Solo: Nobility in the Face of Nations

Solo is a fantastically thought-provoking book, told through the ruminative voice of a blind man deprived of a lifetime of agency, one who could not follow through with his own individual passions, and who has replayed his own questionable memories over and over until in the end he can only succumb to the fantasy world of his mind to derive some form of contentment from a life hardly lived.

A key question that I feel Dasgupta keeps returning to is the question of what does it mean to remain noble, that is to say, to retain one’s humanity and identity in the face of overwhelming social change and upheavals, and to assert one’s agency under the boot of greater political and socioeconomic forces at work. After all, Ulrich’s name means “nobility”, and one would be remiss to overlook such a central fact. Nobility, at first glance, can be taken to mean the noble pursuit of music or chemistry, as Ulrich attempts early in his life, or his father’s belief in the noble cause of progress. Nobility can also be taken to mean the noble sacrifice of such personal pursuits for the sake of family, as Ulrich is compelled to do when he leaves Berlin, or willingly forsake his dignity to secure his mother’s release. Nobility can mean simply possessing of good intentions or confidence in one’s righteous purpose, as are displayed by various characters throughout Solo, but which ultimately lead to harm and unintended negative consequences.

What I like most about Ulrich is that he is in fact not a man of grand action or passionate ideals, as is the case of most other protagonists, or other characters in this story, for that matter. He has – maintained to the best of his ability – his integrity, but not the resolute stubbornness that got his friend Boris killed, nor the wild fervor that got his mother detained. It is an integrity born of a desire to do right by other people, but to not overreach unless pressed. In the text itself, there is a scene where his mother says that “only the ignorant still know how to be human and decent” (104). To me, this is a fascinating claim to make, and suggests that it is only those whose mind are devoid of ideological agenda and worldly knowledge that have yet to be corrupted and hence, maintain their nobility as human beings. The noblest of people are the ones who don’t attempt to affect change or action, and on a macroscopic level, it became clear to me that the takeaway message of Solo was that innocent people will always bear the cost of societal experimentation, and that every time anyone tries to impose a change of lifestyle or beliefs on behalf of others, tragedy will inevitably occur.

Above all, Solo to me is a discussion of what it means for a human to be caught in the wheel of the national machine, and how people cope with the inevitable loss of personal purpose that follows. It is in that sense, the microscopic IR analysis, of how national policies and political sentiment sweep up those on the ground. It focuses not on those who are – as generally emphasized by mainstream historical literature – important figures at the center of change, but rather those who are the everyday civilians in the periphery caught by the ripples of such action. Solo is a ruminative commentary on the tumultuous social history of Bulgaria as it evolves through various political regimes, but also a commentary on what it means remain noble in character, when you must detach aspects of yourself for the sake of survival.

With this in mind, some key intertexts that I would suggest include Forrest Gump by Winston Groom and To Live by Yu Hua, both of which have film adaptations that I would highly recommend. The common thread is that these all focus on an assuming everyman who experience the various stages of their countries colored history, for better or worse (mostly for worse), and how they react to the dual challenges of both their personal sense of individualism and of more practical matters of survival. In Forrest Gump, the titular character similarly finds himself in situations reflective of the current socio-political atmosphere of the time, from serving in the Vietnam War to participating in Ping Pong Diplomacy, though expressed in a more comedic manner. To Live falls on the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, and is by contrast a morbidly depressing tale of a wealthy gambler who gradually loses his former life and every family member to a different moment in Chinese history, from the Chinese Civil War to the Cultural Revolution. In both these stories and Solo, there is a somewhat Absurdist message being conveyed in how very little the protagonist does to affect the world they live in in any meaningful way that I feel is reflective of how powerless the individual is in the face of overwhelming national spirit.

I feel such comparisons will provide an interesting paralleling contrast of how ones social, political and economic life is impacted in response to different types of key national developments, events and regime changes. It is true that Bulgaria, the United States, and China have such dramatically different histories, and one can argue that Forrest Gump experiences much less social upheaval compared to the other two. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to spot the similarities in how the most humble and unassuming of men adapt and navigate their way through the rise and fall of different forms of societies, and survive through times of division and unity as their countries arguably come to maturity in the modern era.

Nations ostensibly maintain their collective representation through a shared sense of national identity, but what Solo paints is a portrait of a nation’s interest overriding one’s personal identity, and the result of such deconstruction upon the everyday, otherwise-faceless middle-class citizen. Dasgupta’s novel is valuable in making us recognize the microscopic impact of macroscopic policymaking, and brings into focus the elusive question of how one understands one’s noble human existence and identity as part of a greater, powerful whole.

