BASS 2016: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Apollo” from TNY 4/13/15

I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring, the shuttlecock seemed to me an unfinished thing, as though whoever had invented the game had stopped halfway.

~~ Story available online at The New Yorker

Deceptively simple is a phrase that shows up a lot in discussions of literary works. And here it is again: on the surface, this is a story of life changes, of growing old and growing up, of regrets that last a lifetime. That rich surface is supported by text that keeps on giving; I’ve read the story three times, and each time I see worlds I missed before. And then there’s the subtext I never would have seen, like the post-colonial theme Betsy points out on The Mookse and the Gripes, or the nuggets Adichie mentions in her TNY Page-Turner interview about loving an adult voice recollecting the childhood incident, about endings that change beginnings. I’d given short shrift to the opening of the story, but reading it again with that in mind, I see what she meant. And, because this was written by a highly popular literary author and published in The New Yorker, many reviews can be found on many blogs that outline plot, trace themes, and examine the technical details of how the story works.

But I haven’t done that sort of thing in a while now, partly because I’m not trained for it, and partly because I’d rather report my own experience of the story. It’s my reading philosophy that every story becomes a partnership between writer and reader, each with their own experiences, so every reader reads a different story. All I can discuss is the story I read.

I’m struck by the universality of the story set in Nigeria, a story that, Betsy’s comments about post-colonialism aside, could be set in Boston or Chicago or LA, anywhere things like class division, parental expectations and kids who don’t meet them, can be found.

Raphael and I practiced in the back yard, leaping from the raised concrete soakaway and landing on the grass. Raphael told me to suck in my belly, to keep my legs straight and my fingers precise. He taught me to breathe. My previous attempts, in the enclosure of my room, had felt stillborn. Now, outside with Raphael, slicing the air with my arms, I could feel my practice become real, with soft grass below and high sky above, and the endless space mine to conquer.

I’m intrigued by what’s left out: we don’t know what Okenwa is doing in the present, only that he has no family of his own, and visits his family. Did he eventually turn to books? To business? Does he run a martial arts studio? His parents don’t bemoan his lack of professional status; does this imply approval? Why does Adichie not put some clue in the story? Is it because it doesn’t matter, or because it does?

I love the dance of Okenwa and Raphael’s relationship, itself a kind of martial art story, ending with a cutting blow. They progress through stages, leading to a scene of great tenderness and caring when Okenwa medicates Raphael’s inflamed eyes. But the relationship is not balanced; it can’t be, since Raphael is an employee, and alone; Okenwa has his family to take care of him when he gets sick, whereas Raphael only has Okenwa. The film scene that first signals their common interest – Bruce Lee wiping blood from his chest and tasting it – speaks volumes of how these two not only bear their eventual pain, but learn to savor it.

Does Raphael share Okenwa’s growing feelings for him? He might (I think it’s likely he does, in fact), but if he does, he turns away from those feelings. For every reaction there is a counteraction – I’m sure someone more familiar with the martial arts could phrase that better – and his turning away becomes his downfall – and, in a way, Okenwa’s downfall, as well, since he still carries that moment with him still.

I touched his face, gently pulled down his lower left eyelid, and dropped the liquid into his eye. The other lid I pulled more firmly, because he had shut his eyes tight.
“Ndo,” I said. “Sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, and on his face shone something wondrous. I had never felt myself the subject of admiration. It made me think of science class, of a new maize shoot growing greenly toward light. He touched my arm. I turned to go.

The story as a whole takes place in Okenwa’s parents’ home as a flashback. I’d like to understand better how that works, by the way, the initial conversation Okenwa has with his mom that leads us to the heart of the story, the function of those first paragraphs that introduces to Okenwa and his present-day life, hints dropped like breadcrumbs to prime the subtext of the flashback, to the point where eyedrops become erotic symbols.

The final scene ends abruptly, like a knockout punch (again, the help of martial arts experts would be welcomed). But it ends in the past, still within the flashback. And so so the story leaves us in the past, not with the grown-up Okenwa and his present-day parents, but with him as a twelve-year-old just beginning to try on the guilt of a child’s lie, a lie told from hurt, a lie that echoes in the present, an echo that began the flashback. Did he realize back then that he could fix it? Or does he just realize that now in the present?

I like stories that use standard elements – character, time, setting, language – in unusual ways. Here, I like the simultaneity of past and present as Okenwa remembers his youth, and I especially like the implied link between past and present in the last sentences: the guilt that was, the guilt that is. I like that we’re left with silence, with Okenwa, left to construct our story from the text Adichie has created for us.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: “Checking Out” from TNY, 3/18/13

New Yorker art by Jashar Awan

New Yorker art by Jashar Awan

The memory, clear as a beam of light, took Obinze back to a time when he believed the universe would bend according to his will. Once, during his final year at University, the year that people danced in the streets because General Abacha had died, his mother had said, “One day, I will look up and all the people I know will be dead or abroad.” For a moment, he felt as if he had betrayed her by having his own plan: to get a postgraduate degree in America, to work in America, to live in America. Of course, he knew how unreasonable the American Consulate could be – the Vice-Chancellor, of all people, had once been refused a visa to attend a conference – but he had never doubted his plan. He would wonder, later, why he had been so sure. Perhaps it was because he had never just wanted to go abroad, as many others did; some people were now even going to South Africa, which amused him. It had always been America, only America. A longing nurtured and nursed over many years.

In her Page-Turner interview, Adichie explains this piece is not about the generally known story of African immigration to escape war or poverty: “But this is about another kind of immigration, of people who do not come from burned villages, but are seeking that sublime thing: choice.” Obinze grew up as the son of a University professor; he himself is University-educated. He’s just always had this dream to go to America. When he’s unable to land a job in Nigeria in spite of his education and language skills, wonders “if employers could smell his America-pining on his breath.”

The title is taken from a Nigerian TV campaign from the 80s aimed at discouraging Nigerians from emigrating and encouraging them to stay and help build the country. We see that campaign through the eyes of Obinze as a child:

While Andrew was checking out, General Buhari’s soldiers were flogging adults in the streets, lecturers were striking for better pay, and Obinze’s mother decided that he could no longer have Fanta whenever he wanted but only on Sundays. America became a place where bottles of Fanta could be had without permission.

Spoiler alert (sort of): he doesn’t get there. At least, not in this “story” – which is, in fact, an excerpt from the forthcoming novel, Americanah. Though the piece covers a period of time with a distinct beginning and end, I suspected it was an excerpt by the time I’d gotten halfway through, and I was sure of it when I got to the end. I normally rail against excerpts. I feel it’s not right to serve them up unannounced. But, in spite of the sense that there was more to come, it was gripping reading; I was pulling for Obinze all along.

As I read, I recognized the name Obinze from Adichie’s BASS 2011 story, “Ceiling.” I kept wondering throughout if this was the same Obinze; some of the details fit, but there was no mention of Ifemelu, who we would have met already. To my surprise, the description of the novel indicates it is indeed the same character. There was no mention of a novel in the Contributor Notes then; I wonder what the sequence was (I see there’s also a short story, published in The Guardian, featuring Ifemelu as a child). On a side note: When I read “Ceiling” I was puzzled over a background detail that’s finally addressed in this story. Some things come to those who wait.

This excerpt takes place in London, with Obinze on a six-month work visa, hoping to somehow make it to America from there. Six months isn’t a long time. When his visa expires, he stays, entering the nether world of the undocumented worker.

The story overall has a somewhat plodding approach, full of logistical details of comings and goings, who and when, this happened then that happened, but it’s leavened with wonderful moments, keen observations, and dramatic descriptions; it soon becomes a page-turner. For example, his first job in London is decidedly not in keeping with his education:

Everyone joked about people who went abroad to clean toilets, and so Obinze approached his first job with irony: he was indeed abroad cleaning toilets…

Later, when things go wrong, he reacts with less irony. Once his visa runs out, a friend from school puts him in touch with one Vincent to obtain documents to allow him to work:

Obinze imagined Vincent’s Nigerian life: a community secondary school all of barefoot children; a Polytechnic paid for with the help of a number of uncles; a family of many children; and a crowd of dependents in his hometown who, whenever he visited, would expect large loaves of bread and pocket money carefully distributed to each of them. Obinze saw himself through Vincent’s eyes: a university staff child who grew up eating butter and now needed his help.

His use of Vincent’s documents requires that he use Vincent’s name as well: “He became Vincent.” And when the new job he obtains as Vincent doesn’t work out, it’s evident he’s still made a connection with some of his co-workers: “He left the warehouse that evening for the final time, wishing more than anything that he had told Nigel and Roy his real name.” This is a kind of profound loneliness – where one is unable to be himself at the most literal level, his name – most of us can only imagine.

Each twist and turn of Obinze’s fate entwined me with him, in a way “Ceiling” did not; I’m far more interested in Obinze than I was after my first encounter with him. Maybe that’s because I’ve grown as a reader; maybe it’s because this is a more interesting period in his life. I’m still pulling for him; excerpt or not, that’s pretty strong evidence that the piece has power. I hate to admit it, but the excerpt has served its purpose: I’d like to read the novel, just to see if he gets to America.

BASS 2011: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Ceiling” originally from Granta

Granta Cover by Michael Salu with St Bride Library

He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired – the family, the house, the other properties in Ikoyi and Abuja, the cars, the bank accounts in Dubai and London – and he would be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

Allow me a moment of snark: I find it interesting, given the emphasis on plot and the sneers at domestic realism in the preface and introduction of this BASS volume, that the plot of this story is basically: man in blah marriage gets email from old girlfriend; man thinks about this while he goes to a party with his wife. /end snark

It’s a lot more complex than that, of course. For one thing, the man, Obinze, is Nigerian, and has recently gone from rags to riches, a sort of Nigerian Horatio Alger character – though there are indications his line of work may be a bit less than legitimate: “He sometimes wondered if Chief would one day ask something of him, the hungry and honest boy he had groomed, and in his more melodramatic moments, he imagined Chief asking him to organize an assassination.” Perhaps Sonny Corleone would be a better analogy.

The author was born in Nigeria and still spends part of the year there. Her motivation for this story, according to her Contributor Notes, was to convey the “overall air of mutability” in Lagos: “Nigeria’s shift from military to democratic rule brought social changes in the last decade but perhaps none as dramatic as the speed with which some young men became wealthy, particularly in Lagos.”

Obinze’s relationship with his wife, Kosi, is complex as well. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, though it may have been lust:

Even then he had felt gentle contempt…. Still, he had wanted her, chased her with a lavish single-mindedness. He had never seen a woman with such a perfect incline to her cheekbones, that made her entire face seem so alive in an architectural way, lifting when she smiled, and he was newly disoriented from his quick wealth: one week he was squatting in his cousin’s flat and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and the next he owned a house and two cars. He felt as if his life were no longer his. It was Kosi who made it start to seem believable.

His relationship with Ifemelu, the woman whose email opens the story, is also, dare I say it, complex. And obscure. We know she was 17 when they first slept together; afterwards, she tells him, “My eyes were open but I did not see the ceiling. This never happened before.” After that, Ceiling is her nickname for him. He’s impressed with her forthrightness. We never find out why they are no longer together, only that she is in America and is married to “a black man” – I find that phrasing fascinating, since I think all of the characters are what I would call “black” but perhaps it is how an African refers to an American black, I’m not sure.

Obinze can’t discuss his life, his disorientation or his marriage, with Ifemelu, though he wants to: “She was the only person who would understand, and yet he was afraid that she would feel contempt for the person he had become.” So he thinks about her email as he and Kosi go to a party thrown by his boss. We also find out Obinze was deported from London back to Lagos, but we’re never told why; it seems like something he’d rather not discuss. Addendum: a later TNY story, “Checking Out,” provides the answer – and it turns out both these stories are excerpts from the forthcoming-in-2013 novel, Americanah.

The greatness in this story, for me, is in the truly wonderful insight into life in Lagos: the House of David church which holds “how to keep your husband” classes; various instructions given to Obinze initially on “how Nigeria works” (“Find one white man. Tell everybody he is your general manager. It gives you immediate legitimacy with many idiots in this country.”); the debate at the party about whether to send the children to the French, British, or Nigerian schools; some of the subtle touches as we see Kosi through Obinze’s eyes.

The effect this story had on me was the appreciation that things really are the same all over: people get rich and find that money doesn’t buy happiness; we always remember, and perhaps over-idealize, the one who got away; and we always wonder about the road not taken, whether we’re from New England or Nigeria.

An enjoyable story, and a very interesting one. Let’s face it: the only time many of us hear about Nigeria is in spam (and, by the way, it’s kind of cute that an email is the structural mechanism of this story). So I’m very happy to have read this, to have a bit more knowledge about a part of the world I really should know more about. A page turner? Maybe not. But worth reading? Definitely.