BookLearning – Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesdays are my amazing days, my days when I shoot off the charts of Pinterest-esque productivity in the six child-free hours given to me.  It’s the day when I do yoga! Bake bread!  Tidy house!  Write! Write! Write!  Especially write write write!  At least this is how it plays out in my head , on the other side of my eyelids, just before I wake up.  It never really goes like this.  And especially so today.

 

As we’re approaching the winter solstice, I’m feeling the need to slow down and to genuinely immerse myself in the things that I so often do just to tick off the list (sorry, yoga and meditation – we really need to sort out our relationship in the new year).  And the same goes for writing; sometimes I’ll just write any old thing so that I can stand in front of the invisible gods who sit in judgement of me every day and say “see? I did some writing – I’m a good girl”  Who are these judges? And what’s the prize for my virtue?  What’s on the other side of that velvet curtain? In truth, my writing has been a bit thin recently.  I think that’s largely because I’m using the time to write while not doing enough to give me things to write about.  I need some fuel.  And so I did just that, or as much of that as I could do on a rainy day in Manchester.

 

I sat in the big grey chair  with the yellow throw next to the fire.  I raised the blinds so I could see the garden from where I sat.  And I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

This book came out a few years ago, but I am only just reading it now because I have recently become aware (and subsequently very ashamed) of my blanket attitudes to racism.  I speak from a position of white privilege when I say that I have coasted on the very general, liberal opinion of  ‘all racism is bad’, which is kind of a pass on the issue itself, because if i just assume that general position, then I don’t have to think about it any further.  I’ve already chosen the right answer, so why keep learning?    Of course racism is bad, but I have, and still have very little understanding of the nuances of racism.  So, amongst other things I’m choosing books that can help me to understand, and gain a bit more clarity and insight on issues of race and oppression.  I’m a work in progress on this, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by drawing some nebulous conclusions here.   What I do feel more qualified to speak about is her words – and as a fundamentally selfish person, what did I learn from her writing style? What is my takeaway (to use nasty corporatespeak) for any writing I may get round to in future?

I think Americanah is incredible; it taught me things about the subtleties of racism that I wouldn’t have understood if they were presented to me in an essay or documentary, largely because Adichie’s characters felt real and the experiences that she describes were lived; they had unexpected detail, they contradicted themselves, they didn’t go where i expected them to.  Ifemelu’s inability to communicate with her lover was frustrating and irritating, yet her cojones in other situations was inspiring.  The description of the hair salon at the start of the novel was specific, unique and real, as was the moment when Ifemelu realises how much she missed the layer of oil on top of her mother’s stew (evocative and truthful).  The writer has incredible instinct and dwells on the ‘scenes’ that you want to know more about; like the hair salon, again, or the atmosphere in the magazine office, back in Nigeria.  I think this takes great confidence – some of these scenes are secondary to the straight surface plot of the novel (although they do reveal further insight into racial stereotyping and the experience of an African woman in America) but we want to see them, hear them – I’d love to know how much of the novel she cut, or whether she knew exactly what she wanted to include from the get go. (does anyone know that, when writing a novel?)   It’s a compelling read, one which covers so many different cultures and societal set ups without feeling didactic or preachy.  It’s bitter, heartfelt, romantic and grim.  It is also sensitively plotted and alive with texture and detail,  ‘takeaways’ (barf) for my next piece of writing, which I will write should I ever take leave of the grey chair next to the fire.

Quick – Before the Monkeys Get Me!

It has been a while, hasn’t it?  And honestly, if I had to compile a ‘greatest hits of 2018’, even if i combined it with ‘wackiest nights out’ and the ‘memorable moments’ package, there wouldn’t be enough to fill an ad break.  For clarity, I should add that no one has actually approached me to put this together, so don’t worry, you won’t have to watch it.

 

So what happened this year?  Not a lot that is not solely attached to motherhood and while this is, yes, a big part of me and what I do, it is not the entirety of me.  And now, as we shudder and jolt into December, one eye glued to the screen for news of Britain’s impending Brexit shaped implosion, the other scoping out black Friday deals, is there time for all this distraction to get a good thing going?

 

And it would appear, yes.  I have momentum!  I am writing again, not as part of Nanowrimo (although I salute all brave souls who are) but I just picked up a pen, chose a title, thought ‘this will probably be a bit shit’ and started writing!  And you know what, it was a bit shit!  But it was writing!  And I have kept this going for the past two weeks.  I’ve submitted some flash and I’m working on an application for a mentoring programme.  I’ve become much less precious about what I’m working on.  Lightness of touch is everything, although a creeping doubt has started to set in .  My brain is run by a panel of monkeys in lab coats who throw out suggestions, instructions or queries at random – most often ‘You suck!’ ‘What even is this?’, ‘Why?’ or ‘Your kid hates you’.  Which I, for reasons unbeknownst, then take as gospel.  So, I am fully expecting the panel of monkeys in lab coats to wake up soon – I’ve never had such a long run without their toxic input – and my question is – how do I keep going?  I can’t get rid of them, so how can I circumvent their meddling and keep the pen on the page?  Writers, please let me know how you do this because I am sure that I’m not the only one out there.  All suggestions taken very seriously and will be followed to the tee.

Stag Party

 

I returned the handset to its brass cradle and looked at the man, who hovered near the only open doorway in a rectangle of yellow light.

‘Thank you.’

He shrugged.  It’s a good job it happened when it did.  There’s nothing for quite some way. “

‘I know.’

“How long did they say?’

“The standard. Within four hours.’  I rolled my eyes, but he just nodded. Of course – an old man in a castle had probably never needed the AA.

 

‘Do come through – keep warm.’ He’d already turned away and headed out of view.

Well, that was settled, then.  I licked something from my lip into my mouth. It had a mealy texture – a small fly?  Too late:  I’d swallowed it, so I grimaced to myself and headed across the flagged floor tiles towards the yellow rectangle.

 

Pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse: I’d belted it out all the way down that gravel path, mainly to drown the rasps of a dying engine but also in to summon up whatever gods or demons might exist in the nether regions of this nethery land.  Serendipity (the goddess of shouty singing it would appear) repaid me with a country estate slap bang at the end of the driveway, one which had broad steps tapering to a mahogany door, a façade like a wedding cake and a curly crest embedded in stone above the first-floor windows.  Two wings either side retreated into darkness, like stepsons, knowing their place.  It was in to one of these wings that I now headed, along a narrow stone corridor, feeling like Scooby Doo and thrilling at the reality in which I now found myself.

 

‘This is a beautiful house.’ I whispered. ‘Do you live here?’

‘Yes.  It’s been in the family since the 17th Century.’  His voice was soft, a low blend of highland burr with a drawl inherited from a public schooling south of the border.  I’d seen it in his face when he opened the door; the soft chin, the downturned mouth, satisfied as if savouring a good vintage. Be-yond posh.  So, when he stopped short ahead of me I dropped a curtsey, a girlish maid in a mansion.

 

He flicked a light switch and turned to face me.  ‘Here we are!’  A lupine smile before he retreated into a small room, a room dominated by the smell of damp digestive biscuit and bum-worn horse saddles. It took me a while to adjust to the dim wattage, but even when I did, the room stayed murky and brown and orange, so stuffed with belongings that I was thrown back through the years to desultory days with my grandad, mooching around on the outskirts of cobbled towns looking at bric a brac in fading shops, German exchange trip weather purging all vitality out through the ends of my fingers.

 

In light of what happened afterwards, the details are hard to recall, but I remember seeing the man with his back to me,  hands plunged into a white plastic bookcase, fiddling between a food processor and an old Encyclopaedia. Next to the bookcase there was a pan of congealed baked beans on top of a small camping stove which was slumped across some floral photo albums.  Other details swam up through the soup; a brood of blown glass piggies on a rusty dumb bell doorstop, a badger’s head on the wall wearing a purple baseball cap which bore the logo: ‘Dunny Construction’; plates and paintings of horses, fruit bowls, country cottages, all hung too low to be anything but in the way. Tin huntsmen rode a disconnected car radio.  Doilies!  On the other side of the room, almost hidden beneath piles of newspapers and sleeping bags, was a camp bed. There was a pottery pug on the floor beside it, its concave belly filled with dark yellow piss.  I noticed it just as the man turned, holding a silver tray, a crystal decanter and glasses which he placed on a scuffed tapestry footstool.  What had happened here?

 

He swept a pile of papers from a camping chair on to what may have been a piece of gym equipment and gestured for me to sit.  ‘There –  whiskey – no ice, I’m afraid.’ He poured the drinks, then, pulling up the knees on his rust brown cords, settled back into the deck chair opposite.  He beamed at me, then remembered why I was there and shifted down a gear to serious-face. ‘Four hours, you say?’

‘Could be.’ I raised my glass and we drank.

‘Where are you headed?’

‘Inverness. I’m interviewing a band up there.’  His eyes followed the movement of my face, his mouth open. He licked the creases at the corners of his lips before he spoke.  ‘Music?’

‘Yes.’

‘What sort of music?’

‘All kinds’.  This wasn’t true, but experience told me that explaining would force us down a strange route.

‘Aha’.

We drank again. The window rattled.  And then I remembered what I’d heard.

 

‘Do you live here alone?’ It was the only way I could think to raise it.  He looked frail; I could feel his bones lurking, pressed up close to the skin’s surface, waiting to break through.

‘Yes’.

‘And – do you own the – whole bit? I mean the land?’

‘Up to the high road.’

‘Okay’ I puffed out my cheeks, but had to hold back a smile at the sheer camp of it all – in a creepy mansion with an old posh man – I thought of Scooby Doo again, then straightened my face. ‘I think there’s someone out there.’

He kept smiling, so I kept going.  ‘When I came up the track, I mean I was singing to myself but still – I heard something – from the thicket on the left.  It was quite close to the house. And it sounded like laughing.  Like men laughing.’

‘Right.’ His voice was clipped, no inflection to suggest concern or alarm.  It was a cautionary full stop and it irritated me; I like to supply my own punctuation.

‘Was it an animal?’

‘No, no, probably not an animal.’

‘Well – what was it? ‘

‘We have guests at the moment.’

‘Right. Is it an event or something?’

‘Yes.  They’ve rented the house for a stag party.’ He smiled.  ‘Would you like some more whiskey? Ah no!  You have your concert.  What sort of music is it this time?’

‘I don’t know.’  I was exasperated by his politesse; I meant to offend, yet he showed no sign of withering.  He drank.  We both drank. We both looked at our glasses, and then the party came to us.

 

I think I heard it first. Maybe he dozed off, though in light of what he was expecting to happen, it seems unlikely. But I heard it: a bundle of man-noise, rasping and burbling with alcohol, most of it shouts and hoots, but assembling sometimes to produce a surprising melody in a way that only random mob sounds and a fertile imagination can.  Bloody men.  My ear traced their movement across the lawn, then the gravel and then the final act: a strong slam on the front door.  At this, the man pitched forward.  ‘Do excuse me.’ He left and shut the door behind him.

 

I put down my glass. There was an egg stain on the corner of the footrest and this, of all things, made me uneasy, so I looked at the bookcase, which is when the funny thing caught my eye.   Up close, I could see what it was: a pair of antlers, shaved down, the edges exposed and sharp, to about half a metre in height. They were glued and then stitched on to a red woollen beret, which had little bells hanging from its brim.  It was beautiful and strange and the fabric felt soft and the antlers cool and clean.

 

The man returned.  ‘There we are – all sorted’

‘I was looking at your hat.’ I said brightly.

‘Sorry?’

‘Your hat – are they real antlers?’ I held it out in front of me.

‘Yes.’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

He moved closer to me then. He was actually very tall when he stood close. He crooned in my ear.  ‘It’s a silly thing, isn’t it? We played with it as children. It made us feel like clowns.’  He tipped his head to one side in a coy gesture of curiosity.  ‘Do you like it?’

‘Ha.  Yes.  Yes, I do.’ I turned it around in my hands, but kept one eye on the man’s face, which had grown large next to my shoulder.  His breath was shallow and rapid against my collarbone.

 

‘Well– would you like to try it on? There’s no one else to – see – you know.’ His voice was a thin needle of a whine, a man child, pleading with nanny.  I should have gone then, right then, but a combination of things was acting upon my will; the whiskey, the hat, that crusted yellow egg and finally, the need for something to happen in this house.  I probably wouldn’t make the gig, but I would have a terrific bit on the crazy upper classes for the website.

 

So I put on the hat and felt its weight.

 

Reader, there was no thunderbolt; I didn’t vaporise into blue smoke and return as Artemis – I remained a woman in a shitty room, just with antlers on her head.  But the man took a step back and clapped his hands together, once.  From man child to boy child, he was transformed.

 

‘You look majestic!’

‘Yes, I feel noble.’  I did not feel noble.

He brightened.  ‘I know – would you like to see a painting of my father with the stag.  With – your stag?’

Not really, I thought.  ‘Ooh yes!’ I said.

He guided me by the elbow out of the doorway and back down the corridor, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as he walked before me. I realise now that I had, in that moment, become his queen, he a gleeful supplicant.  But I was the one with the bells, which leapt and danced and made merry about my head –was I a jester?  I’d decided to definitely leave by the time that we arrived in the hallway, where he led me to the painting.  He stepped back.

‘My father – with your antlers.’

 

The painting was hard to see, because the gloss of the oil bounced back the light and obscured the surface.  But there he was.   The stag, my stag, was eye height, his head, poor slack eyed thing, slung back over a small mound on the sandy earth beneath him. The hunter, wearing tweed and a familiar dreary expression, stood alongside his quarry, thinking about teacups and velcro for all I could surmise from his expression.

 

‘Those are my antlers?’

‘Indeed.’

‘Oh’.  And suddenly I didn’t want a dead animal on my head.  And I didn’t want to be in the house at all.  I moved to take the hat off.  He put a hand on my shoulder to stop me and shook his head.  I had to leave.

