“Preventing international artists from contributing to American cultural life will not make America safer, and will damage its international prestige and influence,” wrote the signatories, who include poet Rita Dove and historian Simon Schama, panelists on the five-member Anisfield-Wolf jury.
The letter continues: “Arts and culture have the power to enable people to see beyond their differences. Creativity is an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. In the countries most affected by the immigration ban, it is writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are often at the vanguard in the fights against oppression and terror. Should it interrupt the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, such an Executive Order will aid those who would silence essential voices and exacerbate the hatreds that fuel global conflict.”
“As writers and artists, we join PEN America in calling on you to rescind your Executive Order of January 27, 2017, and refrain from introducing any alternative measure that similarly impairs freedom of movement and the global exchange of arts and ideas,” they write.
The editors of the New York Times Style magazine invited four woman to write letters of appreciation to Michelle Obama for the October 23, 2016 issue. The first – and arguably the most powerful – letter came from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007. The following year she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and her third novel, “Americanah,” was named one of the ten best books of 2013. Adichie’s TED talks, “We Should All be Feminist” and “The Danger of a Single Story,” have attracted more than 14 million viewers. She splits her time between Nigeria, where she was born, and the United States.
Her letter to Michelle Obama already has the feel of a classic:
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
She had rhythm, a flow and swerve, hands slicing air, body weight moving from foot to foot, a beautiful rhythm. In anything else but a black American body, it would have been contrived. The three-quarter sleeves of her teal dress announced its appropriateness, as did her matching brooch. But the cut of the dress scorned any “future first lady” stuffiness; it hung easy on her, as effortless as her animation. And a brooch, Old World style accessory, yes, but hers was big and ebulliently shaped and perched center on her chest. Michelle Obama was speaking. It was the 2008 Democratic National Convention. My anxiety rose and swirled, watching and willing her to be as close to perfection as possible, not for me, because I was already a believer, but for the swaths of America that would rather she stumbled.
She first appeared in the public consciousness, all common sense and mordant humor, at ease in her skin. She had the air of a woman who could balance a checkbook, and who knew a good deal when she saw it, and who would tell off whomever needed telling off. She was tall and sure and stylish. She was reluctant to be first lady, and did not hide her reluctance beneath platitudes. She seemed not so much unique as true. She sharpened her husband’s then-hazy form, made him solid, more than just a dream.
But she had to flatten herself to better fit the mold of first lady. At the law firm where they met before love felled them, she had been her husband’s mentor; they seemed to be truly friends, partners, equals in a modern marriage in a new American century. Yet voters and observers, wide strips of America, wanted her to conform and defer, to cleanse her tongue of wit and barb. When she spoke of his bad morning-breath, a quirky and humanizing detail, she was accused of emasculating him.
Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.
“I love this country,” she said to applause. She needed to say it — her salve to the hostility of people who claimed she was unpatriotic because she had dared to suggest that, as an adult, she had not always been proud of her country.
Of course she loved her country. The story of her life as she told it was wholesomely American, drenched in nostalgia: a father who worked shifts and a mother who stayed home, an almost mythic account of self-reliance, of moderation, of working-class contentment. But she is also a descendant of slaves, those full human beings considered human fractions by the American state. And ambivalence should be her birthright. For me, a foreign-raised person who likes America, one of its greatest curiosities is this: that those who have the most reason for dissent are those least allowed dissent.
Michelle Obama was speaking. I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.
She was informal, colloquial, her sentences bookended by the word “see,” a conversational fillip that also strangely felt like a mark of authenticity. She seemed genuine. She was genuine. All over America, black women were still, their eyes watching a form of God, because she represented their image writ large in the world.
Her speech was vibrant, a success. But there was, in her eyes and beneath her delivery and in her few small stumbles, a glimpse of something somber. A tight, dark ball of apprehension. As though she feared eight years of holding her breath, of living her life with a stone in her gut.
Eight years later, her blue dress was simpler but not as eager to be appropriate; its sheen, and her edgy hoop earrings, made clear that she was no longer auditioning.
Her daughters were grown. She had shielded them and celebrated them, and they appeared in public always picture perfect, as though their careful grooming was a kind of reproach. She had called herself mom-in-chief, and cloaked in that nonthreatening title, had done what she cared about.
