“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?


This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/


The Changing Seasons Photo Challenge: January

I can’t seem to get enough of challenges.  I just discovered a new one I’m going to join.  Cardinal Guzman hosts a Changing Seasons photo challenge.  (Click here for more information.)  The challenge is to pick a place near one’s home and post 5-20 pictures of it once a month in order to highlight the changing seasons.

My focus will be on Murphy Hanrehan Park, which is very near my home.  I live in Minnesota, and today it is relatively warm (20s Fahrenheit) but gray.


Deal Me In Short Story Challenge 2015

Deal Me In!
Deal Me In!

I just discovered Bibliophilopolis wonderful “Deal Me In: Short Story Challenge.”  (Click here for the details.)  Participants choose 52 stories to read and assign each of them a card (such as the 4 of Hearts).  Then, each week, participants randomly select a card and read the story assigned to that card.  (We don’t have to blog every week or about every story, just as much as we want to do.)

Here is my list.  I am getting a somewhat late start, so I’ll have to read more than one a week for a couple of weeks.  I’m looking forward to the challenge. Thanks, Bibliophilopolis!


(The following stories are all from Lorrie Moore’s collection, Bark)

A         “Debarking”

2          “The Juniper Tree”

3          “Paper Losses”

4          “Foes”

5          “Wings”

6          “Referential”

7          “Subject to Search”

8          “Thank You for Having Me”


(The following stories are all from George Saunders’s collection, Tenth of December)

9          “Victory Lap” (The New Yorker, 2009)

10        “Sticks” (Harper’s, 1995)

J           “Puppy” (The New Yorker, 2007)

Q         “Escape from Spiderhead” (The New Yorker, 2010)[8]

K         “Exhortation” (part of “Four Institutional Monologues” from McSweeney’s #4, )


A         “Al Roosten” (The New Yorker, 2009)

2          “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (The New Yorker, 2012)

3          “Home” (The New Yorker, 2011)

4          “My Chivalric Fiasco” (Harper’s, 2011)

5          “Tenth of December” (The New Yorker, 2011)



(The following stories are all from Alice Munro’s collection Dear Life)

6         “To Reach Japan”

7          “Amundsen”

8          “Leaving Maverly”

9          “Gravel”

10        “Haven”

J           “Pride”

Q         “Corrie”

K         “Train”




A         “In Sight of the Lake”

2          “Dolly”

3          “The Eye”

4          “Night”

5          “Voices”

6          “Dear Life”


Recent New Yorker Stories


7          Brad Watson  “Eykelboom”  (November 24, 2014)

8          Nuruddin Farah,  “The Start of the Affair” (December 22 and 29, 2014)

9          Elizabeth McKenzie “Savage Breast” (December 15, 2014)

10        Jess Row, “The Empties” (November 3, 2014)

J           Tim Parks, “Reverend”

Q         Kevin Canty, “Story, with Bird”

K          Victor Lodato, “Jack, July” (September 22, 2014)



A         Tessa Hadley, “One Saturday Morning”

2          Haruki Murakami, “Scheherazade”

3          Etgar Keret, “One Gram Short”


(The following stories are from Best American Short Stories 2014)

4          CHARLES BAXTER. Charity

from McSweeney’s


5          ANN BEATTIE. The Indian Uprising

from Granta


6          T.C. BOYLE. The Night of the Satellite

from The New Yorker


7          PETER CAMERON. After the Flood

from Subtropics


8          NICOLE CULLEN. Long Tom Lookout

from Idaho Review


9          CRAIG DAVIDSON. Medium Tough

from Agni


10        JOSHUA FERRIS. The Breeze

from The New Yorker



from The Paris Review


Q         DAVID GATES. A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me

from Granta


K         LAUREN GROFF. At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners

from Five Points


And here are some more stories from the Best American Short Stories 2014.  Maybe I’ll get to them as well.



from The New Yorker


from Iowa Review

WILL MACKIN. Kattekoppen

from The New Yorker

BRENDAN MATHEWS. This Is Not a Love Song

from Virginia Quarterly Review

MOLLY MCNETT. La Pulchra Nota

from Image


from The Paris Review


from The New Yorker

STEPHEN O’CONNOR. Next to Nothing

from Conjunctions

KAREN RUSSELL. Madame Bovary’s Greyhound

from Zoetrope: All-Story

Laura Van Den Berg. Antarctica

from Glimmer Train



Mondays Finish the Story, January 12 edition

The blog Mondays Finish the Story hosts a weekly flash fiction event. They provide a picture and the beginning of a story.  The challenge is to finish the story in 100-150 words.  See blog for more details.