The Harmony of Substance and Existence in Solo

I have been having trouble trying to parse what Dasgupta is trying to saying about substance and existence. In the novel there are a lot of oppositional but harmonious forces: music and chemistry, daydreams and life, politics and reality, memory and history etc. I am going to allocate the former elements to the classification of ‘existence’ and the latter to ‘substance’. Dasgupta seems to be suggesting that there is existence outside of substance*, which is clear when you consider the scope of the novel and how it focuses on the personal life of Ulrich rather than historical events of Bulgaria. Often, life events are stored or established in relation to historical events. In other words, we tend to store a memory (existence) against a physical date/year/setting (substance) or a concrete, recognized event – for instance, I will always remember the third grade in relation to the SARS outbreak in China. As Ulrich says in the novel: “Life happens in a certain place for a certain time. But there is a great surplus left over, and where will we stow it but in our dreams” (303). The only parts of existence that become significant are the parts that overlap with substance, but there are aspects of existence that don’t “happen in a certain place” at a “certain time” and if they aren’t made to converge with substance then they are lost. So  if even within an individual there is more than a ‘single story’, to borrow Adichie’s phrase, is Dasgupta emphasizing the importance of recounting multiple stories or is he proposing that one is superior to the other?

In discussion today Prof. Brown posited the question of what this novel means for the study of history and IR. I think Dasgupta views history or historical writing as an access way to ‘truth’ as rather futile. He writes: “The friction of Ulrich’s memory, moving back and forth over the surface of his life, wears away all the detail – and the story becomes more bland each time” (68). In a way, after a certain amount of time, after a certain amount of digestion and re-digestion, history becomes fictionalized because it is so removed from reality. In postmodernism there is the concept of the ‘simulacra’, which are copies of things that no longer have an original. History becomes a simulacrum in that the original had at one point existed but we can never regain the original and we only have access to simulations/recreations of the original. Also, if we look at the way Sofia was described in the novel we find that it too is a simulacrum: “They studied Berlin and Paris to find out what was required, and all of it – cathedral, tramway, university, royal palace, science museum, national theatre, national assembly – they re-created faithfully in Sofia” (10). (On the topic of history being mediated, there was an opinions piece in The New York Times about how the nuances of language in a Texas history textbook affects how history is taught which may be of interest).

In regards to the question of studying history and IR, I don’t really have an answer. Dasgupta seems to suggest that there is more significance in the personal story rather than the historical. But I don’t think the future of ‘History’ is bleak because substance and existence are codependent and harmonious, and you can’t have history or memory without the other. Ulrich creates music, but he is only able to with the chemistry of his body. History is created through retelling, and retelling is only possible with memory.

*About the word ‘substance’, I found this quote really interesting but I don’t really know how to interpret how the lack of ‘substance’ relates to ‘abject obedience’: “With these two whiteouts in Japan, everyone knew that humans had become entirely without substance, and henceforth there was only abject obedience” (88).

Solo: The Importance of Being Socially Aware

In class yesterday, I mentioned that my favorite quote from Solo was on page 39. The quote is as follows: “With the next war, old Berlin was gutted, tossed away and forgotten, and it sank into forgetful waters, until only a few bent tips were visible above the surface, twitching with the bad dreams below.” Part of what I think was so powerful in this book is the whirlwind of regimes, people being born, people dying, and experiences that constantly hits the reader in the face. For example, for me personally, I had no idea that Ulrich had been working at the factory for over 3 decades (and that 3 decades had passed) until, in a matter of a few pages, Zhivkov was out of power and Communism was toppled in Bulgaria. It seemed to happen so quickly. One of the biggest takeaways I got from the book was the transience of physical things – of regimes and of people. The only things that are permanent are memories, as much as a regime (such as Zhivkov’s Communist regime) may try to erase or revise memories in the history books.

Accordingly, when I first read that quote at 39, I was merely attracted to the elegant way in which it was written. In the novel, Dasgupta is able to manipulate the writing to either eloquently and profoundly express a sense of loss or grief, while simultaneously being able to evoke very crass, vivid scenes of sexuality, big money, and bigger guns. This writing “flip flop” is part of what makes Solo so enjoyable to read, but this isn’t what really drew me back into this quote by the end of the book. When we look at WWII history, nobody really discusses what “old Berlin” was like; I do not know and I doubt many other people in the class would know. We saw Berlin under Nazi rule and then East and West Berlin, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and modern Berlin today. Berlin, in its perhaps more pure form, was forgotten because people did not necessarily take the time to pay attention and piece their memories together to contribute to the histories of the city today. That to me was a huge call of action. One of the things Celina mentioned in class, which really resonated with me, was that currently none of us are really paying attention to what’s going on outside of our own lives, our circle of friends, (and I would say this is something unique to IR/area studies concentrators…) and our international regional focus.  Other than big events, such as 9/11, we don’t really know what is going on in the Middle East, or how our relationship has been with China, or even how communities are being affected at home (we see an awful story of police brutality against another Black person on the news and then, within 2 weeks, we’ve stopped talking about it). With this in mind, what this book really showed me is that we can’t forget about what is happening now. In 20 years when we are trying to tell our children what the world was like in 2015, it might be pretty difficult, because many geopolitical relationships and physical places may be very, very different. In 100 years, it may be almost impossible. We won’t be able to rely on physical structures or looking outside the window to inform us about our past because it won’t be the same anymore. We study history and, as IR concentrators, we study a specific area of the globe, but do we really know what is going on right outside our window right now, or is it all a wash to us? I don’t want the nuances of the early 2000s to be forgotten or, worse yet, altered in the history books without any form of accountability (as happens when a society chooses to collectively forget that something occurred, a la Japan erasing its history of utilizing “comfort women” and its horrific treatment of the Chinese). Then again, I would like to think that no one in this class (or anywhere, for that matter) would want that.

