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:
Few writers have made the kind of spectacular, multimedia splash onto the literary scene the way James McBride has.
McBride, 56, first attracted attention in 1996, for his memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. It sat atop the New York Times bestsellers list for two years, selling more than two million copies and winning an Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. His first novel, 2002’s The Miracle of St. Anna, enjoyed a movie adaptation from director Spike Lee, for which McBride adapted the screenplay.
But Song Yet Sung received a quieter reception in 2008. “Only eight people read it, and I have 11 brothers and sisters so that’s saying something,” he quipped at his recent appearance at the Hudson Library & Historical Society in Ohio.
It’s safe to say McBride has rebounded nicely with The Good Lord Bird. A picaresque story built around abolitionist John Brown, the story is told through the eyes of runaway slave Henry Shackleford, a boy passing as a girl. It won the 2013 National Book Award in November; McBride was so surprised he carried his dinner napkin up to the lectern, where he had to improvise an acceptance speech.
“In jazz, lots of people play the same songs,” McBride told the Daily Beast. “But it’s the way you play it is what distinguishes you from the next man or woman who plays it.”
Indeed, music informs McBride’s writing, and vice versa. An accomplished tenor saxophonist, McBride has traveled with jazz legend Jimmy Scott and composed songs for Anita Baker. For his last two books, McBride has married the literary with the musical on tour with what is now the Good Lord Bird band. The quintet performed funky, jazz-infused renditions of enduring gospel hymns, often packing auditoriums and driving audience members to their feet. Others sway in their seats.
Watch this clip of the band’s performance at the New York Public Library.
McBride, who earned a conservatory degree at Oberlin College in 1979, noted the connection he felt with John Brown, who worked for a time at Oberlin, and whose father was a trustee.
“History depends on who’s telling it — and why,” he said. The novel “seemed a way to thrust Brown into the reality of now.”
Philosophy Professor David Livingstone Smith kicked off the University of New England’s 2014 diversity lecture series with a talk on why “race” is a destructive concept.
The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction award winner for “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others” stated his mission at the top: “I wish to liberate you. I do not think I will succeed, but I hope I will raise questions about certain beliefs you take for granted.”
Smith presented his audience with a slide of four individuals with light skin and typical European facial features. He then asked the audience if they could determine which two were, in fact, African-American. It proved puzzling for those assembled. (See the slide here.)
“Virtually every genocide that I know enough about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith told his listeners on the Maine campus. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.”
Smith, who has taught philosophy at the university since 2000, is also the co-founder of The Human Nature Project, which explores evolutionary biology and human nature. He is the author of seven books, including Less Than Human, a centerpiece text in several college classes, including the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University.
Watch his entire talk below on the “race delusion” and share your thoughts:
Wither the best book list? Inherently inane and crazy-making, these are also undeniably good conversation starters.
Of course, it is strange to see “Kitchen Confidential” make the cut, and the bizarre assertion that “Portnoy’s Complaint” is Philip “Roth at his finest.” The Amazon list tilts toward best-sellers, rather than an author’s best work.
Working another vein is the redouble Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has offered its list of the 10 best books to read after a breakup. Junot Diaz makes this list, too, this time for “This is How You Lose Her,” his sexy, harrowing short story collection. Surprisingly, he is joined by Adrian Nicole LeBlancfor her gold-standard of domestic reporting, “Random Family.” Cosmo editors give the somewhat spurious reason that the book is an absorbing distraction. May we add: and much more.
On the day Nelson Mandela’s body was lowered into the ground, Congressman John Lewis raised his voice half a world away to exhort the December graduates of Cleveland State University to begin lives of activism and “to get into good trouble.”
Lewis, 73, told the almost 1,000 graduates that he had been “very moved” in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the U.S. delegation to the Mandela memorial service.
“Don’t give up; don’t give in; go forth and be good citizens, not just of America, but citizens of the world,” Lewis said, connecting his listeners to Mandela’s legacy and the American Civil Rights movement. “This is your day, not mine,” he said, with more than the snowy date on the calendar in mind.