Here is this week’s photo and first sentence:

2005-01-12 bw-beacham
2005-01-12 bw-beacham

Finish the story begins with:  “Racing down into the atmosphere, the unidentified object crashed, leaving behind one heck of a huge crater and a plume of smoke that could be seen from miles around.”

Here is my end of the story:

When he saw the object hurtling through space, Mark had instinctively dropped to the ground and curled up into a protective ball.  What seemed like hours later, he slowly raised his head and looked up at the gray haze. As he rose to his feet, he wiped off the mud that had splattered all over his hiking shorts and t-shirt.  Gingerly, he walked closer to crater, until he could see inside it.

“I can’t believe they really did it,” he thought to himself.  He had known there would be repercussions when he had backed out of the plan.  But he did not think they would actually try to kill him.




Theo Decker Needs Cheryl Strayed

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

 I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although the novel was published in 1992, I didn’t read it until a year or two ago.  I found it riveting, and I mentally kicked myself for not having read it earlier.  So, I was excited to read Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel.  He and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, admiring the Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” when bombs (planted by terrorists) exploded in the museum. Theo’s mother was killed, but Theo survived.  In the ensuing chaos, Theo grabbed “The Goldfinch” and took it home with him.  He remained obsessed with his stolen possession for the rest of the novel.  To Theo, the painting was more than a priceless masterpiece.  It represented not only his lost mother, but also the very idea of beauty, of transcendence—of beauty that transcends the grim reality of everyday existence.

The idea of this story sounds compelling, and many parts of the novel ARE compelling However, I have to admit that I found large chunks of the novel rather underwhelming.  I found the first section of the novel, when Theo lost his mother and then was taken into a wealthy friend’s home appropriately disorienting.  I felt lost, numb and emotionally adrift along with Theo as he tried to adjust to a world without his mother, a world without meaning.  Theo then moved to Las Vegas to be with his father and his father’s girlfriend.  This Las Vegas section may have been my favorite section.  I thought Tartt’s portrayal of the 21st century American West as the American nightmare was brilliant, as was her creation of the Russian character Boris, the waif–thug with a deep streak of alcohol-enhanced sentimentality.

After Theo moves back to New York, however (about half way through the 771 pages), the story loses steam for me. Theo grows up to be an adult, but is still stuck in the same numb haze he was in at age 13.  He sleepwalks through life in a haze of drugs, white-collar crime, and unrequited love.  I understand that Tartt is portraying someone who is traumatized, that his sleepwalking through life is part of her point.  But still, how many hundreds of pages can a reader want to spend with someone who is this numb?

The Goldfinch could have benefited from some serious editing.  Tartt could have cut out 300 or more pages without losing anything of importance.

Better yet, I think Theo Decker should have met up with Cheryl Strayed and gone for a hike with  her. (See my previous post on Cheryl Strayed here.)  Both Theo and Cheryl were traumatized by the untimely loss of their mother.  They were both on a downward spiral and needed something to save them.  Strayed went on a 1000 mile hike in California.  Theo took a lot of drugs and stole money from people (in a complicated, high-end kind of way).  Strayed’s plan seemed to work better.

If Tartt had come to me for advice (which for some reason she never did), I would have told her to cut out the return-to-New-York section.  Instead of leaving Las Vegas to go east, Theo should sell “The Goldfinch” and use the proceeds to buy some hiking boots and backpacking gear. He should travel slightly west to the Pacific Crest Trail, where he could meet up with Strayed.  They could hike together briefly, at least long enough to have some hot sex on a rock. After the sex is over, a goldfinch would appear on the rock.  It would land there just long enough to look at them meaningfully and sing a plaintive, yet healing song.

The Goldrinch by Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Thus would endeth The Goldfinch.

Debra Goes Mild with Cheryl Strayed


In the past couple of weeks, I have read the memoir “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and seen the movie version of it starring Reese Witherspoon.  My reaction to both the book and the movie was a constant oscillation between “Strayed is amazing!” and “Strayed is batshit crazy!”

Strayed’s memoir is about a period in her early twenties after her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45.  Reeling with grief, Strayed’s life started to unravel with her self-destructive behavior.  She became promiscuous, used heroin, and divorced her kind and loving husband while on her downward spiral.

Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed

One day, Ms. Strayed, who had never done an overnight hiking trip in her life, decided it would be a good idea to hike 1000 or so miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  “Wild” is her account of both her downward spiral and the hiking trip that helped her recover from her grief.

