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REVIEW: A Memory This Size and Other Stories

memory and writing

A memory this sizeA Memory This Size and Other Stories

Jacana

REVIEW: Maya Fowler

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” said WB Yeats in his poem The Second Coming, his words famously echoed in the title of Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel. But does the centre still hold? Is Western tradition still the centre, for literature, after all?

At first inspection – and bearing in mind that NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-nominated We Need New Names and Nigeria’s acclaimed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah are both set in the States – the reader might think America is some kind of axis for the African imagination. Three of the five shortlisted stories are directly concerned with America. However, read on and you soon discover the majority of themes are tied to home soil. Even so, “[p]eople have a way of getting lost in America,” fears a mother in the story titled America. “America has a way of stealing our good ones from us. When America calls, they go.”

This year’s Caine Prize was not without controversy. Things turned nasty after Adichie said in an interview that she wasn’t interested in the Caine collection, and didn’t think it’s where you’d find the best African writing. Shortlistee Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responded with a swift “F*ck you” on Twitter, while Elnathan John revealed perhaps more than he should have of his feelings towards Adichie on his blog.

A Memory This Size and Other Stories consists of the five stories shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize – all of exceptional quality – as well as 12 new, specially produced stories created at this year’s Caine Prize workshop in Uganda.

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

Caine Prize winner Tope Folarin

First prize went to Tope Folarin for Miracle, set in a Nigerian evangelical church in Texas. While I agree with one judge’s appraisal that Miracle is “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling,” I prefer Pede Hollist’s Foreign Aid.

This story, of a man from Sierra Leone who emigrates to America and becomes fat on both fast food and on the worst of the values he finds there, was filled with the same cynicism as the winning story, but with perhaps even more dark humour. In this account of the protagonist’s return to his native “Salone”, a “Louis Vuitton fanny pack” of dollars strapped to his waist, we are shown what happens when a man behaves like a tourist in his home country. While the writer pokes fun at certain American ways, he does not shy away from illustrating Sierra Leone’s problems.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees contains elements of magic realism. A young man, dead but not dead, blinded by the accident that killed him but didn’t, emerges from the hell of depression able to see the souls of people and objects. The protagonist’s bad behaviour, in the darkest period of his blindness, held for me flashes of Orhan Pamuk. I love this story, but Ibrahim’s workshop story, The Book of Remembered Things, also included in the anthology, I love more. It deals with religious disbelief, but also zeal. It is a sensitive, moving portrayal of one family’s love, hate and hurt, and ways of protecting, that will stay with me for a long time.

Bayan Layi, by Elnathan John, is a brilliant and terrifying story of children running wild; boys without hope, without love, that speak the language of violence and of killing. I was impressed by the writer’s ability to make you warm to the protagonist, even though the child is someone you’d hate to meet in person. John’s characters are striking and complex.

Perhaps my favourite was Chinelo Okparanta’s America, in which a young Nigerian teacher, who dreams of being an environmental engineer, follows her lover to America. It is a poignant love story in which we are reminded that there are trickier places than America to be gay. The protagonist explains to the visa interviewer that she wants to go to America to study environmental engineering so that she can learn about recent oils spills in the US and how to apply the lesson in the Niger Delta.

The story speaks of some form of restitution. If, for centuries, colonial powers tapped Africa of its natural resources, with little regard for environmental impact, perhaps they can at least pass on knowledge of how to deal with environmental disaster today.

The second section of the collection, the workshop stories, holds some brilliant work, and some of a less polished standard. The short story is a difficult form for the new(er) writer, and especially endings can be elusive. This is clear from the weaker stories, which are sabotaged by their endings more than anything else. Yet there is no shortage of excellent writing in the workshop section.

Wazha Lopang’s The Strange Dance of the Calabash is a delightful dig at patriarchy and arranged marriage. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s Blood Guilt is an ironic, chilling but darkly humorous account of post-liberation atrocity. Hellen Nyana’s Chief Mourner deserves special mention for its pathos and focus on relationships. Rotimi Babatunde’s Howl is a wonderful piece of satire and magic realism. Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s haunting Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile deals with environmental concerns. And Elnathan Johns’ A Memory This Size is magnificent piece of work. As it happens, John’s bio reads that he has “tried hard, but has never won anything.”