A man of stillness and humility, Lewis moved his right hand over his heart as he accepted an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State, the latest of more than 50 such academic honors. “I’m delighted and very pleased to be with you on this important occasion,” he told his hosts. “Thank you for honoring a poor boy from rural Alabama. I was not born in a big city like Cleveland.”
But he became a man of momentous deeds – an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a veteran of more than 50 arrests and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Two years after the March on Washington, Lewis and SNCC co-founder Hosea Williams started across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., leading some 600 people marching for voting rights. They were beaten and gassed, and when the vigilantes and the Alabama state police were done, they had broken Lewis’ young skull.
“I was beaten unconscious and bloody in 1965 on that bridge in Selma,” Lewis told his Cleveland State audience, “but I never, ever thought about hating anyone. Hate was too big of a burden to bear.”
Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman reminded the assembly that Lewis was aptly called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” He asked everyone to observe a moment of silence in Mandela’s memory and urged the graduates to savor the day they have earned.
Lewis entertained his listeners with boyhood stories of raising chickens, marking eggs, eating peanuts and first hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio in 1955. He described applying to Troy State University and receiving no reply. “My generation, we didn’t have an internet, we didn’t have a cell phone, but we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution.”
He urged the graduates to find their cause. “You won’t be arrested maybe. You won’t be beaten. But do your part. The way of peace, the way of love, is the better way.”
The potency of literature went on vivid display in early November when readers gathered around the writers who won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prizes. They started with an intense and intimate two-hour session at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.
“I need to give a shout-out to Wendell Berry, whose ‘The Gift of Good Land’ was one of the most important books of my life,” boomed Sinclair President Steven Lee Johnson, turning to the celebrated Kentucky author in praise of the 1981 essay collection, one of Berry’s 50 titles.
A bit later, a woman in a pink sweater rose, lifted her chin to Berry and fiercely declared, “Your words have changed my life, over and over. I carry your books when I am sad and frightened and they have changed things for me.” She paused, looked at the 300-member audience. “How awesome is that?”
Berry, 79, in Dayton to accept his distinguished achievement award, decided to address the fervor. “When people say my writing has changed their life, I feel complimented, but also a little frightened,” he said. “I didn’t sit down to change anybody’s life.” His eyes sought out the woman. “I think my book spoke to something in you that changed your life. That is to your credit and you should not give the credit to me.”
Nevertheless, credit abounded at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a legacy of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that negotiated a stop to the Bosnian War. Established a decade later, the award seeks to recognize literature as “an enduring and effective tool for fostering peace.” It is now eight years old.
“The writers who win see the sincerity of the people who come and the people who work on this,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair of the awards. “There is an entire community dedicated to peace and literature and the connection between the two.”
Pat Fife, a teacher at suburban Dayton’s Kettering-Fairmount High School, said her students were studying human trafficking with a class of like-minded students in Bosnia. Both groups read Ben Skinner’s “A Crime So Monstrous” about “modern-day slavery.” It won the 2009 Dayton prize.
“I thought it might be a little controversial, but people have been more than willing to engage it,” Fife said. Her students linked up with a nearby Methodist Church that works to fight human trafficking.
In Dayton, Solomon declared that “human diversity matters just as much as species diversity.” He noted that roughly 50 years ago Time magazine could denigrate gays as sub-human and the Atlantic Monthly could recommend exterminating infants with Down Syndrome. “I wanted to understand how something universally understood as an illness turned into an identity,” he said.
Such transformation doesn’t arrive all at once. One man took Solomon aside in Dayton and demanded the writer admit that “this gay rights thing has gone too far.” Solomon quietly told the stranger he would not admit that.
The author, who received a thunderous ovation at the awards ceremony, riffed on his title. “What parent hasn’t looked at their child,” he asked, “and said, ‘What planet did you come from?’”
Growing up, Solomon read and admired Berry’s poetry, and Berry said, for his part, he was thunderstruck in 1963 by Harry Caudill’s nonfiction classic “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” a story about rural poverty that mattered.
