When I’m reading a book that will end up being one of my all time favorites, I usually realize that fact while I’m reading it. It’s not a realization that comes at the end, on the last page. It’s a magical feeling that exists while I’m reading every page. I call it magical because when everything I want in a novel comes together in one place: beautiful writing, characters that are real and breathing and strong and vulnerable, plot that takes you along for a journey you didn’t know you were longing to go on, a story that changes you, – that seems the only appropriate word for it: magic.
If, like me, you’re new to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, her TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story is a wonderful place to start. Africa, which is too often referred to as a country instead of a continent, tends to turn into a few narrow stereotypes: a land of amazing safari wildlife and a land of rural hunger and extreme poverty. By reading widely and diversely, both fiction and non-fiction, we can begin to expand our worldview.
I learned a lot about stereotypes while I was traveling last year – some of my own were shattered, and some were confirmed or denied in humorous ways that can be laughed about and discussed as you become friends with people from other countries and cultures. We also talked about stereotypes and perceptions they had about Americans and what was true or false. What it came down to a lot of the time is: America is a big place. We’re very diverse by and within regions, states, religions, race, etc. And that’s true, of course, for the entire world. For every person confirming a stereotype there’s another person (or many) overturning it. That’s the danger of a single story, and that’s why we need to hear so many stories. Looking back on the year we had globally in 2014, with race and/or religion at the forefront of almost every major news event, I think we need many stories more than ever.
Americanah brings together a gorgeous story of two young lovers estranged by distance/circumstance and a fantastic perspective on race in America. It gives insight into immigration, the American Dream, modern life in Nigeria, the experiences of African-Americans contrasted with American-Africans, and so much more. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that I could not put down: I just sat on the couch one afternoon and finished the entire novel. I couldn’t think of doing anything else until I finished it.
One of my favorite passages describes succinctly how to learn more about the perspectives of people who are different from you: ask questions and listen.
“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.” (page 406)
One of my other favorite lines beautifully expresses how it can feel to grow apart from someone:
“Because he had last known her when she knew little of the things she blogged about, he felt a sense of loss, as though she had become a person he would no longer recognize.” (page 465)
I can’t wait to read more of her work. I’m currently trying to decide whether to read Half of a Yellow Sun or her short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck next. Any thoughts on this, fellow Adichie fans?