Hair asserts itself on the first page of “Americanah,” a knowing, prickly and virtuosic novel from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She was 29 when she won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2007 for “Half of a Yellow Sun”; she picked up a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant the following year. Her mother, a Nigerian university registrar, likes to say little Chimamanda started to read when she was 2. The writer herself thinks it was probably around age 4.
“Americanah” wears its genius lightly, starting with a pleasurable and assured set-up chapter that puts its central character Ifemelu on a train from Princeton to Trenton, N.J. Her mission: to have her hair braided. After 13 years stateside, most recently on a fellowship to Princeton, Ifemelu has decided to return to Lagos, Nigeria. At the salon, she asks for “a medium kinky twist” and negotiates $40 off the $200 asking price. The salon is thick with relaxing chemicals, hair extensions and black female sensibilities—a rich elixir that brings out the personalities and styles of the women gathered there. The air-conditioner is broken; Nollywood melodramas play across the television. Adiche returns her readers to the shop again and again.
All manner of hair and women come under scrutiny, including “the clamped, flattened” appearance of the current first Lady: “Still, there was in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for, a glint of her old self. It was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.”
Ifemelu herself is blunt; all of her opinions are strong. She writes a popular, anonymous blog called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains a handful of these posts – one very long installment is improbably read aloud at a party. The voice is funny, astringent and revelatory: “When white people say dark they mean Greek or Italian but when black people say dark they mean Grace Jones.” I can imagine both Cornel West and Clarence Thomas learning a thing or two. I certainly did – none of it particularly flattering. No place or demographic niche escapes unscathed.
“Americanah”—it should be stressed—doesn’t reprimand. The writing glints; minor characters flair and spark: “The General had yellowed eyes, which suggested to Ifemelu a malnourished childhood. His solid thickset body spoke of fights that he had started and won, and the buckteeth that gaped through his lips made him seem vaguely dangerous.”
At the braiding salon, Ifemelu pegs a young white woman named Kelsey with “the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America is.” This woman is reading to prepare for a sight-seeing trip to Africa. She finds “Things Fall Apart” “a little quaint, right?” but says “A Bend in the River” made her “truly understand how modern Africa works.” In one withering paragraph, Ifemelu blows up the enshrined V.S. Naipaul novel so completely that it left me gasping. At such moments, it is hard not to see Ifemelu as a doppelganger for Adichie.
Earlier this month, the author told National Public Radio that “this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair.” Ifemelu’s core love interest is her secondary school sweetheart, Obinze, with whom she cuts off communication after she enters a very bad patch in the United States. Obinze, for his part, makes his way to London, and even as everyone in his smart set in Nigeria “joked about people who went abroad to clean toilets,” he starts work with a lavatory brush. Later, at a London dinner party, Obinze listens to guests who are sympathetic to immigrants fleeing atrocity, but not those seeking an economic foothold:
“They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Adichie’s cultural acuity is a marvel, but she glosses how some systems create more “choice and certainty” and others less. Her observations hug the interior. Much of the book is dialogue. One blog post mentions Beyonce: “We all love Bey but how about she show us, just once, what her hair looks like when it grows from her scalp?”
The author, interested in “the rolling contradictions that were the world,” cleaves them open on three continents. Those who like their literature bracing should crowd in for a look.
If you can’t find the art you want, make it yourself.
That was famously the mindset of Jay-Z, when the rapper started Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995, and that DIY approach animates “Nollywood,” the Nigerian film industry.
Approximately 1,000 Nigerian movies are produced each year, surpassing the 800 films churned out annually in the U.S. For innovators everywhere, digital innovations have lowered technological barriers and production costs. Without a formal distribution model, Nigerian film prospers—many movies are watched at home in a nation of few theaters.
One of this year’s most anticipated projects is the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, scheduled for release in November 2013. The book won an Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction in 2007. (Adichie’s new title, Americanah, went on sale this month.)
The film is in the hands of first-time director Biyi Bandele and stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Olanna and Odenigbo, lovers caught in the midst of the Biafran war.
A recent Washington Post story on Nollywood’s expansion to the United States explores Nigeria’s film ascendancy. Director John Uche says, “Nigerians are considered the best writers in Africa, following the griot tradition in West Africa. It is a culture of storytelling. We are taking that culture into film. What do they say? ‘Nobody can tell your story better than you.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove delivered the 2013 commencement address to the graduates of Emory University in Atlanta.
The Anisfield-Wolf jury member spoke on the beauty of imagination and finding confidence as they journey into the unknown. Dove also received an honorary degree, with Emory President James Wagner praising her ability to “generously illuminate the world of beauty that formerly was hidden.”