Maaza Mengiste, Dayton’s first runner-up in 2011 for her novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” said she had been greatly influenced by Tim O’Brien, who was on hand as last year’s distinguished achievement winner.
“Peace is a shy thing,” O’Brien told the crowd. “It doesn’t brag about itself. We are at peace in this room and we take it for granted. It’s by its absence that peace is known. Peace is a value we don’t feel until the wolf is at the door.”
Fiction winner Adam Johnson spoke eloquently about the wolf’s stranglehold on North Korea, also captured in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” He asked the Dayton audience to imagine the isolation on the northern half of the peninsula, separated from its own literature. “Not a single play or poem has been smuggled out of North Korea in 60 years, unlike, even, the worse days of the Russian gulag.”
Closer to home, nonfiction runner-up Gilbert King explored “Devil in the Grove,” a harrowing, 1949 Florida case of racial injustice. It also won a Pulitzer Prize this year and centers on the legal mastery of a young Thurgood Marshall.
The crusading lawyer “was never surprised by the verdicts in the South,” King observed. “But he did say, ‘sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.’”
International outrage over the “Grovewood boys” case in Florida helped raise the cash that supported the NAACP’s work on Brown vs. Board of Education, King said, ushering forward a new America.
Berry, lionized by O’Brien’s introduction, brought the crowd back to Earth. “There is a certain comedy in hearing one’s self praised,” he said. “I am embarrassed that I have nothing to present but me.”
Fresh off the paperback release of his newest work, This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz swung by Cleveland State University in October for its Cultural Crossings seminar. We caught up with our 2008 fiction winner for his reflections on winning an Anisfield-Wolf award. “It puts you in remarkably excellent company,” Diaz said, and we couldn’t agree more.
At the conclusion of this year’s ceremony, a number of Nigerians in attendance approached our lifetime achievement winner Wole Soyinka, for a chance to get close to the man they admired. A few bowed in his presence. He returned their kindness, speaking with a few before being whisked away to the book signing. We spoke with Soyinka to hear his thoughts on being honored for a lifetime of work and what it means to get that type of reception at this point in his career:
A. Van Jordanmade an October appearance at Market Garden Brewery’s Brews & Prose event, sharing snippets from his latest work, “The Cineaste,” in front of a packed crowd. We caught up with the Akron native for a brief chat on the personal significance of winning the 2005 Anisfield-Wolf award:
The wood-frame Cleveland house where Langston Hughes once scribbled teenaged insights is back from the brink. Four years ago its back door flapped open and its copper fixtures had been pilfered by thieves, leaving ugly holes in the walls.
Today, it is renovated, and ready for its new owner, an aspiring writer from Lyndhurst. Perhaps the 3-bedroom home’s proximity to long-ago greatness will bring him luck. Langston Hughes was just 15 in 1917 when he rented the attic room on E. 86th St. His mother and stepfather had moved away, and Langston was doing well at Cleveland’s prestigious Central High School. He had started to write poems.
“The only thing I knew how to cook myself in the kitchen of the house where I roomed was rice, which I boiled to a paste. Rice and hot dogs, rice and hot dogs, every night for dinner. Then I read myself to sleep,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea.
Young Langston was a star on Central’s track team, and in its literary magazine, “The Monthly,” where his first short stories appeared. Ethel Weimer, his much-respected English teacher, encouraged him to read Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Edgar Lee Masters, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay.
He went on to attend Columbia University (for a year), travel the world and play a central role in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes returned briefly to Cleveland in the 1930s when the Karamu House produced six of his plays. In 1954, he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his novel, Simple Takes a Wife.
But even as Hughes became enshrined in the 20th Century American pantheon, the colonial on E. 86th St. declined. In 2009, a neighborhood improvement group bought the decrepit property for $100 from the city of Cleveland, only to discover that the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance had been a boy there.
Debra Wilson, real estate manager for Fairfax Development Corp., said her small nonprofit was ill-prepared to find the cash that rescuing a historic landmark would require. Nevertheless, her group managed the renovation and to sell it in October for $85,000. (See listing here.)
“We put about $174,000 into it, but we’re not complaining. We’re very proud,” Wilson said. “We’re doing a Langston Hughes reading garden next to it on land the Cuyahoga County Land Bank donated.”
Occasional news stories have meant “we get phone calls about it from around the world,” she said.
Studying the poetry Langston Hughes wrote during his adolescent in Cleveland, the scholar Arnold Rampersadobserved that it is ”dominated by images of childhood. He was a star high school athlete, the best high jumper in Ohio, and again and again he depicted himself as a child in his poetry, showing an extraordinary quality of innocence” in a complex man.
In 2012, biographer Rampersad returned to Cleveland to be honored with an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.
Eugene Gloria‘s My Favorite Warlord earned praise from the Anisfield-Wolf jury for his “vivid and striking” work examining masculinity, identity, and heritage. His 2012 collection of poetry helped him snag his latest literary prize, the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for poetry. Prior to this year’s ceremony, we talked to Gloria about what winning the award meant to him and where he sees his career headed next.
As guests began to trickle in to the Ohio Theater at Playhouse Square, an older woman surveyed the crowd and winked at me. “Good—not everyone here has gray hair,” she said.
I was on hand to see Stephen L. Carter, the third author to come to Cleveland for the Writers Center Stage series, sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. My father introduced me to his work by keeping his nose in a well-worn copy of The Emperor of Ocean Park, winner of a 2003 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction.
The Yale law professor, 58, warmed up the crowd with a few quips about football, poking fun of his favorite team, whose name “no one says any more.”
A graduate of both Yale and Stanford, Carter began his career as a law clerk for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson, III, of the United States Court of Appeals, and then to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States. His relationship with Marshall taught him valuable lessons, one of which is “being strategic in which battles you’re willing to fight,” he said. He spoke at length of his reverence for the justice, who, Carter recalled, was able to praise the opposition in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which Marshall served as lead counsel.
Transitioning from law to a career as a writer wasn’t difficult, Carter told the crowd of almost 500. “All lawyers do is somewhat fiction,” he quipped, drawing a laugh from the crowd. However, he did acknowledge his lawyer training taught him to anticipate the “What ifs,” which translates to skillfully keeping the reader surprised at the plot twists in his novels.
Crafting his most recent novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, which explores what might have happened if Lincoln survived the assassination attempt, took months of deep digging. “I like to get my facts right. I used photos, maps, personal diaries…anything I could. I wanted to capture an authentic D.C.” He called the process of writing novels “emotional agony,” but enjoyed the satisfaction from completing them.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, an audience member alluded to the government stalemate in Washington and asked what, if anything, voters could do to improve civility at the federal level. “Civility will come to politics when people decide it’s more important than the outcome,” he responded. “Politics ought to appeal to the best in us and hardly ever does. The best thing we can do is have a greater involvement in local politics, where our votes really matter.”
Junot Diaz did not dress up for his talk. He wore black jeans, worn boots and his white shirttails out beneath a charcoal sweater, front and back. On an October Friday afternoon, he walked into the terraced auditorium at Cleveland State University, and leaned companionably against the wall, sipping coffee out of a disposable cup as Professor Antonio Medina-Rivera introduced him.
Medina-Rivera ran through Diaz’s dizzying credentials: a full professor at M.I.T., a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, a Pulitzer Prize for his vibrant first novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which also won an Anisfield-Wolf book award. In addition, his host reported, Diaz volunteers at Freedom University, a new institution that attempts to meet the needs of undocumented college students in Georgia.
The 44-year-old Diaz took the stage and gradually built a case for embracing ambivalence and imperfection. “I am never trying to be right,” he said. “I’m trying to be the launch pad for somebody to be righter.” He mocked the preening persona-building on Facebook. He smiled and joked, even as he delivered some withering political remarks. Here is one sample:
“The elites are running rough-shod over us. They are engineering forced income transfers to the top. Elites are gutting the middle class, and that gets a shrug. But say, ‘A Mexican is taking your job,’ and everybody has an opinion.”
