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Black in America: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie               Published by Knopf, $26.95

I first read Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 collection of short stories The Thing About Your Neck earlier this year and was immediately struck by the breadth of her writing palette. Here was a writer who spoke openly of race relations – the reasons why sexual relationships between white men and black women can flounder; the condescending attitude of some white intellectuals towards black intelligentsia; the hostilities faced by black African emigrés to the West; and the turbulence, violence and social upheavals of modern day Nigeria.  Adichie, I discovered, wrote with elegance, intelligence, wit and often savage satire, wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions and tackle rough ground. I immediately chased up her best-known novel Half of a Yellow Sun, a searing account of the Biafran wars, which won The Orange Prize and is being made into a movie.  And eagerly awaited her third novel, Americanah.

To put the Adichie phenomenon into perspective, she divides her time between Nigeria and the USA where she writes and has lectured at Princeton. She was awarded a Macarthur “Genius” grant in 2010 and the New Yorker featured her in its list of 20 best authors under the age of 40 – she’s 36. Young, gifted, articulate and (though it’s not PC to admit it) drop-dead gorgeous, Adichie is a publishing PR dream.  What’s more, Americanah ticks all the boxes: it’s a sprawling, rich tapestry that spans three continents, a 20 year time frame and explores race, ambition, love, identity, Barack Obama, social media – and the politics of black hair. In fact much of the narrative takes place in flashback as the heroine, Ifemulu, is having her hair braided during an eight-hour marathon in a hair salon before returning to her homeland.

At the start of the novel Ifemulu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, but when Ifemulu wins a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Phlladelphia, they part, she bound for the USA and he to Britain. Skillfully, the novel weaves Obinze’s struggles to win the “holy grail” of a work permit with Ifemulu’s own desperate attempts to find part-time employment. Adichie observes both the subtleties – and overt knocks – of racial discrimination with keen detachment whilst depicting the rawness and intensity of the pair’s loneliness and social isolation. Ifemulu obtains her coveted Green Card; Obinze, who has been working illegally, is deported. Back in “the new” Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business-man in a country where greed, ambition, knowing the right political allies, plus a healthy dose of corruption, can get you to the top. Adichie’s withering account of Nigerian nouveau-riches parvenus and society wannabees is  both humorous and dangerously close to the bone. So too is her account of Obinze’s discomfiture at a middle-class dinner-party in Islington, where an old school friend now married to a white solicitor is holding court, more English than the English with his pukka Sloane Ranger accent, as they dig into a series of “ethnic plates”.  Adichie is in her element as a satirist of the chattering classes, skewering both black and white, and her accounts of social gatherings in Lagos, London and New York are a highlight of the novel.

By now Ifemulu and Obinze have drifted apart. He marries a socialite; she has a series of relationships with both white and black men, and becomes a famous blogger, penning irreverent and controversial insights into race: Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  A selection of her blog posts is included in the novel. These are both challenging and confrontational and though they occasionally disrupt the flow of the book and signpost Adichie’s polemics too relentlessly, they still force readers into questioning their own attitudes to race relations.

To my Fellow Non-American Blacks in America. You Are Black, Baby

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your own country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”

Ifemulu’s posts cover the media’s treatment of black women in beauty and fashion (under-represented); white society’s desire to “whitewash” prejudice; the role of the black intellectual in WASP society; the Obama phenomenon; and the insidious perception that unrelaxed “native” black hair is “jungle” hair and has no place in white society. In fact, each post is a pointed reminder that the black experience remains that of the “other”, Obama or not – and is an uncomfortable truth for the liberally-minded.

The last part of the novel, when Ifemulu  returns to Lagos and is reunited with Obinze, seems a trifle rushed, a touch forced, as if Adichie had covered all bases and simply wished to conclude matters with a happy ending. Nevertheless, Americanah is a wise, perspicacious, funny, and always thought-provoking novel in which Adichie shows off her literary prowess, her impressive grasp of form and her global consciousness.

