Literary Fiction with a Purpose
If Shakespeare wrote plays and poems that became the bases of literary fiction, he also some times wrote plays with a purpose. The best example of such plays is the group of plays known as the History Plays of Shakespeare that aimed to be homilies or carried to the people the Tudor Myth of History. But an equally apt illustration of this is provided by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Tempest is that play of Shakespeare through which through which he wanted to say certain final things that had remained in his mind. One of these was his desire to tell the world that the colonial ambitions which were soaring in the Europe of that time were not in the best interest of humanity. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s statement on colonialism. Jyotsna Singh has given an account of scholarship that point in this direction. Her article makes amply clear that some of Shakespeare’s plays were going beyond the merely literary:
What was Shakespeare’s response to stereotypes of race and religion? Post-colonial criticism is a method of analysis that addresses questions of racial identity and equality, and also of gender equity via two main modes of inquiry. First, it investigates how Shakespeare’s plays relate to the social codes and conventions by which early modern Europeans defined non-European and non-Christian people and races they encountered. Second, it explores the more recent history of the reception of Shakespearian drama within non-Western societies and settings – in Africa, India, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
To a degree every novel has a purpose, be that to share a very idiosyncratic experience, to describe an unusual place, or to portray a time that is different with all its peculiarities. But the purpose can begin to get the better of literary fiction and drag it on to a particular shore. In such cases the novelist will begin her career by writing to describe her experience and write some of her best novels with that under focus. But then can come a phase in her life when she decides to also focus on what her mind has been observing; something that seems wrong to her and what she feels needs to be rectified. It is at such points that a novelist blends literary fiction with a message that is inserted into her experience, merging the experience and the message artistically. Literary fiction can strangely blend with the sociological, the psychological, the historical, the political, and with other categories. It can retain its basic literary flavour even as it straggles into connected domains. Since the 1970s, particularly, literary fiction has combined well with the subject of race, postcoloniality and multiculturalism. Of course, the best novels in this category of writing are those in which the literariness is not sacrificed; it has returned in novel after novel in a varied form. The literary narrative needs to guide the purposive element in a novel if it is to be successful, ultimately. It should not be otherwise.
Besides, Paula Geyh has pointed out how certain marginalized women’s voices in America [I would add to this, in England, as well,] were functioning as one of the factors that gave birth to postmodernist fiction:
The second new presence, crucial for postmodern literature and culture alike, was that of the multiple “others,” authors who moved from the margins of literature to its, now in turn multiple, centers. These “other” authors – women in historically unprecedented numbers, and then Native Americans, African Americans, Latina/ o Americans, Asian Americans, and more – emerged as major creative forces and joined the ongoing conversation that is American literature, a process that has continued ever since. These new voices changed this conversation by telling the stories of those who had always been on the margins of or absent from American literature, and thus gave presence to these absences in turn. (1)
Both Adichie’s and Markandaya’s novels come under this category of postmodernist fiction. Both novelists speak for themselves without what Lyotard calls the “grand narratives” in mind. They have a clear purpose in their literary novels. They want to show how the West has not lived up to their expectations.
Though there are several novels in this category of literary fiction, I will consider two in this section for the sake of convenience. The reasons for choosing Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man (1972) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) are: (a) that each is from a Commonwealth country, an erstwhile colony of Britain that became independent roughly at the same time; (b) each has a multicultural element, one that is blended with issues of race and postcoloniality; (c) each has resulted from the personal experience of a woman who leaves her country either to settle permanently or reside in a Western country for some years; and (d) both novels show a preference for the country of the novelist even if their countries are full of obvious shortcomings, Third World, and less advanced; (e) each novel also shows that multiculturalism is not what it had promised. Whereas The Nowhere Man is far more tragic Americanah leaves distaste for the lives of Nigerians who rush to the glitter of America’s job and education opportunities but live abominably there. Adichie is a woman with much more awareness of East-West issues having written decades later when more is theorized and intellectualized; she is younger when she writes this novel and already in possession of awards that give her popularity and confidence. Markandaya’s novel, on the other hand, seems to reflect greater pain, the pain of an Indian less able to protect himself from the onslaughts of racial and cultural difference. Markandaya has a suffering protagonist in a man settled in the West rather than in a woman as Adichie does. Perhaps Indian women would have drawn less sympathy as protagonists during Markandaya’s time. They were supposed to suffer quietly, unable to speak as Gayatri Spivak pointed out as opposed to men. A male protagonist, one born out of a feminine imagination, would create a greater impact at that time. Though both novels are works of literary fiction, Adichie’s seems at times to rope in more cultural discourse in large chunks while in Markandaya the literary and the discursive seem to coalesce. It is not a simple relationship between the literary and discursive elements that distinguish the two novels; their fictional art needs to be taken into consideration. Their voices, their narrative strategies, and their readerly/writerly axes, all need to be examined to see how a literary novel goes about finding its way into the reader’s mind.