Diaz read the same passage from “Oscar Wao” that he selected in 2008 when he appeared at the Cleveland Public Library: three pages at the start of Chapter Two that describe Oscar’s sister Lola called to the bathroom by their mother to feel for a lump in the matriarch’s breast. It is a gorgeous passage, and one of the few stretches in the book without profanity or explicit sexual asides.
When Diaz finished, a student asked him if he thinks in Spanish. The writer was born in Santo Domingo, a third child in a neighborhood without electricity. His mother brought him to Parlin, N.J., to rejoin his father when he was six.
“Spanish is my birth language, and everything that means,” Diaz answered. “English is my control language, and everything that means. I can’t be super-smart in Spanish. In Spanish, I am less guarded.”
Asked how he perfected Lola’s voice, Diaz observed that poor children come-of-age in front of each other, in packed living quarters. In the comfort of the American middle class, adolescence happens privately behind closed doors.
“Most of us have so many aspects of ourselves, it is almost impossible to reconcile,” Diaz said, recounting his own years pumping iron as a young man, only to be caught out for his nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons-loving side by a dorm mate at Rutgers. There he fell under the literary influences of Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros, even as he worked full-time delivering pool tables, washing dishes, and pumping gas to cover tuition.
Diaz poked fun at peers who name Charles Dickens when asked who is their favorite author. He made a point of praising contemporaries – Ruth Ozeki for her new novel, “A Tale for the Time Being,” and Edwidge Danticat for “Claire of the Sea Light” calling it “unbelievable, the best one she has done.” (Danticat won an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Dew Breaker” in 2005.)
Everyone, Diaz claimed, is searching for the place where “all the parts of us can be present and safe.” For him, that place was reading. “I write because I love books,” he said. “Writing is just my expression of my excess love of reading.”
Still, he warned his listeners against unbridled enthusiasm. “Love something too much and you know the kind of kids you raise. . .
“It is OK to be involved in a practice you are ambivalent about. Some of the best parents are ambivalent about being parents. . . I am deeply ambivalent about the craft of writing. Anyone who grew up in the shadow of the (Dominican Republic) Trujillo dictatorship can’t see stories as only good. There is a cost to everything. I am always aware of the shadows that lurk in every artistic practice, and I’m always troubled by them.”
Then the sober mood broke. In a different conversation, Diaz allowed that he had been texting pictures of Cleveland. He sent one to his buddy Christopher Robichaud, a lecturer in ethics at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Robichaud grew up in Euclid and Chardon, and graduated with a degree in philosophy from John Carroll University. The two men bonded over “tabletop role-playing games, horror movies, superhero comics,” Robichaud said.
And yes, he answered Diaz: the structure the writer photographed was indeed the West Side Market that Robichaud had described in their chats about childhood.
John Lewis was 17 when he met Rosa Parks; 18 when he joined forces with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Five years later, he was one of the “big six,” an architect of the historic Civil Rights March on Washington in August 1963. Standing at the Lincoln memorial, Lewis spoke sixth and King spoke tenth, stamping the day with his immortal “I Have a Dream.” Of all those who addressed the throng a half century ago, Lewis is the only one left.
Now, at 73, he has become the first member of the U.S. Congress to craft a comic book. Called “March,” it will publish August 13, the first in a trilogy written with Lewis staff member Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell, the award-winning cartoonist.
The idea isn’t as whimsical as it sounds. Aydin, a comic book enthusiast from Atlanta, knew that in 1957, a 15-cent comic entitled “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” inspired the Greensboro Four. At least one read the comic and the four students from North Carolina A&T State University decided to sit down in protest at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.
Lewis himself led a group trying to integrate a Woolworth’s counter Feb. 27, 1960. They prayed and drew on the principles of non-violence. “People came up to us and spit on us and put cigarettes out in our hair,” he told listeners at the Book Expo. “I was so afraid, I felt liberated.” The episode led to jail, the first of Lewis’s more than 40 civil rights arrests.
He grew up on 110 acres in rural Alabama, the third child of sharecroppers who managed to buy the land for $300 in 1940. Young John liked to wear a tie and give sermons to the chickens. Local kids called him “preacher.” As a boy, he was instructed “not to get in the way” of whites, but he still applied for a library card in tiny Troy, Ala, where the librarian scolded him that they were only for whites.
On July 5, 1998, Lewis returned to Troy, for a book signing of his memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award that year. “At the end of the program, they gave me a library card,” he said. “It says something about how far we’ve come.”
Lewis said he initially resisted Aydin’s notion that he tell his story in a graphic format. The two were hammering up yard signs in southwest Atlanta during Lewis’ campaign for Georgia’s 5th District seat five years ago and chatting about how to teach the Civil Rights movement to 21st century youth.
“Finally, he turned around with that wonderful half-smile he can do and said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” said Aydin. “‘Let’s do it, but only if you do it with me.’ ” Aydin called this a threshold event in his life.
Watch a short interview with John Lewis and Aydin at the 2013 Book Expo America
“When you grow up without a father you spend a long part of your adolescence looking for one,” said Aydin, who is now 29. He and artist Powell said “Walking with the Wind” became their Bible as they brought Lewis’ story into the present. The trio frame the trilogy around the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.
“We took the accuracy very, very seriously,” Aydin said. Powell, who grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and now lives in Bloomington, Ind., is drawing the second book now. He said he emails with Aydin almost daily, and when they are unclear, they consult Lewis.
“I feel the most important thing is to capture what is not explicit in the script,” Powell, 34, said. “I am looking for the emotional resonance – the doubt, fear, unity and togetherness that characterize the Civil Rights movement but don’t come with captions.”
He said he works hard researching the clothes, food, insects and plants that give his art verisimilitude. “It is very easy to get caught up in the drama of events,” Powell said, “but there is a lot of beauty in the South, in the red soil and the bricks, the kind of walking and talking people in the South do.”
Already, Powell has told one Civil Rights story in graphic form, “The Silence of Our Friends,” set in Houston in 1967 and written by Mark Long. It explores the tested friendship of two men across race.
The Congressman dedicates “March” to “the past and future children of the movement.” He told the publishing crowd in New York that another installment is overdue.
“I believe it is time to do a little more marching,” Lewis said. “I believe it is time for us to move our feet… I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
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.’”
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.
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.
Culled from more than 40,000 pages of interview transcripts, Andrew Solomon‘s Far From The Tree takes an exhaustive look at families where the child’s identity is considered to be on the margins of society.
Within the book, Solomon considers how parents navigate the world when a child is deaf, autistic, a dwarf, a criminal, a protégée, has Down Syndrome, and four other identities. Solomon highlights the struggle and beauty in each family’s story, sharing how parents come to accept their children amid the differences that threaten to come between them. The book chronicles the immense love of family, the quest toward a more compassionate world, and the beauty of diversity in all forms.
In deliberations for this year’s awards, juror Steven Pinker wrote: “This is a monumental book, the kind that appears once in a decade. It could not be a better example of the literature of diversity.”
In a recent interview on the ThinkPiece blog, Solomon commented on the major theme that runs through all his books:
My topic ever since I began, and I started work on my first book when I was twenty-four, has been the large question of how people are able to turn the experience of adversity into triumph. And how people transform the perception of their own life experience in order to achieve that point of view. A lot of that work is about pain. It’s really about what people do with pain. It’s about the idea that when you have an experience that is sad or painful, you needn’t say that life is over and there’s no point in going on. You can rather say, “I wish I didn’t have this experience, but I’m going to try to build something out of it.”
Anyone interested in the book should take a moment to visit the website, FarFromTheTree.com, a visually stunning complement. For example, you’ll find videos and resources for each of the themes explored in the book, including the book trailer (shown above), which does much more justice to the book than we could put into words.
Solomon is also the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won the 2001 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was named one of the 100 best books of the decade by the London Times. Solomon lives with his husband and son in New York City and London.