 

‘I should call to see about the car people.’

‘But it could take four hours, couldn’t it?’ A glint of the tooth in his voice.

‘I might peep out and see if everything is okay’. A whisper.

He unbolted the door.

‘Good idea, my lady. You might get it going again, might you?’ His voice grew to a cackle from a bubble, the manchild – boychild – devilchild – his full form revealed. I was just too late to see his face.

 

He opened the front door and thrust me through with such force that I stumbled, the antlers pulling me forwards down the steps.  I yanked the hat and threw it, poor thing, away from me – again too late – I’d been marked.  Torchlight blinded.   I turned to see the man, but he was mahogany again. Incantations rose out of the dark and antlers or not, I knew that I would have to run and soon.

 

 

 

Insert meaning here

There’s not much in my head today, but I’ve turned up at the page: Day 6 of my challenge to write every day to turn up, to turn up, to turn up at the page.  Now I’m here, the only thing that I want to write down is this quote from Anais Nin:

” You live out the confusions until they become clear. “

I love this quote, because I feel as if I have to live it out in order to understand it.  Are confusions like anxiety, something that we are trapped within, until we find a resolution? Or is it more positive, does it mean that we must process and observe our confusions in order to resolve them?

I’m still brooding on this one … I may be some time …

 

The girl who read the trilogy really quickly

Okay, not as quirky a title as what inspired it, but still.  I have an unusual book review today.  One I which I try and puzzle out exactly why I love the Milennium trilogy so much.

When I first saw commuters on the tube with a copy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo struck me as a bit of an airport read.  I am an inveterate snob and don’t care much for other people and their tastes (apart from friends) so the sheer volume of strangers reading it on their way to work made me think it must be shit.  It stood me in good stead with the Dan Brown series.  And Harry Potter.  Yeah, you saw it right.  Never read a Harry Potter, never will.

So, I’ve already put Laarsens’ series in the bargain bin and moved on with life when I’m hit by a sudden wave of lassitude.  So much studying, re-reading Jane Eyre from an A’Level perspective (painful), its understandable that I get a pang for pap.   When someone mentions The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and describes it as ‘frikking awesome’, I decide to put aside prejudices and give it a go.

A day later, my eyes are bleeding from intense reading.  Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is one of the best reading experiences EVER, propelled by a fascinating plot, intriguing setting and a heroine that any pissed-off female can engage with vicariously.

I’m no afficionado, but I’m sure that the things I’ve singled out so far are nothing unusual in the literary underworld of the crime novel.  A quick mooch through reviews show that critics have said similar about Cornwell, Patterson and Rankin, so I’m beginning to think that they’re required tenets of the genre.  So what is about the Girl with Dragon Tattoo that makes it special?  Or is it just that I’m a virgin in this world?

I think its to do with fetish.  And I don’t mean the leather/chains/whips kind (although that is given a rather unsavoury role in GWADT).  For a Communist, Laarsen loves his Apple gadgets; he goes into loving detail re the various bits of kit that Lisbeth and Blomqvist own and what apparatus they acquire to boost their elicit investigations, its kind of like the literary equivalent of  Melville’s ‘cinema of process’.  A really fine bit of product placement and it made me covet a mac more than any over-hyped ad campaign.

To extend the fetish theme, what appealed to me was the ‘Swedenization’ of the novel.  That sounds patronising – the novel is set in Sweden, so its bound to be swedish in terms of its location and climate etc, but Laarsen really indulges this.  There is a pure efficiency to his description of character’s appearance and how they go about their business that’s really appealing to a Londoner who hates getting up and getting in the shower, who always has pots in the sink and occasionally takes items out of the laundry bin and decides to ‘chance them on a re-run’.  The cool muted island where most of the action takes place is pathetic fallacy and extremely calming for any urban reader to escape to.  The Swedes also drink tons of coffee (second highest consumers in the world, a fact that was confirmed to me by Jamie does…Stockholm) and I view this as a high sign of how civillised a nation is.

And to return to Laarsen’s political leanings – the book is quite progressive in setting out a feminist agenda and is both intriguing and intrigued by corruption and fraud amongst Sweden’s movers and shakers. I’m not going to talk about it too much here because Christopher Hitchens has already done it. Have a look;

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/12/hitchens-200912

Perhaps I’ve concentrated too much on the first novel, but my comments hold true of the entire trilogy; the foci may change but Laarsen’s approach doesn’t waver.  Be it an investigation into sex trafficking or the iniquities of the Swedish Secret Police, the process of enquiry is fascinating, tied in to the compelling personal drama of a very different heroine.

I finished the trilogy over a month ago and I still feel more than a little bereft.