In defense of ourselves, I don’t think that this inability to piece out what has actually happened in the world during our lives is entirely our fault. In the modern day, technology has made it easy for us to be inactive or for us to become over inundated with images of tragedy, and, as a result, be emotionally numb to all of them. I came across an interesting blog post (and article, which I annoyingly can’t find!) the other day that discusses the negative impact of technology on our lives (aside from some of the more obvious ones, which include stunting face-to-face social interaction). Technology makes it so that we are less likely to seek out information on our own because our information is chopped up and fed to us via 140 character tweets on Twitter or news mining websites (Trove being one of many). Want to figure out how to get somewhere? Google Maps it. Want to read about something interesting going on in the world? Go on Facebook and see what Trove or your friends are posting. The result? A world in which we are skewed into not seeking anything extra for ourselves if it is less convenient than 5 clicks away and also seeing only the limited lens of what our social groups find important or click bait articles (as these are the articles news mining websites will push, considering it gets them more views and more money). Furthermore, when tragedies do happen (as they often do), our Facebook feeds get swarmed with people posting articles, mourning publicly over the tragedy, and getting into heated “Facebook debates” over potential causes and/or who is to blame. While I am very happy that my friends are actually the socially engaged types who do post often about tragic events and are intolerant of injustices in their communities, it can be a lot to go on Facebook and see wall-to-wall sadness or anger every day. This leads to what many pundits call social fatigue (which can come in many forms – war fatigue, racial fatigue, etc.). We are apathetic to what goes on outside our window and we don’t want to learn anymore. We turn off our phones, our computers, lock ourselves up for a few days, and then come back out later, only to put ourselves back into the cycle of looking on Facebook for news. It doesn’t encourage us to put together the complete picture of what is going on that is necessary to make sure that we do not forget what has happened in the early 2000s.

So what do we do? How do we fight social fatigue or the ease and convenience of relying on Facebook for our information? This is a question I’ve grappled with since this past summer, but really seized upon when I finished reading Solo. What I try to do lately is just read the front page articles of the newspaper (at least) every morning. I generally get the New York Times and the Atlantic because I am a liberal and I can’t sit through watching Fox news. For me, it’s been really helpful in shaping a narrative of what is going on around the world every single day. An imperfect narrative, for sure, but better than the non-existent narrative that I had before. Even if it takes a little more time each morning than I really have to spend, it’s worth it for me (and Ulrich’s narrative re-affirmed this endeavor). The last thing I want America (or D.C., my hometown) to become is a sunken ship, with only unsaid, bad dreams floating below the water.

Capturing Modernity

What I appreciated most about reading Solo by Rana Dasgupta was the way in which it presented the reader with rich depictions of societal change as a result of it focusing on the life of a man who’s been alive for 100 years. Although it may not be the explicit intention of the author, Solo offers an interesting perspective into the phenomenon of modernity.

Putting the narrative of the novel in conversation with the character Ulrich, I found the symbolism that they both represent very similar to what was discussed in class: how memory can’t be destroyed while physical things can. I particularly viewed Ulrich’s recollection of his childhood experiences demonstrative of this especially when considering this part of the narrative goes into detailing his father’s perspective on the nascent of the railroad. Through witnessing the feelings and experiences of Ulrich’s father with the development of the early railroad and the differences that those who first experienced the early railroad, the reader is presented directly with the process of modernization as well as potential reactions to the experience of modernity.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to read a book that is set in Bulgaria because even though history tends to be overwhelmingly eurocentric I haven’t had much exposure to places similar to Bulgaria or the countries of Eastern Europe. In this vain, I think that the novel offers an interesting commentary on the differences between personal history and public history. I found the way that Dasgupta developed the narrative provided a refreshing contrast between society’s anxieties and aspirations on the process of modernization that I believe can be primarily seen in Ulrich and Boris’s friendship.