The literary novel can typically become weak before it reaches its conclusive chapters. (The meaning of the word weak in a literary novel may not be the same as that of the same word in a mainstream novel.) The literary novel can become weak because telling the story with a concomitant indulgence in literariness is no simple task. Just as a shorter lyric is generally better than a long narrative poem for the mind on the lookout for poetic experience, similarly there are lyrical or artistic sections in most literary novels that appeal more to the reader interested in such “dense” portions. By dense I mean portions in which the use of language as well as the depth of the experiential aspect is more thickly inlaid into the novel’s flow. For some readers in the contemporary world, “dense” could be equal to “stupid” rather than “rich in literariness”. Such readers are on the lookout for novels that round off quickly, without much complication in the comprehension process, and novels that don’t make them work too hard as they read along to participate actively in the reading process. A reader-friendly or readerly novel is less literary in this sense. The writerly novel makes a reader more actively involved in completing what the novelist leaves for their imagination to complete. Roland Barthes has given a convincing account of how the reader is affected by a readerly or writerly text, which is particularly applicable to the novel. The Nowhere Man is definitely more writerly than Americanah. This means that there are more dense passages or parts in this novel than in the latter novel. Some chapters in a novel like The Nowhere Man are required merely to connect the literary sections and these can seem not that rich or dense to the literary minded. Since Markandaya’s novel is more literary in comparative terms it also has more connecting chapters that seem dilute to the reader of literary fiction. Such chapters are mainly chapters 25-30 or chapters thereabouts. In these Markandaya introduces minor characters and more multicultural discourse. Minor characters can take away attention from the main storyline for some time and the discourse can make the reader think rather than feel what the text projects. Thus some chapters in this novel seem different to others. In Americanah this happens most between chapters 48 and 52.
Before going any further it is necessary to see the clear differences between fiction that is literary per se and literary fiction that has a clear purpose for coming into existence. There are at least two clear differences. (a) Where an author has felt something deeply, as a poet would feel almost, or where the author begins with the aim of describing a deeply felt experience from which a plot springs out, a novel should be considered literary. I have often felt that the plot of a literary novel hangs loosely from a deeply felt experience like a fruit does from a tree. The experience is at the base, providing the novel with its basic flavour, its rhythm and its very basis to take birth. The plot is needed to hold the experience together and make it resemble what can really happen in life. It gives the shape or structure without which the experience would tend to become amorphous. A story too is needed to give a further limning to the plot. But the story and plot emerge out of the experience almost incidentally, in a secondary manner; they are not primary. In a literary novel with a purpose the genesis can be traced back to an idea or ideas that are then blended into felt experience. Whereas literary fiction is experiential to begin with, literary fiction with a purpose tends to be ideational; (b) In the case of literary fiction, an author can be gripped by the urge to give shape to something that has descended upon them often in a flash or vision. Sometimes the plot itself can come roughly wrapped into the flash, holding the mirror up to some aspect of life. The novelist must put it into words or face an illness. In the case of literary fiction with a purpose what has been thought out, sometimes something that springs from what is distasteful for an author can come together with a sudden vision that puts the two together.
To put the difference in a simpler fashion, in literary fiction the heart guides the mind to a greater extent than it does in the novel with a purpose, where the head could be lead the heart most of the time. The novel with a purpose will be more premeditated than the purely literary novel. The novel with a purpose will pay more attention to the kind of audience it addresses and in this respect will be in between genre fiction and literary fiction. Literary fiction is written because it first delights the author, and then the reader. The delight of literary fiction will inhere in its form whereas the delight in the literary novel with a purpose will largely inhabit in the subject its form carries.
Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man is a novel that seems to pay an equal attention to its form and subject matter. It has a strikingly rich literary form with a content that leaves one with a saddened mind because it reveals the paths that human progress and civilization are taking, leaving individuals in the grip of loneliness and desolation. It makes evident the fact that even after a colonizing-country leaves a colonized one to its fate by giving it independence; it rarely gives the colonized country the respect that an independent country deserves. Literary fiction that has an accompanying purpose addresses such major issues or issues that may seem minor to some but yet have significance. Markandaya migrated to England and married an Englishman and remained his wife till she died but she seems to have felt the pangs of racist attitudes that made her write such a novel. Instead of telling a straightforward story she decides to give us the experience of one who has decided to treat an alien country as though it were his and to suffer in it living alone. In such a novel it is better for the author to take us to a scene or situation and show us what she feels deeply rather than telling a fast moving story.
Srinivas and his wife, Vasantha, leave India during the British rule in order to escape victimization in their country at the hands of British officials. They decide to settle in England because as colonized subjects they have learned to believe that Britain is a great nation. He gives both his sons to the British army, one of whom dies after being thrown out unfairly. His elder son, Laxman, has married an English woman who keeps him from meeting Srinivas and his wife, Vasantha, because the latter has contracted Tuberculosis. His wife dies when he has some decades of life to drudge through. He meets a divorcee English woman, Mrs. Pickering, who is as lonely as him. They live together in Srinivas’s house. She is kind and and affectionate to him and just when he seems to feel that all’s right in his life, he becomes a victim of a racist movement that requires Indian settlers to return to their country. The movement is the result of the frustrations of Fred Fletcher who has failed in life and must find such an occupation to survive. At this time false allegations are made against him and he develops leprosy. When he needs Mrs. Pickering most she leaves him. In the end Fred Fletcher puts fire to Srinivas’s house which kills him. The efforts that Srinivas makes to become a part of the country he has migrated to, making it look like “the beginning of a second childhood,” can be seen in a passage like the following:
She bought her tree, and Srinivas, feeling gay if a trifle foolish, helped to decorate it with balls and baubles, much of which he bought himself. They placed it in the window where passers-by could see, and the neighbours in particular approved, observing that the occupant of No. 5 had after all these years become civilized – they baulked at saying Christian, since there was hardly a pulpit in the land, these days, which did not thunderously proclaim that the commercial way in which Christmas was waged had little to do with society. (70)
The above discursive passage is significant because it shows how literary fiction can absorb multicultural, postcolonial, feminist, or some other discourse. It shows how Srinivas decorates a Christmas tree not only for his live-in partner, Mrs. Pickering’s, festival but also for the benefit of his English neighbours, to make them feel that he is trying to accept as his own what the English society likes. It is necessary to notice how literary fiction can subtly show human behaviour both right and wrong. Srinivas’s neighbours seem satisfied with the decorated Christmas tree in the window of his house because they believe that celebrating Christmas is synonymous with being civilized. All the sacrifices of Srinivas and his family that they make as residents of the English town are not as worthy of their approval as their decision to celebrate Christmas. Besides, there is something ironical about the myth busted by postcolonial thought that the West is culturally superior. Markandaya has shown the falseness of the West’s belief that it is more cultured or civilized. The multicultural as well as the postcolonial discourse is obviously there in the quoted lines. But what is significant here is the way in which language has been used to show rather than tell. Certain figures of speech are significantly there adding to the literariness rather than merely being part of a content. The alliteration in “balls and baubles”, the hyperbole in the statement, “there was hardly a pulpit in the land, these days, which did not thunderously proclaim that the commercial way in which Christmas was waged had little to do with society”, the personifying metaphor, “Christmas was waged,” all and each adds a little bit to make the language come alive. Literary fiction can invoke much thought without actually seeming to do so. Markandaya’s entire novel has this kind of blending of a marvelous literary form and a censorious political content. The lines quoted below show a straightforward and lonely man like Srinivas who feels cheated by a nation and an individual both of whom claim to be true to him:
‘Perhaps I did,’ he managed.
‘Look a little strange.’
‘Yes. Funerals are apt to induce these feelings.’
At last he saw a way. ‘It was my funeral,’ he said, ‘induced them. I have decided to end my life.’
She studied him. Alarm, which made her catch her breath, was already almost under control.
‘For what?’ she asked, and removed her hand from her breast, which had ceased to heave.
‘It is time’, he replied.
‘Who is to say?’ she said. ‘It is not for us.’
Her calm, the decency of her manner, leavened the horror of the situation. As suddenly as he had been terrorized, serenity returned to Srinivas. As, like a blessing, it had done in surgery, dispossessing the doctor, composing the patient.
‘It is time,’ he said simply, ‘when one is made to feel unwanted, and liable, as a leper, to be ostracized further, perhaps beyond the limit one can reasonably expect of oneself.’ (208-09)
The above lines reveal, as is much more possible in literary fiction, how a man like Srinivas is gradually becoming like a thing, rather than a person, during his stay in England. This is happening because Mrs. Pickering, who had almost become his wife, is suddenly cooling off when Srinivas is no longer in a neutrally strong position. He feels the cool caverns of his heart getting choked by the situation in which he is placed. Passages from The Nowhere Man reveal how words take on a dual purpose; they aspire to possess a literary status but equally show how Srinivas suffers quietly living in England among neighbours that peep into his inner being and comment on him or think about him nastily. The novel shows how race will always matter in spite of the superficial advancement in civilization. The following is a typical passage of the novel, a passage that highlights racial discrimination in word, thought and action:
As now he [Srinivas] saw, walking frail through the streets, such was the oppressive presence of rejection. Heard the whispers that he had allowed to brush him by grown into strident voices that preached a new gospel, a gospel he had not heard since before those echoes from Germany before the war. He recalled them now, almost phrase by phrase, presenting hate as a permissible emotion for decent German people. Not only permissible but laudable, and more than that, an obligatory emotion, which they summoned up subtly and starkly from a reading of a checklist, or charge sheet, of the differences between men, their customs and observances, their sexual, religious, and pecuniary habits, sparing nothing as they peeped and probed, neither bed nor bathroom nor tabernacle, citing in the end, without shame, the shape and size of their noses, lips, balls, skulls, and the pigment of their skins. (182)
The above passage is significant for the feelings of an Indian settler in England that it contains; for what such a man feels due to the odd and unfair treatment that a people mete out to him. The passage shows the pangs of rejection rather than stating them. It also shows how much hatred the English of that time bore for those who had migrated to their country; it was comparable to the hatred they had for Germans at a particular time. Markandaya is able to point out how nationalism can lead to hatred for the other and how hatred can be an emotion that is required to be lauded at a particular time in history. The prying nature of the British is aptly described here in a language that shows more than it states. The reader is made to feel what Srinivas (or Markandaya herself) felt during his stay in England. Feelings and emotions are at the heart of literary fiction. It puts ideas and emotions in a way that they become easy to experience. Every idea or thought that finds its way into literary fiction is first converted into an experience. However, literary fiction can also be primarily ideational, rather than experiential, as it is in a large number of segments in Americanah. These segments, having a direct bearing on race, are singled out by the novelist and presented in bold letters, often at the end of chapters.
Literary fiction focuses on character rather than on plot and therefore takes us into either the mind or the heart of a character or characters. Where the journey is into the mind, it becomes a more intellectual novel and where it is into the heart it reads like a novel of feeling. The Nowhere Man is a novel of feeling rather than of the intellect in comparison to Americanah. It is a novel that takes you to the situation where an Indian is living as an outsider with unsympathetic neighbors in a highly unenviable position. The reader sees what happens before the eyes and feels somewhat like the suffering character, partaking of much of the tragedy that surrounds him. In Americanah there are parts that invite the experiencing reader to feel what a character such as Ifemelu or Obinze has felt. But there are other parts of the novel where certain ideas are just literally put directly in bold fonts for the reader to take in intellectually. Though both novels use literary fiction to fulfill a certain purpose, namely to point out how immigrants suffer in alien conditions, one makes the reader aware by arousing emotions while the other does that by awakening the reader’s intellect with a discourse tinged with pictures of racist behaviour in multicultural societies. Both rely heavily on a chosen form and a narrative technique which distinguishes them from other novels.
Interestingly, Markandaya chooses a difficult option. She lets the reader see the plight of an immigrant through a male protagonist, Srinivas. We see the suffering of an Indian settled in racist England, struggling like a gentleman to appease racist instincts in his English neighbours and townsmen. She could well have made her chief protagonist a woman because it would be easier for her as a woman to show how an Indian woman living in England suffers. She was, after all, an Indian woman, married to an Englishman, living in England when she wrote her novel. But Markandaya seems to have had more formidable goals for The Nowhere Man. She was laying down a model for the Indian multicultural/postcolonial novel in English. Besides, she probably didn’t want the novel to drift into a feminist discourse which could have taken away some of the focus on her main subject-matter. Srinivas has much in common with Markandaya and the chief of this seems to have been a feeling of alienation, discrimination and isolation in a society that claims to be fair to all. So Srinivas could be a male version of the author to some extent. Having a male protagonist has obvious advantages: more interest in a male dominated society; avoiding sentimental stuff that can trigger up in a novel that centers on an oppressed and dejected Indian woman; and considering the fact that the novel is tragic, following the lines of a tragedian like Shakespeare, whose tragic play revolves around a man rather than woman.
