Monday, January 6, 2014

First reactions to Americanah

I'm about 1/4 of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah" and so far it is mostly teaching me how conditioned I am to read science fiction/fantasy.  I simply don't know how to read literary fiction the way I know how to read SFF, which makes it difficult to judge my reactions to "Americanah".  For comparison, it was about 3/4 of the way through "Wolf Hall", that I realized I needed to refresh my memory of "Man For All Seasons" and see "Wolf Hall" through that lens before it the pieces really clicked for me.

For SFF, the placeholders are generally clear.  Where are the protagonists? What goals have they been set in motion towards? Does the author want to evoke (or satiate) something akin to Tolkien's childhood "I desired Dragons with a profound desire"?, or cast some particular aspect of our society in a new light as with Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness"?  Perhaps there is simply something so compelling about the world being created (I was so swept away by Nahadoth and Sieh in N. K. Jemisin's "100 Thousand Kingdoms" that I can't even remember much of the series), or a particular system of magic and way of interacting with the world, a la Brandon Sanderson and his rules of magic.  For hard SFF, the story is often compelling as people set out to explore, or come in contact with, well defined physical laws ("The Cold Equations1may be one of the most heartbreaking short stories I've ever read).  The point is, I know where I'm going with SFF.  I can find my protagonists, see their destination, and generally can tell whether I'm supposed to pay attention to where they're going & how they get there, or just enjoy the scenery along the way.

With literary fiction, my signposts don't work.  A quarter of the way through "Americanah", I end each chapter both delighted and feeling let down.  I can't connect with the protagonist at all - I don't feel any understanding of her thought process (or such self-awareness from her), nor does she seem to have particular agency as she flits between Nigeria and the United States.  Of course the story, told in flashbacks, has barely reached her college years - I don't know that I had much self-awareness or agency at that point either.

Each chapter does beautifully crystallize some universal human experience, while remaining focused on the particular individuals in the story.  Adichie's craft shows through, and I am at turns comforted by the familiar and jarred by the unfamiliar in the midst of this universal coming of age story.  It's baffling, and I'm still waiting to find out where I'm going, or why I want to get there.

1 Link here to The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which includes The Cold Equations because it has other good stories. The eponymous Godwin collection displays some disgusting gender attitudes.

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