A Year in Recommendations: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51L3ktA41ZLChimamanda Ngozi Adichie is all in the news now, what with her TED talk a few years ago taking a minor role in Beyoncé’s sneak attack release of her latest album. Featured on the track, “Flawless,” Adichie calls to a better understanding of feminism for young girls today. In her latest novel, Americanah, Adichie tackles with a sharp, satirical edge, not only a feminist call for young, Nigerian women whose only ambitions are to marry rich, but also the incisive observations of immigrant life in both Britain and America. At the heart of her novel is a star-crossed love story. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as teens growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, but their ambitions to rise above the meager circumstances of their home country lead them to emigrate to America and Britain, creating a separation that tears them apart physically and emotionally. While Ifemelu thrives in America, navigating our obsessions with race, the language barriers, and odd customs––she is awarded fellowships, jobs, and becomes a successful blogger––she also cannot get past the sinking feeling that she is becoming something she does not want to become: an Americanah, a Nigerian who has become so successfully assimilated into American life that she has forgotten her Nigerian roots. Obinze, likewise, navigates similar paths in Britain, but when his visa runs out he is forced to turn to extralegal means to stay. Eventually he is discovered and is summarily deported back to Lagos, where ironically he benefits financially from a real estate boom. Yet, like Ifemelu, he is unhappy because the life he lives is not the one he envisioned. Years later, older and somewhat wiser, Ifemelu and Obinze cross paths again and their happiness now depends on their willingness to pursue what they both truly desire.

Americanah is a love story, but it is also a sharp, incisive attack against what Adichie also referred to as the “danger of the single story”––that one definition, one way of life, one way of living is ever enough, in our personal lives, in our politics, and especially in our stories.

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Reporting the Zeitgeist: Journalism, Literature, and Social Movements

In a review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Thomas Frank laments the failure of journalism to affect reforms to help a middle class that is in the throes of economic decline. As he writes, that failure “should perhaps call into question the utility of journalism and argument and maybe even prose itself.” His is an age-old complaint. In the years following 9/11, critics decried the failure of the novel to adequately voice how much this event changed and affected American lives. Since then, there have also been cries that novelists fail to capture the zeitgeist in a post-economic decline. That’s all well and good. It certainly speaks to the hope that the novel still has relevance in our social media-besotted world.

Frank’s complaints however speak to a far deeper concern. More than ever America is facing problems associated with social and economic inequality. The middle class is disappearing before our very eyes while poverty rates are soaring. And yet, in spite of this, no one seems able to address these problems. Congress has been ground to a standstill with Republican obstructionism, forcing Democrats and President Obama to take inadequate, halfhearted steps to ameliorate the damage. The American public likewise has been muted. A few years ago, Occupy Wall Street rose to the challenge and called out the financial institutions that have plundered the economy and have been allowed to continue with business as usual. And while OWS continues in some form (they’ve been particularly successful with their Rolling Jubilee campaign by buying off debts in bulk from banking institutions), they have yet to form a massive coalition with their bold ideas on attacking debt and inequality. The U.S. debt incurred by outrageous spending during the Bush years have gone down. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s due to the austerity measures imposed by Congress because of the Sequester. So the economy has been allowed to grind its heels, growing at a slow pace while Wall Street continues to reap financial benefits.

Frank correctly points out the dilemma of journalism and prose to address these deep inequities: Does prose still have the power to influence and effect change as it did over a century ago? In his review, Frank points out the plethora of books on the economy alone that have been published in the past decade, each one with titles that scream of an impending economic doomsday, and each one bearing very little social and political impact. There is an alarming and almost comical (if it weren’t so depressing) effect to the titles that were published––Age of Greed, The Age of Austerity, The Age of Turbulence; The Betrayal of the American Dream, The Looting of America, Why America Failed. They recall a time, so long ago, when I used to read books by the dozens with such titles, books including Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Frank’s own What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which answer questions about who controls what and who benefits from our current state of affairs. They were eye-opening and informative, particularly The Shock Doctrine, which had predicted the austerity measures now taking place in developed nations through the neoliberal policies that wrecked the economies in South America. They helped me to shape my own politics, which, very briefly, led me to the Green party. Unfortunately they were also repetitive and didn’t offer much in the way of real world solutions.