She embraced veterans and military families, and became their listening advocate. She threw open the White House doors to people on the margins of America. She was working class, and she was Princeton, and so she could speak of opportunity as a tangible thing. Her program Reach Higher pushed high schoolers to go further, to want more. She jumped rope with children on the White House grounds as part of her initiative to combat childhood obesity. She grew a vegetable garden and campaigned for healthier food in schools. She reached across borders and cast her light on the education of girls all over the world. She danced on television shows. She hugged more people than any first lady ever has, and she made “first lady” mean a person warmly accessible, a person both normal and inspirational and a person many degrees of cool.
She had become an American style icon. Her dresses and workouts. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long slender fingers. Even her favored kitten heels, for women who cannot fathom wearing shoes in the halfway house between flats and high heels, have earned a certain respect because of her. No public figure better embodies that mantra of full female selfhood: Wear what you like.
It was the 2016 Democratic Convention. Michelle Obama was speaking. She said “black boy” and “slaves,” words she would not have said eight years ago because eight years ago any concrete gesturing to blackness would have had real consequences.
She was relaxed, emotional, sentimental. Her uncertainties laid to rest. Her rhythm was subtler, because she no longer needed it as her armor, because she had conquered.
The insults, those barefaced and those adorned as jokes, the acidic scrutiny, the manufactured scandals, the base questioning of legitimacy, the tone of disrespect, so ubiquitous, so casual. She had faced them and sometimes she hurt and sometimes she blinked but throughout she remained herself. Michelle Obama was speaking. I realized then that she hadn’t been waiting to exhale these past eight years. She had been letting that breath out, in small movements, careful because she had to be, but exhaling still.
Riders heading to downtown Cleveland on the RTA’s Red Line may have noticed quite a few more pops of color adorning the city landscape over the past two weeks. The colors have a story, and each story comes from a work or writer in the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award canon.
Inter|Urban, the collaboration among the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation, North East Ohio Area Coordinating Agency, RTA and LAND studio, has filled the 19-mile stretch from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and into downtown Cleveland with bright, vibrant murals. Coming up in time for the Republican National Convention in July will be two photo installations. All the art is inspired by Anisfield-Wolf texts and writers.
Seventeen artists from around the world converged on Cleveland in June for a public art blitz, creating an outdoor gallery and anchoring installations at the airport and Terminal Tower. Eight artists are based in Cleveland, with the others representing South Africa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, and Florida.
“This marvelous project moves the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards out into the city, showcased through original art spaced along the everyday paths of thousands of commuters,” said Karen R. Long, who manages the prize. “We expect the murals and the photography to start important conversations and serve as gateways to the books themselves, and the galvanizing ideas they contain.”
View the artworks below and hear from the artists in their own words how each piece came to be. Photos, unless otherwise specified, taken by Brandon Shigeta:
San Francisco muralist Aaron De La Cruz drew inspiration from a selection of Dolores Kendrick’s “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” about an enslaved woman sneaking off to read. The passage evoked a memory of his parents speaking in Spanish to keep their conversations a mystery to the young De La Cruz and his brother. Drawing off the theme of literacy, his mural features deconstructed letters and punctuation marks.
Cleveland artist Alan Giberson’s mural came from a brief scene in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when a New York Times reporter meets the civil rights leader for the first time. “Noblesse Oblige” is a French phrase referring the responsibility of those with privilege to extend generosity to those less fortunate. The artist, who specializes in hand-painted signage and gold-leaf lettering, was eager to tackle this project. “This was a big challenge, being the largest thing I’ve ever painted.”
Amber Esner, a Cleveland illustrator, was struck by Alexander’s ode to the dissolution of a relationship, as she lists the items left behind after a breakup. “My concept is based around the process of how people deal with loss by letting go of — or holding on to — specific objects,” she writes.
Cleveland illustrator and writer Margaret Kimball drew upon Martha Collins’ White Pages, a collection of untitled poems that explore white privilege and the ongoing racial divide in America. Kimball latched on to the repetition of the phrase “Yes, but” within the poem and used a minimalist color scheme to make one word prominent—YES. “The word is inclusive and strong and in this case has no strings attached, nothing to interrupt it,” Kimball writes.
If you happen to be in the passenger seat as you’re driving to and from Cleveland Hopkins airport, take a look around to see if you can spot these 35-foot tall overpass pillars, designed by Detroit artist Louise Chen. “The totem pillars are a celebration of the way cultures represent themselves in the language of ornament, with design inspired by many different cultures spanning the world,” she writes.
The Philadelphia-based artist describes this piece, titled “Unmask,” as “a visual metaphor about self-awareness, self-reflection and perception.”
Cleveland artist Osmad Muhammad used his mural to make a statement about national and global atrocities. The burning woman in foreground is a reference to Hiroshima and the burning ships depict the slave trade throughout the Americas.
