Feed on

I interpreted Maria Elena Cruz Varela’s poem “Love Song for Difficult Times” not as a poem addressed to a person, but to her country. As can be read in the biography listed before the poems, Cruz Varela was beaten and imprisoned for publishing a manifest against the Castro regime. She wrote, “Here I am: forty-one years old, my spinal column damaged as a result of the events of November 19, 1991; an irreversible vitamin deficiency, acquired in prison; and an anxiety for my compatriots that does not leave me night or day. And over there is my country, an improbable raft in the middle of the ocean, waiting for a sign of hope before the inevitable shipwreck, trying to hear a coherent voice beyond the stale ideologies” (583). Here we can see that Cruz Varela cares about Cuba and wants it to be improved, despite what happened to her.

We can also see these feelings in “Love Song for Difficult Times.” She writes, “So hard to say I love you these days. / I love you with urgency. I want to make a side. / Without doubts. And without traps. /To say I love you. Like that. Plainly” (584). Here, Varela Cruz finds it difficult to love her country because of the horrible things that happened to her and to other citizens. Later, she writes, “If one man. And another man. And again another. And another. / Destroy the spaces where love is kept. / If it weren’t hard. Hard and tremendous. / If it weren’t impossible to forget this rage” (584). In these lines, Varela Cruz shows that the government (the men in the poem) are the reason she cannot love Cuba the way she wants to. They destroy everything good and turn the country into a place in which the citizens live in fear and cannot express themselves. Varela Cruz wants to love the country, but the rage she feels because of the government prevents her from doing so.

What makes this novel so fascinating is the backstory of the two main characters, and their experiences in the present tense. My first impression of Huda was that she is very timid and nervous, not the type of woman who would have any sort of sexual adventures whilst on holiday. When Yvonne was flirting with the men on the cliff when she is diving into the ocean, Huda completely ignores the men leading me to believe that she isn’t interested in the idea of dating, let alone hooking up with anyone. What made both of these characters so vastly interesting however, were their backgrounds. Huda is a Muslim woman from Lebanon and comes from a home that is wildly religious and where the men are quite obviously the authority figures. On the other side, Yvonne is a Christian woman, and although her family is not quite as rigid as Huda’s Lebanon alone is a country that has very distinct roles that women are expected to fill, and their sexuality is supposed to be pushed very far down within themselves. I think female sexuality is so often swept under the rug and not talked about because it is thought to be an embarrassing topic. This always confused me, men are praised for their sexual escapades, but women are expected to stay pure until marriage and never even think a dirty thought. How can that be? How can the roles be so different, and where did this idea that female sexuality is wrong come from? I think Hanan did such a wonderful job in creating characters who push these limits, and really opens the door for conversations regarding this topic. This was one of my favorite works we have read so far, it was so different from anything I have read before.

I didn’t appreciate this novel as much as I hoped I would due to the title. While I do agree with other blog posts that this is supposed to be a novel about two liberated women overcoming hardships and pursuing their careers, I don’t this book is as feminist as it should be.

I think Huda is mean to Yvonne. If this is supposed to be a novel about two women helping each other and being supportive, then WHY does Huda has all of these unspoken insecurities about Yvonne. If she was friends with Yvonne, she wouldn’t think of these mean things. Huda us a confusing character as well. While she states she doesn’t want marriage or children, she puts herself in these situations.

I don’t care if he makes me pregnant, I can get an abortion

In addition to this, I HATED how this novel portrayed men. While this does noel does show how women are considered inferior to men (as we can see about that on p. 50), Yvonne and Huda use these men for their sexual pleasure and anterior motives. These women use sex as a means for revenge and to have men sick around.

The last quick thing I want to touch upon is Yvonne. I think she was the best character in this novel and I relate to her a little. I wish that we had a little more of an ending with her, as there are a lot of questions left unanswered. I felt sad about the kind of views she held about men. I think the best example can be seen in the beginning when she paid for Lucio’s meal and then let him do whatever he pleased to her.

Yvonne hurries over to introduce herself to the young Arab man, thinking to herself young Arab men don’t bother withdrawing before they come, relying on women to take precautions.

In her book, Hanan al-Shaykh depicts two women with different backgrounds.

Indeed, Yvonne is a European, lives in London and she is thirty-seven. Huda is a Muslim and she lives in Canada and is younger. Yet, we can notice the pressure of the society on these two characters and how they react to that. Yvonne is worried about her age and her only ambition is to get pregnant before it is too late and as the quote shows it, she is willing to do anything. The desperation of this woman who wants to have children and who is ready to do that with the first man who will have sex with her is striking. She doesn’t even think about STD or the fact that her child would not have a father. It shows how her background and the society she is living in influences her actions. As a woman she is expected to have a child at any cost and to do it before “it is too late”. The fact that a Lebanese author depicts that type of character is interesting especially when we have another character from another culture to see the differences.

