The Africa We See, the Africa We Don’t See

A few weeks back, this TED talk was making the rounds with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about imagining oneself into one’s fiction. It can be a challenge to talk about her work without bringing up the talk she gave. I think it does provide a useful context, in the same way the 2013 movie might provide useful context, for people who have seen the film. (I have not.) But, I prefer to discuss the book as it is, without the TED Talk.

I prefer this because the book is as close to flawless as it is possible for  a novel to be. Each point of view enhanced the story. Each seemed to be the right character to utilize. Each cliffhanger and operatic note of intrigue and infidelity against the backdrop of the Biafran revolution in Nigeria. I was astonished as the pitch perfect inclusion of beautiful, precise descriptions of place and culture and people that is at once instantly recognizable and instantly different from any other place or culture or time. I was impressed, as well, how different point of view characters approached and described new people in their world. The Igbo chief’s daughter sees people from her position of inherited power, describing the pieces of other people that render them “low” like hairy arms and a rough demeanor, even as she suppresses those impulses with her socialist husband’s influence and her work as a schoolteacher. The houseboy, Ugwu, sees people’s eyes and clothes and position in society. Richard, the eternal outsider, a failed novelist from England, in love with Olanna’s sister, often sees people through the lens of race and class, excited that he can pick out different tribes on sight and place other white people he meets into the box of their place in society. It happens so quickly, and it is one brilliant touch among many in a complex, layered novel, that takes on the difficult job of speaking for a country the world has forgotten.

The plot follows the family of Olanna, and the people around her, mostly. Richard is her brother-in-law, and friend for a time. Ugwu is so much a part of her family that when the fighting becomes fierce, and the bombs are falling, Ugwu stays with Olanna and Odenigbo, her professor husband, instead of returning home to his village to help his own family. The family unit suffers their times. A child is born and raised in dirtier and dirtier homes, with the rising tide of war. Olanna’s access to all levels of society as both a schoolteacher and a daughter of a powerful chief makes her the ideal cipher for the war, but it is often less important than the strife she experiences in her own difficult marriage in a culture that would prefer women barefoot and pregnant and thoroughly married. Their early life as an unwed cohabiting couple creates great strife with Odenigbo’s family. Her own seems to be amusedly waiting for her to finish her fling so she can become the mistress of a powerful government official. The drama of family life tumbles forward with a deep insight, and heart-rending beauty.

When a novel is this good, I truly question the need for a review. Scholarship, perhaps, but a review? This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Aditchie will probably win a Nobel for her work, someday, and it would certainly be deserved. This is a five out of five situation. It is as good as fiction gets. I don’t really know what else I need to say about it.

I will say this: The cover is terrible and seems to have no relationship to the book inside of it. The trees are not the mango and cocoyam and cashew and guava inside the actual book. The character on the cover is not dressed like anyone inside of the book that qualifies as a major character. (Olanna is London-schooled, and dresses like a Western schoolteacher!) The sun is big and bright and hot, but it is full and the Biafran sun was only half. This cover was designed by someone with exactly one goal: “Let’s tell American audiences that this is a book about African women! Let’s give them all sorts of cues and clues visually to make it clear that this is African just like they think it is supposed to be!”

The cover is bollocks. It is an Africa we choose to see, which is a huge issue that is criticized constantly in the text of the book, itself. How ironic that the cover should be part of the Western gaze that is so deservedly derided in the text.

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