Published in 1951, Langston Hughes‘ Montage of a Dream Deferred reads like a jazz record, full of conflicting rhythms and short bursts of animation. Cleveland artist Ryan Jaenke took Hughes’ melody and translated it to this mural on Cleveland’s west side. Hughes won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1954.
Jasper Wong, Hawaiian artist and co-curator of the Interurban project, explored the themes of luck that featured prominently in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He peppered his mural with black cats and broken down cars (symbols of bad luck) and rabbits (symbols of good luck).
Detroit artist Ellen Rutt used bold geometric patterns to transform these underpass pillars. Her “Patchwork Cleveland” mural was inspired by Adichie’s call to avoid “making generalizations about culture based on a singular experience or limited knowledge.” When Rutt moved to Detroit in 2011, she quickly realized the broader narrative about the Rust Belt city was flawed. “It was in Detroit, surrounded by amazing street art, that my interest in murals grew from awefilled admiration, to an unstoppable desire and ultimately, an incredibly important part of my art practice,” she writes.
A Cleveland native, Darius Steward is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. His mural features yellow as a primary color, the prominent color from John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “The Rain.”
South African artist Faith47 brought her international murals to Cleveland as part of her Psychic Power of Animals series, which attempts to “bring the energy of nature back into the urban metropolis.”
“There’s an inherent irony in recreating nature on cement, so the series is a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost but also an attempt to reintegrate that into the present,” Faith47 writes on her website. “We have become so distanced from nature, so these murals are an attempt to reconnect us with the natural world.”
San Francisco artist Brendan Monroe took cues from the dangerous sea voyage in Nam Le’s The Boat as he created this expansive mural. Look closely and you can see a child overboard.
“My father and I had a complicated relationship like the one in the story,” Kosman wrote, “and he died when I was fairly young, but he taught me most of the lessons I use now in my everyday life.”
If Edith Anisfield Wolf were alive today,” Detroit artist Pat Perry wrote, “I think she’d be encouraging us all to take direct aim at the great moral and social crises of our time. I can earnestly say that I think she’d be proud to see folks employing ideals taught to us by the past, in order to tackle issues of the present.”
by Gail Arnoff
“I was not sorry when my brother died.”
So begins Tsi Tsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical novel Nervous Conditions, the story of Tambudzai, a teenage girl in (the former Rhodesia now Zimbabwe) who lives in two worlds: that of her parents, poor farmers who earn a meager living, and that of her aunt and uncle, whom the British colonists have chosen to receive an education in England and eventually to run the missionary school.
I fell in love with Tambu in the first few pages, and as I introduce her to more readers, I have discovered that they take her to their hearts as well. This includes participants in a Books@Work group, women who are thirty to sixty-five, and college students in a “Questions of Identity” seminar. Until I requested it, the Cleveland libraries did not even own a copy of Nervous Conditions, but I consider Nervous Conditions a classic deserving of a wider readership.
When I mention the title, people often think that I am referring to a book on psychology. However, the title comes from a quote by Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and revolutionary who declared in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that “the condition of the native is a nervous condition.” Dangrembga’s semi-autobiographical novel suggests that like the natives living in what was called Rhodesia until 1980,Tambu also struggles against her condition, not only as a native, but as a girl living in a patriarchal society.
The plot is complex, but fairly easy to follow as Tambu sets out to explain, in the opening chapters of the book, why she is not sorry her brother has died. (No spoiler alert here, as it is best to let Tambu explain herself.) We meet other members of her family, including Jeremiah, her lazy, demanding father; Mainini, her mostly submissive mother; her Uncle Babamukuru, who heads the family and the mission school; Maiguru, Babamukuru’s college-educated wife who continues to kowtow to her husband’s many needs; and Nyasha, Tambu’s troubled female cousin, who plays a major role in introducing Tambu to a new world.
The Books@Work group related easily to Tambu’s brave response as she comes to understand the patriarchy of her family, members of the Shona group. Many readers recognized themselves in Tambu’s spirited rebellion and determination to become an educated, independent woman. Several readers recounted their own teenage adventures, as well as those of their teenage daughters. We laughed often when sharing stories of sneaking out to see a boy or taking that first sip of beer. In more serious discussions, we listened to a participant who grew up in Nigeria and another married to a man from Zimbabwe. Both provided insights into customs and issues that frame Tambu and her family. These women’s experiences added richness to discussions fueled by Tambu’s resourcefulness and tenacity.
