Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A Nigerian Woman and Pakistani Man Psych Out America's Contradictions

I guess I first internationalized my study of English Lit when I discussed the CBC’s daily humorist Joe Gentile with my college chum Hank Maloney, in class breaks at the University of Detroit, 1946-49. In fact I think I had become more Canadian than American in spirit.(Imagine my dismay when the editor of the Cannuck scholarly journal, "Commonwealth Literature,” accused me of being a CIA agent!) 

It wasn’t until I started teaching for Beaver College in London in the 1960’s that I got more serious when I Pan Am-ed to Dakar, Senegal in 1964 with my 12 year old son Michael. (He was helping me shoot film about the first World Negro Arts Festival. Our first astonishment was to leave our hotel and almost stumble on a Muslim praying on his knees.) 

Two years later I talked Howard Springer, Secretary of the Commonwealth Cultural Association, into letting me show an hour long film on Nigerian Literature at the American Embassy in Lagos. My purpose was to motivate the other Commonwealth writers at their annual convention to make films about their writers for world instruction.

There was more to it than showing a film! A local newspaper film critic offered to let me join him on his motorcycle, gunning me back to the Federal Palace Hotel. Never had a native Detroiter had a more scarey trip! Lagos traffic was the worst in the world, especially from the back “seat” of a Harley. 

More worries awaited me. Three local police detectives stopped me as I picked up my key –they wanted to “investigate” my room. Their chief began my turning on my tape recorder. “Why do you have a recording of the chief of the festival?” I replied innocently that it was the opening oration! They treated me as a spy. They informed me that I must go with them to the police station. They took my tape recorder, my 16mm camera and ten films I had already shot. The civil war with its dissident Biafrans meant all the highway lights were off! 

Suddenly I recalled how a local filmmaker had tried to buy my filming equipment the day before! They were trying to steal my gear. Never was I so relieved to enter a police station. I was interviewed by the chief of police. I explained I was teaching literature in London. He called up the Commonwealth Secretary and confirmed my official permission to attend the conference as a guest. It wasn’t until two days later that the Canadian ambassador shamed the police in returning my gear—as I was about to taxi to the airport for a trip back to London.. (I didn’t get the developed film back for several weeks!)

Where did they get the idea that I was a CIA agent? There was a free fllght North to Kano, an Islamic state. Springer said I could take a seat if there was one free. It turned out the head of the Ghana delegation came a few minutes too late. I had taken “his” seat. He was outraged. Thus the CIA lie! 
These memories came back to me as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, “Americanah”(London: Fourth Estate, 2013.) It’s the most complicated (and longest!) love story I have ever read, as high school sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, go their separate ways, she to America, he to London. (He couldn’t get a visa to New York after 9/11!)The title of the novel names the new kind of Nigerian who spends thirteen years in America and how that isolation changed her and other Nigerians in many different ways—including how they responded to the global giant America. 

Her novel begins with her leaving Princeton where she is finishing an important fellowship to go to Trenton where she can find an African hair shop to get her physically ready for a return to Obinze. A fascinating angle is her creation of a blog that evaluates the complicated ways Nigerians and other African nationals adjust (or not) to the complexities of American racism.

Ifemelu spends her first years in Drexel’s Powelton neighborhood while studying communications and political science. (Drexel appears cryptically as Wellson!) As I was preparing to write this essay, she appeared on WHYY’s “Radio Times” in which Marty really got Ms. Adichie’s muse clicking! (She was appearing at the Free Library that evening!) She also performed for TED. Both appearance are worth tracking down on NPR, after you’ve read this idiosyncratic fiction.

Moses Hamid’s”The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (Penguin,2008) is much shorter and more interesting. It’s a love story between a rich American, Erica and a brilliant Pakistani, Changez, whose family was once rich and is counting on his Princeton fellowship to restore the family’s fortunes. 

The Twin Towers disaster intervenes, and Changez reverts to fundamentalist politics instead of thriving as an “American” business consultant. The conversion begins in Chile where a Chile leftie leads the Pakistani to Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso. And Juan Baptista reminds Changez of Islamic history when they first revolted against the Christians. 

He is re-converted: He rejects a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of their fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage. 

This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.” Hamid, pp.202-3. Changez had learned how to psych out the American enemy. So had his Nigerian coeval. 

Global conflicts disguised as love stories. More evidence that International English literature liberates the world from facile self-delusions!

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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