“Wild” is not a hiking guide or a self-help book.  It is a memoir, a work of literature.  Strayed writes beautifully and honestly about the beauty of the landscape she traversed, but also, frequently about the physical pain she endured.  Her backpack, which she affectionately called “Monster,” was way, way too heavy for her.  Not only was it difficult to walk with such a burden on her back, but it left her seriously bruised and blistered.  Even worse were her feet.  I don’t know if this is common for long-distance hikers, but her feet were in constant agony and she lost six toenails by the end of the trip.

Nonetheless, her book was inspiring to me.  I have done a little bit of hiking I my life, but not a great deal.  And I certainly do not enjoy pain.  But what she wrote about the healing effects of strenuous outdoor activity makes sense to me:

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back.  And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.  That I could bear the unbearable.  These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm.  That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.  It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.  By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.” (92)

Strayed suggests that there is something about strenuous effort or—to be more blunt—physical pain in the wilderness that can make a person stronger, not just physically, but also emotionally.  Whereas heroin and sex were attempts to get outside of herself, Strayed realized on her hike that she need to stay inside herself in order to heal.

“But walking along a path I carved myself. . . was the opposite of using heroin. . . Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something.  That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me.  Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

So I am now inspired by Strayed to experience more of the strenuous outdoor life.  Yet, I still think hiking 1100 miles by oneself is crazy.  I’m not interested in doing anything like that.  However, I would like to get out into nature more often than I normally do.  So here is my compromise, my very Mild response to Strayed’s “Wild” adventure.

Strayed hiked a total of approximately 1100 miles.  My goal is to do 1100 miles this summer, by combining biking and hiking.  I pledge to hike a total of 100 miles and bike a total of 1000 miles this year.  I am no Cheryl Strayed, so these miles will be cumulative, not all at once.

I live in Minnesota, so I can’t really get outside until probably late April, when the snow melts and the temperatures are regularly above freezing.  Because of the generally crappy climate I live in, I henceforth declare the spinning classes can count toward my mileage.

I will update my blog periodically about my progress, so stay tuned!


“Below Stairs”: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”


 Those of you who are “Downton Abbey” fans know that the 5th season has just begun here in the U.S.  We viewers are wondering which of her many suitors Mary will marry.  We are wondering why Edith’s love relationships are invariably disastrous and how she will be able to keep the existence of her illegitimate child a secret.  We know that the aristocratic and wealthy Crawleys live lives that are worlds apart from those of their downstairs servants.  We see, however, that the Crawleys do care about the welfare of their servants and treat them with kindness and respect.  In some cases, such as the relationship between Anna and Lady Mary, the relationship could almost be considered that of friends.

Reading Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs made me realize how utterly unrealistic “Downton Abbey’s” portrayal of the master-servant relationship is.  Below Stairs, originally published in the UK in 1968, is the memoir of Powell’s experience in domestic service in the 1920s.  This memoir (along with her others) was the inspiration for the hit TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and one of the inspirations for “Downton Abbey.”

Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find many of Powell’s descriptions of the homes, the job descriptions, the relationships among the servants and so forth quite familiar, if nonetheless appalling.   When Powell was hired as a kitchen maid at age 15, she worked from 5:30 a.m. until about 10:00 at night.  She had only one evening off a week, from 4:00 – 10:00, and every other Sunday off, also from 4:00- 10:00 p.m.  She could never be out later than 10:00 p.m.   She slept in a tiny, freezing-cold attic room and was only allowed a cold hip bath for her hygiene.  All of this for 24 pounds a year.  It is no surprise, then, that Margaret felt like was in jail.

Margaret Powell
Margaret Powell

21st century readers might wonder how this life differed from slavery, except for the fact that servants were free to quit their jobs. Powell did eventually quit, after she got married.  Trying to find a husband while working in such constrained quarters and with so few hours off was another trial for Powell and another theme of her memoir.

I already knew about the hard work, the low wages, and the appalling hours.  What I did not realize was how awful most of the employers were to their servants.  In both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”, the wealthy employers are basically decent people who are not unkind to their servants.  In Powell’s book however, basic human kindness was an extremely rare commodity among the wealthy who hired her.  Most of her employers treated their servants as little better than brutes and lorded their superiority over their staff in every way possible.  (To be sure, Powell’s perspective is that of one individual and could be skewed.  However, some of the critics of “Downton Abbey” who are knowledgeable about the period also claim that the relationships between employers and servants in “Downton Abbey” are extremely unrealistic.)