My college students, much closer to Tambu’s age, were often outraged — particularly at the patriarchy and the colonialism. When Babamukuru and his family return from England to Rhodesia, their acquaintances treat them differently. They have become, as Nyasha says, “hybrids.” At her uncle’s house Tambu is shocked when Anna, a woman working for the Babamukurus, kneels down in front of the two girls to tell them that dinner is ready. Nyasha tells Anna to get up, but “Anna continue[s] her message on her knees.” These scenes shocked some students, most of whom have never seen the stark discrimination and race separations confronting Tambu and her cousin.
Nevertheless, students who come from places quite different than 20th century Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, are drawn again and again to the characters in Nervous Conditions. “I found myself relating to [Tambu’s] thought processes and parts of her personality, in particular the way she takes on the role of observer in many situations,” wrote one first-generation American whose parents are Chinese. Another student said that reading the novel was “like walking into a swimming pool: I felt pretty cold when I first started reading, but I got warmer and more engaged as I got to know the characters and began to puzzle out the themes.” Yet another young man was surprised by his connection to Tambu and wrote that “though I did not know what to think at first, Nervous Conditions and Tambu have garnered a special place in my heart and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both of them exceed my preconceptions and expectations.”
For both groups of readers, Dangarembga’s writing seemed more straightforward than lyrical; it is the responses of her characters that kindled interest. Tambu “does not look back on her life with kind or insensitive eyes,” one student wrote. “Instead, she is pragmatic and honest. She acknowledges the nostalgia that may or may not have seeped into her narrative, but otherwise, Tambu is a shrewd and reliable narrator. I appreciated Tambu’s fairness.”
Maybe it is especially that “fairness” that wins over readers. Tambu tells her story without pronouncing judgements or offering solutions. She reports that she has gone through a “process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.” Dangarembga wrote another novel, a sequel to Nervous Conditions called The Book of Not.
Next up: my book club will discuss Nervous Conditions. We have just read two novels by African authors, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Annisfield Wolf award for Half the Yellow Sun in 2007. These novels are as different from one another as one can imagine. I am keen to hear yet another group’s response to Nervous Conditions, and I hope that my friends, like me, will open their hearts to Tambu, just as the other groups have. But that is a tale for another time.
Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.
Half of a Yellow Sun is now available on iTunes and other video streaming services.
Directed by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, the film stars British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, supported by a strong ensemble cast of Nigerian and British actors. Half of a Yellow Sun received mixed reviews in the US and Europe, and was further overshadowed by Ejiofor’s critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave. In an additional complication, the film was originally supposed to open in Nigeria shortly after its release in Europe and the US, however, the Nigerian Film board stalled its Nigerian premiere due to concern over scenes depicting the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).
In Adichie’s novel, the story is told through three specific viewpoints; however, the adaptation uses an omniscient perspective. Perhaps to render the events and story less complex or more appealing, the film focuses more on romance than politics. The film centers on the lives of two sisters raised in privilege, Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) and Olanna (Thandie Newton). We meet them on the cusp of the civil war, and follow shifts in the complex relationships the sisters share with one another, their lovers, and, ultimately, their sense of nation.
Central to the film’s story are the interactions between the sisters and their lovers, Kainene’s English lover, the writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) and Olanna’s lover, Odenigbo (Ejiofor). Both sisters find themselves in the nascent Biafran state as a result of their work—Kainene takes over the running of their father’s company while Olanna teaches at university—and personal loyalties. At the start of the conflict, the sisters are removed from and seemingly uninterested in the underlying ethnic conflicts, though as the violence moves closer, their lives are changed forever.
In a recent interview with PBS, Adichie told host Tavis Smiley that the film was well done. “I like the art of it,” she said. “It captures Nigeria in a way that’s really beautiful.”
Shot on location in Nigeria, the director favors intimacy, warmed by sepia tones, natural colors and subtle textural changes in the scenery. Bandele highlights the contrasts between interior and exterior settings so that the landscape and environments become a vivid aspect of each scene. He also integrates archival footage of news stories and interviews of key political leaders, which helps outline the historical context for those unfamiliar with the war. Though pressing more on themes of romance, the film is a captivating and accessible adaptation, and serves to presents the complexities of an important event in modern African history.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
“When you’re not born in the U.S. and you’re a person of African descent, in some ways identifying as black becomes a political choice,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Tavis Smiley during a recent appearance on his PBS show. “I’m very happily black.”
Adichie was on hand to discuss her most recent novel, Americanah, now available in paperback. A love story that spans three continents, Americanah is about many things—with race and immigration at the forefront.
