“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?

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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/

 

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

Killing Them With “The Englishness”: “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga

220px-Tsitsi_Dangarembga_2006-11

We have a tendency in the West to think of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa as a “first world problem.”  Surely such disorders are confined to upper-middle class young white women from American suburbs, right?

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a 1988 novel from Zimbabwe, suggests otherwise.  This perceptive novel, set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dramatizes the coming-of-age stories of two main characters.  One of them is Tambu, a girl who is determined to get an education in order to pull herself and her family out of poverty.  The other girl is Tambu’s cousin Nyasha, who spent several childhood years in England, where her parents completed their graduate degrees.

200px-Nervous_Conditions

At the beginning of their relationship, Tambu is in awe of Nyasha, who seems to have everything. She is pretty and smart.  Her parents, Babamukuru and Maiguru, are well-educated and relatively wealthy, at least compared to Tambu’s family.  Not only that, but their sojourn in England left them all with an aura of glamour and sophistication that Tambu finds intoxicating.  At the same time, Tambu also is somewhat disapproving of Nyasha because of her tendency to question everything, including the authority and benevolence of her father Babamukuru, whom everyone else adores.

Eventually, the two girls become close and the readers observe both of them as they grow up and learn more about the ways of the world.  Their relationship is complicated, though; Tambu and Nyasha do not always understand each other.  They do, though, learn about some harsh life lessons from each other’s experiences.  In particular, the girls struggle against two main forces:  the sexism of the men in their community, and the toxic effects of colonialism on their minds and bodies.

Tambu, for example, has to fight tooth and nail simply to get an elementary education because her family favors her brother and sends only him to school.  Nyasha, on the other hand, struggles against the sometimes violent authoritarianism of her father, who expects her to obey him unquestioningly.  She also resent his implication that she is on the road to becoming a “bad girl” in a sexual sense, even though she gives him no reason to doubt her.  Nyasha learns that simply having a female body is reason enough for men to think of her primarily as a sexual object.

Perhaps this is the reason—or, one of the reasons—Nyasha develops an eating disorder.  Dangarembga never explicitly states why Nyasha becomes anorexic, but she implies that it is the only way Nyasha knows how to rebel against her father and his expectations of what it means to be female. She does not want to be seen as primarily a sexualized body.  Nor does she want to become like her mother, who must be submissive to her husband’s will despite her own advanced education and professional job.  It is implied that by starving herself, Nyasha is attempting to remove all traces of her adult female body, and thus the fate of all the women she knows.

This explanation over-simplifies the themes of Nervous Conditions, however.  In addition to criticizing the effects of sexism in her community, Dangarembga is also illuminating the even more insidious effects of English colonialism on the minds of the Shona characters.  (In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Zimbabwe was still a British colony and was still called Rhodesia.)  The title Nervous Conditions was taken from Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a famous work detailing some of the pernicious psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized.

Sartre wrote that “The status of “native” is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.”  Sartre explains that colonized people carry huge rage against their oppressors.  However, they cannot express this rage against the colonizers unless they are willing to be killed or imprisoned for doing so.  Therefore, Sartre states that “if this suppressed fury fails to find at outlet, it turns in a vacuum and devastates the oppressed creatures themselves.”

This is what happens in the novel Nervous Conditions. Nyasha is not the sort of person to accept the status quo unthinkingly and without question.  The more she reads about the world and observes the people around her, the more enraged she becomes at the way people exploit each other.  The English exploit the Shona people while rewarding a few “good natives” such as Babamukuru.  In turn, the Babamukurus become mini-colonizers themselves, lording over the rest of his community like a god.  The whole system drives Nyasha mad, quite literally. Eventually, she starves herself nearly to death and then explodes in a fit of rage.

“Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?”  Do you see what they’ve done?  They’ve taken us away.  Lucia.  Takesure.  All of us.  They’ve deprived you of you, him or him, ourselves of each other.  We’re groveling.  Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money.  Daddy grovels to them.  We grovel to him.”  She began to rock, her body quivering tensely.  “I won’t grovel.  Oh no, I won’t.  I’m not a good girl.  I’m evil.  I’m not a good girl.”  I touched her to comfort her and that was the trigger.  “I won’t grovel, I won’t die,” she raged and crouched like a cat ready to spring.”  .. . . Nyasha was beside herself with fury.  She rampaged, shredding her history book between her teeth (‘Their history.  Fucking liars.  Their bloody lies.’), breaking mirrors her clay pots, anything she could lay her hands on and jabbing the fragments viciously into her flesh, stripping the bedclothes, tearing her clothes from the wardrobe and trampling them underfoot.  “They’ve trapped us.  They’ve trapped us.  But I won’t be trapped.  I’m not a good girl.  I won’t be trapped.”  (200-201)

Finally, Nyasha’s family realizes how troubled she is and they take her to a clinic to get some help.   Whether or not she will be able to survive, much less thrive, is unclear by the end of the novel.