As Powell recounts it, class divisions were never forgotten, never even blurred.  Even as a young child, she learned that rich children and poor children could never play together.  She did not mind that so much as a child because it seemed that the poor children had more freedom and more fun.  She was not so happy about the class divisions, however, when she went into service.  She said of her employers that

“We always called them ‘Them.’  ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil” (74).  Powell goes on to write that,

“It was the opinion of ‘Them’ upstairs that servants couldn’t appreciate good living or comfort, therefore they must have plain fare, they must have dungeons to work in and to eat in, and must retire to cold Spartan bedrooms to sleep.  After all, what’s the point of spending money making life easier and more comfortable for a lot of ungrateful people who couldn’t care less what you do for them?  They never tried, mind, to find out if we could have cared more by making our conditions good and our bedrooms nice places in which to rest.”

One of the pleasures of reading Below Stairs is Powell’s ability to write brief, yet insightfully snarky sentences about the hypocrisy and meanness of her employers, such as this:  “There were always economies which had to be made.  During my years in domestic service I noticed that all economies began with the servants and always ended with them too” (46).

Powell is acutely aware of the class differences in her world and of the drudgery of the work servants do.  However, she is no socialist and is not advocating a revolution.  Her point is simply that most of her employers could have made the servants lives considerably more comfortable without a huge sacrifice of money.  For example, why couldn’t the servant eat the leftovers of what the employers ate, rather than having to eat food the rich would find unpalatable?  Couldn’t the servants have a heated bedroom with decent blankets?  Couldn’t they take a heated bath?  Maybe have two nights off a week instead of one and be able to stay out as late as they wanted to?  Slight changes would have made a huge difference and there was no compelling reason NOT to make them except for the seeming callousness of the employers regarding their servants’ basic human needs.

The servants did what they could to make their lives more bearable.  One way was to gossip about their employers.  After all, the servants met very few other people in their lives.  Some of the most entertaining stories in the memoir are gossipy tidbits about her “betters” that Powell shares.  For example, one of her married women employers had a habit of bringing young male ‘boy toys” back to her home.  Powell unfortunately walked in on one of them, who was standing stark naked in a bathtub.  Another employer, a man, had a fetish for hair curlers.  He invited the female servants up to his room at night, simply so he could rub their hair while it was up in curlers.

I am trying to imagine Lord Grantham lasciviously rubbing the curlers of, say, Anna, while Cora is in the other room having a “romp” with, say, Jimmy.  Good heavens, I think I am going to swoon!

Where are Jane's curlers?
Where are Jane’s curlers?

The Muskie Monster Movie

I recently spent a couple of days in Hayward, Wisconsin.  Hayward is a small resort town in northern Wisconsin which is ringed by lakes.  It is located somewhere south of the North Pole.

Hayward is located somewhere south of the North Pole.
Hayward is located somewhere south of the North Pole.

Cross-country enthusiasts might know the town as the end-point of the famous 54 kilometer Birkebeiner ski race.

Hayward is also the place, however, where somebody thought it would be a good idea to build a fish that is 143 feet long and 45 feet tall and call it the World’s Largest Muskie.


 Inside this muskie is the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.  The purpose of this muskie and the Hall of Fame is to honor the sport of fresh-water fishing.  I think I was supposed to leave the park filled with renewed desire to stick my pole in a pool of water and wait for something to happen.

However, the World’s Largest Muskie had a different effect on me:  I found the whole scene rather disturbing, like a surrealist painting.

Painting by Michael Cheval
Painting by Michael Cheval

It did not help that Muskie Monster was in the process of eating Santa and his reindeer. 


I was half-convinced that Mr. Muskie was going to turn on us next and devour us, in retaliation for all the fishermen who had eaten his friends.

So I came up with what I think is a brilliant idea for a movie, one that I will produce, direct and star in.  This movie will take place during the Birkebeiner ski race, so there will be thousands of cross-country skiers passing through Hayward.  Something will happen in the movie that will be the last straw for Muskie Monster.  He will decide that it is time for fish to turn the tables on humans and start to eat US.  He and his dozens of Muskie Monster Minions (who will suddenly appear out of nowhere) start chasing the skiers, devouring hundreds of them. (I’m not sure how Muskie Monster will get around.  I guess he’ll have to have skis as well.  We’ll work out the details later.)