Boris and Ulrich’s friendship also symbolizes part of the generational aspect of the novel for me as well. I think the contrast between Ulrich’s more conservative, almost old-world views on societal resistance to be a very ironic contrast with
Boris’s revolutionary proclivities when taking into consideration how firmly Ulrich associates modernity with science. Ultimately I think that this novel is something that almost everyone would be able to relate to because of the way the narrative constantly plays on feelings of agency more specifically the desire to be significant in the world and to have made an impact on the world, something we all experience at some point in our lives.

A Nonsensical World

Solo is indeed a strange novel. To be frank, I did not know how any author could possibly develop a decent and interesting plot about a blind man who is nearly 100 years old. Indeed, I saw Ulrich as the oddest choice for a main character, for what could this plain everyman offer to us as lessons in conducting the grand schemes of international relations. At first glance, I suspected Dasgupta of creating a nonsensical fictional world, only to realize later on that perhaps it is my own world and reality that have become nonsensical.

We now live in a world where the scheming and designing done by those in the highest echelons dictate the flow of everything else. We rank factors and individuals based on their potential to benefit or to harm our cause, as top officials negotiate intricate plans to secure strategic assets. Yet, the objectives of our notion of international relations become blurred, as nations’ grand strategies simply strive to be ahead of each other. It does not matter what kind of lead that we have, as long as we are leading; it does not matter how the everyman lives, as long as our civilization is more advanced than those of our neighbors. This is the kind of world that we live in now, where individuals and resources become mere assets and pawns to strategize a victory without real victors.

It is because we live in this kind of world that Ulrich’s story may seem unappealing and lacking in prominence. After all, what kind of use does a blind ancient man have to contribute to the society; we have, after all, paid him for his services with the “golden watch.” This story has truly served as a reminder to me, a student of International Relations, that the world has begun to forget about the very basic essence of ‘relations’ itself. Our international order has failed to truly coalesce different parties into a concert, but instead encouraged rivaling coalitions. It has thrown the humanity, the very focus of Dasgupta’s Solo, of international relations into the “great black ocean of forgotten things.”

Regardless of what kind of crucial climacteric is unraveling within the international stage, international relations should never forget the normalcy that would be affected within the everyman’s life. Regardless of the main character  growing old and becoming blind, his daydreams still connect to the dynamic struggle of young souls elsewhere. Our world needs reforming, for there is no point in accumulating strategically-valuable assets in order to establish regimes, only to later topple those regimes due to insatiable desire for conflicts.

Indeed, international relations can be the facilitator of a better life for global citizens, or the harbinger of death; they are “simply two halves of the same thing.” It is time to focus on the lives of all individuals involved, instead of just geopolitical analysis. If others think that this is too idealistic of a view, and that the value of life could actually mean less than something else, then surely our “world itself has become nonsense.”

The Mask of Fiction

I must say I had been looking forward to the discussion of Solo for quite some time. Even though I didn’t really know what the book was about before this past week, I expected that I would have to reconcile my own understandings, knowledge and experiences of Bulgaria to those of the author and of the class. And that’s always a fun, introspective exercise – one I rarely get to perform in an academic setting.

It was hence a bit disappointing to find that not everyone had gotten all the way through the novel. I guess I suffer from the small country complex that makes people yearn for a shred of the rest of the world’s attention. As much as Bulgarians complain about the state of the country, they would still take every opportunity to point out that Bulgaria is the only country in Europe to have kept its name since 681 AD or that the country used to spread on a territory that bordered three seas (an opportunity, I’m clearly taking advantage of right now, as well).

But what exactly did I hope the rest of the class would get out of this novel? Was it knowledge about Bulgarian history? On a basic, level, yes. Not history in terms of dates and events, but history in terms of emotionalism. Bulgarians have suffered a lot and yet, they rarely talk about their experiences, except in the safe confines of the family homes. Silence, surrounding Bulgaria’s traumatic past, is a huge obstacle to reconciliation and I believe that any effort to break this silence, bridges a huge generational gap. The ‘international’ gap, however, remains.

I thus turn to Empathy, the great Bridger-of-Gaps. If the class couldn’t relate to a 100-year-old Bulgarian blind man, perhaps they could relate to a 22-year-old Bulgarian Brown student, relating to a 100-year-old Bulgarian blind man. It’s worth the try. Below is a list of the ways, in which I related to Ulrich.

Item:  The importance of church St. Nedelya. My family lives five minutes away from the church and I have attended two funerals, a wedding and my own baptism inside it (not in that order).

Item: The bombing of Ulrich’s childhood home. My family’s home was also bombed in 1941, after an American bomb missed the Justice Palace, located one block over.

Item: The labor camps. My grandfather spent two years in a labor camp, after he attended his friends’ engagement party on the day the communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, died – a day that the government deemed one of mourning. Just like Ulrich’s mother, he never talked about his experiences inside. He spent his time typing away on an old typewriter.