I should note here that I have yet to read Packer’s The Unwinding, though I’ve heard much about it and would like to read it soon. I’m far more interested in Frank’s overall argument about the usefulness of journalism because, as I’ve written previously, it is one that has been argued before. The arts in general has been accused of failing to rouse the masses out of their stupor to foment revolutions or, at the very least, political reforms. Where have all the protest music gone? a cry went up following the war in Iraq, even though such criers took time to mention artists like Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks, the Coup, and others that have written searing indictments against that foolish invasion. Where are the great novels or movies about that war or the economic downturn, others have said, while yet again, pointing out such examples, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Fast and Extremely Loud or John Updike’s The Terrorist, that did just that. Still others cried that there was no definitive novel released in the past ten years which had sharp and incisive insights about that day on the measure of The Great Gatsby several generations ago. Anis Shivani was perhaps pointing this out in a blistering attack against the mediocrity of contemporary writers when he wrote:  “On the great issues of the day, they are silent…they desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded.” Or, in other words, the failure of literature to boldly embrace political ideologies is due in no small part to the fact that contemporary writers, those denizens of MFA programs, have turned literature into navel-gazing, creating work about domestic, mundane, first-world problems to be read and critically analyzed by academics. “We like to remember the muckraking era,” as Frank writes of journalism’s similar failures, “because of the amazing real-world transformation journalism was able to bring; our grandchildren will remember our era because of the big future naught accomplished by our prose.”

While it is true that mainstream media does an atrocious job of informing the public, the truth is much more nuanced and not always terribly flattering toward the American public. While I’ll agree that literature, journalism especially, has a social responsibility to inform and engage, that responsibility can only go half-way. Little is said or written about the responsibilities of citizens. Perhaps the real problem here isn’t so much the failure of literature to engage in the public but in unrealistic expectations of what literature is able to do.

Like so many critics, Frank seems to think that journalism or prose itself created the revolutionary paradigmatic shifts that led to social and economic reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries and not the American people themselves. The muckraking era he speaks of was also a part of the Progressive Era, which arrived at the heels of the Populist Movement, both of which were brought into fruition by an engaged, involved, and, yes, informed citizenry. If journalism and literature influenced the masses, it was only because the masses influenced journalists and novelists. One is dependent on the other; one cannot exist without the other. And public alone determined how they engaged with the information available to them. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was based on his research about exploitative labor practices in Chicago meatpacking plants. Yet his depictions of the poor sanitary conditions in these plants, not to mention the various body parts that were ground up with the meat, outraged the public so much that it pushed for legislative reform. Out of this reform came the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some forty years later, John Steinbeck, along with photographer Dorothea Lange, had far better success with a newspaper series he wrote for the San Francisco News called “Harvest Gypsies.” Again the public was so moved by the plight of the Okies in California during the 1930s Dust Bowl that it pushed the federal government to take action. Child labor laws were strengthened and food and economic relief was provided.

But these examples did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of social movements that sought reforms through the political process. Americans had far greater trust in the government as an efficient tool for these reforms and exercised their responsibilities as citizens by staying informed through newspapers and/or radio. These were hardly perfect times. Racial inequalities were still enormous and even the most liberal of organizations failed to fight for social justice for blacks and women. Some of the New Deal’s biggest supporters were Dixiecrats, while some of the country’s worst anti-immigration laws were passed during the Populist and Progressive eras. Yet these movements did build the foundation onto which future civil and political rights activists were able to fight. And this was all the doing of the American people.

The trap that Frank and so many others fall into is in believing that the people are without agency and are in need of an elite to prod them to action. But this is simply not the case. If prose fails to influence the masses, it is only because the masses refuse to be influenced or they are already influenced but fail to know what to do about our current dilemma. The latter seems to be the more likely answer, since polls have shown that Americans are not deaf, dumb, and blind to the social conditions around them. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 44% of respondents polled that the government shouldn’t have bailed out the banks; 53% think that the banks haven’t been prosecuted enough, while only 30% believe that banks help economies grow and create jobs. A healthy majority also believe that the wealth gap created by bankers, traders, and financial executives is still too large. Clearly Americans get it. The real question we face is: What do we do about it?

If there is a failure of prose and journalism it is this: failing to provide Americans with that answer. As I wrote before, one of the reasons I stopped reading books about the economic and political conditions in this country was precisely because they were more diagnosis than cure. But that should not be the responsibility of writers, pundits, and journalists. Rather, we should be paying more attention to what people are doing in the trenches, the people out there who are fighting back often under the radar of the media spotlight. These are the activists who are fighting against the assault on women’s reproductive rights, against voter suppression laws and civil liberties, against the attacks on labor and unions, and against corporate money in politics. The American people do not need to be educated or lectured to about their social condition. They are living it every day of their lives. Rather what they need are game plans: a way out of our current situation and a way toward building a sustainable consensus toward social, political and economic justice. This is not, nor has it ever been, the work of writers. Our job is to observe, record, sympathize with, and illuminate the people, mood and events that shape our zeitgeist. In the end, it is ultimately up to the American people to decide on what to do next.

President Kennedy: Reality and Myth in Popular Culture

Though it’s been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that dreadful day still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth––the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers in Dealey Plaza look on in horror. There is something almost classical in its mythology, like a Greek tragedy played out in real life. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the actual assassination was recorded not by newsmen but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose footage wasn’t released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event ballooned into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission’s handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

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Source: channel.nationalgeographic.com

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently NatGeo aired a bio-doc on Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy, along with a slew of documentaries have aired on TV about the assassinations, Kennedy’s final hours, or bios on Kennedy himself. Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, taking liberties with a time travel tale which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s prosecution of the president’s assassination. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet five years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms. He experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs and had to be pushed to be more proactive on Civil Rights legislation. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but Camelot, the image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy carefully cultivated after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we’d do well to separate the facts from the myth.

California Soul

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Source: Wikipedia.com

It goes without saying that California has left a giant footprint on American culture. While the south has the blues, jazz, and rock and roll and New York has bebop, Broadway, and hip hop, California has Silicon Valley and of course Hollywood. But it is even more than that: It is the living embodiment of what we call the American Dream. The place where everyone comes to to escape their pasts, to reinvent themselves into better, more glamorous personas, to seek wealth and fame. This has been so whether it were with the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the 1930s; African Americans seeking wartime jobs and an escape from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration; or the children and grandchildren of  European Jews sloughing off East coast ghettoes and unpronounceable names to seek fame and power in the orange groves of Hollywood. The story is the same. California, as it exists in the greater American imagination, is a state in which one can make one’s dreams come true.

That has been good for California, but it has also been bad. For every person who has migrated to these borders and was able to eke out a life through sheer ingenuity, no matter how grand or small, there are many others whose dreams burst as all deferred dreams eventually do, often with the dreamers turning tail and returning to their places of origin, disappearing into the countless, unknown millions––or exploding. The riots in 1965 Watts and in 1992 South Central were testaments to that. This has been the story of California, a state that can either make or break you (or do both). Beneath the images of sun-soaked beaches and palm trees; the glamor and cool of Los Angeles; the fog-shrouded, hilly streets of San Francisco; the romanticism, mystery, and lore, there exists another California, a state rich of geographic diversity and of broken dreams. Look at the literature, films, TV shows, and songs produced and written about this state and you will find it there, a warning to the weak of heart.

It began, this warning, long before the state was discovered––1510 approximately. That was when Garcí Rodriguez Ordoñez de Montalvo’s novel Las Sergas de Esplandian was published. Like a lot of romantic tales, the novel explored the heroic exploits of Spanish adventurer Esplandian. One of those exploits occurs on an island called California, “very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise…” that is populated with Amazonian black women who capture and domesticate young griffins by feeding them on men. Their queen is named Calafia. Known for her legendary beauty, Calafia is trained in the arts of warfare and has an armada of boats through which she plans to plunder the rest of the world. What draws Esplandian to California is its legendary gold. And right there you see the beginnings of mythic California, its epic allure, and its danger––after all, there’s those griffins to get past. It’s also telling that these original California girls weren’t the stereotypical beach blonde bunnies the Beach Boys sung about.

