In the past year, I’ve stuck pretty close to reposting reviews on this blog that have already run in the paper, but from now on I hope to include some books that fall outside my AJC niche (Southern writers and writing). I’d planned to wait and review these two titles separately, but since they’re so timely, thought I’d stick with shorter previews instead.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, has an upcoming reading/signing in town this coming Thursday (see info below); her book has just been released in paperback. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena offers much insight into Russia’s recent posturing in Crimea, bordering Ukraine. Both novels came out last year and met with rave reviews. They more than live up to the hype.
Confession: I am still finishing Americanah (Knopf). But with only 78 pages left to go, I can safely say that it’s the story of a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who immigrates to the U.S., and after a series of problematical and even traumatic attempts to land a job, eventually finds employment as a nanny. Soon, she begins to write a blog about what it’s like to be black in America—not just speaking as a non-American Black (NAB), but also weighing in on the predicament of American blacks (AB) and whites who so often overcompensate for their unspoken racism.
“Dear Non-American Black,” begins one of her blog posts, “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. … And admit it—you say ‘I’m not black’ only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say ‘Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad’? I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”
As she gains a better understanding of the culture and how things work, Ifemelu gives advice as well:
“Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say ‘It’s just like when I ….’”
The title, Americanah, is Nigerian slang for someone who immigrates to the U.S., picks up an accent and affects American ways, and then returns home. That vulnerability to a new country is part of what makes Adichie’s novel so very likeable. The characters are vividly drawn—human and vulnerable, scared and prickly, smart and passionate. It’s likely I’ve read it so slowly because I don’t want to leave their world—which is such a wise and funny commentary on mine—behind.
Much of the conversation takes place in the African-owned hair salon in scruffy Trenton, NJ, where Ifemelu, who lives in affluent Princeton (which happens to be my hometown), goes in order to have her hair properly braided. The stylists there, who dish about marriage, immigration, their husbands and children, have adapted to their new country, as seen in this scene in which a customer objects to a braid.
“No problem. I will do it again,” Mariama said. She was agreeable and smooth-tongued, but Ifemelu could tell that she thought her customer was a troublemaker, and there was nothing wrong with the cornrow, but this was a part of her new American self, this fervor of customer service, this shiny falseness of surfaces, and she had accepted it, embraced it. When the customer left, she might shrug out of that self and say something to [the other stylists] about Americans, how spoiled and childish and entitled they were, but when the next customer came, she would become, again, a faultless version of her American self.”
In a parallel narrative, back home in Nigeria, Ifemelu’s college boyfriend, Obinze, is also trying to immigrate to the U.S. He gets as far as London, where he lives under an assumed identity, “invisibly, his existence like an erased pencil sketch,” afraid of every one in authority he sees, desperately trying to arrange a marriage of convenience in order to secure permanent papers. In addition to being a novel of ideas about race and identity, Americanah is a tender love story that follows Ifemelu and Obinze as they drift apart and then back together.
Adichie will read from and sign her novel at 7 p.m., this Thursday, March 6 at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, 308 Clairmont Ave., Decatur, 404-373-1653, http://www.georgiacenterforthebook.org/Events/show.php?id=658.
In a recent Q&A, Anthony Marra explained the origins of his award-winning debut novel—he studied abroad in St. Petersburg during his junior year of college. “War journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya had recently been assassinated; wounded veterans of the Chechen Wars trawled the metro cars for alms; street gangs routinely attacked people from the Northern Caucasus. Yet as an American I knew little about Chechnya.”
Two things up front about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth/Random House): One, it’s the human face of Chechnya’s two wars, and will tell you much of what you need to know about Putin’s current stance (and what might be expected to happen as a result) on Crimea. Second, it’s now available in paperback. Okay, three: Not only was it longlisted for the National Book Award, it also won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.
In it, a young girl from a rural village is rescued after the “disappearing” of her father, by a family friend who spirits her away to a bombed-out hospital in a nearby town. A timeline that spans 1994 to 2004 provides the loose framework for a series of narratives delivered by six people, which piece together the history that eventually ties them all together, forming the constellation of the title. The hospital setting and occasional glimpses of a happier time counterbalance the grim realities facing the characters, and allow Marra to focus on healing and repair rather than terror and hopelessness.
You can read an insightful review of it here, in which writer Delia Falconer examines what happens when art trumps reality. I agree with Falconer’s criticism—that Marra superimposes art onto life in ways occasionally “anesthetic, sparing us from the hurts and despairs the novel chronicles so well”—but disagree that this detracts from its final effect. If, as Falconer points out, the reality as described in Politskovskaya’s far more brutal telling, A Small Corner of Hell, is unbearable, then Marra’s book triumphs for being not only readable, but beautifully so.