Read it: to immerse yourself in a skilful novelist’s view of politics, history and race relations.

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A Reluctant First Lady: Fiona Capp discusses ‘Gotland’

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In the middle of the Baltic sea lies Sweden’s largest island, Gotland. It’s a wild place, lashed by unpredictable weather, with high, rocky escarpments, medieval churches and towers, cobbled streets, a fortress dating from the Middle Ages and vast expanses of beach that spread out to sea.

Novelist Fiona Capp knows Gotland well. She’s been there three times and is fascinated by its limestone cliffs and timeless presence. Gotland is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. Wandering through the winding streets, gazing at the turrets of its ancient buildings, you’re transported back into a long-lost European fairy-tale. The hazy light and grey landscape of this bleak yet magical space could not be more different from Australia.

Gotland is also the title of Fiona Capp’s new novel. It’s where her heroine, Esther, escapes to after her politician husband David is elected leader of his party, and just before he wins the general election. A shy and private soul, Esther’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. No-one could be a more reluctant prime ministerial consort. She just wants to continue teaching her Year 9s and negotiate the difficult adolescence of her fourteen-year old daughter, Kate. This polarisation of private versus public selves is at the heart of the novel.

Capp could not have known, when she was writing the novel, about the current state of Australian politics, when so much debate has focussed recently on the way in which the media have portrayed the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the curiosity and speculations over her private life and her very public ousting from government. But she admits to being curious about the partners of politicians, and their ability to cope with the intensity of public scrutiny.

“There is so little privacy today”, says Capp. “The intrusiveness of social media, the constant media gaze trained on public figures, the way you’re being judged and publicly discussed was something I wanted to explore. It’s something I understand because as a writer, I have a very private life when I’m working on a book, yet once it’s published there are interviews, public appearances, readings, signings – not all writers are comfortable with this”.

You sense that Capp feels a touch uneasy with the publicity demands of book tours and writers festivals herself. She’d much rather be scribbling in her retreat, a room in a Fitzroy hotel. Her partner, the novelist Steven Carroll, writes at home, but she prefers “getting up and going to work, I like that discipline of going somewhere else specifically to write”. A quietly-spoken woman, she becomes animated when talking about Gotland and the themes of the novel. It’s a book about different kinds of love, conjugal, the love between siblings, parents and children, as well as the unexpected, heady rush of sexual attraction between two people.

The novel examines the way love, and ideals, change over time. After twenty years of marriage, Esther begins an affair with Sven, an artist who lives in Gotland. In this relationship, she’s trying to recapture the raw passion she and David had in their youth, not simply for each other, but for life in general. Both active in student politics, she and David had believed that anything was possible. Yet with the passing of time, they have both had to accommodate, make do. Sven, too, no longer takes the kinds of risks he faced when he was younger, creating anonymous, pop-up sculptures that sprouted overnight in the landscape. He also learns the importance of playing by the rules. No-one has absolute freedom to do exactly what they want.

So is this a novel about the inevitability of compromise? Capp smiles. We can’t escape the pressures of society, she says. “But of course passion is reignited in subsequent generations – Kate, Esther’s daughter, is also an idealist. As a graffiti artist, it’s true she breaks the law, but she means well, her motives are pure.”

Capp is well-known for her memorable evocations of place. Her novel Night Surfing and her non-fiction work, That Oceanic Feeling, both captured the wonder and mystery of the sea. Her love of the ocean was forged during holidays as a child at her grandparent’s Mornington Peninsula retreat. This intimate connection with the coast can also be seen in her descriptions of Gotland, all sea mist and brackish waves, lowering sky and chill, biting air. You could step out of the pages of the novel directly into that vividly poetic yet tangible landscape.

Our expectations of life may alter as we age, but everyone needs a special place to dream, says Capp, a place where they can be themselves. Perhaps one of the take-away messages of the novel is that even for a day or two, we are all entitled to get off today’s frantic merry-go-round and experience our own, personal Gotland.

Gotland is published by Fourth Estate,  $24.99