I’m willing to bet that last part will change.

  • Fowler is a writer, editor and translator
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2013

REVIEW: Americanah

americanah-chimamanda-adichie

americanahAmericanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate

REVIEW: Bongani Kona

At several points during my reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, which centers on the life of a Nigerian woman living in America, I found myself thinking about my own journey from Harare to Cape Town. So finely rendered is the black migrant experience in Americanah that it washed ashore a tide of memories I had long forgotten: the nervous wait at the visa office, the gradual estrangement from friends and family ‘back home’, the difficulty of establishing roots in a foreign land.

Even if the crossing of borders has become a feature of modern life that most of us, at one time or another, by fate or by design, have to endure, such departures – tinged as they are with loss – are always a kind of mourning. Like most immigrants, the memory of where I come from – regardless of the passage of time and maybe because of it – is never far from my mind. And perhaps this is what it means to live in diaspora: it is to live with the memory of loss – a place, a community – of something that is no longer there.

Ifemelu, the headstrong heroine of Americanah, moves to the United States after a series of protracted strikes halt her studies in Nigeria. The novel opens with her sitting in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, and moves back in time through a series of flashbacks chronicling her 13-year sojourn in the U.S. and her earlier life in Nigeria. She has, at this point, given up her fellowship at Princeton and shut down her popular satirical blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, in order to rekindle her lost love affair with Obinze in Lagos.

The thoughtful and scholarly Obinze is the novel’s other main protagonist. Americanah also charts his journey from Lagos to London and back again. While Ifemelu after a desperate start to stay afloat manages to build some semblance of a successful life, Obinze has no such luck. He is plunged into the dark underworld of undocumented migrants and has to make do with menial jobs and the constant threat of deportation hovering over his head. It’s a life of unremitting misery and he finds solace only in visiting book shops.

To show the drudgery of his existence: at some point he gets a job cleaning toilets and one day he gets to work only to find a mound of faeces on the floor. Instead of cleaning it up, he removes his gloves and disappears into the London streets. At a later juncture he finds work with a delivery company using someone else’s national security number but he has to handover hefty percentage of his salary every month. Eventually, and the outcome is almost inevitable, Obinze is deported. However, homecoming is good to Obinze. Not long after his return, albeit through underhanded dealings, he becomes a real-estate mogul and marries a former beauty queen.

chimamanda-adichieAmericanah is at heart an epic 500-page love story spanning three continents yet it more than that. To paraphrase Ifemelu, a novel doesn’t have to be about only one thing. Adichie’s previous novels, the Orange Prize-winning Half a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus found their lifeblood by delving into Nigerian history. This is her best work to date, and both old and new readers of her fiction will marvel at her writing. She might still be in her mid-thirties and yet she can be counted as one of the leading writers of our time. Americanah is hotwired by some of the urgent issues of our time, namely immigration, race – and the politics of black women’s hair.

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country” an African-American writer says to Ifemelu halfway in the novel. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.”

Yet both Ifemelu (writing her blog) and Adichie are undaunted by this advice. Ifemelu starts blogging in response to her growing awareness of race and how it plays out in American life. “I did not think of myself as black” she writes, “I only became black when I came to America”. It’s an acknowledgement that identity is not only a matter of how we see and label ourselves but also a matter of how we are seen by others.

Elsewhere she also writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your own country? You’re in America now.”

It took Adichie five years to write Americanah and she joked during a radio interview that she spent four-and-a-half of those years watching YouTube videos of how to style her hair without using chemicals. It’s not coincidental that Americanah opens with Ifemelu get her hair braided.

It may be a minor act but it’s an act of reclaiming oneself and that, I believe, is the lesson here. – Kona is a freelance writer and he works in advertising.