Tag Archives: Johns Hopkins

Currently Reading: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)

Thoughts:

What brave, daring, complex storytelling!  I would make a very serious case that Adichie is among the best early(ish)-career authors writing today.  Her stories keep reeling out, layer after layer, but never lose the unity of the whole.

Adichie is not afraid to take her characters to incredibly dark, unlikable, complicated, socially-influenced yet personally-determined places.  The front cover of my book describes the narrative as “pitiless,” and the word is apt; she pitilessly depicts the toll that war takes on even her kindest-hearted characters.  It strikes me as incredibly brave to handle Ugwu as she does, risking the reader’s love for perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character.  She does it, I think, to show that the passivity that’s largely characterized Ugwu throughout the book can demonize him under war’s violent pressures.  (According to reviews, this plot element was excised from the film; I wonder if the film can make the same point about the internal spoilage of war without it.)

Adichie also executes a striking 180 in terms of theme, starting the book as a meditation on romantic love and ending it as a sort of moving elegy to sisterly love.

If memory is the ultimate goal of history (one of my favorite quotes on this subject is H.G. Wells’, who  describes “human history…[as] a race between education and catastrophe”), then Adichie has done an incredibly human thing, as well: preserved the Nigerian Civil War, rarely or never taught in schools, in vivid detail.  I’m not sure whether the present-day rhetoric surrounding a war like Biafra’s is Never forgetthis article and this interview suggest it’s not, but it’s difficult for me to remove that frame of reference, as I come at the question of historical memory as a student and grandchild of the Holocaust.  Regardless, Adichie has enabled future generations, myself included, to feel the horrors of starvation and the disappointment of postcolonial regional hopes in 1960s Biafra.

A master class in:

Scene-setting.  As in Americanah, Adichie opens a huge number of new scenes that require new settings: interior/exterior, weather, time of year, time of day, place details, mood details—and she never skimps on any of them.  The sheer number of new and specific details required to set a scene has been the biggest struggle for me as I edit my novel, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a model here.

Perspectival risks.  But Adichie’s choice of diverse close-third perspectives is what really makes her a writerly model for me.  She takes on the voices of characters male and female, rich and poor, white and black, young and old, ethnically Nigerian and British.

Yet I must say that the ending makes me just a bit uncomfortable when it comes to Adichie’s view of inhabiting diverse perspectives.  Perhaps it’s inaccurate to read morality into a novel that seeks simply to tell a story. (I like what Karen Russell has to say about this, in Glimmer Train 84: that “the best fiction can communicate a truth that’s independent of its writer’s politics.”)  But in the final twist of HoaYS, one moral seems to be that other people’s stories are not ours to write.  Perhaps Adichie is nodding to an anxiety of her own—although in interviews, she tends to say that, though born seven years after the war, its memory was alive in her through her family’s stories.  Perhaps the end is her avowal that the war is her story to write, that she is its inheritance (as she says in this interview, too.) But it’s challenging to square a book whose author takes on personas outside the frame of her own experience, with one that ends on the British character not only unable to write about the Nigerian war but, upon saying, “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” is met with Ugwu’s avowal that “he had never thought that it was.”

 

Favorite lines:

My brilliant reader-friend Samo and I both noticed the same strange feature of HoaYS: though the prose is precise, vivid, daring, there are unexpectedly few lines that we underlined to reread.  Many of my favorite writers are extremely lyrical (Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien, Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago.)  I’d have thought this a prerequisite to being a wonderful writer—yet Adichie seems to prove a different lesson: effective prose can be vivid and sharp and get out of the way.

 

” ‘You’re burning memory,’ he told her.  ‘I am not.’ She would not place her memory on things that strangers could barge in and take away. ‘My memory is inside me.’ “

” ‘There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,’ Kainene said.  There was a pause. Inside Olanna, something calcified leaped to life.”

“[Kainene] pulled a cigarette from the case, but she didn’t light it. She put it down on the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was so surprised he did not hug her back. …She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either, because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling.”

 

BONUS interview quote: “Maybe Half of a Yellow Sun is a war book, but I wanted the war to be secondary. I wanted to write about the characters and the way they are changed by the war—changed in the little ways, the ways that you eat and the way that you look and the way you love.” 

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Currently Reading: Louise Erdrich

The Antelope Wife (1998); “The Years of My Birth” (2011)

Thoughts:

Louise Erdrich got her MFA in Poetry from Hopkins, and her every line of fiction is infused with rich language and rhythm.  I love that she toggles between matter-of-factness (“Nurse,” the doctor said.  “Too late,” she answered) and mysticism and otherworldliness (“Into this disinfected despair, there came a presence, someone or something, who grieved with me and held my hand.”)

Sherman Alexie–also a poet and fiction writer–and Louise Erdrich are often spoken of together, the two best-known authors on Native American themes.  I’ve read almost everything of Alexie’s; he’ll do that tonal shifting as well, but he very rarely goes quite as far into that beautiful spirit-language as Erdrich does.  Though (especially compared to Alexie) she does seem better suited for shorter forms than long narrative.

A master class in:

Openings.  Here’s “The Years of My Birth,” first lines: “The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, ‘Oh, God, there’s another one,’ and out I slid, half dead.  I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights.”

Immediate setting, character, conflict, and voice.  (Come to think of it, Alexie also likes to start with the birth of a dying baby.)  It’s important, I think, to conceive of openings as generous things: they have to give.  In the MFA, we talked about the entire atomic makeup of the story being present in its first paragraph.  This first-person reflection on the half-dead baby is an opening that gives.

The Love Rack.  I often have a hard time making my characters care-about-able.  Screenwriters now are all talking about the “save the cat” moment, and here’s James M. Cain on the “love rack”:

“He [Vincent Lawrence] had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end.”

But I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the watershed in fiction–does it really represent the way life is?  (This will be another post sometime.)  In any case, there’s a subtler option.  Here’s Erdrich on a father-daughter in The Antelope Wife: “Once, he holds her foot in the cradle of his palm and with the adept point of his hunting knife painlessly delivers a splinter, long and pale and bloody.  Teaches her to round her c‘s and put tiny teakettle handles on her a‘s. Crooks stray hairs behind her ears.”  Not a single save-the-cat or a love-rack moment, but a long collection of little actions that make us feel the love.

Favorite lines:

“She howled and scratched herself half-blind and at last so viciously took leave of her mind that the old ones got together and decided to change her name. …The namer went away, starved and sang and dreamed, until it was clear that the only name that made any sense at all was the name of the place where the old Blue Prairie Woman had gone to fetch back her child. Other Side of the Earth.”

“After that, our nights are something I can’t address in the day, as though we’re wearing other bodies, other people’s flaming skins.”

“You wouldn’t think a man as ordinary as myself could win a woman who turns the heads of others on the streets. Yet…”

“The women in my family are the kind to argue with the spirits.”

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Currently reading: Americanah

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Thoughts:

Beautiful, deft prose.  Tragic romance (my favorite kind; not in the classical sense), but a more thoughtful than emotional read, because Adichie so assiduously avoids melodrama, so readily moves us to the next scene.  The blog posts occasionally felt heavy-handed, though the meditations on race therein were necessary and provocative.  Set partly in Baltimore and at Yale–Adichie is a fellow JHU MFA alum!–so I was reading about the two homes of my adult life.  Fully, richly rendered, immensely accomplished.  Highly recommended.

A master class in:

Chapter 22!  Chapter 22!  Precise charting of close indirect emotional reactions; use of setting for pacing; surprising yet believable dialogue.

Favorite lines:

“In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat.”

“He thought again of the Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi woman and the shadow of grief from which she was only just emerging, and he thought of…the life he now had, lacquered as it was by work and reading, by panic and hope. He had never felt so lonely.”

“I don’t want to be a sweetheart.  I want to be the fucking love of your life.”  (See: Chapter 22! Surprising yet believable dialogue.)

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