Item: The anti-Western sentiments of the communist regime. My great-grandfather spent 8 years in prison, accused of being an English spy.

Item: The dangers of being taken away by the state. My grandfather’s grandfather was taken away one evening, never to be seen by his family again.

Item: The division of Ulrich’s family home by the communist state.

Item: The ‘reporting.’ My grandfather was asked on a few occasions to report everything that happened at his workplace to Secret Service agents. He declined, convincing them of his inability to lie well. At his retirement years later, he found out that his boss had been asked to fire him six times.

Item: The sound of drills in the night. There’s a joke that goes: You know you’re in Bulgaria, if you can here a drill going on at any hour of the day or night.

I could go on and on, but these are the few that really resonated with me the most. I hear about these stories at home, but I never read about them, especially not in Western literature. Ulrich’s life story feels like it could be the daydream of one of my great-grandparents, but also of any young Bulgarian person’s great-grandparents.

That’s why, I wish we’d read more fiction novels like Solo in History and International Relations classes. To borrow Gao Xingjian’s wisdom: “It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.”

Are You What You Eat? On Consumption, Complicity and the Classroom

Thank you all for a great discussion today in class, it is always refreshing to engage in candid conversation in class. To that end  Americanah could not have been read at more timely moment especially when considering everything that is taking place on Brown’s campus these past two weeks.

I wanted to continue expanding upon my comments in class earlier today on learning, resonating with experiences of Otherness, and       the significance of being able to interact with literature literature, that focuses on characters who hold identities different from one’s own.

As students of Brown University we are given the privilege of having access to a plethora of opportunities to engage in “liberal learning” and the “free exchange of ideas” in many ways, but most notably through the open curriculum, vibrant campus life, and the “diverse” student body academic. But do we truly utilize these spaces and resources?

Today in class I ran a litmus test: when I asked the class to raise their hands if the overall narrative of the novel resonated with them, the majority of the class raised their hands. Then I asked the class to raise their hands if they identified with the narrative in terms of gendered experience and there was still a majority of the class with their hands raised save a few. Given these responses I commented noting that there are only three Black people yet the majority of the class identified with some aspect of the narrative in Americanah. This is what I want to extrapolate upon.

Reading is a means of consumption. When you engage in the act of reading, you learn things. You are given the opportunity to witness experiences of identities that are different from yours, ones that are outside of your own own immediate being to a certain extent. And while you may never be able to understand the true reality of inhabiting these identities, through the magic of narrative fiction one is granted temporary access to piercing sensations  and recollections of Otherness from meticulously crafted text.

As you all have demonstrated from my questions asked in class, reading Americanah was a learning experience for people on the virulent nature of racism, sexism, imperialism and classism, and the insidious and multilayered ways they manifest in the lives of Black people in the USA and in Nigeria. I believe that by engaging in the act of consuming narratives and fiction that details the experiences of oppression that individuals of marginalized identity face one is complicit in co-opting the trauma the witness through the text as a learning experience. Here at Brown, we students of color are subjected to offering ourselves, and more often than not our trauma and pain, as resources and learning experiences for our peers to learn from.  When events, like those of the past week, continue to take at Brown multiple times per semester, it makes me question if my peers here are truly paying attention when they engage in their schoolwork, taking note of the similarities in oppression that they read and the marginalization that students of color face on campus in and outside of the classroom.

To my white peers: you are complicit. You are complicit because you are white. You are complicit because of the burden you place on students of color like myself to educate you at the expense of our academics and well-being. You are complicit because of your consumption of trauma and subsequent silence.

Once you know how oppression is experienced and manifests, what privilege and power afford individuals inequitable, and how power operates and who is given/denied access to it from your readings or class discussion, how can you read about marginalized people and their experiences  with fictional oppression and  engage with that in and out of class, but subsequently fail to allow the possibility for a similar dialogue/engagement when REAL marginalized people speak up on their experiences and truths? How can you continue to deny the experiences of REAL people who share similar experiences and the same identities of those you just finished reading about and resonate with? How can you fail to accept the validity of your peers’ pain/histories/statements/experiences? Pause. Reflect. Notice.

This is a call to action: do not claim to be a non-racist and then remain silent in the face of racism. Ultimately it’s more than being an “ally” or practicing “allyship,” it’s about recognizing everyone’s personhood and, more importantly, the humanity in oppressed people.

 

Curious Observations by a Non-American on Americanah

Reading Americanah, for me, in many ways felt like returning to a known world, one that I could identify with in its estrangement from  America. Piercing through the surfaces of accents, conventions, and other Americanisms that are often taken for granted, Adichie defamiliarizes America in a way that felt familiar to me. Arriving in America for the first time four years ago, I related strongly to Adichie’s description of the utter dislocation of being dispossessed of an accent and linguistic codes that were familiar to me, suddenly feeling myself acutely Other. I appreciated this insistence on applying interpretive pressure to American culture, and resistance to seeing Americanisms as unspoken norms, and found a satisfying solidarity in it.

