Friday, July 03, 2009

Out of Africa, Into a Strange America

Published: July 2, 2009

The Africa in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s affecting collection of stories isn’t the Africa that Americans are familiar with from television news or newspaper headlines. Her stories are not about civil war or government corruption or deadly illnesses. Yes, war and corruption and illness rage in the background of some of these tales, as the Biafran war did in her remarkable 2006 novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun.” But it is their fallout on individual men and women and children that concerns Ms. Adichie. She is interested in how public events affect private lives, and even more interested in how clashes between tradition and modernity, familial expectations and imported dreams affect relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children.

Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
218 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

In “Yellow Sun” Ms. Adichie explored the emotionally fraught questions of belonging and loyalty: How do allegiances to a family, an ethnic group or a nation shape an individual’s sense of self? And in these stories, which take place in Nigeria and the United States, those questions are multiplied several times over. Her characters, many of whom grew up in Nigeria and emigrated (or saw their relatives emigrate) to America, find themselves unmoored. Rather than becoming cosmopolitan members of a newly globalized world, they tend to feel displaced, dislocated on two continents and caught on the margins of two cultures that are themselves in a rapid state of flux.
For many Lagos residents an American visa is a coveted prize. In “The American Embassy” Ms. Adichie describes a line of some 200 people trailing around the block; the vendors who blow whistles and push copies of newspapers at the people in line; the beggars who work the line, holding out enamel plates; the ice cream bicycles that honk. To get an American visa is to get a chance at a new life in a country where “you could drive at night and not fear armed robbers, where restaurants served one person enough food for three.” It’s a country where, these hopeful emigrants imagine, they will live in houses like those they’ve seen in American films on TV: houses with smooth driveways “snaking between cucumber-colored lawns,” and spacious rooms decorated with sedate paintings.
But once in America many of Ms. Adichie’s characters stumble into danger, or confusion. Nkem, for instance, lives in a pretty house in a Philadelphia suburb with her two children; her husband, a “Big Man” in Nigeria, spends only two months a year with her, the rest of the time in Lagos. Nkem misses her friends, “the cadence of Igbo and Yoruba and pidgin English spoken around her,” and misses “the Lagos sun that glares down even when it rains.” But when she contemplates moving back to Nigeria — where, she suspects, her husband has a mistress — she realizes that America has “snaked its roots under her skin,” that she is used to going to Pilates class and baking cookies for her children’s school, where they “sit side by side with white children whose parents owned mansions on lonely hills.”
Connect to NYT online for the full piece.

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