The character of Huda is different and yet shares some common things with Yvonne as they are both women and as they have to deal with some pressures and expectations from their cultures, where they are and who they are. The most striking scene, in my opinion, is the one with the Arab man and the strawberry. He thinks that Huda is not pure enough and that creates sort of a reaction of contradiction for her. Her goal is to seduce him and to show him that he is wrong, even if she is not virgin anymore. And she says: “All I’m going to think about is the strawberry waiting to explode, and the satisfaction of having my revenge on him when he sees my vaginal blood and his arrogance and self-righteousness melt away.” It shows how she is fighting against a prejudice and trying to have a revenge over the male. But this way to get her revenge is to use the expectations from her culture which are for instance to be virgin and not to feel better with herself but to make this man feel like he missed something and was wrong. I also thought that this scene was important because of the title of the book and it gives another light to this one.

As a conclusion, the woman condition is depicted in this book in an interesting way by creating two characters that are sharing an experience with two different approaches. The fact that the writer is a Lebanese woman is also an important detail because it is rare to see such a freedom when it comes to writing about sexuality and women in the Middle East. By writing about that, the author is not only making a satire of the expectations towards women but also shows how it impacts them and how they find ways to deal with that.

The sexual component of The Occasional Virgin is clear from before I even open the book. My first thought about this novel and the sexual component in Hanan al-Shakyh’s work “I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops.” The narrator in “I sweep the Sun Off Rooftops” had moved to London and has culture shock in the particular moment that the character, the English boy, and the narrator had sex. Both books bring sexuality and culture to the main stage, not like some of the other books/writers we have read thus far in class.

I didn’t chew my fingers with regret at giving him my virginity, furious at my weakness in lying down for him, and taking this boy in my arms just because he was English, a citizen of that great nation which had once ruled half the globe; nor did I blame myself for having clung to the notion that I had severed all links with my country just because I had traveled to London alone without any member of my family.”

This quote is from “I Sweet the Sun Off Rooftops,” and I chose it to show the thoughts from the main narrator in this story as her sexual experience as it happened. The next quote is from page 139 in  The Occasional Virgin, “ ‘I didn’t know you were a virgin. You’re a true Muslim and I’ve treated you as if you weren’t’ “ This line really spoke to me when related to the other short story she wrote, because they both focus heavily on purity. One not seeming to care at all in the terms of being a virgin and, while the latter is a sense of value to the idea of purity and being a virgin. The idea of staying a virgin until marriage is prominent in many cultures and is put to the extreme in Islamic culture. The Virgin Mary is the only woman to be mentioned by name in the Quran, so this shows the importance of being a virgin. Where as this narrator disregards that idea, is this because she isn’t the ‘true muslim” what the English boy refers to her as. Is this because she is not close to her religion? Is she not close to her culture? Did she drift away throughout tmher life?

Amelia beat me to the punch here, but I found myself wondering many of the same things as her. Yvonne and Huda have left their home country and made successful lives for themselves as independent women, but most of the book revolves around their relationships with men. I like them as characters, and want them to find happy and successful relationships, but I found myself wanting more than what the story line gave us.  I was a little confused on what Huda wants in life: a steady relationship?  Her play seems to be doing well, but do her romantic pursuits matter more to her than her work?  I had similar questions about Yvonne.  Does she end up having the baby she so desperately craves?  Do any of her relationships work out?  Huda and Yvonne are more likely to succeed as professionals in Canada and London (rather than simply becoming homemakers in their native Lebanon), and it is natural for people to find meaningful relationships through their work and similar pursuits, but I wanted it to happen by chance, rather than by both women trying so hard to create relationships where they are unlikely to last.

This is a beautifully written book, with funny and interesting characters whose successes I became invested in.  I wanted to like it more than I did, but I think I prefer books like “Americanah” over “The Occasional Virgin.”



Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Occasional Virgin is quoted as a “frank and fearless novel” on the inside of the book’s jacket.  There are many things both frank and fearless about this novel, but in particular is the author’s handling of sexuality; the sexual acts in this novel highlight the differences not only between Huda and Yvonne’s religions but also the cultures, as well as the cultural differences in Lebanon and the United States.  For example, on page 24, when Yvonne “saw her mother’s true colours; she only loved the boys. When one of Yvonne’s brothers was ill, her mother would put vinegar compresses on his forehead to draw out the fever, muttering, ‘May Jesus reach out his hands to heal you…’ She sang the praises of their male members and her favourite anecdote was about planting a kiss on Tanius’s little willy, only to have the scallywag pee in her mouth.”