“You told him what he wasn’t but you didn’t tell him what he was”, says Ifemelu to Aunty Uju. Yet, while deconstructing Whiteness, Adichie’s book does not provide us with any easy answers as to how the postcolonial subject can navigate and emerge from historical and imperialist structures of oppression to form and reclaim a new identity. As Emily points out, racial hierarchy and White superiority persists outside the boundaries of America and in Ifemelu’s hometown, at times even embedded insidiously in the public unconscious. It’s interesting to me that Ifemelu’s resistance to an American accent takes the form of a semi-British accent – somewhat African, but “bourgie African” to be exact. This reminded me of the language debate in Singapore, where concepts of “Good English” and “Standard English”, at least in official discourse, used to occur on a plane of British to American stylistic conventions. (Of late, the validity of Singlish, a local creole, is increasingly asserted against this Anglophilic ideal, but linguistic hierarchies, that are mapped onto class differences, persist.) There are also those nagging rejoinders of an incipient capitalism in Nigeria, like the references to the deals with China at the end – hints of a returning neo-colonialism.

I’m not sure if Adichie manages to figure a way beyond the historical frameworks of oppression (let alone if there even exists such a way out, given that these structures of inequality are so constitutive of our identities). I think Americanah does more describing than prescribing, and leaves these structural differences to be sorted out in the realm of the personal. What Adichie seems to suggest is that differences can’t be effaced, but love – real, romantic, love – can dilate a space of intimate encounter where these differences can be negotiated.

This interpersonal gesture is not revolutionary, but important, I think. David Graeber, in The Utopia of Rules, points out that structural inequality often emerges as a lopsidedness in interpretive labor, with “those on the bottom of the social ladder [spending] a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and genuinely caring about, those on the top” but rarely the other way around. We see this playing out in academia – disciplines like Africana Studies, as Jarred pointed out in class, invest a great deal of effort in interpreting Whiteness. Yet, the prospect of social equalization can only open up when those of privilege themselves invest the same interpretive labor into interrogating privilege.

One thing Adichie’s solution of understanding-through-love doesn’t address is whether one should go out looking for love- that is, actively seek to empathize and relate to the predicaments of those outside our immediate realm of understanding. The book is ambivalent at best about the cosmopolitan American intellectuals with keen eyes and sharp tongues for discussing global affairs. Furthermore, the book ends not with cross-cultural marriage, but in the comforting familiarity of Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s shared background. And Dike, the beacon of hope in the book for the formation of a cool and confident new African American identity, attempts suicide. And so I wish to end with a question that I’m still milling over: does Adichie’s markedly peripheral and perfunctory notion of intercultural and interracial exchange allow for the articulation of a new cultural identity, or simply reiterate the boundaries of difference?

 

Indentity in Americanah

Something that stuck with me a lot after reading and discussing Americanah was the concept of identity, and how our identities are in large part constructed by how others view us. In many cases, we conform to what others expect and want of us, but what separates the line between conforming and actually becoming? Several characters undergo transitions in Americanah, shedding old identities and developing new ones, and each of these examples seems to be linked to power in some form or another. We change certain elements of ourselves to meet the approval of a dominant force, be it a culture, a race, a social class, or even a loved one. At first, perhaps, this assimilation feels unnatural, but it eventually becomes harder and harder to separate our past selves with our new, adapted identities.

Ifemelu talks about how race was not a big part of her identity until she came to America, which is something many of the international students in the class related to. However, as obvious as this concept seems, it really surprised me. As an American-born Chinese, I have grown up aware of my minority status, and yet at the same time, it is something that is more in the background for me. I’ve always lived in a pretty diverse area, and to be quite honest, it wasn’t until this summer, working in Boulder, a predominantly white city, and at an all-white, all-male firm, that I became acutely aware of how much I stood out due to my race. Nevertheless, my experience was just a fraction of the stark contrast Ifemelu faced, going from being part of the majority to all of the sudden becoming a complete outsider. This made me think a lot about how what you aren’t can strongly affect what you are – once in a place where she no longer looks or acts like the majority population, Ifemelu is instantly characterized by her external differences and becomes a “Black woman”.