Srinivas suffers his fate stoically. His story is a father-son tragedy though the tragedy extends well beyond that relationship. He has been given up by his live-in mate, the English nurse, Mrs. Pickering, at a time when some British youngsters have ganged up against him for racist reasons. He seems out of joint after the deaths of wife, Vasantha and son, Seshu. His elder son, Laxman, has married the English Pat and has left his father for all practical purposes; first when Vasantha contracts tuberculosis that can be dangerous for his baby-son and later when he’s upset by the fact that Srinivas is in a live-in relationship with an English woman. At a time when Mrs. Pickering should have been Srinivas’s support she leaves him. She knows that he has leprosy as well as racist opposition from her countrymen. The impression that she gives him, almost to the end, however, is that she is with him. When the villain of the novel, Fred Fletcher, sets fire to the building in which Srinivas is lodged, he first releases the ladybirds, and then has a spiritual experience in which his dead wife and son arrive and he finally leaves the world, dying not of burns but of shock as Dr. Radcliffe later points out.
Srinivas, then has a dual role to play in Markandaya’s novel; on the one hand he is a male version of an Indian woman novelist suffering in a diasporic, multicultural, existence in England, and on the other he is the picture of an Indian Gandhian figure who is infinitely more capable than an Englishman in suffering with dignity. Markandaya has set out to write literary fiction no doubt. But she is equally committed to exposing the façade of the white man’s claim to the superiority of culture and civilization. The West has been known for its advancement and superior knowledge in science and technology. But there is another side to the West that needs to exposed, one in which does not seem superior. This side relates to colonizing, encouraging slavery, being racist and exploitative. Markandaya manages never to be blatant in presenting this side of England; her exposition is very subtle but effective. This long extract from the novel will demonstrate the point:
When they had bobbed up, the two policemen and he, they had to wait, to recover their breath. Then the younger of the two, who was a constable, tapped him on the arm.
‘Will you step this way with me, please, sir,’ he said correctly.
‘What for?’ asked Srinivas.
The sergeant, middle-aged, leathery-faced, looked around. There were no witnesses. ‘You’re under arrest, sir. Start walking.’
‘What for? Where to?’
‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’
‘I have a right to know.’
‘What would you like to know?’
‘Where you’re taking me.’
‘To the station,’ said the constable.
‘On a picnic,’ said the sergeant.
‘We’re going on a picnic, us and you.’
When they were like this it would be bloody. Srinivas’s nerves jumped. In the pointless, primitive way of nerves they connected what was happening to ancient, fifty-year-old scenes. Interrogations and beatings. One scene in particular, out of a series, of four men and a boy who would not answer questions. The four men in khaki with him, who were being matey. They joked with the boy. They joked among themselves as they beat him up, when he could no longer respond. When they were boisterously funny the beating was the worst. Cowering in adjoining cells they discovered this. Later experience confirmed the discovery, which they observed and filed away as an inexplicable fact. Because they were young, all of them under twenty, and innocent for their age, as the present violence-nurtured generation could never be, they did not know that brutality and laughter needed to keep close company, to preserve the sanity of the perpetrators. Deliberately, Srinivas killed the memory. What relevance did it have to the present? That was India, an occupied country, a half-century ago, at a time of inflamed emotions. This was England, where such things did not happen. Because he felt tolerably robust about this Srinivas challenged the policemen.
‘I’ve done absolutely nothing,’ he said, ‘I can assure you—’
‘We saw, with our own eyes.’
‘What could you see? I’ve been standing here—’
‘We saw. With our own eyes. Didn’t we, constable?’
In spite of himself Srinivas’s heart began thumping: the spirit no help, worn out, poor bird, by this cynical assault.
‘You’re making it all up,’ he said.
