My husband and I have daughters who are 13 and 15 years old. I think about the kidnapped girls in Nigeria every day. I think Peggy Noonan had it exactly right in her column in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday:
There is nothing wrong with taking action—when possible—that is contained, discrete, swift, targeted, humanitarian and, not least, can be carried through successfully. And then shutting up about it. That might remind the world—and ourselves—who we are. And it might have very helpful effects down the road. “If we do that, the Americans may come.” Leave the monsters guessing.
I have several stacks of books in my kitchen (doubling as office/study) waiting to be read, but the only ones that reach out to me right now are set in Africa, at least in part. Reading these books, I am aware, does nothing for those girls in Nigeria. Reading them does make my mind a bigger place – and the world a smaller place – which Boko Haram hates. For the next four weeks, I’ll read and think about the following novels:
- Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi,
- Radiance of Tomorow, by Ishmael Beah,
- Every Day Is For The Thief, by Teju Cole, and
- Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is a story of immigrants, families, abandonment, and finally, reconciliation. American missionaries give “genius-son, sixteen, shoeless” Kweku Sai the chance to leave a life of poverty in rural Ghana to attend school in America on scholarship, where he thrives. He continues to achieve at every level of his education. The hard-working immigrant makes good: he becomes a very successful surgeon at a prominent Boston hospital. By his side is wife Fola, who has put aside her own dreams to support his and to raise their growing family of four children. Fola, born in Nigeria, is the “princess” daughter of a loving father killed in internecine violence between Hausas and Igbos. After his death, her circumstances become precarious and dangerous. Through her own determination and the help of a family friend, Fola makes it to America. Fola and Kweku each arrive full of hope and need:
Folasadé Savage on the run from a war. Kweku Sai fleeing a peace that could kill. Two boats lost at sea, washed to shore in Pennsylvania (“Pencil-wherever”) of all places, freezing to death, alive, in love. Orphans, escapees, at large in world history, both hailing from countries last great in the eighteenth century – but prideful (braver, hopeful) and brimful and broke – so very desperately seeking home and adventure, finding both. Finding both in each other…
Ghana Must Go is first and foremost the great love story of Kweku and Fola, yet the novel begins with Kweku dying alone in his garden in Ghana, his second wife asleep in their bed. The novel traces his journey from Boston – abandoning his family – back to Ghana, but it is a big novel, so it also tells with great conviction the stories of Fola and their four children. Upon Kweku’s death, Fola and the children confront his complicated legacy and their own frayed relationships at his funeral. I have rarely been so transported by a novel, its prose shimmering in both the humid heat of Ghana and the fallen snow in Boston.
Ghana Must Go helped me understand what one journey out of Africa might feel like. Here is how Fola reflects on her life after her father was killed in Nigeria:
Had he died a death germane to this life as she’d known it – in a car crash, for example, in his beloved Deux Chevaux, or from liver cancer, lung, to the end puffing Caos, swilling rum – she could have abided the loss. Would have mourned. Would have found herself an orphan in a four-story apartment, having lost both her parents at thirteen years old, but would have been, thus bereaved, a thing she recognized (tragic) instead of what she became: a part of history (generic).
She sensed the change immediately, in the tone people [in Ghana] took when they learned that her father had been murdered by soldiers; in the way that they’d nod as if, yes, all makes sense, the beginning of the Nigerian civil war, but of course…
She felt it in America… that her classmates and professors, white or black, it didn’t matter, somehow believed that it was natural, however tragic, what had happened. That she’d stopped being Folasadé Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation…Surely, broad-shouldered, woolly-haired fathers of natives of hot war-torn countries got killed all the time?
How had this happened?
It wasn’t Lagos she yearned for, the splendor, the sensational, the sense of being wealthy – but the sense of self surrendered to the senselessness of history…
Taiye Selasi claims history as a series of stories which must be understood specifically, not generically. She claims that people are complex and that legacies can be complicated, but that love can endure and strengthen us. She claims not least the power of education, which Boko Haram also recognizes: perhaps the one thing they strangely share. Nicholas Kristof put a fine point on it last weekend in his column in The New York Times:
When terrorists in Nigeria organized a secret attack last month, they didn’t target an army barracks, a police department or a drone base. No, Boko Haram militants attacked what is even scarier to a fanatic: a girls’ school.
That’s what extremists do. They target educated girls, their worst nightmare.
That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head at age 15. That’s why the Afghan Taliban throws acid on the faces of girls who dare to seek an education.
Why are fanatics so terrified of girls’ education? Because there’s no force more powerful to transform a society. The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.
Jennifer — Have you read Half of a Yellow Sun by Adichie? It’s a fabulous epic novel about the Nigerian civil war — like Gone with the Wind, but in Africa. The main characters begin the story as intellectuals at a university, and the book charts their downfall as civil war spreads. It is a big, explosive book, and will tell you much more about Africa than Americanah (which I also enjoyed, but is much more about the tensions between being African and African-American, than about Africa itself). I’ve read everything Adichie has published, and if you only have time for one of her novels, I’d start with Half of a Yellow Sun.
Hi Sara! Thank you so much for mentioning Half of a Yellow Sun! I did read it a number of years ago and absolutely loved it! You are so right that it is more on topic than Americanah for what is on my mind. I should possibly consider revisiting that instead of reading Americanah; maybe I will need to consider both. Or maybe you will write something on Half of a Yellow Sun? 🙂 Thank you so much for your comment.
I also read Half of a Yellow Sun and loved it. I remember hearing the word “Biafra children” when growing up in Europe, and never having any idea where exactly this Biafra was, except that it must be a terrible place. It was a great book.
CAn I also suggest that if you want to read more books about Africa (although you have an ambitious list there already:-), go and check out my “Africa” section on my blog, where I assembled the books on Africa I read and loved. It’s a work in progress and I have many more on my list, but it’s a good start. I especially loved “Mukiwa: White Boy in Africa” by Peter Godwin, a wonderful author who writes about Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. Anyway, here is the link: http://www.joburgexpat.com/p/books.html.
I will absolutely check out the Africa section on your blog, Sine! Thank you so much for mentioning it!! I should have thought to look there first. I may be reading about Africa for months! Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful resources and your thoughts.
You’re welcome! I am totally passionate about Africa books. I guess because it’s a relatively “new” or at least “unknown” genre, and limited in scope, although there are still a ton of books. Most of those books listed there have links to where I wrote reviews about them that go into more detail, so you should be able to get a good overview from that. And at the bottom is a huge long list of “yet to read” Africa books. I’m impressed how fast you work your way through books!
Thanks for this series! I’ve read quite a few African novels, but there are plenty more to read.
Hi Debra! Please let me know if there are any must-reads that I need to add to my stack of books! Thanks so much for commenting.
I did a blog post a little while ago on some “classic” African women writers. This list if by no means exhaustive. It’s just a place to start!
Fantastic! Thank you so much! I will check it out right now!
Another must-read, and a classic akin to The Grapes of Wrath, is Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. You may have already read it. I may have already told you about this other one I absolutely loved called Twenty Chickens for a Saddle. It’s a memoir about a childhood in rural Botswana and the author has the most wonderful voice, I think you’ll really like that one. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is along similar lines but darker, and takes place in then Rhodesia. And lastly, the Africa travel book that in my mind is a must read is Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux (he of Mosquito Coast, yes that one). See, I envision you with oodles of time all summer, needing more books to read:-)
Sine, I love how ambitious you are for me!! I am so thrilled with these recommendations. Thank you!!