For her part, Tambu was baffled by Nyasha’s illness. She did not understand why someone like Nyasha, who seemingly had it all, to “suffer so extremely.”  Perhaps Tambu did not understand, but her mother did, very clearly.

‘It’s the Englishness,’ she said.  ‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful,” and she snorted.  ‘Look at them.  That boy Chido can hardly speak a word of his own mother’s tongue, and you’ll see, his children will be worse. . . You’ll see. . . . “About [Nyasha] we don’t even speak.  It’s speaking for itself.  Both of them, it’s the Englishness.  It’s a wonder it hasn’t affected the parents too.”  (203)

The “Englishness,” in other words, the colonializing process, is what drives Nyasha and other characters to the brink, especially when combined with the sexism of their own culture.   Tambu, her mother, and her aunt also experience their own “nervous conditions” of various sorts.    In the interests of space, however, I will not go into detail on their struggles.

Nervous Conditions  was Dangarembga’s debut novel, written when she was still a young woman.  It is a relatively short (200 page) novel, and one that is quite engaging.  More significant, however, this novel insightfully portrays the devastating effects of sexism and colonialism on the minds and bodies of African women.  I highly recommend it.

How to be Black in America: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu, the main character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, writes a blog about race in America.   Ifemelu, like Adichie, is Nigerian.  When she was growing up in Nigeria, she never thought much about race—because she never had to. When she came to the United States for her college education, however, that changed.  As a black person in a majority white country, she is forced to think about the color of her skin because it shapes the way others define her.

While in the U.S., Ifemelu learns not only about the racial tensions between American whites and blacks, but also about the tensions between American blacks and Africans.  She observes that the experiences of African-Americans differ markedly from the experiences of African-Americans (newly arrived immigrants from Africa.)  The way blackness plays out in the U.S.  intrigues Ifemelu so much that she starts to write a blog about it, a blog that becomes wildly successful.

Many of her sharp, insightful blog posts are reproduced in the novel and serve as a commentary on what Ifemelu and the people in her lives are experiencing.  For example, in this post, Ifemelu advises her readers (tongue-in-cheek) on the proper tone to adopt when discussing racial injustices:

I”f you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you make sure you are not bitter.  Don’t complain.  Be forgiving.  If possible, make it funny.  Most of all, do not be angry.  Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism.  Otherwise, you get no sympathy.  This applies only for white liberals, by the way.  Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you.  Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” (223)

This post is most obviously a commentary on the experiences faced by black characters in Americanah.  Black people in America are not allowed to be angry about racism because it makes white people uncomfortable.   The stance of this blog post also, however, echoes the tone Adichie adopts in Americanah.   Both Adichie’s and Ifemelu’s tone when it comes to race is sharp, sometimes even withering.  At the same time, though, it is funny (at times) and warm enough not to veer too far into the tone angry bitterness that scares away so many white people.    Adopting the right tone so that a black author can reach a large audience of white people in order to chastise them about their racism is no easy feat.  Adichie, I believes, succeeds at this difficult maneuver.

I say this, in case it is not obvious, as a white reader.  I am, in fact, one of those white liberal readers who is the target of many of Adichie’s most satirical jabs.  For example, Adichie’s white employer Kimberly tries so hard to be non-racist that when she is around Ifemelu, she coos over photos of ordinary-looking black women:

“Kimberly said, “Oh, look at this beautiful woman,” and pointed at a plain model in a magazine whose only distinguishing feature was her very dark skin.  “Isn’t she just stunning?”

“No, she isn’t.”  Ifemelu paused.  “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.”

Kimberly was taken aback, something wordless spread on her face and then she smiled, and Ifemelu would think of it as the moment they became, truly, friends.” (149)

Scenes like this, describing well-meaning yet ignorant displays of the racial divide in this country, make me question myself.  Am I as silly and short-sighted as these white characters when it comes to race?  If so, what can I do to be different, to take a small step towards improving the sad state of racial relations in this country?

Adichie does not provide any simple answers to this question, nor should she be expected to do so.  She does, however, give this piece of advice:

“So after this listing of don’ts what’s the do?  I’m not sure.  Try listening, maybe.  Hear what is being said.  And remember that it’s not about you.  American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame.  They are just telling you what is.  If you don’t understand, ask questions.  If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway.  It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.  Then listen some more.  Sometimes people just want to feel heard.  Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding. ”  (328)

This advice to “listen” seems so commonsensical, it is sad to think it has to be said.  Yet I think it does.  Maybe if we would also listen (or read) more and argue (defensively) less, we could make some progress.  Here’s to possibilities of listening—and friendship and connection and understanding.

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This post is part of the Africa Reading Challenge hosted by Kinna Reads.