Ayiti

 

imageHaving read but one short collection this entire year, I’m ending 2014 with a really good one. I was gifted this signed copy by a friend and I am so grateful. Ayiti is Roxane Gay’s debut novel of short stories. It confronts the reader with Haiti, the good and the bad. It consists of fifteen short stories all carrying different themes about Haiti and the  Haitian diaspora.

All the stories have a flavor of island living that is hard to ignore. The first four stories recount fitting in in the United States as an immigrant, being different because one has an accent, and people’s reactions to those differences. The other stories relate Haitians’ desires to leave their country for a better life in the United States. Gay depicts the difficulty from both sides – the Haitian that emigrates and the Haitian that stays back home, very well. Each story details aspects that we the reader may not be prepared to read. We are confronted with the dark side of life in Haiti and immigrant life in the United States.  At times, her stories take on an erotic tone, but it isn’t at all gratuitous.

Kidnapping and prostitution are two of the darkest subjects in this collection. The fifth story Things I Know About Fairy Tales speaks specifically about being kidnapped. It is the short story that became An Untamed State. I haven’t read it yet but even as a short story it was dark, menacing, and heightened the senses.  I’m curious to see how this short story develops into An Untamed State.

Haiti is a country that seems to get under its citizens’ skin and is difficult to leave. The idea of leaving for good seems to be impossible for some and a necessity for others. Haiti’s breezy beaches, gritty cities, simple lifestyle yet fearful, dangerous, and imminent violence are haunting. Ayiti is definitely a short story collection worth checking out. It gives an excellent view of Roxane Gay’s poignant and refreshing writing style. I just love the way she adds pop culture references into her storytelling. It helps the reader understand even better what she’s trying to say and gives particular life to her short stories.

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!

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We Need New Names

“Then we are rushing then we are running then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing.” (back 15852479cover of We Need New Names)  The truth comes from the mouths of babes is what kept coming to mind as I was reading this captivating story.  We Need New Names struck me at first with much sadness, shock, and horror, but most of all it sparked my interest to learn more about the history of Zimbabwe.  The main character Darling narrates the hardship of her life in Zimbabwe with the language of a child.  Everything we learn in the first 60 pages of the book is recounted simply and directly.  It almost makes things feel even stronger and terrible coming from her in such an innocent way.  There are moments when the tension is so potent that I found myself squirming in my seat dreading what was coming next.

Zimbabwe is an African country with a very complex history that frankly I don’t know much about besides the few things I remember hearing on the news – food shortages, Mugabe, seizing of white owned land, etc.  All of these events start around the year 2000 like the story We Need New Names.  In the first half of the story, Bulawayo tells us the history and strife of life in Zimbabwe, while simultaneously giving us the background we need to know to understand Darling’s homeland and life.  Surprisingly, this story is more than just the terrible plight of growing up in an African country.  It is also a story of immigration and the difficulties that go along with it.  Most people think it’s easy to immigrate, especially when the person’s home country is strewn with violence, poverty, economic and political instability.  It’s just not that clear.

Amongst all the savagery we read about, there is the simple fun life of being a child that stayed with me.  Darling, Chipo, Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina were making memories.  Memories that could be rekindled by simply smelling a guava.  Memories.  I think we can all relate to that, even if we haven’t left our home country indefinitely.  The memories of what we did, what we ate, what and who we love travels with us, always there in the back of our minds.  The first part of We Need New Names is just that.  It’s the memories of Darling, family, friends, life in the village and the history of her homeland, Zimbabwe.

The second half of the book explores life in the United States.  The country which is perceived to be a saviour of some sort.  Or, is it?  Darling constantly talks about her Aunt Fostalina coming to take her back to live in America.  One day it finally happens and then we get the analysis of how that goes.  Bulawayo makes an obvious critique of American lifestyle and the American perception of Africa being nothing more than that place where there are starving children, civil war, and economic instability – nothing more than a stereotype and certainly no distinction from one country to another, while still narrating through Darling.  We as the reader learn more about the hardship and heavy responsibility to provide for family in America as well as family back home in Zimbabwe.  The separation is heartbreaking.  It’s like being in some sort of purgatory.  Darling has escaped life in Zimbabwe yet she isn’t able to live wholly in America.  The longing to see her mother and her country again is interminable, but Darling can’t go home because she wouldn’t be able to return to America, like many other immigrants.

We Need New Names could be a strong contender for the Man Book Prize this year but I’m not sure it will win.  I really can’t judge  since I haven’t read the others on the shortlist yet.  I’m also looking forward to reading The Lowland, The Luminaries, and A Tale for a Time Being.  However, there are a few problems with We Need New Names, in my opinion.  Firstly, the second half of the novel seems a bit rushed compared to the first half.  Aunt Fostalina, Uncle Kojo, and Tshaka Zulu are very interesting characters that I would have loved to get to know just a little better.  Another problem is that the section on America wasn’t in-depth enough.  It seemed to lack the sensitivity and personification of the first half.  Some events were skipped over too quickly so I didn’t feel as connected to that part of the story as I did in the beginning.  Lastly, after having some time to think about it, I feel as if the construction of the second half of the novel was built on vignettes, which Bulawayo employs to convey some of the important and minor themes.  Nevertheless, We Need New Names is a book that you should take a look at.  It’s well worth the 4 stars I gave it on Goodreads.  Noviolet Bulawayo is definitely an author we will be reading a lot more from in the future.  It’s also refreshing to read an author from Zimbabwe!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASpTFzBw_Ck]