I read and reread this passage because it struck me as obscene and wildly inappropriate, though the context of the passage and those that follow it do not suggest that there was any reason to find said passage so bizarre. I am not overly familiar with Lebanese culture, but I do know that in America this would not be accepted.

Another instance of the bizarre sexuality in this novel is found on page 129 when Huda uses a strawberry to trick Hisham into believing that she is still a virgin.  The idea that virginity is so important to the men and women of the Muslim religion is not a foreign one, but this act itself was so strange. I did, though, find it revealing of Huda’s character; there is a set determination in her, and there would have to be, for one to commit such an act. I think this also shows how detrimental some of the principals of the Muslim religion are to its women believers.

The Occasional Virgin is about two Lebanese women struggling to find their identities between the pressures of their successful businesses and their traditional families and personal desires.

The struggles that Yvonne and Huda go through remind me of a song that the Sweet Tones has covered a couple of times: “Quiet,” sung by MILCK.  This song became the unofficial anthem of the Women’s March in 2017.  A choir of women (who had only rehearsed together online) came together to sing it a cappella at the march.  This is such a beautiful, powerful song about the pressures that society puts on women, and it calls every woman to be her true, authentic self.  It’s always very well received wherever the Sweet Tones perform it.

Huda, especially, as a Lebanese Muslim woman, is expected to behave a certain way.  She doesn’t dress or act the way a devout Muslim woman does, and it surprises strangers when she tells them she comes from a Muslim family.

“Quiet” has a few lyrics that I feel truly speak to Huda’s situation.  “Put on your face/ know your place.”  The reader sees this sentiment directed at Huda by Hisham, who expects that she will marry him after she “seduces” him.  He guilts her into buying a hijab to wear to dinner with him, and then suggests that she purchases a veil to hide her eyes because “‘it makes the woman’s face as a whole less provocative’” (149).  MILCK’s song moves from the introduction into the first verse with “But no one knows me, no one ever will/If I don’t say something, if I just lie still/Would I be that monster, scare them all away/If I let them hear what I have to say.”  I get the sense that Huda has struggled with a similar thought process when she still lived with her parents in Lebanon.  Then the chorus comes, with MILCK repeating how she is a “one-woman riot” who “can’t keep quiet.”

Ultimately, “Quiet” is about MILCK’s struggle to overcome anorexia, anxiety, and depression to come into her own as a performer.  While Huda hasn’t had to face these exact problems, she has had to come to terms with her religion and family history, and I think this anthem describes her journey very well.



The Occasional Virgin confused me a bit. On one hand, it is a feminist novel, on the other it is not. The main characters, Yvonne and Huda, are “liberated” women. They have successfully left their home in Lebanon and made names for themselves out in the world. The two women have escaped oppression and fought against misogyny. They have left homes and cultures where the patriarchy rules. In Lebanon, Yvonne and Huda were expected to fill “the role of the women” but disregarded the expectation to go out in the world and make their own lives. They are powerful and successful women but at times, it seemed like Hanan al-Shaykh reduced to them tropes.

For example, Yvonne’s main goal throughout the book is to have a child. I am not saying that is not a good goal to have but it placed Yvonne in a “traditional role” where as the rest of the book characterized her as someone who refused to the cultural norm like Huda.  It is similar for Huda as well, she shatters expectations as well but seems to fall into an unhealthy relationship with a man for the sake of revenge.

I am not saying that I did not like the book though it is definitely my least favorite that we have read so far.  I did enjoy al-Shaykh’s descriptions of the sea. Yvonne and Huda’s time in Italy is beautiful. Al-Shaykh’s diction is interesting, often using unusual words to describe the mundane. She makes the see a metaphor for growth and change come to life. I also enjoyed the stories about Huda and Yvonne’s childhood. It was a good contrast to their current lives. It also showed them as powerful women, even when they were younger, as they were constantly pushing boundaries. The two women definitely wrestle with interesting questions about women, immigrants, and  religion. The Occasional Virgin is definitely a very relevant book.

While Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Occasional Virgin and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah are two very different novels, there are also many similarities between them. One of the earliest similarities was a section about Huda’s hair – “This hair-washing involved an elaborate process of applying oil and allowing it to soak in, then washing it, spreading shea butter on it – which felt disgusting – and then rinsing, applying conditioner, wrapping each strand around rollers and sitting under a dryer, then brushing out each strand using a hand dryer. After this, she no longer had curly hair; instead it hung straight down over her shoulders, shiny as an aubergine… Huda secretly envies Yvonne’s hair” (4-5). Like in Americanah, this section focuses on the pressure on non-white women to have the same type of hair as white women.