How did you respond to Dove’s message? Just for fun—do you remember your commencement speaker or their message?
The 320-square-foot cabin is being dismantled piece by piece, to be rebuilt inside the museum. It is one of two slave cabins in Edisto Island, S.C. They have stood on the Point of Pines plantation since the 1850s. Neither cabin has ever had electricity or heat, but continued to shelter inhabitants more than a century after slavery ended. The last known occupants moved out some 30 years ago.
Curator Nancy Bercaw said the museum was drawn to this particular plantation because slaves first emancipated themselves there after Union troops set up a stronghold in the Carolinas. The cabin will join the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit that covers the post-Civil War era.
The museum will be the first new Smithsonian museum since the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. To get a preview, you can download “View NMAAHC” and “Changing America: To Be Free,” both free apps for the iPhone and Android.
Students at Humboldt State University in northern California analyzed more than 11 months of Twitter data to locate the biggest pockets of hate speech in America.
For the “Geography of Hate” project, students manually sifted through more than 150,000 tweets containing hateful speech targeting sexuality, race, and disability. Student read each tweet to determine whether the slur was used in a positive, negative, or neutral manner. Sample keywords included “homo,” “n*****,” and “cripple.”
To enhance accuracy of the map, researchers “normalized” the data to ensure that larger populations would not appear more racist simply because there are more people living there.
Researchers found that most of the slurs were not centralized to one particular region. A few terms were more concentrated—”wetback,” for example, was more prevalent in Texas than any other state.
Do any of the results of this project surprise you?
Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louise Gates Jr. has been busy the past few months, filming episodes of his new PBS series, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The six-part documentary will cover more than four centuries of African-American history, starting with the origins of slavery in Africa and moving to the present day.
Leading up to the series premiere, Gates has written a weekly column for TheRoot.com, “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” in which he uncovers little-known tidbits about African-American history.
“Over the past 500 years, our ancestors in this country have been as stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic, individualistic, argumentative and complex as the 42 million African Americans living today are,” Gates wrote in the inaugural column.
“Many Rivers To Cross” will premiere Tuesday, October 22 at 8:00 p.m. EST. A new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26.
Follow Gates on Twitter and Facebook, as he has been giving occasional behind-the-scenes peeks at filming locations and subjects.
Anisfield-Wolf winner Walter Mosley gave his readers a true cliff hanger in his last Easy Rawlins book, 2007’s Blonde Faith. The writer left L.A. Detective Rawlins clinging to a cliff. Many assumed the reluctant cop was dead. In the past six years, Mosley has focused on his Leonid McGill detective series, and hinted in interviews that Rawlins’ injuries were indeed fatal.
But Little Green brings Rawlins back from the brink. The new novel is set in the late 1960s, when the detective reunites with old friends and navigates a changing place for black men in American society. (Mosley won his Anisfield-Wolf award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” the story of an ex-con in Watts.)
Intrigued? Here are some tidbits to hold you over until you can get your hands on a copy:
Have you “liked” Walter Mosley on Facebook? For the past month he’s been sharing excerpts and interviews related to Little Green.
A Q&A with the LA Times explores Mosley’s whole career, focusing mostly on the Easy Rawlins series as Mosley’s vehicle for discussions of race, politics and culture.
Little Green is on sale May 14. Visit WalterMosley.com for dates of the national Little Green book tour.
Reacting to the blah, monochromatic nature of typical of Mother’s Day cards, Strong Families, an Alturas, California policy group, launched a line of digital Mother’s Day cards cued into the changing demographics of America’s families.
These cards represent the families that are “beyond the picket fence”: transgender, lesbian, low-income, immigrant, and incarcerated mothers are all featured.
Much like Andrew Solomon‘s exploration of family diversity in his 2012 book Far From The Tree, these cards contain a more imaginative and inclusive depiction of familial love.
Eveline Shen, executive director of Strong Families, said that the inspiration for this line of cards came from families like her own. “I’m raising my own daughters with my same-sex partner. When they go to the store, they don’t find images that reflect their reality. So, they started making their own cards.”
More than 5,000 cards were downloaded in its first year, with the goal of tripling that number in 2013. The cards reinforce Strong Families’ policy work on immigration, marriage equality, and universal healthcare.
Below, Favianna Rodriguez, an artist with Strong Families, explains how the cards are more than just a sentimental message:
At age 2, Joshua Coyne was removed from his Kansas City home with broken legs and hips. His foster mother was responsible.
He was placed in the care of Jane Coyne, a single woman with a love of classical music. During his recovery, Jane began to play a Puccini aria and to her surprise, Joshua was able to hum it back, note for note. From there, Jane began to help him hone his gift as a musical prodigy.
Young Joshua began formal musical lessons at 4 and two years later, debuted as a paid violinist. He performed for then-Senator Barack Obama at a campaign rally at the tender age of 14. He put his studies at the Manhattan School of Music to use, composing the score of Janet Langhart Cohen’s one-act play Anne and Emmett.
Now, at 20, he is the face of the film adaptation of Rita Dove’s acclaimed book, Sonata Mulattica, Dove’s interconnected poems that tell the story of another prodigy, 19th century violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.
Born to a Polish-German mother and Afro-Carribean father, Bridgewater performed all over Europe, thrilling royal audiences and garnering rave reviews. Ludwig Van Beethoven named one of his greatest violin sonatas after his friend and contemporary, but a spat between them caused Beethoven to re-title the work and cut off his friend. Bridgetower continued composing and teaching but gradually fell into obscurity.
It is gratifying that Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf jury member who plays the cello and its forerunner, the viola da gamba, has brought Bridgewater’s life center-stage.
The film intersects Coyne’s present journey with Bridgewater’s rightful place in history, adding layer and nuisance to the lives of two prodigies born centuries apart. “This story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of extraordinary obstacles,” said director and executive producer Andrea Kalin. “It reveals how music and art have the power not only to open our hearts, but transform our lives.”
Under the slogan “ideas worth spreading,” the annual TED conferences began in 1990, and have showcased a clutch of Anisfield-Wolf winners. The latest is Andrew Solomon, the 2013 winner for nonfiction, who took the stage in April at TEDMED, an annual program of medical innovators and thought leaders under the TED banner. His talk, “How Does An Illness Become An Identity?” drew from his book Far From The Tree, in which Solomon examines how families adapt – or not — to their children’s unique identities.
He begins by noting the seismic shift of societal attitudes toward homosexuality within a generation. Being gay was called “a pathetic, second-rate substitute for reality” by Time magazine in 1966. Today, marriage equality is endorsed by the president of the United States.
In “Far From the Tree,” Solomon explores ten other conditions, including dwarfism, deafness, Down Syndrome and autism, and asks whether they are illness or identity. The answers are multi-faceted, and stay close to families grappling with children who are radically different. Some reject and harm these offspring, but some find a means of love that allow children and families to gain a new, collective identity.
For Solomon, this is not theoretical territory. He says:
I decided to have children while I was working on this project. Many people were astonished and asked, “How can you decide to have children while you’re studying everything that can go wrong?” And I said, “I’m not studying everything that can go wrong. What I’m studying is how much love there can be even when it appears everything is going wrong.”
Let us know: Have you read Solomon’s Far From The Tree? What do you think of the themes he explored in this talk, with regard to society’s increasing acceptance of conditions (dwarfism, Down Syndrome, homosexuality, etc) that were previously deemed inferior?
Eugene Gloria’s 2012 poetry collection, My Favorite Warlord, won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf prize for poetry. Born in Manila, Phillippines, Gloria uses My Favorite Warlord’s 35 poems to explore Filipino heritage, samurai, fathers, masculinity, and memory.
Publishers Weekly praised the work, noting that Gloria “sets himself confidently against injustice, in favor of inquiry, amid the eclectic language of contemporary scenes.”
Gloria has written two other books of poems—Hoodlum Bird (2006) and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (2000). His honors and awards include an Asian American Literary Award, a Fulbright Research Grant, a San Francisco Art Commission grant, a Poetry Society of America award, and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches creative writing and English literature at DePauw University.
The road home from war is a long journey to rediscover who you are. Author Kevin Powers, who signed up for the Army at 17 and spent time as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, wrote his award-winning novel, The Yellow Birds, as a way to help him process what he had experienced on the front lines.
“I started initially writing poems about the war,” he said during an interview with PBS NewsHour. “I’ve been writing poems and stories since I was about 13. And I realized that I needed a larger canvas to say what I wanted to say, to answer the question that people were asking me, which was what was it like over there.”
In the novel, we see life in a war zone through the eyes of 21-year-old private John Bartle. He is tasked with watching over Murph, a younger solider with less experience. Through startling imagery, Powers gives civilians a glimpse at the sacrifices service members make while protecting our freedoms. Powers explores the themes of helplessness and fear, of the harsh inequity on the battlefield, and of the struggle to rediscover “normal” after the tour of duty has ended.
The Yellow Birds won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Powers holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin.