Americanah took five years to write. ‘For a long time I’ve wanted to write about two things: a love story that doesn’t apologise for being a love story, in the grand tradition of the Mills & Boon novel; and I also wanted to write about race in America. I hadn’t felt ready until now.’ The title refers to an immigrant who has become Americanised – Ifemelu gets called ‘Americanah’ by her friends. Adichie writes with great affection for her subjects but she is not sentimental. Americanah is a dense story with a very light touch – it moves effortlessly between time frames and countries, making acute political points without haranguing.
Adichie has compared America to ‘a very rich uncle who doesn’t really know who you are, but all the same you can’t help being fond of him’.
‘I like America but it’s not mine and it never will be,’ she says now. ‘I don’t really have a life there. I travel and I speak and I sit in my study trying to write, but in Nigeria I have a life. I go out, I have friends, I feel emotionally invested in what’s happening.’
Last year Adichie was the youngest person to deliver the annual Commonwealth lecture at the Guildhall, and her TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) lecture on national identity, The Dangers of a Single Story, is one of its most popular. She is an eloquent person with big ideas, who is very interested in pan-African politics. ‘The idea of aid as a solution to Africa’s problems is something I don’t agree with at all. When you look at countries that have succeeded, aid didn’t do it. Aid creates dependency.’ She resents how applying for aid has become a job in itself. ‘It’s not looking for money to start a business, it’s writing a proposal so someone gives you money. Nigeria is not like that yet, and I hope we don’t become like that as it’s unhealthy. If we had electricity every day and it was constant and we had good roads and water, people would do things, they are full of initiative.’ It would, she believes, make a huge difference to productivity, self-esteem, motivation. Instead they are plagued by inconsistency in the most basic infrastructure.
‘I am very much a social engineer at heart,’ she says. ‘I love Nigeria and Africa and if you love a place that you know is kind of broken, you want it to be whole. I am always watching. For example, when I have my hair done I am watching the women in the salon, wondering how things could be better for them. The salon has to close at seven because they turn the generator off. And diesel is expensive so what they have to pay to maintain the generator is already taking a lot from what the salon makes, which in turn affects how much the workers in the hair salon are paid.’
I’m an English major. It is a language of conquest.
What does it say that I’m mastering the same language that was used to make my mother feel inferior? Growing up, I had a white friend who used to laugh whenever my mother spoke English, amused by the way she rolled her r’s. My sister and I tease Mami about her accent too, but it’s different when we do it, or is it? The echoes of colonization linger in my voice. The weapons of the death squads that pushed my mother out of El Salvador were U.S.-funded. When Nixon promised, “We’re going to smash him!” it was said in his native tongue, and when the Chilean president he smashed used his last words to promise, “Long live Chile!” it was said in his. And when my family told me the story of my grandfather’s arrest by the dictatorship that followed, my grandfather stayed silent, and meeting his eyes, I cried, understanding that there were no words big enough for loss.
English is a language of conquest. I benefit from its richness, but I’m not exempt from its limitations. I am ‘that girl’ in your English classes, the one who is tired of talking about dead white dudes. But I’m still complicit with the system, reading nineteenth-century British literature to graduate.
Diversity in my high school and college English literature courses is too often reduced to a month, week, or day where the author of the book is seen as the narrator of the novel. The multiplicity of U.S. minority voices is palatably packaged into a singular representation for our consumption. I read Junot Díaz and now I understand not only the Dominican-American experience, but what it means to be Latina/o in America. Jhumpa Lahiri inspired me to study abroad in India. Sherman Alexie calls himself an Indian, so now it’s ok for me to call all Indians that, too. We will read Toni Morrison’s Beloved to understand the horrors of slavery, but we won’t watch her takedowns on white supremacy.
Even the English courses that analyze race and diasporas in meaningful ways are still limited by the time constraints of the semester. Reading Shakespeare is required, but reading Paolo Javier and Mónica de la Torre is extra credit. My Experimental Minority Writing class is cross-listed at the most difficult level, as a 400-level course in the Africana Studies, Latina/o Studies, and American Studies departments, but in my English department, it is listed as a 300-level. I am reminded of Orwellian democracy: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Come on, y’all…if you write a story and set it in a place like Broaddus’ Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, London, or Las Vegas, basic demographic research will indicate the presence of people of color. To read and enjoy Urban Fantasy, I am expected to just accept that Black people don’t exist? You get the side-eye for that one.
Whether or not you like Urban Fantasy, the fact of the matter is that this subgenre of Fantasy has had an immense and global impact on people through literature, television and film.
It is because of this impact that we cannot ignore the messages that Urban Fantasy brings. Each time an author of this subgenre decides to tell a story, instead of working so hard to erase people of color out of existence, they should work just as hard to erase the problems that plague our society. And fanboys…do not say that writers should not have to be political; that they should be free to write merely to entertain. Every statement we make is political. Every sentence we write is potentially life-changing for someone. Such is the power of the word.
You cannot truly change culture without literature. We can pass a thousand laws saying that racism and sexism are wrong. We can make a thousand impassioned speeches to rouse the marginalized masses; but if everyone returns home after those speeches and sits down to read the latest installment of Twilight, or watch the next episode of The Vampire Diaries and their fictional worlds in which those same marginalized masses barely even exist – then how much change can truly be affected?
It is within the pages of books and under the light of the TV screen where we will reach people and change the world for the better…or worse.
Over and over again, we are told that our stories aren’t worth being told. We do not get to be the heroes. We are never “the one destined to come since man was young upon the earth”. If we are lucky, we get to be the “magical negro”; the “noble savage”; the sidekick; the Black person who doesn’t die in the first ten minutes of the film.
This is damaging to the psyches of people of color. And a devastating blow to the self-esteem of our babies.
So, don’t tell me writers just write to merely entertain, when entertainment has such a powerful, deep and lasting impression on the minds of us all.
Murphy justifies keeping students from grappling with this history in the name of “[making] sure every kid in the county is protected.” In this reckoning, 17 and 18 year olds need protection from a few lost nights of sleep, from realizing that people are capable of doing truly awful things, from the knowledge that some people live with horrific, daily, inescapable violence.
Here’s another question: which 17 and 18 year olds need protection from this? Many teenagers know these things already. Some because it’s an unavoidable part of their history. So many others know these things from direct experience. To be able to assume a blanket right to protection that can be exercised simply by keeping scary books out of kids’ hands is the product of an amazing level of privilege and disconnectedness from reality.
As Prof. David Leonard says, the argument from a white parent living in an affluent suburb that “children” as an undifferentiated class need to be protected from merely reading about such things “speaks to sense of entitlement and notion of whose innocence, security, and personal joy deserves attention [and] protection.”
This is a roundabout sort of white supremacy that coopts the language of keeping kids safe to say that the experiences people of color actually lived are too volatile even read about. And let’s be clear, it’s not simply the fact that these are stories about people of color that is at issue. It’s the fact that these are also histories of white people, and histories that are fundamentally incompatible with mythologies of whiteness, particularly the myth of whiteness as innocence.
A history where people of color are the innocent victims of white violence is an offense to white supremacy. So demands are made for preserving the “innocence” of white kids, something that requires denying the innocence of communities of color subjected to white violence and colonialism. White students must be shielded from the trauma of confronting the violent acts and legacy of people who looked like them – perhaps even people they are descended from.
We do not publish “reverse discrimination” stories. ”Reverse discrimination” stories are single issue stories that follow a predictable premise: what if [privileged real life group] was actually discriminated against/oppressed/un-privileged?
Examples: what if most of society was gay, and straight people were the discriminated minority? What if most male babies were killed and men were kept just for breeding? What if everyone was intersex, and cis-sexual people were considered “freaks”? Etc.
Not only are these “single issue” stories about discrimination (usually by authors with no real life experience with the forms of discrimination described, it’s just made up), these stories do not further our mission of promoting the inclusion and representation of real life minorities in spec fic. In fact, these stories do exact the opposite — they pretend that privileged, majority authors can understand and write about the dis-privileged/minority/oppressed perspective if they just turn the tables in a simplistic, linear thought experiment.
These stories also often frame the real-life oppressed people as the new oppressors: violent, insensitive, bigoted, etc. We believe the spec fic world does not need more “Poor oppressed men! Poor oppressed straight people! etc.” stories. These stories only marginalize already marginalized people even more. Please let minority/dis-privileged authors speak for themselves.
“I’ve been REGULARLY getting plots pretty much like this in the Expanded Horizons slush pile for the four years we’ve been running the magazine. They’re standard fare, even though we have several explicit guidelines telling writers not to send them…which is less a “guideline” and more of a “no really, don’t send us this crap” rule…
“These stories are a dime a dozen. I’ve seen it with LGBT issues, with racial issues, with gender issues, and with other axes of identity. The concept is not new, not creative, not original, not fresh, and not clever. For any axis of real-world privilege, there are sci fi authors (and would-be authors) who think they are so clever for making themselves (as real-world privileged people) the “new oppressed people, oh woe is us!”
“…The sad truth is that this is the status quo of the slush pile, even for a magazine that explicitly demands that these stories not be sent to it. Usually, in my opinion, the authors are not explicitly setting out to be -ist, but they really misunderstand very basic things about How Oppression Works, and it shows, and it hurts.”
Skloot practically announces her racism on the first page of the book when she insists that her writing “is a work of nonfiction. No events have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated” (xiii). We can all agree that this is an impossibility. Skloot was not there to witness majority of the important events that she recounts. While she has ostensibly taken pains to write objectively – stringing together “more than a thousand hours of interviews with family and friends of Henrietta Lacks, as well as with lawyers, ethicists, scientists, and journalists”…” and “archival photos and documents, scientific and historical research, and the personal journals of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks” – the style and content of the story is ultimately the result of her choices (xiii). As Salman Rushdie once wrote, “Description itself is a political act” (“Imaginary Homelands” 1982). Skloot’s “descriptions” are loaded with political implications and consequences. Indeed, the whole of the Lacks family, including Henrietta herself, can speak only through Skloot. She is the only agent. She has control over the voices – and, not completely unlike the doctors, Henrietta’s body. I offer, for instance, this painfully explicit passage:
"Henrietta went to the bathroom and found blood spotting her underwear when it wasn’t her time of the month.
"She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and spread her legs. With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening of her womb." (15)
If nobody was in the bathroom with Henrietta, or even knew that she was in there, how can Skloot know that Henrietta “spread her legs” and “slid a finger inside herself”? My freshmen giggle and blush when this passage is read aloud. It’s not that they find it humorous; their giggles and blushes are evidence their negotiation of a body on display. Not a fictional body, according to Skloot. It is a real one. And so my students feel, I venture to say, a bit like a voyeur caught in the act.
It should be clear by now that my criticism goes beyond the basic question of “who is allowed to write the other?” It is about how we write the other. We have to consider the assumptions we make not only about the other but about ourselves and our author-ity has writers. In her afterward to the Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison recounts her own dilemmas with representing her black characters and their language; she writes “My choices of language (aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture” (Afterword 1994). Morrison obviously questions her position as a writer and her relationship with both her characters and her audience. Unlike Skloot’s all-knowing narration, Morrison breaks a silence while admitting that there is always going to be a quietness. Freshmen reading Skloot’s book should know that neither David nor Deborah Lacks were able to read Skloot’s narrative; they both died before the publication of the book. Henrietta’s consent and approval has long been lost. The rest, they say, is silence.
The stark hierarchy established between Skloot and her subjects does little to convince me that Skloot truly questioned her position as the author-ity of the narrative. Undoing the racism of this book would be as simple as Skloot acknowledging the unarguable fact that much of her narrative is a lie, a work of historical fiction, by her own definition of “non-fiction.”