All is gloom and doom, and it seems that northern Wisconsin will be destroyed by the rapidly reproducing Monster Muskies.  But then, our heroine, Minnesota Madame, (played by me, of course) enters the scene and has a plan to save the day.

I’m not going to tell you how it ends.  You’ll have to wait to see the movie!

What do you think of my idea? Any ideas for a title of my movie?

 M & D Hayward





Discovering the Heart of Darkness in Minnesota: Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his well-known article “Novelist as Teacher,” Chinua Achebe writes, “I would be quite satisfied if my novels did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”   Although Achebe is referring to African readers, presumably teaching literature from another culture should also have positive effects, such as opening the minds of readers to new knowledge, exploring different ways of thinking, and increasing empathy for people of other backgrounds.  What happens, though, when some readers take quite the opposite meaning away from reading a book such as Things Fall Apart?   What if reading certain texts actually increases prejudice about the “Other”?

This question first occurred to me several years ago when I first taught a course in the African novel.  Most of the students in this particular class were white and Midwestern, with very little knowledge about Africa.   (I did have a few African-American students in this particular class, and their reactions were dramatically different from the white students’ reactions.)

Overall I believe this course was generally successful.  It introduced students to a body of literature—in fact, an entire part of the world—that was completely new to them.  In so doing, I believe it sparked interest in and empathy for struggles African nations are currently facing. I also believe (or at least I would like to believe) that it helped dispel some of the misconceptions about Africa.  However, while teaching the course, I also noticed some tensions that I have not noticed in courses about English or American literature.

I began the course by providing some historical background on the colonization of Africa.  We then read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before proceeding to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  My goal in pairing the texts was to highlight the differences in the way Achebe portrayed the Igbo culture; rather than menacing dark figures on the shore, they are complex human beings with their own traditions and social structures.  However, it was more difficult to get to this discussion than I had anticipated because students—particularly the white women, who were the majority of the course—were so focused on the sexism in the novel.   As one student wrote in the course’s e-mail discussion group,  “Even though I know this book takes place in a different time and place, I can’t help but to gasp with disgust when I read about the treatment of women.”  Certainly, they are not the first to comment on the portrayal of gender relations in the book; many readers do.  However, some of the students were so appalled by the sexism that had difficulty discussing anything else.

For the record, I, too, find the representation of gender relations in Things Fall Apart troubling.  But, obviously, it is just one part of one complex book and a complex culture.  My fear is that, for students who may only read the 8-10 or so texts assigned in the one World Literature course, that they may take away from the reading more prejudice than they came in with—that, for example, “Africans are savages” because of the way they treat women and children.  Certainly there are many pedagogical strategies for dealing with negative reactions.  In the case of Things Fall Apart, I tried to get students to realize that Okonkwo is not the moral norm of the novel—that he is portrayed as a deeply flawed character even by the standards of his own culture.  Other critics have suggested comparing Okonkwo’s depiction of Igbo culture to the realities suggested by historical and social scientific research, which asserts that women had significantly more power than Things Fall Apart suggests.  And since students were so obsessed with comparing Igbo culture with our own supposedly egalitarian society, I also tried to historicize the novel and compare it to the state of gender relations in England and the United States during the same period.  I’m not sure how well these strategies worked, though, in overcoming the initial revulsion some students had towards the novel; as we know, emotional reactions can be more powerful than rational discussions.

What I find most intriguing, though, is that these vociferous discussions arose from devoutly apolitical students who would not describe themselves as feminists.  When we (as instructors) try to discuss feminist issues in relationship to Anglo-American texts, usually they are not particularly interested.  They believe, for the most part, that gender equality has already been achieved; discussions about inequality have no relevance to their lives. Therefore, I was surprised at the vehemence of their reaction to Achebe.  These are students trained in “Minnesota Nice” culture; they are rarely vehement about anything.

The treatment of women in Things Fall Apart provoked the most tension in the course, but there were other trouble spots as well.  I asked students to read Achebe’s essay responding to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  I was (and still am) quite surprised to find that many students did not like the essay because they found Achebe’s “anger” threatening.

“If he considers part of his “duties” as a novelist to be to educate and inform his readers as he says he does, I think that he should rethink his methods.  In his essays, he is letting his emotions get the best of him.  I am not saying that Achebe should not be angry. Denial of emotion is wrong.  And he really does have something to be angry about.  But my problem comes with his sharing his anger with the entire literate world by having it printed in a journal.  I really feel that there are better ways of dealing with problems besides vocalizing your anger.”

While I am open to teaching tips dealing with the specific situations described above, I would like to focus more generally on the psychodynamics of the literary encounter between white Westerners and racial “Others.”  While the academy endlessly debates WHAT we should teach, I do not believe enough attention has been paid to what happens (psychologically, emotionally) when we teach it.  For example, in the MLA Approaches to Teaching Things Fall Apart nobody discussed possible negative emotional reactions or how to deal with them.  This lack of attention paid to the literary encounter is odd, since so much attention has been paid to the dynamics of the colonial encounter in other contexts.

Abdul JanMohamed, for example, writing of European colonization, asserts that “Motivated by his desire to conquer and dominate, the imperialist configures the colonial realm as a confrontation based on differences in race, language, social customs, cultural values, and modes of production” (18).  Certainly, reading a novel or poem is not the same as conquering and colonizing a culture.  But can we not see some of these same dynamics operating subconsciously in the literary encounter?  JanMohamed goes on to suggest that “such literature is essentially specular: instead of seeing the native as a bridge toward syncretic possibility, it uses him as a mirror that reflects the colonialist’s self-image” (18).  JanMohamed is referring here to colonialist literature. However, I think his insights can also be applied to the literary encounter between white Western reader and African text.

I’d like to suggest that the pedagogical tensions I mentioned earlier derive at least in part from specularity of the American-African literary encounter.    I think that—at least for some sheltered white students—Africa still serves as a heart of darkness.  Just as Conrad depicted the exploration of the Congo as a metaphor for journeying deeper into the human heart, my students experienced African literature as a mirror providing them with glimpses into their own culture’s heart of darkness.  The strong reaction against Achebe’s sexism, I believe, says more about the situation of the white Midwestern students than it does about the situation in Africa.  These are students who are raised to be nice, not to express anger, and to be believe that our society does not have problems of inequality.  My theory is that reading about problems faced by the Other struck a nerve that forced them to confront—albeit at a subconscious level—the inequality in our own culture.  Since they are not “allowed” to be angry, they are unsure what to do with this knowledge.  One outlet is to express disgust toward Things Fall Apart. That would account for the intensity of emotional reaction that seemed to me out of character and sometimes out of proportion.

As an example, let me quote an excerpt from another student’s electronic discussion posting.

“After all of the arguments about Achebe’s work last week I finally came to some of my own final conclusions. At first I was appalled at the way this society behaved and portrayed women in this novel. It disturbed me deeply and I had a very difficult time reading it. After a lot of thought and analysis, I realized that just because our society deems spousal and child abuse as wrong and cruel doesn’t mean that every other society should function in the same way. In going over the text to collect my thoughts I really tried to separate myself from my moral and value system to understand why these people did what they did within their clan. Even though I still don’t agree with the beating of the women, I can understand that this is just the way their people lived and functioned. This type of thing was a societal norm, and those norms are very difficult to change or see past.”

With all the attention paid in our media to the problems of battered women and abused children in our country, it is difficult for me to believe that this young woman actually thinks that she lives in a culture free from spousal and child abuse.  Perhaps she is just innocent.  What I think may be happening, though, is that reading Achebe forced her to confront her own culture’s conflicts-what it professes as opposed to what it actually practices.  This confrontation is deeply painful and can result in misdirected anger.

Another issue that the students found hard to confront was the overt and often violent racism Africans experienced at the hands of whites.  As one student wrote in her electronic journal: “I still find it hard to think that the people of Europe and America would think that a darker skin tone meant more than just a darker skin tone.  I find it hard to think that Europeans and Americans were that far behind in their logic.”  Were that far behind in their logic?  Again, I find it difficult to understand how Americans can NOT be aware of racism not only in Africa but in our own country, but it seems to be another blinder that reading African literature forces students to remove.

I am still working out my thoughts on this subject, but it seems to me at this point that in trying to teach students about African literature culture, I was simultaneously teaching students to confront their own culture.  This secondary course goal, however, was always beneath the surface of discussions, a quiet but powerful undercurrent that sometimes erupted violently.  On the one hand, this double current can work out productively.  In the best possible scenario, students can learn about both themselves and another culture.

The danger, though, is that if these complicated emotional reactions are not worked through productively, that the students may leave with their initial repugnance intact.  I’m not completely sure how to do this or even if it is within the power of an instructor to bring about this transformation.  Perhaps it is part of the maturation process or perhaps a degree in psychotherapy would be helpful.  I do think it would be productive for our profession if we could discuss the psychodynamics of the literary encounter with the Other in more depth.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe