Trio of Novels Highlight Far-off Land, Universal Issues

By Mrs. McHugh

HHS Librarian

Too often, when people think of Africa, they think of it as one big place, not the dozens of individual and unique countries that make up the continent. Or maybe they come up with generic images: lions on the savannah, slave ships teeming with misery, or famine and civil war.

None of these is the full picture.

As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said in a widely quoted TED talk, there is a danger to just one story. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” she said. “They make one story become the only story.”

I read a lot and consider myself pretty open-minded, but when a colleague recommended one of this author’s novels last summer, I realized that I knew very little about Africa – especially contemporary Africa. In the ensuing months, I read the book she suggested and two others that took me deep into the culture of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. I learned that this one country alone has more stories than I ever imagined.

Some may wonder, why does it matter? Africa is so far away; it doesn’t really impact our daily lives. Of course, there’s the danger of a single story – when we know little about a country or people, we default to stereotypes, and stereotypes make it hard for us to empathize. Empathy not only makes us better people, it prepares us – in this interconnected world – for the eventual encounters we are likely to have.

Also, what is happening in Nigeria – the conflict between ethnic groups, city life versus village life, the clash of economic and social classes, climate change issues, and emigration in hopes of a better life – is taking place in a lot of countries. These issues are changing our world, and we need to know something about them.

Finally, reading about this faraway place reminds me that things such as love, family and growing up are universal. The rituals and circumstances experienced in each society may be different, but emotions and relationships are very relatable.

This review covers three books, starting with Americanah by Adichie, recommended by former HHS English teacher Mrs. Pavao. The story follows Ifemelu and Obinze, teens in love when they leave Nigeria for better opportunities. Ifemelu heads to America, where she struggles with what it means to be Black, African, and an immigrant in a country divided by race. Obinze, barred from the United States, ends up an undocumented immigrant in England. Their vastly different experiences impact their relationship and, ultimately, their ideas of identity and home. I loved how the book explored so many angles and issues, and I rooted for Ifemelu to find happiness.

Next I read The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare, suggested by English teacher Mrs. Doyle. Adunni is a 14-year-old village girl who dreams of getting an education when her father promises her as the third wife of an old man. Faced with abuse in the arranged marriage, Adunni flees to the wealthy capital city. There, she finds work in the home of a cruel businesswoman and her preying husband. Adunni dreams of using her voice to improve her own situation and help other Nigerian girls. Through every heartache, she never gives up hope. I was right there with her hoping for a happy ending. Some readers may struggle with the dialect; Adunni’s English is very rough at the start of the story and improves as she grows older and more educated. But if you can stick with it, it’s worth it.

Finally, I returned to Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun, which senior Elsa Little-Girl raved about. This is more historical, taking place before and during a civil war in the 1960s. Conflict between different ethnic groups leads to a massacre and war, which we experience through the lives of five unique characters: a servant boy from a small village, the university professor he works for, a young woman who prefers the intellectual life to that of her upper class parents, her bold twin sister, and a white Englishman visiting the country. I had my favorite characters, but I was fascinated by how their lives intertwined. It was a compelling way to tell the story of a society torn by civil war.

Sometimes there’s a gap between what we feel we should read and what we want to read. If you fear these books may seem “meaningful” but too much work, rest assured; they’re also really good stories.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story

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