‘Making it up?’ The hand on his arm tightened, jerked him around and brought his eyes on a line with the sergeant’s accusing finger, which pointed to the dangling man. ‘See that? That’s incitement to violence. Couldn’t believe it was you, if we hadn’t been watching. Could we, constable?’
‘It’s ridiculous,’ cried Srinivas. ‘No one will believe you. It says “Hang the blacks.” How could I ever say that. Only a white man would.’
‘Cunning bastard.’ The sergeant eyed him, and his face was bland.
Srinivas began to freeze. They were twisting it, and they knew what they were doing, and they knew he knew they knew. His blood, which had been hot and angry, slowly ran cold. In this icy climate what he had clothed, out of a diminishing stock of remembered decencies, stepped out naked with clear, sharp outlines. What was happening was England. England, he said to himself, incredulous, but accepting. As it was now. Swept by a blight, the dreadful stains everywhere. You could see the blotches of corruption, eating into all that had once made it great, a greatness composed of tolerance and implicit freedoms which had simply been, a part of being—a part of his being which had been woven into consciousness and living without need for overt manifestos, and now was departing. (199-201)
Markandaya has revealed the myth of Britain being considered a superior nation because of its openness to all cultures that abide there. A disciplined force like the police ought not to be so partial, racist and sarcastic. Like Homi K. Bhabha was to do after her, Markandaya has shown that no culture is either superior or inferior but thinking makes it so. Of course a Shakespearean echo rings through her way of seeing things. It is only in literary fiction that such issues are raised effectively. Dickens, similarly, shows in a number of novels that class-prejudice is to be overcome because good and evil people can belong to any class. Markandaya’s novel also has a Dickensian flavour because it has its author’s sympathy with the underprivileged.
Both Markandaya and Chimamanda could have written as women with feminist agendas. But it is the latter who touches upon feminism lightly a few times; even her main purpose is to show the life of those that rush foolishly from Nigeria and other such countries to the glitter of America and Europe only to return disappointedly to the home country; or what is worse, to live a second rate life in America. We are shown how the wealthy American can treat the migrant woman with utter callousness. Racism comes down much more heavily on women, or so it seems because the story is told from the point of view of a woman. Markandaya’s story does not seem to come from a woman’s pen; it is more clearly an attack on racism and the multicultural setup in England. Both women talk about the pretense and the double standards of the West. But it is Chimamanda whose vision combines feminine concerns with her eye on racism. Here is a scene in which Ifemelu has gone to a beautician for hair braiding. She has not gone to a native American’s shop for obvious reasons. In the beginning of the novel we get a bleaker picture of those who have settled or arrived in America, it is only later that the hollowness of the place begins to emerge, but not yet in the novel:
“It’s too tight,” Ifemelu said. “Don’t make it tight.” Because Aisha kept twisting to the end, Ifemelu thought that perhaps she had not understood, and so Ifemelu touched the offending braid and said, “Tight, tight.”
Aisha pushed her hand away. “No. No. Leave it. It good.”
“It’s tight!” Ifemelu said. “Please loosen it.”
Mariama was watching them. A flow of French came from her. Aisha loosened the braid.
“Sorry,” Mariama said. “She doesn’t understand very well.”
But Ifemelu could see, from Aisha’s face, that she understood very well. Aisha was simply a true market woman, immune to the cosmetic niceties of American customer service. Ifemelu imagined her working in a market in Dakar, like the braiders in Lagos who would blow their noses and wipe their hands on their wrappers, roughly jerk their customers’ heads to position them better, complain about how full or how hard or how short the hair was, shout out to passing women, while all the time conversing too loudly and braiding too tightly.
“You know her?” Aisha asked, glancing at the television screen.
Aisha repeated herself, and pointed at the actress on the screen.
“No,” Ifemelu said.
“But you Nigerian.”
“Yes, but I don’t know her.” (13)
Ifemelu has gone to America, leaving her lover, Obinze behind in America. He is worried about her and hopes that she has not found another man in America. But he cannot say much; his mother speaks for him in these matters. We are given a contrast between Nigerian men who cannot always have their way in deciding who they will marry or befriend and American men who can easily take control of these women; they manage to get them into their lives and of course into their beds. Ifemelu does not want that to happen with her but women like her have little control over their lives. They drift wherever their fates take them.