Centuries later, the real California would draw just such adventurers after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento valley. People from around the world braved the treacherous routes across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and around the Cape Horn to reach the state. California’s rich diversity began during the Gold Rush, though the state’s penchant for multiculturalism began long before that with the Native Indian populations (Maidu, Chumash, Pauite, Miwok, Wintu, Ohlone, and others), early Spanish explorers and missionaries, and Mexican, Russian, and early American settlers. But the Gold Rush saw an influx of Asian, South American, European immigrants, as well as Americans who sought out the promise of new wealth.

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Source: Barnes & Noble

Louise Clapp (Dame Shirley), an easterner who traveled with her husband to California to capitalize on the discovery, wrote extensively about her experiences to her sister back in New Jersey. The letters were eventually published in a San Francisco journal under the title The Shirley Letters. Clappe’s detailed letters offer not only a portrait of the motley crew of people who shaped California’s history, but also the struggles of a frontier community coming into being. But it is her portraits of individuals crushed by the realities of mining life that create the singular impression of a state indifferent to the very dreams that drew individuals to it. In one sequence she tells the story of a miner whose leg was crushed by a stone that rolled down a hill. F., as he is called, refuses to have his leg amputated and is eventually stricken with Typhoid Fever. “His sufferings,” Clappe goes on to write, “have been of the most intense description. Through all the blossoming spring, and a summer as golden as its own golden self, of our beautiful California, he has languished away existence in a miserable cabin, his only nurses men––some of them, it is true, kind and good––others neglectful and careless.” The “misery” alongside the beauty is a theme that finds its way through much of the literature and films about the state. They seem inexplicably linked, as though a reminder that there is a bloody price to be paid in order to exist in this “Terrestrial Paradise.”

Across disparate works of fiction, films and music, the theme exhausts itself. A pattern arises. One perfect example of this is in the classic R&B hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Released in 1973, the song examines the plaintive dreams of those who dust themselves off from their old hometowns to come to California, only to discover that the California of their dreams is only an illusion. Listen to Gladys sing “Midnight Train” and you’ll realize that she is not simply giving up her life in Los Angeles to be with her man, but that she shares his heartache and disappointment. She sings “I’ll be with him” with such passion that you know she is the one who is more than happy to pick up her bags and go. She has known all along that “dreams don’t always come true,” a lesson he learns too late. But the world they are leaving is hers, not his, so she knows, as most native Californians know, that the reality for African Americans in this state has always been a mixed bag.

That mixed bag repeats itself again and again. It’s there in the soul-crushing grind of Charles Burnett’s elegiac 1979 film Killer of Sheep. Here, the well-worn images of palm trees, mansions and swimming pools are replaced by wide, cement-cracked boulevards, alleyways and rock quarries where children play, and the slaughterhouse where the eponymous sheep are hung by hooks and slit open, the blood spilling onto the killing floor. These haunting images form the broken, unrealized dreams of Stan (played by Henry G. Sanders), who longs to escape the stultifying, sleep-defying circumstances of his marginalized life. Unable to relate to his children and his wife, who long for his affection as a salve against the indifferences of the city, Stan chases after get-rich-quick schemes that fall just short of realization. Even pleasurable pursuits tend to be elusive. In one scene, Stan and his family go on a picnic outside of the city. Along the way, the car their friend borrows breaks down, forcing them to return home. In California, dreams are just within reach, so close you can touch them, but they fade like mirages in the desert as soon as you do.

This nearness of dreams and illusions is evident in The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. In The Barbarian Nurseries, the lives of undocumented workers rub against the wealthy elite. They perform the duties of keeping Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs well tended, but as Tobar notes, the class divide between the two can often be illusory as well. Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, victims of the recession who are no longer able to support their expensive lifestyle, find their marriage dissolving into bitter recriminations and resentments. When one argument turns violent, Maureen and Scott each leave, believing the other has stayed behind to care for their two sons. Their housekeeper Araceli Ramirez is forced to take drastic measures to help the boys when she drags them across the greater Los Angeles area to reunite them with their estranged grandfather. Everyone, including all of Los Angeles, is affected by her actions when the police and the media are brought in, but none moreso than Araceli who, by novel’s end, is seen driving away from the state in search of the life she came to California to find. Both Araceli and Scott are dreamers, but only Araceli is wise enough to know the limitations of those dreams for the marginalized.

