Tag Archives: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

The Cool Kids

Got your geek out goggles on? Good, you’re going to need them. This week the Schomberg Center organized a conversation between Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, That Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, “Flawless”). 

In an hour long discussion full of epic brilliance, the powerhouse pair address among many, many things: how white people think of black people as one homogenous class, how most literature neglects the sexual agency of grown women, how Americanah is Adichie’s “Fuck you” book, what it was like to write the rape scene in Yellow Sun, how splitting the check represents (or doesn’t) love, 12 Years a Slave, Barack and Michelle, policing blackness, and of course, hair.

See for yourself:

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And may I also say that I called the Their Eyes Were Watching God/Americanah connection. Ten points for Gryffindor.

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Highs and Lows of the Oscar Short Films

Until recently, the short film portion of the Oscars was the section during which I usually went to get snacks because honestly, who cares about these unbeautiful people and their “movies” that no one has heard of. NOT THIS YEAR, FRIENDS! This year, I have actually seen the live action short films that are up for golden statuettes, and boy, do I have feelings about them.

Rather than waste time on the ones that registered only briefly, here are the first three:

1. The Voorman Problem  (aka A Few British Actors You Sort of Recognize Explore God Delusions and Make Belgium Disappear)

2. Helium (aka A Kind of Roald Dahl-esqe Story About a Dying Child and the Power of Imagination, James and the Giant Peach Meets Up)

3. Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa (Do I Have to Do Everything?) (aka 7 Minute Video Interpretation of the Ongoing Conversation ‘Can Women Have it All’?)

 So, this is where it gets juicy:

4. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) –  My initial feelings of distaste for this Spanish short about a generic bloody conflict in a generic Africa starring generic generals and generic child soldiers has blossomed into full-fledged fury that I was subjected to it for 25 full minutes. The more I think about it, the more wrong it feels and the angrier I am that rather than condemning it for it’s “single story of Africa” we are lauding it with nominations.

The film depicts two Spanish doctors trying to get past a road barrier in the African bush somewhere (seriously, they give us no clues as to where this is supposed to be or when), when [SPOILER ALERTS: I’m going to spoil everything and I don’t even care] shit hits the fan and they are kidnapped, beaten, and forced to kneel in the dirt while the local homicidal maniac of a general instructs the local child soldiers on how to be real men and murder interlopers. When the male doctor is killed, his girlfriend/wife is raped by one of the leaders before escaping during a bullet-laden blitz that kills basically everyone in the camp except her and young boy. She handcuffs herself to the kid, drags him into a truck, and drives him off to the city. Cut to that boy, a decade later, reading to a large audience of presumably-Spanish students about his experience as a conscripted soldier. His white savior stares back at him with tears in her eyes as she witnesses her good works in action. Fade to black.

I’m being kind of harsh. Maybe too harsh, but it really was that bad. Torture porn plus an uncomplicated, unexamined white savior narrative = lazy and dangerous storytelling.

avant5. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Everything is Lost) On the other end of the spectrum from Aquel No Era Yo, I absolutely loved this French drama [SPOILER] about a mother in the last, desperate hours of planning and preparation before she leaves her abusive husband. While this could have skewed towards a general, reductionist overview of the Horror of Domestic Violence (kind of like how Aquel decided to address Horrifying Violence in Africa and How We Can Save the Children), Avant instead fleshed out the micro-universe of this particular woman, her children, and her friends. Under this super tight magnifying glass, her trauma is local and concentrated, amplifying the impact of the story far beyond the 20 minutes it was allowed.

Aquel felt like someone sat down and said, “I want to make a really dramatic, really suspensful, really terrifying, really emotional short film….hm…you know what would be uber terrifying? Watching a white doctor get raped by scary black men! And then she’ll overcome it, and oh man, the tears will be intense! Yes!”

Avant felt like the filmmakers did the reverse. They wanted to tell a very specific story of a suburban mom of two who, by all outward appearances, is living a perfectly ordinary life but secretly negotiates fear and pain every day. Turns out everyday violence can be every bit as suspensful as African warlords with big guns.

Related Post: On why “Strong female characters” is a useless designation.

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Some very inconclusive thoughts about Beyonce and “Anna Mae”

beyLet me preface by saying three things:

1. I have read a zillion essays about Beyonce’s new album, Beyonce. Especially this one (Nico Muhly), this one (on bottom bitch feminism) and this one (New Yorker). I have also had many conversations about it with people who know a lot more about hip-hop, music history, black feminism, and other relevant topics than I do.

2. I really, really love the new album from a purely “this is my jam and it feels good in my ears” perspective. I have listened to very little else since it came out, and I find it is the perfect gym accompaniment. Also the perfect cleaning accompaniment. Also the perfect putzing around my apartment accompaniment. It is not good for watching TV, but otherwise, it satisfies most of my musical requirements.

3. I don’t really have any answers to the question below, but I have a few ideas. What I am hoping will happen with this post is that one of you people will have much better ideas than mine and you will write them in the comments and all will be clear. So, what is the question:

What is up with the “Anna Mae” reference?

For background, in the song “Drunk in Love,” Jay Z (Beyonce’s husband and mega-mogul musician, for those of you dwelling under boulders the size of New Zealand), jumps in with a few lines, among them, this section:

Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike…

I’m like Ike Turner

Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake Anna Mae

Said, eat the cake, Anna Mae.

“Eat the cake, Anna Mae”, is a reference to the Tina Turner biopic (she was born Anna Mae) about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband Ike. In the movie, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Ike forcefully shoves cake in Tina’s face at a restaurant and than hits her, knocking her to the floor while their friends and other diners look on. Watch the scene here, if you feel up to it.

So. Why does Jay-Z rap a violent, misogynistic lyric about the other most famous black musical couple in the middle of his wife’s triumphant (and explicitly feminist) new album? I don’t know, but I know it makes me really, really uncomfortable. Here are a few possibilities:

  • The If-it-walks-like-a-duck… theory: What do I know about the inner workings of Bey and Jay’s relationship? Nothing. If you take him at face value, Jay’s line is bold, in-your-face power move. She may have the fastest selling iTunes album of all time, but in their world, she’s still just Anna Mae. It’s a put-down, and a masterful one because it’s right in front of us and we just go on giving her feminist props. How much more belittling could you get? With one line, he undermines every girl power-laden “bow down, bitches,” she issues. She ain’t got nothing on him, record sales be damned.
  • The Y’all-know-nothing-about-us theory: Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker writes, “I won’t pretend to know how this potentially ugly reference works between Jay Z and Beyoncé, but it’s her album and they look pretty happy on the beach, so some sort of inversion is at work.” Now that’s bold. To flaunt a famous instance of another woman’s abuse in your sexy beach video with your husband is to say you’re so far above that shit that you can joke about it. You are so far removed from that life and those problems that you get to make “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” mean whatever you want.
  • The Watch-what -I-can-do theory: If you are the queen of the universe, like Ellie Torres on Cougar Town, words do not define you, you define words. If you say that “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” is not, in fact, a repulsive piece of misogyny, but is rather a love poem, then so it shall be. Change approved.
  • The Pay-closer-attention,-bitches theory: Really masterful fiction writers sometimes shake up a sentence just to make sure you’re still on your toes. They invert a verb, or select an off-putting word that catches in your throat as you murmur to yourself, just to make you wake up and pay closer attention to the language that they chose so carefully. It’s a wake-up call to the reader to signal that everything shouldn’t be taken at face value. Early in the album, “Drunk in Love” could function as the wake-up call to listeners. Lest you glaze through the dramatic feminist acrobatics (see the Adichie TED talk featured on “Flawless,”) Bey complicates the album up front with the Anna Mae reference to make you attend to the lyrical layers that much more carefully. Feminism is not simple, marriage is not simple, race is not simple, sexuality is not simple. “Anna Mae” reminds us of all of those things, and consequently casts a complexity on the album that might otherwise be deemed froth. Do we think she’s that masterful?

What else you got? I’m kind of at a loss.

Related Post: My Role/Reboot on Beyonce’s Superbowl performance.

Related Post: When I got called out for unintentional racism by some friends. 

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What I Read in 2013

I read a lot in 2013. Some combination of new proximity to my local library, an enthusiastic book club, and my first shot at the quiet and uninterrupted solitude of single-living has resulted in me cranking through the stacks at record pace.

I believe who we read is in many ways as important as what we read. Which voices do we bring into our homes and absorb into our worldviews? Are they just like us? Older? Younger? Poorer? Richer? Colorful?

Some organizations, like VIDA, formalize this count by comparing bylines by gender at major publications. Here’s how my 2013 reading list shook out:

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Included in that blue chunk in the top right were new books like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanahas well as a few overlooked classics, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

Not that 40 is by any means some sort of definitive line in the sand, but I think it’s interesting that most of what I read (with the notable exception of Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent trilogy) was written by real live grown-ups. You know, not 25-year-olds.

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Lastly, was any of it true? I find that, as I get older, my preference for non-fiction gets stronger. I read more journalism, less bloggery, watch more documentaries, fewer blockbusters, read more memoirs, fewer pieces of fiction. Seems like the real world is plenty full of good stories without having to make them up. Cases in point include Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) and Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). I still read a buttload of fiction, but I only expect the slice of non-fic to get fatter every year.

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So what were my favorites? Read everything I mentioned above (especially the Boo and Adichie). For wild cackling on the train, I suggest Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? For when you have six solid hours on the couch and you need an epic American tale, pick up East of Edenwhich I finally read and adored this year. For the quirkiest love story of the year about an autistic astronaut and his bald wife, read Lydia Netzer’s Shine, Shine, ShineTo deepen your love of great American cities, read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (New Orleans), You Were Never in Chicago (Neil Steinberg), or Detroit (Charlie LeDuff). And when you really want to be stunned by what magic tricks a book can do, dare yourself to try Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.
 
What did you read and love in 2013, and what’s next?