“I wanted to write about a kind of immigration that is familiar to me,” Adichie said. “When we hear about Africans emigrating, we think of people who have run away from burned villages and war and poverty. And that story is important to tell but it’s not the story I know. I wanted to talk about the Africa I know, which is that the middle-class educated people are leaving…because they want more choices.”
The pair discussed Adichie’s decision to come to the United States at 19, her refusal to speak with an American accent, and that “creative terror” that strikes when she sits down to write. The interview is worth watching in full. Take a look:
Now, readers can catch up with Ifemelu through “The Small Redemptions of Lagos,” at AmericanahBlog.com. This new blog focuses on Ifemelu’s life in Nigeria, a kind of younger sibling to the novel’s incendiary and anonymous blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negros) by a Non-American Black.”
The new installment is no less expressive. Ifemelu’s observations are piercing, even on such subjects as a leaky roof at a Lagos airport or a friend who needs to take better care of herself: “Don’t expect water to taste like Coke. It is not Coke. It is water. And it is better for you.”
In the first handful of posts, love interest Obinze (whom Ifemelu calls “Ceiling”) appears, along with best friend Ranyinudo. More characters are expected.
“Americanah” won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was selected as one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, the BBC and Newsday. Earlier this year, actress Lupita Nyong’o (fresh off her Best Supporting Actress win for 12 Years A Slave) announced she had optioned the rights to Adichie’s book, with plans to star in and produce the movie adaptation.
In the meantime, readers will have the web posts to keep them primed. “Ifemulu does have an opinion on everything and why shouldn’t she be like that?” Adichie told an interviewer in March. “I wanted her to be like that. I admire her very much.”
Novelists Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – both Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners — displayed a warm, comfortable familiarity on stage for their recent appearance at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Fresh off Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle win for “Americanah,” her novel about “love, race and hair,” the conversation between the two literary lionesses veered from the amusing to the insightful. Watch the duo discuss Adichie’s fascination with race and class, the absurdity of romance novels, and Beyonce.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” took the top prize for fiction at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards .
Karen Long, Anisfield-Wolf manager and judge for the NBCC, praised Adichie’s latest: “Americanah”—it should be stressed—doesn’t reprimand. The writing glints; minor characters flair and spark.”
In a recent HuffPost Live interview, Adichie asserted that “Americanah” was the book she wanted to write for her own personal satisfaction:
“I felt almost liberated,” she remarked. “This is the novel where I’m completely having fun and I’m free. I’m not burdened by a sense of duty of responsibility. I was just having fun. With Half of a Yellow Sun, I felt this weight of responsibility. I knew many people would read the novel not as fiction, but as history….With Americanah, there was no burden.”
On the eve of the NBCC awards, Adichie stopped by the Bruce Lehrer Show to discuss the themes of race and identity woven throughout Americanah. Listen to the interview in its entirety below:
Fresh off a feature on Beyonce’s secret album, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stopped by HuffPost Live to talk about how her latest work, Americanah, fits in her literary career and how she found comfort in breaking the rules.
Watch as Adichie, a 2007 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, discusses embracing her fashion sense as a “serious writer,” the importance of race and class in feminism, and more.
After months of little publicity, the official trailer for “Half Of A Yellow Sun” has been released, weeks ahead of the film’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
The big screen adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed 2006 novel has been in the works since 2008. First-time director Biyi Bandele, celebrated Nigerian novelist and playwright, has ushered the project from script to screen.
Unlike most productions in Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, “Half of A Yellow Sun” has serious Hollywood power in its starting line-up: Thandie Newton (Crash), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man) and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) all star. No formal release date has been announced. Watch the trailer below and let us know what you think. (Be warned: there are 10 seconds of strong violence at the 1:33 mark)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 477 pp., $26.95
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.’”
During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.
I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.
Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.
It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.
I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.
Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.
In this TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie discusses the danger of the single story—that is, how powerful individual stories about a country can warp our minds as to what life in those places is really like. Check out her story and let us know: How has literature impacted the way you see the world?
Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field.
“Annie Allen” (1949)
“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)
“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)
“Invisible Man” (1952)
Edward P. Jones
“The Known World” (2003)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)
“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)
“The Weary Blues” (1925)
Zora Neale Hurston
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)
“White Teeth” (2000)
“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)
“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990)
Ernest J. Gaines
“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)
“I’ve always felt one step removed from things because I’ve always felt I’ve been watching. I wasn’t entirely there. There was a part of me that was always milking details for a story…I think it’s the lot of the writer.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007 Anisfield-Wolf award winner.