struggle with accepting her hair when she is forced to stop relaxing it because her hair is falling out.  So she has her hair cut to a short afro.  She doesn’t accept her short kinky hair at all so she calls in sick two days because she’s apprehensive about the way she will be perceived.  As the story went on, it seemed as if Ifememlu got more radical as her her afro grew.  Is natural hair political? Is it just hair?  Those are two questions that are debated incessantly these days as the the natural hair movement spreads in the African-American community.  Acceptance of one’s appearance, actions, and ideas is one of the first steps to accepting and knowing one’s self.  This Ifemelu and Obinze both learned the long and hard way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977.  She has a successful list of works starting with Purple Hibiscus which was her first novel written in 2003 and followed by Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006, which is set during the Biafran War.  The Thing Around Your Neck was a short story collection written in 2009. “My writing comes from melancholy, from rage, from curiosity, from hope.” (quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  during a lecture at Princeton University, 20 October 2010 – The Writer as Two Selves:  Reflections on the Private Act of Writing and the Public Act of Citizenship)  That is very clear in her writing.  That’s what makes it sincere and palpable.  I urge you all to give Americanah a try and to check out the video below of Adichie speaking about the dangers of the single story on TEDTalks. Brilliant!

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

It was approximately five months ago that my book club was speaking about race since we were discussing Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I found myself being the unique reference since I was the only black person in the room.  Scary. That brought home the idea that black people are not a monolith.Everybody else is white and the majority are from the UK.  Surprisingly enough, the subject of race and the UK came up as they all declared themselves disappointed with America’s outward racism since 45 being elected.  They then came to the conclusion that class was more of a divide in the UK than race.  I was surprised to hear this because the few black people I’ve known from the UK always said that race was largely the issue.  Not being able to speak knowledgeably about the UK’s race issues, I remained silent on that one, while silently suspecting that they were giving the UK a bit too much credit on the race issue.

Contrary to the title  Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race,  I find myself img_4073having to do it more frequently, since I’ve been living in France for over 20+ years.  Here nobody wants to bring up the subject of race.  The French are living in a race Disneyland in their heads.  They never question the lack of racial diversity on television, in politics, in schools, and in the hierarchy of big business.  Everything is hunky dory here.  France has quite a way to go before they begin to just scratch the surface of their race issues.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was an engrossing and informative read touching on race in the UK.  This book was developed from a blog post Reni Eddo-Lodge had written on 22 February 2014 about her difficulty to speak about race with white people.

“I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race.  Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.  I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.  You can see their eyes shut down and harden.  It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals.  It’s like they can no longer hear us.” (Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, p. ix) White people not being interested in hearing about race problems was very similar to what Michael Eric Dyson described in Tears We Cannot Cry:  A Sermon to White America.

This book is her detailed extension of that blog post.  It reminds the reader that black American story has taken over and become the story that is learned in the UK, while the black British story being neglected.  So neglected that the average British person probably isn’t aware of how blacks really got to Britain nor how much race as also shaped the UK.  It opens with a powerful preface, introducing you to Eddo-Lodge’s voice –  insightful and punctilious.   The book is separated into seven chapters, Chapter 1 beginning with the history of Britain – colonialism and slavery.  The other chapters cover the system, white privilege, mixed race people, feminism, and finally race and class.  The very last chapter is uplifting and gives both white and black people ideas on how to deal with discussions about race.  Basically, we have to choose our battles carefully.

“Racism does not go both ways.  There are unique forms of discrimination that are backed up by entitlement, assertion and, most importantly, supported by structural power strong enough to scare you into complying with the demands of the status quo.  We have to recognize this.” (Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Racep. 98)

If you’re still not sure about reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, click the video below and listen to Reni Eddo-Lodge talking about it.  It’ll give you an even better overview of the topics she covers.

My copy:  Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race,  paperback, 224 pages

My rating:  * * * * *

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A Special Wednesday….

Most of my Wednesdays are always the same.  I wake up early and get ready for work.  I work all morning and through lunch.  I then usually spend my afternoon preparing for my classes on the following day.  However, yesterday was special.  Instead of spending my afternoon planning lessons.  I went with a friend to Paris to La Maison de la Poésie to attend a talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This was my first visit to La Maison de la Poésie and I’m sure it won’t be my last.  It’s cozy and the main theatre is comfortable and the stage is visible to all attending, not to mention they invite interesting authors regularly.  Tickets were sold on the internet, only 6€ to attend.  We arrived just before 6pm and fortunately the doors were already opened.  I don’t think we could have stood outside in the -1°C cold.  As time moved on more and more people started to show.  I met a blogger friend IMG_1277Marina from Young Gifted and Black, for the first time, as well as some other interesting bloggers.  It was thanks to her that I learned about the event.  Even though it was our first time meeting, we sat and had some passionate discussions about books and movies, while waiting to enter the theatre.  It was as if we’d been friends for years.  I hope to see he soon at some future events.

Seven pm struck, the doors to the theatre opened and the crowd started to get excited moving quickly through to try to get the best seats.  It was a full house.  My friend Amy and I were seated in the middle, towards the back with a great central view of the stage.  We sat in the dimly lit theatre for about 15 minutes, anticipation building, the time for the audience to get seated.  Finally, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stepped on stage, the room went dark and the stage lit up, and alongside her were here interpreter, the interviewer, and the second guest, Belgian French author, Marie Darrieussecq.  Darrieussecq published Il Faut Beaucoup Aimer des Hommes in 2013 and won the  Prix Médicis the same year.  I’ll definitely be picking her book up at some point.  Its storyline was very intriguing.

The talk seemed to fly by.  We sat through about one hour and a half of questions and answers between both brilliant authors.  It was remarkable to see how the themes touched on were similar in both of their books.  Adichie made some very bold, honest statements that received overall applause, like when she said racism is not just a problem in the United States but also in France.  She also spoke about how readers seem to always expect female characters to be likable, pretty, and acceptable.  She said that shouldn’t be and that it’s rarely required of male characters.  She said what would be the point of women just trying to be likable all the time.  I couldn’t agree more.  She said she wrote Ifemelu to be a character that had plenty of faults but that she thought readers would find interesting.  And interesting, she was.  Adichie also talked about feminism and mentioned how she couldn’t understand why everybody couldn’t be a feminist, since feminism is basically fighting for equality among the sexes.  Another high point of the evening was the interpreters capacity and rapidity in translating Adichie, as well as all the others on stage.  She was surprisingly quick and accurate.

IMG_1269The only disappointing thing about the evening was that Adichie didn’t read from Americanah.  The interviewer read an excerpt in French.  I felt that was really missing, for the interviewer wasn’t capable of putting the correct tone on the words.  Even though on a much brighter note, I had the pleasure of speaking with Adichie and taking a picture with her after waiting for about a half an hour in a pseudo queue. I say pseudo because there was a long line from one side and then there was a half circle surrounding Adichie that never seemed to dissipate.  Frankly, If I were her I would have felt a little claustrophobic.

In the end, I was able to get all three of my books signed, Purple Hibiscus, The thing Around Your Neck, and Americanah.  Adichie was stunning and very poised.  Most of all what amazed me was how she reacted to the crowd.  She was genuinely friendly, listening, and happy to speak with us.  She complimented my hair(that definitely made me smile) and said how much she loved the hairstyles she saw there, being that she’s a lover of natural hair.  All in all it was a very special night that I won’t forget anytime soon…

Reading in the New Year 2015

We are verging on our 4th day of the new year and all my bookish buddies have made their new reading
resolutions for 2015, analyzed, and written up the statistics of their reading from 2014.  So here I am sliding in to home plate with mine.  I made some over zealous reading resolutions last year.  See here if you don’t remember.  Well I promised to read certain titles, read Australian and Russian literature and to read some unread books on my shelves.  Well it was all a fail except reading some of my unread books and readingMy gift goodies! The Good Lord Bird.  Well better something than nothing.

The good thing about last year’s reading was that I managed to choose and read a lot of very good books.  My top 10 of 2014 is full of the best of the best. (post coming soon) No complaints. Five of them received five-star ratings and for me that’s excellent, since I rarely give out five stars.  So in this fresh new year my resolutions will be few but meaningful.  I want to do a lot of pleasurable and meaningful reading, as last year, that seems to work for me.  I have no time for mediocre reading, I feel I’m too old for that.  There are a multitude of books I want to read before I die.  That wasn’t meant to sound desperate but I need to write my book for that.  Last year my page count was a miserable 13,511. Wretched! So my last and biggest goal of the year will be to increase my page count abundantly.

As for my reading stats, I read:

53 books and 7 of them were over 400 pages

13 graphic novels

27 novels by black authors

21 novels by women

32 novels by men

9 memoirs/non-fiction (4 of these were graphic novels)

from 13 different nationalities, including French, American, Indian, Nigerian, English, Scottish, Columbian, Norwegian, Dominican, Portuguese, Japanese, Canadian, and Cambodian.

The longest book I read was Americanah with 477 pages and the longest graphic novel was Habibi with 672 pages.

The shortest book I read was Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women, with 32 pages.

Having been shy of my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal by two books and short of my Big Books goal by three, I’ve decided to fix my Reading Challenge at 50 and the Big Books Challenge at 10.  Hoping that this will keep me well-rounded and reading longer books, but most importantly extremely good ones.

As you’ve probably noticed there are some big changes on the blog today.  I’ve changed the name of my blog to Brown Girl Reading and opted for a new style.  The name change has been a long time coming and I feel this one suits me better, as does the style of the blog.  I hope you enjoy and approve of the changes.  So, here’s to you for following me and to 2015 which I hope will be great for you all – in life, in love, in friendship, in health, and in reading.  Happy New Year!