Ifemelu’s racialized experience in the U.S. further goes on to influence other aspects of her identity. From the very beginning, when Christina Tomas talks in a slow and patronizing voice to her, under the assumption that she can’t understand English, to her struggle to find a job even at fast food establishments, Ifemelu’s experiences cause severe harm to her self worth. Her inability to find a job forces her to sell her body in order to pay rent, pushing her into a bout of depression that destroys her relationship with Obinze. Ifemelu’s transformation is reflected in that of Auntie Uju and Dike as well. Auntie Uju, beaten down by the struggles she faces upon coming to America, becomes merely a shade of who she used to be, passionless, dispirited, and willing to marry a man that treats her terribly. Dike grows up in America yet still experiences racism through microagressions – a camp counselor telling him he doesn’t need sunscreen and his classmates jokingly asking him for weed – that contribute to a sense of confusion and alienation that ultimately causes him to attempt suicide. Coming into a country where the majority race tells them their race is inferior, Ifemelu, Auntie Uju, and Dike, along with other African immigrants, actually begin to believe that they are worthless.

Ifemelu’s relationships are another source of identity for her. Curt is her first boyfriend in America, and it was with Curt, a white man, that “she had first looked in the mirror and, with a rush of accomplishment, seen someone else” (Adichie 142). Curt’s affections are a source of pride to her, and a means of rebuilding her shattered confidence. She is elated and flattered to be dating a handsome white man, whom she believes so far out of her league, despite his potential fetishism of her. She falls into the role of another one of his exotic girlfriends, agreeing to role-play Foxy Brown during intercourse. With Blaine, an African-American, Ifemelu plays the role of an intellectual, social-activist girlfriend, yet she never feels “deep” enough for him, Ifemelu is also actively involved with her blog when she meets Blaine, and while her blog is meant to be an honest reflection of her experiences and personally, she also starts to feel an obligation to live up to her blog persona and her followers. She begins to write for the sake of impressing her erudite followers and providing them with fresh material, “sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became” (Adichie 9). It is with Obinze, whom she grew up with, that she feels the most comfortable, though it can be argued that he has the most prominent impact on her identity; he is someone she never feels complete without and is a major factor in her decision to return to Nigeria.

The three men Ifemelu dates are also interesting representations of how culture shapes identity. Ifemelu has the unique experience of being a Nigerian in America, an Americanah, and then later on a returnee. Coming to the U.S., her Nigerian-ness is pronounced – her accent, her dislike of dogs, her confusion over American jokes and customs. In America, her racial experience is much the same as that of an African-American; after all, she is virtually the same as African-Americans in the eyes of white Americans. She must travel to seedier areas to get her hair braided, must relax her natural hair in order to attain employment at a respectable company, and is able to connect with Blaine through their shared excitement around Obama’s presidency. Nevertheless, she is not fully accepted as a Black American. Shan denounces Ifemelu’s blog, saying that she is “writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she is writing about…If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned” (Adichie 245). As Ifemelu does not share a history of segregation and slavery with African-Americans, though she feels the modern-day effects, she cannot truly be one of them. Ifemelu further reflects on the disparity between African immigrants and African-Americans when she wonders what Dike would be considered, noting that “he would have to choose what he was, or rather, what he was would be chosen for him” (Adichie 106). In the end, she still feels that Nigeria is home, yet her experiences in America have stuck with her, and she no longer quite fits in upon her return. Nigeria, in her absence, has changed as well, yet she has not changed along with her homeland. Furthermore, her aesthetic senses have become Westernized, and she finds herself relating more to other returnees than the family and friends she grew up with. In much the same way race operates on identity, the majority culture dictates how an individual should act. As Ifemelu moves between different cultures, each one bleeds into her identity.

Another example of identity transformation is that of Emelike, and to a lesser extent, Obinze, through wealth. Their mannerisms, aesthetic sensibilities, and lifestyles change greatly both to attain and then hold onto their wealth. Wealth allows Obinze to accept a gilded yet bland life, in an occupation that he doesn’t care much for and with a wife who is beautiful but vacuous; it also sets him free of his obsession with America once he realizes he can “buy” America by easily purchasing a visa. Wealth grants Emelike “bourgie” sensibilities and seems to accentuate his cruel and cunning nature, to the point where he mocks those less fortunate than him and shuns his childhood friends. Obinze and Emelike of course retain characteristics from childhood, as shown by how Obinze still remains humble while Emelike is still sly and condescending, yet their identities are unmistakably contorted through their ascent into wealth and high society.

Chimamande Adichie clearly portrays the immense power that perceptions have in determining and manipulating identity. A stereotype or a norm, when held by a party with significant power, can have a massive, and sometimes destructive, impact on individual identities. Knowing this, it is all the more important, as we discussed in class, to build an understanding, or at very least an acceptance, of people different from ourselves.

 

Americanah: On Gender, Whiteness, Arguedas, and the Well-Meaning Racist

Reading Americanah brought a lot of thoughts to my mind as a White woman who operates in social justice spaces that are predominantly students of color every day, so I’m not sure if I’m going to get all these thoughts down concisely (but I’ll certainly try!)

