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This is a compelling book; although it is African fiction, it is consistent with the reality, one that I can easily identify with several aspects. Gamu had given me snippets, as she read the book, of certain issues that Chimamanda boldly mentions, those issues that the majority of us pretends are imaginative. Nevertheless, if you have listened to Chimamanda’s TED talk on the “Danger of a single story”, you will relate to this book. She is a bona fide storyteller, giving you that other side that if you were white, you would be indifferent, or if you are on the other side, whichever side you are in, you will assume is inconsequential.
“They themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again.”
I started this book at Frankfurt airport on Sunday, early in the morning and had finished the book by 12 midnight of the same day. In certain instances, I found myself laughing out loud on my own, who cares if the person nearby thought I was crazy. She highlights those “taboo” issues with such humor one can’t help it.
Consider the statement “…exaggerated gratitude that came with immigrant insecurity”. I could so identify with this, having been a foreigner, albeit for shorter periods. You are overly grateful, owing to the fact that you would imagine it is written all over your face that you are an alien. And the fact that there are several people who will be quick to remind you, if you happen to become too comfortable and start critiquing your host, that you are there owing to their kindness and you shouldn’t abuse it. Mind you, as an alien, you should be pretentious to your host; otherwise in the future you will be shunned! Especially, if the host has a deep self-belief of self-righteousness and that they are doing you a tremendous favor.
Chimamanda's book touches on similar issues that Ndumiso Ngcobo made reference in his book "Some of my best friends are white", though from different angles. When I reflect on these books, especially on the issue of race and what black people strive for, I realize that maybe the real issue is identity, that we, black people are uncomfortable and timorous in our own skin. Unknowingly, we spend our lifetime chasing after something else that can define us or compel us to feel desirable or accepted. I savour the part when Ifemelu, eventually made the decision to do away with the American accent and be original. We often fulfill exactly what she pointed out, trying to switch our accent. I imagine you only find this with blacks. This made me laugh, as we always envy those who we think are polished in the way they pronounce the “r” such as in g-irl.
This reminded me of a visit to friends of ours living outside the country. They are both Shona and inadvertently, I interchanged between Shona and English, even to their kids. Later my wife disclosed that the husband distaste anyone speaking in Shona to their kids, the reason being it will contaminate their accent. Pre-schools in Zimbabwe have the same advertising statement “English environment” or a few proceed to hire that retired white lady and ensure everyone is aware, since they are cognizant of the fact that we all yearn for that “white” teacher, accordingly, our kids would speak “proper” English. Whatever that means. This is sad, as a matter of fact, who are we, really?
“I realized that if I ever have children, I don't want them to have American childhoods. I don't want them to say 'Hi' to adults I want them to say 'Good morning' and 'Good afternoon'. I don't want them to mumble 'Good' when someone says 'How are you?' to them. Or to raise five fingers when asked how old they are. I want them to say 'I'm fine thank you' and 'I'm five years old'. I don't want a child who feeds on praise and expects a star for effort and talks back to adults in the name of self-expression. Is that terribly conservative?”
The other that one struck close to home is when one colleague commented to Ifemelu while she reside in the US, that "Your English is very good". When this happened to me a few years back, I took it as a compliment. In hindsight, what they literally mean is that you speak without an accent. Should one be thrilled to receive such a comment? Or this is the point when one undertakes self-introspection? Shouldn’t black people just grow up and be confident as people who will speak English or whatever other foreign language with an accent since that is who we are? Why can't we be content with who we are and stop striving to conform to be another race?
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