Born on a Tuesday

Born on a Tuesday opens following a gang of street boys, who are hanging in the streets and getting up to no good. They spend time smoking wee wee, pillaging, committing random acts of violence and even murder. We are introduced to the main character, Dantala, “born on a Tuesday”, alias Ahmad. His poignant first person voice recounts his coming of age story in northern Nigeria.

This poignant novel takes us through friendships, political strife, islamic extremism, and death. We as readers learn more about the real life difficulties of growing up a boy in northern Nigeria. Dantala is a boy who has seen a lot already from the beginning of the novel. In spite of this, he is still not enough street smart. He is away from his home and is supposed to be studying the Koran, Arabic, Hausa, and Math. He’s an excellent student but a horrific incident sends him running for his life from Bayan Layi. We have no idea how old he is but it’s quite clear he can’t be more than 15 years old. He finds himself weak and sick in a town called Sokoto. This is where the growth of Dantala and Born on a Tuesday continues.

I have to say I was excited to buddy read this novel with The African Book Addict. We both owned Born on a Tuesday and were anxious to get to it.  This book touches on many typical themes as most coming of age stories but this one goes much further. It explores political power, religion, and how religious extremism starts and can envelop a community and the innocent.  This novel depicts all the complexities that we can’t think of.  The writing style and the author’s capacity to make the reader feel so many different emotions in so few pages are the best things about Born on a Tuesday.  I was engrossed immediately and liked Dantala’s personality. At times I found myself mentally rooting for him and urging him not to make bad choices.

The structure of the novel was cleverly done.  It is separated into five parts ranging from 2003-2010. Part 3 begins with a chapter called Words. It’s from here where we read Dantala’s English word journal. These sections, written in italics, explore words that he had learned in English and through his journal we go deeper into his thoughts about what is going on in his life through them.  It is a diary of sorts disguised as a simple word journal. Some of the words he writes about are obsess, anthropology, terrify, discovery shrug, etc.  These passages are some of the more vulnerable moments of Dantala’s thoughts. It’s a clever device that Elnathan John uses for us to see what Dantala really thinks and feels about things.  Despite this being a first person narrative, we are immediately sucked in and believe everything he recounts. He’s a pretty reliable narrator too since he doesn’t try to lie about his feelings or actions when he is embarrassed (and there are quite a few embarrassing moments) or wrong.  I know usually readers feel first person narratives get a little too close for comfort but I can’t explain exactly why but this one could only work in that point of view.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Elnathan John and I can’t wait to get to another one. His writing is unfaltering and informative. Born on a Tuesday was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2016. After reading this one I’d like to know which title won.  Elnathan John is a writer and novelist and is one of Nigeria’s most well-known satirist.  If you’d like to read more of Elnathan John’s writing check out his blog Elnathan’s Dark Corner.

My copy:  Born on a Tuesday, Elnathan John (Cassava Republic), paperback 261 pages

My rating:  * * * * *

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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!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPXV-qYv6ms]