To start, I found it somewhat upsetting, albeit unsurprising, that constructs of gender and race (particularly the construct of Whiteness, but not necessarily of Blackness) was upheld in many different cultural and temporal contexts. I found that while I, of course, could not connect to Ifemelu in terms of race, I could actually connect to her experience in a lot of ways based on my experience as a woman. Specifically, I found resonance in Ifemelu being told that, as a girl, she was too stubborn or too resistant when she voiced her ideas in class or, as Kayode said to Obinze “too much trouble” because she “can argue…and never agrees” (73). I, and I’m sure many female-identifying people at Brown, have had experience with people telling me I was too talkative or too “bossy.”

However, outside of gender, I also was fascinated (and upset) by the way Whiteness and White superiority manifested in the lives of Obinze and Kosi outside of the confines of America (undoubtedly a result of colonialism and imperialism). I think that, even at Brown, among White, American students there is this misconception that only America has a problem with racism and countries, particularly African countries, cannot have a problem with racism or, more specifically, anti-Blackness. Obinze’s deportation and treatment as a “thing without a breath and mind” is a prime example of Britain’s racist policies towards immigrants, particularly Brown and Black immigrants (344-345). Adichie’s choice to show Obinze’s British-oriented perspective as well as Ifemelu’s American-oriented perspective was, to me, very important because it helped shatter the stereotype that only America has a problem with racism and anti-Blackness. Additionally, even in Lagos, we see Kosi relish in her light skinned complexion (27), thus, praising Whiteness over Blackness as, on the spectrum, she is closer to “looking” White. I think Adichie’s choice to look at Nigerian and British perspectives on race, in addition to Ifemelu’s American-oriented one, complicated the dialogue that American’s have on race relations, as oftentimes we think that racism and anti-Blackness is a struggle unique and internal to our nation — but White Americans are forgetting/do not realize that, for Black people, there is a struggle against anti-Blackness and pro-Whiteness all over the world.

Additionally, there was a bit of talk in class about the “authenticity” of Adichie’s narrative. Of course, I 100% agree with anyone who voiced that they would not trust the authenticity of a narrative on Blackness in the United States written by a White person – you can’t “make up” lived experiences. HOWEVER, like Adichie does in her TED talk, I want to push back against the idea that the narratives (while there were a lot) that she showed in Americanah are representative of all forms of Blackness in America.  Adichie is actually Nigerian, as is Obinze; neither of their narratives show what it is like to be African American in America. To me, I almost see Adichie in a place of privilege to some African Americans (and I say this with great trepidation, as ascribing the term “privilege” to a marginalized individual is something I would never normally do). The reason why I feel this way is because, when we think about Black Lives Matter and police brutality against Black people in the United States currently, these are issues that affect predominantly lower income, African American communities. Since police brutality has been a recurring issue in these communities since the 1980s and 1990s (Americanah‘s time frame), Ifemelu, while it is true that she comes to America with no money and few connections, can escape anti-Black racism and police violence in the United States and go back to Nigeria (where, of course, university strikes and military coups await her). In this way, I see a slight connection between Adichie and Arguedas, in that both authors are coming into an environment as outsiders, and their outsider status is something we see continually throughout both of their works (Ifemelu’s blog posts as the “Non-American Black{” and Ernesto’s struggle to fit in to either a White Spaniard or Quecha community). Of course, when we are talking about privilege, Arguedas certainly has more privilege than Adichie in that he is mixed race and confers the benefits of being mixed race; I just think that there are some comparisons between the two that complicated my own thought processes on Americanah (as it is not indicative of all Black experiences in the United States).

Finally, I was thinking about Curt some more and what it means to be a well-meaning racist — as well as educating other, well-meaning racists. When one thinks of the term racist, there’s an instinctual urge to pull back and defend oneself. Seeing the term “well-meaning” next to “racist” seems like it shouldn’t even make sense — the two terms shouldn’t even be lumped together. To be a racist is to be an evil human being, aligned often with terms like bigot and, even, murderer. However, I think that the role of Curt forces us to re-evaluate how we view the term racist. All White people are, at some level, racist. It is something that we are inculcated into as White people in society that values Whiteness over Blackness. For me, when I think about educating myself and educating my White friends on issues of race, I think about it like this: you CAN be a well-meaning (even socially conscious) person, but also a racist. It’s not something to get defensive about or upset about, but, rather, it is something that we (particularly when the we is White people) should all recognize as a shortcoming and collectively work to address – by learning about the lived experiences of Black people and other people of color and, more importantly, making sure to not perpetuate racism once we are aware of the ways that we ourselves are complicit in it. When I was thinking about what Jarred said at the end of class yesterday (which was so very important), I thought about a quote I really like from Stephen Covey: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Breaking down racist tendencies in ourselves and in our friend groups is, at base level, just listening to, understanding, and empathizing with the experiences of people of color. When I engage in conversations about race, particularly with students of color, I always try and take a back seat and really listen to what everyone is saying before I say anything myself.