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Source: Rainydaybooks.com

The same message can be found in Manuel Muñoz’ novel What You See in the Dark, but here the illusions of Hollywood intersect with the harsh realities of life in the hinterlands, in this case San Bernardino, when a director (Alfred Hitchcock) and his leading lady (Janet Leigh) arrive in town to shoot principal photography for their latest film (Psycho). But San Bernardino, like many of Hitchcock’s films, is the setting for Muñoz’ own tale of passion, murder, and the lost dreams of both the native born and migrants as they brace for a new highway that will cut through town. As with the Torres-Thompsons, even those who succeed often face uncertainty because successes can be as fleeting as they can be elusive. Muñoz’ leading lady is painfully aware of the fact that the film she is making will herald a new style of filmmaking that will overthrow the already dying studio system, pushing actresses such as herself, taught and trained within that system, to the margins––“From overhead [during shower sequence], it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.” Whether in San Francisco, South Central L.A., Hollywood or in the hinterlands, the story remains the same––the dream, the bust, the bitter reality.

It’s there in the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Nathanael West, Joan Didion or Kate Braverman; in the incendiary rhymes of NWA and Tupac Shakur laying down in the harshest terms the imploded dreams of a post-Civil Rights era; in the punk irony of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles” or Fishbone’s “? (Modern Industry)”; in Johnette Napolitano’s yowl in Concrete Blonde’s 1980s alt-rock hit “Still in Hollywood” or Don Henley’s weary resignation in the Eagles’ “Hotel California”; in the crush of broken hopes and dreams in The Grapes of Wrath, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Chan is Missing, Boys ‘N the Hood, Fruitvale Station; and in the veneer that’s torn away to reveal the corruption and deceit––Sunset Boulevard, Vertigo, Chinatown, Shampoo, The Player, L.A. Confidential. There is the vision, the oasis surrounded by desert, promising a quench for dry throats, and then the gritty taste of sand. All of these works in one way or another serve as a warning about the state. Things aren’t as they seem here, they all say. So don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Of course you cannot limit a state as large as California to its main urban attractions. It is too rich, too geographically diverse to allow for such simplistic evaluations. Native Californians live, work, love, and yes, even succeed here, and all in that laid-back, casual style we’re known for. And yet, the myth persists. It’s there for all to see, the dreams, the ambivalence, the cautionary tales.

Perhaps the myth is in no small part due to the fact that the state itself projects it onto the rest of the world. Tourist ads do not contradict this image. One ad, which runs frequently, features attractive people located in various spots around California––from the farm country of the Inland Empire to the vineyards of Napa Valley––all bestowing the state’s natural virtues; and of course there are the requisite shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, beaches, Disneyland, and Hollywood! Who wouldn’t be attracted to that? What you don’t see, of course, are the inner cities, the trailer parks, the farm lands on which Mexican migrants toil, the overcrowded prisons, the homelessness, the overworked, the underpaid, and of course all those foreclosed homes. The problems of California are in the end the problems of America.

Still you can’t fault the tourist industry for wanting to draw more revenue into the state. California always tries to put its best face forward. To the rest of the country, California is full of kooks, San Francisco and Hollywood liberals, nuts and screws. But the dream persists.

I was born and raised in California. During the scope of my life here, the state of my birth was rocked by serial killings, kidnappings and assassinations; religious cults; the rise of conservatism; AIDs, crack cocaine; gang violence, sex scandals; earthquakes, fires, and mudslides; Rodney King, riots, O.J., the dot.com bust, Enron and rolling blackouts, budget cuts, the killing of Oscar Grant, and the Governator. And throughout it all, Californians continue to persist. It is what we do.

Though the number of people coming to California has slowed down (and the number of people leaving has risen), those adventurers of self-invention who have always given this state its color and eccentricity will continue to make their way here. And literature and pop culture will continue to tell their dreams and their failures.