Later, Yvonne asks, “Do you think we’re still unmarried because we live outside Lebanon? I mean because we’ve changed – because we aren’t completely at home either with foreigners or Lebanese?” (32). Here readers see that Yvonne is not fully comfortable with her identity. Is she more Lebanese or has she become more like foreigners after leaving her home country? This identity question is something that many immigrants struggle with, and it is also something that Ifemelu and other characters deal with in Americanah.

The novel also deals with religious issues and stereotypes in a way that is similar to the way Adichie dealt with race in Americanah. When talking to Roberto, Huda wonders, “Will he choose Yvonne, because I’m a Muslim?” (36). She then thinks about her experiences with people who do not understand her religion. “But what about the Canadian she’d thought she was in love with, until he’d asked her in all seriousness if had to convert to Islam if he wanted to kiss her? And the woman who came to her flat to measure the windows for new curtains and asked if the glass chandelier that hung at an angle was tilted to face Mecca?” (36). She has also faced more serious misunderstandings, speaking of “the many who were convinced after 9/11 that she would understand its perpetrators and harbor at least a little admiration for them – those who were extremely diplomatic whenever the subject came up, until they heard Huda criticizing them, and extremists in general, declaring that she didn’t really believe in any religion” (36). Later on, Huda talks to an English woman who tells her about her neighbor who wears a burka. “I’m sorry to say that I’m scared each time I see her, and I only feel reassured when I hear her voice,” the woman says. “Sometimes I think she might be a man! Maybe she’s like the terrorist who managed to escape from a London mosque hiding behind a chador and burka, or the thieves who wear burkas and rob jewellers’ shops!” (98). It is easy to see how the discrimination Huda faces is similar to that Ifemelu faces about her race. Both deal with people who may mean well but add to the negative stereotypes they already deal with.

Purity is a topic that has been explored in almost every single one of the works for this class. Often, there is some kind of significance to it—religion, culture/tradition, etc. In any case, a woman’s virginity is synonymous with her worth as a human being. A woman’s virtue also leads to her being respected by others for having honor; when Hisham discovers that Huda is still a virgin, he apologizes for treating her harshly earlier, for not treating her like a “proper” Muslim woman:

‘His eyes fill with tears. “I didn’t know you were a virgin. You’re a true Muslim and I’ve treated you as if you weren’t’” (Al-Shayk 139).

Huda understands all of this, and she is able to use it to her advantage to be seen as a good Muslim woman worthy of respect by her more devout acquaintances; she knows just how to manipulate Hisham in order for him to respect her, viewing her as a worthy woman instead of just a nuisance with modern ideas that do not match up with his more traditional ones. Having managed to escape the pressures of life as a Muslim woman by choosing to move from her devout community to Toronto, she is free to be and do whatever she wants–speak her mind, become a director of a play, dress how she wants. Her worth is defined not by her virginity but by her talents and intelligence. With this perspective, she is able to look upon the views of Hisham and his fellow Muslims towards women and realize that they are wrong. Without the experience of being able to live her life in the way that she wants, it’s unclear whether or not she would be able to realize how restricting traditional Muslim life for a woman is.

A theme of this book is women’s powerlessness in a male-dominated society, particularly when it is backed with religious beliefs and traditions. In some ways, I felt like Huda and Yyvonne are slamming into a brick wall every time they try to make the man see the inconsistency of their beliefs or even see a woman’s point of view. An example is a conversation between Huda and Hisham about a veil.  

“‘…what’s the point of covering my face if people can still see my features?’

‘The point is that it makes the woman’s face as a whole less provocative. The niqab only reveals the eyes, where the greatest provocation resides. What we’re talking about is the provocation that is more powerful than death, the provocation of a woman’s beauty. Don’t we describe a woman as alluring, or enticingly beautiful? As the saying goes, “Ask God’s protection from being led astray by beauty.’”

‘But why are you scared of beauty instead of thanking God for it?’

‘Anyway. Please cover your head with the shawl in the restaurant, for my sake.’ (p 149)”

He completely sides steps the issue, just when she has him cornered. It makes me mad, and if I were Huda, I don’t think that I would go this far for revenge. It is ironic that she must become what she hates to get her revenge on this guy. I also thought that it is interesting that the normal dialogue is not in usual quotation marks. It is only the sayings that people quote at her that is correctly quoted. 

Music in “Americanah”

Throughout Americanah, Adichie presents many facets of African culture from the highbrow intellectual touchstones to the more everyday pop culture references that shape Ifemelu’s world from childhood to adulthood. This transition from youth is shown from the cultural references she makes at the beginning of the novel when she describes her first connection with Obinze.

“She became aware of the present, the now, Toni Braxton’s voice from the cassette player, be it fast or slow, it doesn’t let go, or shake me…”

This use of song to enhance the mood of the writing continues throughout the novel until the end. In chapter 52 when she and Obinze are together singing in the car along to Bracket’s Yori Yori, a popular Nigerian song.

“He increased the volume and they sang along; there was an exuberance to the song, its rhythmic joyfulness, so free of artifice, that filled the air with lightness.”

She goes on describe the two singing Obiwon’s “Obi Mu O” and how the song itself mirrored their feelings of desire for each other.

When reading Americanah, I really enjoyed all of the music references and the way in which Adichie allowed her own intimate knowledge of her culture to permeate every facet of her characters lives and experience.

Below is a playlist of some of the songs in the novel as well as some Afro-Beats songs I listened to a lot this summer:







In the book, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Adichie, she talks about her character Ifemelu facing racism and dealing with the American way of seeing an African American. The part that I specifically want to focus on in this blog post is the relationship Ifemelu and Curt. I also want to talk about the fact that Curt’s family almost seems as though they are trying hard to prove they are not racist, but they really are.
I have seen someone close to me go through similar things that Ifemelu goes through. One example of this is the fact that Ifemelu is discriminated against at a salon due to her skin tone, the only difference was in the scenario I have personally seen, this girl and her boyfriend have been assumed that she was rich and paying for everything. Not that they would be paying together, or that he would pay for her. Ifemelu has to face this not only at a salon but also with Curt and his family. There is one example of Ifemelu explaining to Curt about the magazine that really stuck out to me. In this book, Chimamanda Adichie is constantly calling America out on its racist views and racist people in the country, but at this moment, she uses an item that the readers see every day and points out that a magazine about black women was not racially skewed. “ ‘so three black women in maybe two thousand pages of women’s magazines, and all of them are biracial or racially ambiguous, so they could also be Indian or Puerto Rican or something. Not one of them is dark.’” I appreciated that this book was calling the country out and her boyfriend out for racism or the racist tendencies or comments. This book was published in 2013, and unfortunately five years later we still have just as much, if not worse, racism in this country.

Chimamanda Adiche says that a lot of the American readers of Americanah don’t seem to understand the humor of the story.  As an American, I agree with her – I think a lot of what was supposed to be funny went over my head.  I was able to pick out things that seemed sardonic, but not much of the story was outright funny to me.  With that being said, there was one scene that really stood out to me as an accurate portrayal of one part of society in the US.

Marcia’s surprise birthday party on pages 399-409 struck me as darkly funny.  Everyone is either too pretentious or too cautious; no one says what they really think.  The characters in this chapter are the kind of people who give proponents of organic produce bad names.  One woman remarks “‘We humans are not supposed to eat with utensils'” as she picks at her collard greens with her fingers (402).  This image is wholly ridiculous and almost made me laugh aloud, which is probably what Adiche intended.  Most of the people who make up Blaine’s friend group are those who imagine they know more about the human condition than someone else – the type of people who drive both Ifemelu and myself insane.

Ifemelu feels disconnected from Blaine’s friends.  They don’t seem to want to learn about things outside their fields, and are stuck in their own views of society.  Ifemelu grew up in a much different situation than the native citizens in this scene; her experiences make her bring a completely different perspective to everything that happens not only in this scene, but everything in the book.  This also what makes her race blog so compelling.  As a “non-American black,” she interprets things differently than American blacks, and differently than Americans in general, regardless of race.



Barack Obama’s voice rose and fell, his face solemn, and around him the large and resplendent crowd of the hopeful. Ifemelu watched, mesmerized. And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America. 

This quote from page 448 started my reflection about this book because it shows how contradictory a character can be when it comes to living in a foreign country. Indeed, throughout the book and particularly in her blog post, Ifemelu is criticizing America. She is not criticizing in a bad way all the time, but she emphasizes what stands out to her so it feels like she is a critic. What I’m interested in is to explore the fact that when we look at another culture we often only see what is different, and our interest seems to always be on the edge between fascination and detestation. In this quote, the reaction seems to be too strong towards a politic because she lives in America at the moment and she experiences a lot of difficult things as an immigrant, and yet the figure of Barack Obama, in a minute, seems to be enough to change her vision of America as the most beautiful thing. What is also interesting in that quote is the syntaxis. We can see that it appears as a conclusion of an instant as it starts with “And there was,” but then we have a precision about the timing; it is only true “at that moment” that she thinks America is the most beautiful thing.

This leads me to my final point, which is about being an immigrant and having the role of the immigrant. Indeed, during the whole novel, Chimamanda Adichie is crafting the portrait of a black woman in America but also, more than anything, of an immigrant. But the character of Efemelu is as clever as annoying sometimes. She is aware of that and can see it in her work — for example, when she has to be the best all the time and in her everyday life because people think that all immigrants are a community and get along together and go through the same things. At the beginning she seems to observe all the differences between herself, an educated woman living in Princeton, and, for example, the hairdresser Aicha, but by the end she is “friends” with her and tries to help her with her romantic life. This phenomenon repeats throughout the novel; she seems to be “stronger” at the beginning or at least more aware of the fact that she is not a simple immigrant and can’t be reduced to that. The more she stays in America, though, the more she seems to struggle to find herself, and she feels drowned by American culture. De facto, she seems to endorse the role of the immigrant in every aspect of her life but not to be an immigrant anymore. Indeed, she just has the behavior that American people expect from an African immigrant and not the behavior she had at the beginning when she was still discovering and looking at the culture and the manners from her point of view.

The relationship between Obinze and Kosi is complicated, to say the least.  It is clear that Obinze cares for his wife, even if he doesn’t love her. He listens to her pleas to reconsider his decision for divorce to an extent, and he has always taken care of her in the years of their marriage. However, they have very little in common. One of the more significant reflections of Obinze highlights he feeling on his marriage.

Kosi became a touchstone of realness. If he could be with her, so extraordinarily beautiful and yet so ordinary, predictable, and domestic and dedicated, then perhaps his life would start to seem believably his… Still, he married her. They were living together anyway, and he was not unhappy, and he imagined that she would, with time, gain a certain heft. She had not, after four years, except physically, in a way that he thought made her look even more beautiful, fresher, with fuller hips and breasts, like a well-watered houseplant. (pg 565-566)

His comparison of her to a houseplant is a very accurate description of their marriage. Obinze needs something more than a pretty decoration at the end of the day to take care of him. He wants the intelligence in his marriage that he had in his relationship with Ifemelu. He even expected this spark of curiosity to grow in Kosi at the beginning of his marriage, but it never did. This creates a void between them that they have never been able to bridge in the four years they have been together. This is likely because Kosi was not bothered by the void and Obinze was still half in love with Ifemelu. He didn’t want to grow closer to another woman, so he did not press Kosi.

In the end, a situation like the one in the book has no perfect answer. While it is difficult for me to connect as deeply with Kosi as I do with Ifemelu, I still couldn’t help but feel sorry for Kosi. She tried very hard to be the perfect wife, but Obinze’s notion of the ideal wife and her own notion were just too different.

One of the things that caught my attention over the course of the book was Ifemelu’s choices in literature. She is an extraordinarily intelligent woman, yet she is often reading Essence magazine, amongst other “racially skewed” and seemingly beneath her works. In earlier scenes I remember Obinze trying to convince her to read more of  American classics such as Huckleberry Finn, and Ifemelu not even being able to finish them she was so bored. Her taste in literature is questioned in all of her relationships, even with Curt, who I don’t remember being the smartest of guys. This greatly confused me for a couple of reasons. Why would Ifemelu read things that are so below the caliber that she is at, that everyone seems to notice and question it? Personally, I need to read things that are intellectually stimulating or else I get bored. When something is too easy, or doesn’t get me thinking enough, it does not feel like it is worth my time, and I was wondering if there was a deeper reason as to why Ifemelu seems to avoid reading well-known and respected works?

The second question this leads me to is why does everyone feel the need to comment on the particular things she chooses to read? I am questioning her because I’m a student and need something to discuss and this stood out to me, but why are her boyfriends concerned with how she chooses to occupy her time? A line that caught my eye and really made me think can be found on page 417 when Shan stated, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.” I want to know a little bit more on where she is coming from, what will be too obvious? I thought that this was interesting because by including this line Adichie is drawing attention to whether or not her story is actually an honest novel. She herself has opened the door to that conversation with her audience, and I think that is incredibly brave and powerful, to question yourself and your ability to create an honest interpretation within your own story. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that done before, but I really loved and respected it.

One of the many issues regarding immigration that stood out in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah was how Ifemelu and Obinze had very different experiences interacting with other African immigrants. Some of Ifemelu’s first interactions with other immigrants were in college. In one of her classes, she met a girl from Kenya who invited her to join the African Students Association. There, Ifemelu met “Nigerians, Ugandans, Kenyans, Ghanaians, South Africans, Tanzanians, Zimbabweans, one Congolese, and one Guinean [who] sat around eating, talking, fueling spirits, and their different accents formed meshes of solacing sounds” (170). The group joked about different assumptions Americans made about them and “mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again” (170-171). Ifemelu felt comfortable with them, since she did not have to explain herself to them. The group also told her that she might make friends more easily with other international students than Americans because “many of the internationals understand the trauma of trying to get an American visa and that is a good place to start a friendship” (173). While that statement was a joke, it is also a statement that rings true. People often bond over shared experiences, especially when meeting several new people at once. It makes sense for someone who is new to America, who doesn’t know anyone or any of the customs, to find comfort in someone who has been in their shoes before.

However, one of Obinze’s early experiences with another immigrant was much different. While cleaning toilets in London, he often tried to speak to a Ghanaian woman who cleaned the women’s bathroom. “He sensed, in the way she spoke and carried herself, a background similar to his, a childhood cushioned by family, by regular meals, by dreams in which there was no conception of cleaning toilets in London” (292). Here, we see that Obinze was searching for a relationship similar to that of the people in Ifemelu’s ASA group. He thought they could bond over shared experiences growing up in similar households in Africa and the transition to life in England, doing a job neither of them ever imagined for themselves. However, the woman “ignored his friendly gestures, saying only ‘Good evening’ as formally as she could, but she was friendly with the white woman who cleaned the offices upstairs… It was not that she did not want friendship, it was rather that she did not want his. Perhaps friendship in their present circumstances was impossible because she was Ghanaian and he, a Nigerian, was too close to what she was; he knew her nuances, while she was free to reinvent herself with the Polish woman, to be whoever she wanted to be” (292).

This woman reacted quite differently from the people Ifemelu met. While they all wanted to bond over a connection they shared, she seemed ready to forget her life in Africa altogether. As Chimamanda Adichie mentioned in an interview about writing Americanah, the book shows the experiences of middle-class African immigrants. These characters, though only briefly featured, show that even in a smaller focus on immigration, there are many different ways people are affected. Some want to remember their home countries while still trying to get a better life, while others would rather forget their home countries almost altogether.

Fela Kuti

By the time the Nigerian star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died in 1997 at age 58, he’d become the Beethoven, Che Guevara, Allen Ginsberg, and Malcolm X of African popular music. His funeral in Lagos drew bigger crowds than the burial ceremonies for the country’s former heads of state. Known simply as Fela to a global legion of fans, he had a special importance for a generation of Nigerians who grew up as I did, in the turbulent era after independence in 1960. Rising to fame in the wake of a civil war, a time marred by corruption and military rule, Fela had the audacity to challenge those who were exploiting an entire land for their personal gain. Like other young Nigerian writers and artists, I learned from him that the creative spirit can be turned against the abuses of power. For us, he will always be one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the country’s history.

Seen through a Western lens, Fela’s life is a fascinating study of a character shaped by family expectations and his era’s turbulent events. But Fela can also be viewed in a different light. Compared to similar figures enshrined in West African myth, he’s the latest in a long lineage of artist-heroes with the courage to turn performance into a political act.

— Esiaba Irobi, “Singing Truth to Power,” the Utne Reader

It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he’s more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac. His death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice on a par with Bob Marley was silenced. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela’s death noted: “Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa.” This is as succinct a summation of Fela’s political agenda as one is likely to find.

— John Dougan at allmusic.com

Click here for lyrics to “Beasts of No Nation”

And here’s a brief 10-minute portrait of Fela Kuti:

Exercise 3

Write a story that begins with one of these images as the inspiration for the first scene and ends with a second image as the inspiration for the final scene. You should attempt to include as any of the small details in those images as you can as a means of evoking the physical world you’re creating in your story. These works are by the photographer Gregory Crewsdon. Feel free to do a little research about his work and the methods he uses to create them. (Click on the images to see larger versions.)
20160121-lens-crewdson-slide-EFN5-superJumbo 20160121-lens-crewdson-slide-2F6T-superJumbo 20160121-lens-crewdson-slide-LFQC-superJumbo 20160121-lens-crewdson-slide-UTX2-superJumbo 2000.70_ph_web-1 2002.30_ph_web-1 20160121-lens-crewdson-slide-C3X2-superJumbo

Thoughts on Americanah

Americanah is my favorite work that we have read in class so far. Adichie addresses a multitude of controversial topics in her novel, from racism to suicide, through Ifemelu’s refreshing frankness.  Ifemelu does not immediately find her voice and a platform to make herself heard, but, when her blog begins to attract attention, she is able to express her views to a larger audience.  Her growth through the novel that produced the strong and unapologetic writer and individual she becomes.

We will find out soon when we meet Adichie in person, but I wonder how similar she is to Ifemelu.  When I was researching Adichie, I came across an article that reminded me of some of the responses to Ifemelu’s blogs.  A post on The New Republic website, called “The Insufferable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” was quite shocking to me, because up until now I had heard nothing but praise for her.  The reviewer brought to mind some of the negative responses to Ifemelu’s blog posts.  The reviewer on the real-life site I found was somewhat funny, in a way, because he had not read Americanah and based his judgments on the book and its author solely based on interviews.  His commentary on the novel is quite similar to the people Ifemelu mentions in her blog, who protest that nothing is wrong with the class system in America and say that any people who think differently are too sensitive.  In stating these opinions, the author of the review inadvertently fueled Ifemelu’s – and Adichie’s – argument that not enough is currently being done to address inequity in our country.

Here is the link to the article.

Something that Chimamanda Adichie does well is place her readers in the heads of her characters.  Adichie doesn’t waste time in the first few chapters of Americanah; she knows who her characters are and the story she wishes to tell.  Adichie isn’t afraid to make her readers uncomfortable.  She knows her audience and she writes with that idea in mind.  She knows she will have American audiences, UK audiences, Nigerian-American audiences, etc., etc., and her awareness is evident in the way she “talks” to her readers through her characters.  Coming at this from the point of view of a white American, I feel this is an eye-opening book.  Through Ifemelu, Adichie shows an America that I am not used to seeing.  It is an uncomfortable America but an important America.  She does the same thing with Obinze in Nigeria.  She shows a Nigeria that we do not see in the news, a Nigeria that is a home for people and not just a statistic on CNN.  For example, Ifemelu notes she does not know she is black until she comes to America where race is a big deal.  Adichie handles the situation well. It is a powerful moment.

Being the outsider is a common theme throughout the novel.  Ifemelu must travel across town to get her hair done. People comment on her clothing, assuming her nationality on the tightness of her shirt or the way she does her hair.  Ifemelu is never identified by who she is but where she is from or what clothes she wears.  But Ifemelu also fears being the outsider in her own home in Nigeria.  She talks about how those who go to America and return to Nigeria are called “americanah.”  They are americanized, no longer Nigerian but not American either.  They are totally something of their own.  Ifemelu is one of those people.  Being the outsider is something that none of these characters can seem to shake.

The same goes for Obinze. He cannot even work under his own name, forced to take up a new identity in order to live in London. Eventually, the plan backfires on him and he must return to Nigeria.  Still this idea of being the outsider is prevalent in Obinze’s story and his short time in London. He cannot even be himself. Ifemelu may not have to change her name, but she suffers from the same loss of identity while in America.



Nomenclatures of Invisibility
by Mahtem Shiferraw

My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;

when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.

Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;

they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
within, without—

which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,

and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—

when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,

because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.


About This Poem

“This poem attempts to capture in brief moments the depth of our invisibilities as we move and shift from one place to another. Our sense of place is not only lost, but constantly questioned, probed—and this kind of incessant interrogation leads us to believe there is no sense of dignity in our places of origin, in our names. And even though what the world is doing to us is not new, it breaks us every time.”
—Mahtem Shiferraw

Interracial love is a topic that is explored in Americanah. Adichie doesn’t shy away from the brutal honesty that still plagues many interracial couples in present day—the idea that one should not date outside of their race and how both members of the relationship must cope with this idea. She isn’t afraid to call attention to specific ideas relating to interracial relationships—how only certain types of people are expected to be in them:

“It amused Ifemelu. She had seen that look before, on the faces of white women, strangers on the street, who would see her hand clasped in Curt’s and instantly cloud their faces with that look. The look of people confronting a great tribal loss. It was not merely because Curt was white, it was the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money. If he were fat, older, poor, plain, eccentric, or dreadlocked, then it would be less remarkable, and the guardians of the tribe would be mollified. And it did not help that although she might be a pretty black girl, she was not the kind of black that they could, with an effort, imagine him with: she was not light-skinned, she was not biracial” (Adichie 362).

Adichie also acknowledges that, even if race isn’t an issue between the actual members of the relationship, the unwelcoming attitudes of outside parties still affect the relationship:

“When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re along together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters” (Adichie 359).

I like that Adichie chooses to explore both sides of the relationship. Ifemelu, who is already experiencing racism just on her own, now has to contend with an entirely new set of expectations and beliefs as a black woman in a relationship with a white man. Curt, who has never had to deal with such problems before, is now, as a wealthy and attractive white man in a relationship with a black immigrant woman, confronting these same expectations and beliefs alongside Ifemelu. As much as they would like their relationship to be a simple one, outside forces make this impossible, constantly sabotaging their relationship. Unapologetic, I think, is a good word to describe this portrayal; Adichie understands full well what being in a relationship means for interracial couples in present day. She does not minimize or romanticize the hardships faced by them; her main concern is to create an honest picture of present-day interracial love through the characters of Ifemelu and Curt.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »