by Dave Wheeler
I’ve written before about how eerie it is to be reading a novel in which so many current events converge on the narrative. Lately, it’s been happening again.
First, I discovered that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a new book coming out (Tuesday!), a novel called, curiously, Americanah. “What’s with the H?” I wondered. Turns out, Adichie has written an astounding and riveting story about Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States for school, for work, for a chance at escaping the choicelessness she feels stifled by in her country of origin. Over time she becomes an “Americanah” — a mild pejorative her friends back in Lagos use for someone who absorbs American mannerisms, tastes, and ideals after living in the States for some time — a term for affectation, perhaps, akin to “hipster” around here.
Mixed into the many trials and tribulations of being a Non-American Black woman in America, Ifemelu is torn and reshaped by loves and loves lost along the way, family expectations, the shifting employment landscape available to her. Meanwhile, she discovers catharsis (and later, a slice of fame) in anonymously blogging her observations on how race operates here.
Timely doesn’t even begin to describe Adichie’s novel, how it addresses prejudice on many fronts. From local sources to national ones, immigration and immigration reform are headlining conversations. And race — oh, race — is it ever not an issue in this country? About a month ago, I attended an eye-opening panel discussion promoted by Social Outreach Seattle discussing how immigration reform and asylum affect bi-national couples within the LGBTQ community, and so reading Adichie’s novel around the same time augmented my impression of the human interest that may often be lost in the political distillation of facts and statistics.
The news is often (and obviously) more concerned with events as they transpire than the experiences and histories of the individuals involved. When the awful tragedy in Boston occurred last month, the nation watched with bated breath for some kind of resolution. We learned the suspects were Chechen and naturalized immigrants in the States, which, sadly, can make some of us suspicious and antagonistic toward large people groups who were never involved.
Shortly after finishing Americanah, I picked up debut novelist Anthony Marra’s magnificent book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The novel begins in 2004 as a lackluster physician named Akhmed is secreting away the small girl Havaa on the night her father is disappeared by the current regime occupying Chechnya. The story then launches into the intertwining stories of some incredibly resilient characters over a decade’s course of dismal warfare.
I remember being a small boy in Idaho and hearing about Chechen refugees in the ’90s. Then, again in the early 2000s. Now Chechnya is back in American news, and if you’re only watching American news, you might miss the emotional and experiential truth to Chechen lives. Marra, an Oakland writer I’m planning to keep my eye on, did spend significant time in and around Chechnya studying its history before writing this novel, and it certainly shows. Not just in his attention to detail and history, but in the sincere compassion he bestows on a people and region that have been trampled, derided, and forgotten.
Two stunning novels have dramatically colored my view of current events, and I love it when that happens. These are not books to turn to if you’re looking to escape. No, for that, I’d recommend History of a Pleasure Seeker or Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar. This is, instead, fiction that will bring you more fully into the world, into the very real experiences of other human beings.