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Americanah + Their Eyes Were Watching God

their-eyes-were-watching-god-zora-neale-hurston-paperback-cover-artIf you follow me on Twitter, you recently absorbed a barrage of book quote tweets with either the hashtag #Americanah or #TheirEyes. I didn’t intend to read Americanah and Their Eyes Were Watching God back to back, but now looking over the quotes I loved and the fervor with which I attempted to devour both books, it seems like an intentional choice.

If you haven’t rad Americanah yet, get on it already. This is Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s new one about Ifemelu, a brilliant, sharp-eyed young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States rather than trying to wade through the lethargy she finds in the aristocratic circles of Lagos, and Obinze, her adolescent boyfriend who tries to make a life in the UK. The writing is just flat out phenomenal and totally on-point, especially when Adichie turns Ifemelu’s eye to describing all manner of methods that women use to navigate the world:

“How important it was to her to be a wholesomely agreeable person, to have no sharp angles sticking out”

“Basking in the attention her face drew while flattening her personality so that her beauty did not threaten”

Americanah has thus far been, deservedly, drawing the most attention for its commentary on race relations in the United States. As a Non-American black person, Ifemelu approaches the knotted web of race politics with the dual lenses of insider and outsider. From that vantage point, she writes a blog documenting her observations about the peculiar and particular ways Americans of all colors attempt to engage with our history and our present. For me, I was drawn to Ifemelu as a narrator not for her racial commentary, but rather for her embodiment of the perils and pitfall of 21st century ambitious, educated ladyhood. What to do with all those smarts? What is useful to the world, and what is self-indulgent? Is self-indulgence bad? How much do we compromise for people that we love? How much do we take from our parents and how much do we leave behind? How do you make a life for yourself, and make it one that you are proud of?

Somehow, in the course of my liberal Massachusetts education, I zipped right by Zora Neale Hurston’s epic love story about Janie and Tea Cake, the mad dog, and the muck of the Florida everglades. Coming off the high of Americanah, so explicitly about a woman finding her authentic voice, Their Eyes was an incredible way to deepen that conversation.

If I ever teach a lit class, there will most definitely be a midterm paper assignment on these two books together. If you were recommending pairings of classic work with contemporary fiction, what would be on your list?

Related Post: Mapping the books I read and where I read them

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Everything is About Everything: New Media + Old Media

For book club, we recently read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a modern, bromantic, technologically-obsessed, Google-worshipping fantasy adventure in which millennial heroes and heroines are obsessed with the idea of Old Knowledge (aka OK). I’m kind of obsessed with Old Media (OM?), specifically it’s intersection with New Media (NM), and TBD Media (TBDM). I think this is a fascinating question:

OM + NM + TBDM = ?????

The combination of Old Media and New Media happens to be in vogue right now. If OM = books, TV, movies, music and NW = Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blogging, etc., we already have lots of neat examples of these things working together. I’m having fun with mind-mapping right now, so….

mind map

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  • The Bling Ring – Sofia Coppola’s strange new movie about a band of overprivileged teenagers who break into celebrity homes uses screenshots of Facebook, sequences devoted to the taking of selfies, and texting as avenues to explore the meta “Pics or it didn’t happen” mentality of the youth (self included).
  • House of Cards – Netflix’ original (and now Emmy-nominated) political intrigue-a-thon incorporates on-screen text messages over images of characters in their own locales. Old school political mastermind Frank Underwood uses new school journalist Zoe Barnes to channel her demographic access into viral and conniving campaign messages.
  • Americanah – The new novel from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie  is about a young Nigerian couple who follow separate paths (her to America, him to the UK) before reuniting in Lagos decades later. The protagonist, Ifemelu, writes a blog about race from the perspective of a non-African-American black person that becomes famous. Excerpts from her blog are incorporated into the book, and her online presence is treated as a fundamental piece of identity (as many of us now consider it to be).

The real interesting question, of course, is what happens when OM meets NM meets TBDM. What is TBDM anyway? Well, it’s obviously things we haven’t even created yet. Will our media become more multi-sensory? Will we control the stories we watch or be actors in them? Will the idea of created media devolve so heavily that we’ll all just read/watch real life as it happens a la Truman Show? What do you think?

Related Post: Past experiments with mind mapping

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Continental Connections (or Not)

Several years ago, my mother and I were sitting in an overheated, overcrowded lecture hall watching on a giant screen the speeches that were ostensibly welcoming me to college. We were sitting with my roommate, Adjoa, and her mother. They had flown in from Accra, Ghana, where Adjoa grew up.

As Adjoa and I planned our dorm room layout, I overheard an anonymous mother down the aisle ask Adjoa’s mother where they were from. She replied, “from Ghana, in Africa.” The woman nodded thoughtfully, and then leaned in to ask if they knew Dr. So-and-so. Is he from Ghana? asked Adjoa’s mother. “Oh, I’m really not sure, I just know he’s from Africa, and I was wondering if you knew him,” said the lady.

Watching this TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (who wrote the excellent Half of a Yellow Sun), I flashed on that conversation. It’s about the dangers of relying on one story to define any group of people; Africa is not synonymous with poverty, just as America is not synonymous with wealth. And also how you shouldn’t ask Africans to listen to their “tribal music.”

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