We see, along with Ifemelu, the sad life of the older Aunty Uju marrying a general and producing a son only to lose her husband and then bring up the boy in very difficult circumstances. There are parallels between the two Nigerien women, parallels which confirm the fate of women coming to America from the African continent. Aunty Uju is presented like a sister to Ifemelu. Both women migrate to America and then face great hardships trying to find jobs there. Their Nigerian education typically doesn’t seem to help much in America. Both the women allow a chosen man each to come very close to them because they need money. They are presented in a way that the reader retains sympathy for them in spite of what they do for money.
As the novel proceeds, we are brought to more and more situations in which Adichie draws our minds to how much racism persists in America and England. There is a certain degree of frankness in her writing. She presents Nigerians and other migrants realistically to the extent of making them seem depraved. The picture of Nigeria is not at all optimistic. This is sometimes very realistic but at other times a trick that an author uses to get on to the side of the other. By showing her own race as it is generally perceived in the West she manages to get more trust of the Western reader. A self-proclaimed feminist, she can give a deplorable picture of women. The following extract is only one instance of Adichie’s method of garnering Western readers:
“What, like a swagger?” she teased. “Show me the walk!”
“You’ll have to sing my praises first.” He sipped his drink. “Nigerians can be so obsequious. We are a confident people but we are so obsequious. It’s not difficult for us to be insincere.”
“We have confidence but no dignity.”
“Yes.” He looked at her, recognition in his eyes. “And if you keep getting that overdone sucking-up, it makes you paranoid. You don’t know if anything is honest or true any more. And then people become paranoid for you, but in a different way. My relatives are always telling me: Be careful where you eat. Even here in Lagos my friends tell me to watch what I eat. Don’t eat in a woman’s house because she’ll put something in your food.”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Watch what you eat?”
“I wouldn’t in your house.” A pause. He was being openly flirtatious and she was unsure what to say.
“But no,” he continued. “I like to think that if I wanted to eat in somebody’s house, it would be a person who would not think of slipping jazz into my food.”
“It all seems really desperate.”
“One of the things I’ve learned is that everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scarce. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.”
“The wealthy like you, that is,” she quipped. (431)
The great thing about Adichie’s novel is that after tens of pages in which she presents the depravity of her people she returns to a language that is divine. It restores your faith in her people and in the central characters:
She heard his words like a melody and she felt herself breathing unevenly, gulping at the air. She would not cry, it was ridiculous to cry after so long, but her eyes were filling with tears and there was a boulder in her chest and a stinging in her throat. The tears felt itchy. She made no sound. He took her hand in his, both clasped on the table, and between them silence grew, an ancient silence that they both knew. She was inside this silence and she was safe. (439-40)
The last few chapters of Americanah sometimes border on propaganda. They focus more and more on the evil face of race as it is felt in America and after feeling it there and returning to Nigeria, it seems to disappear in her home country:
SHE WAS reaching back to her past. She called Blaine to say hello, to tell him she had always thought he was too good, too pure, for her, and he was stilted over the phone, as though resentful of her call, but at the end he said, “I’m glad you called.” She called Curt and he sounded upbeat, thrilled to hear from her, and she imagined getting back together, being in a relationship free of depth and pain.
“Was it you, those large amounts of money I used to get for the blog?” she asked.
“No,” he said, and she wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. “So you still blogging?”
“No, just about life. Race doesn’t really work here. I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black.”
She had forgotten how very American he sounded.
“It’s not been the same with anybody else,” he said. (475-476)
The two novels in this chapter are very different to each other even they both come under the category of literary fiction with a purpose. Markandaya’s novel bridges the gulf between postcolonial and multicultural fiction. It is a little more forthright because it calls a spade a spade, never mincing words in pointing at the double faced situation in England. It is perhaps for this reason that this novel remains a little less appreciated in the West. Adichie, on the other hand uses a more practical approach to hook the Western reader. She keeps pointing at the faults with the Nigerian character even as she writes long passages against racism in the West. She uses bold fonts to highlight certain passages that focus on issues related to race. Very cleverly she shows how women like her suffer in America and men like Obinze suffer in Europe. The subtle manner in which she presents her point of view allows her to eat her cake and have it too. Markandaya’s novel delves deeper into what may be called “literary,” whereas Adichie’s focuses more subtly on the “purpose.”
Geyh, Paula. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern American Fiction (Cambridge Companions to Literature) (p. 1). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Singh, Jyotsna. “Post-colonial readings of The Tempest.” https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/post-colonial-reading-of-the-tempest