Friday, March 27, 2015

We Have Finished Reading "Americanah"

Today, in my Post-colonial Literature class, we finished discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. I have always told my students that though we say we have finished reading a work of literature, we are deceiving ourselves. If we read such a work again, we discover how much we missed the first time around. We discover new ways of seeing aspects of the text. The process is virtually endless.

It has taken us many days to go through this novel, but that is what I wanted. I believe we have to accord literature the honour it deserves as an expression of the human condition.

As a result of taking our time on it, we have gained a good understanding of the lives of the characters in Americanah, such as Ifemelu, Obinze, Aunty Uju, Blaine, and Dike. We have gained an understanding of their experiences at home and abroad, and their relationships.

Adichie's exploration of themes such as the lives of Africans in the USA, race and racism, cultural differences, and the contemporary Nigerian middle class, sparkles with insight and sensitivity. She portrays human beings, not stereotypes.

Adichie is a gifted storyteller; she enchants the reader with her mind-boggling narrative skill and truthful dialogue. Rarely have I read a long novel such as Americanah with such joy and eagerness, from the beginning to the very end.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Troubles Over Loud Music in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

For quite a while, the City of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, has been in the news over loud music in its parks. The Brooklyn Park City Council banned loud music from all but one park, following complaints by residents living near those parks. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, published this report about the issue.

The ban has prompted much opposition from those who feel victimized by it. African residents of Brooklyn Park have been quite vocal in this regard, as reported here.

I have been following the issue on Facebook as well, where the Africans have been voicing their views and sentiments, generally opposing the ban, describing it as unilateral, discriminatory, and insensitive to the cultural values of the immigrants. The photo above, from Abdullah Kiatamba's Facebook page, shows a meeting between City authorities and residents.

I am a cultural consultant, specializing in the cultural issues Africans and Americans face when they interact. Several years ago, I was invited to Faribault, another Minnesota city, to participate in a dialogue about problems that were brewing between long time business owners and Somali immigrants. The core issue was the habit of Somali men congregating in the downtown area, blocking sidewalks and, according to the business owners, scaring away customers. I discussed the issue as stemming from cultural differences, to the satisfaction of all.

Reading about what is happening in Brooklyn Park, I keep thinking about what I wrote in my book Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences whose opening paragraph mentions loud music:

This booklet deals with differences between African and American culture. I noted these differences during my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980-86. I used to spend much time with fellow African students joking about American ways. We wondered why, for example, the police often arrived at parties, to report complaints by neighbours that the music was too loud. What was the purpose of a party, we wondered, if not to have a good time, and how could anyone have a good time if the music was not loud? Compared to African parties, American parties seemed like funerals. (p. 1)

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, with people moving and settling everywhere, every community must find ways to deal with changing realities, including cultural differences. Loud music is only one issue, but there are many others, such as food, dress, religion, modes of communication and behavior.

There is no escape from these realities. All we can do is educate ourselves, learning from and about one another, understanding our differences and learning to accommodate them in our lives, so that we can live and work together in harmony.
 

Monday, March 16, 2015

My 2013 "Hemingway in East Africa" class at Lake Babati

In January, 2013, I was in Tanzania with St. Olaf College students on my "Hemingway in East Africa" course.

I designed this course in 2006 for Colorado College, prompted by Professor John Watkins of that College, who had heard me rave endlessly about Hemingway's African travels and writings and his life-long love of Africa.

The course aimed at sharing with students what I call the African dimension of Hemingway. This incorporates his writings based on his two trips to East Africa in 1933-34 and 1953-54. Professor Bill Davis of Colorado College and I inaugurated the course in 2007.

Traveling in the places where Hemingway traveled and reading his writings about those places--the land, the people, the fauna, and the flora--students acquire a unique perspective on Hemingway. The writings include Green Hills of Africa and Under Kilimanjaro; the famous short story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber;" letters and journalistic writings.

The photo above features the 2013 class, together with our driver/tour guides, at Lake Babati. In his Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway wrote about Babati and Lake Babati:

     We left, soon after midnight, ahead of the outfit, who were to strike camp and follow in the two lorries. We stopped in Babati at the little hotel overlooking the lake and bought some more Pan-Yam pickles and had some cold beer (p. 143).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Teaching "Americanah" This Semester

This week, in my Post-colonial Literature class, we have been discussing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, among other awards. Since then, she has continued to write and to win award after award.

In September 2006, she attended the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis, as one of the invited authors, to launch Half of a Yellow Sun. I attended her book reading and signing, and had the opportunity to have my copy signed, chat with her, and take a photo.

Having taught Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, I decided to include Americanah in my Post-colonial Literature course this semester.

Although we are not yet half-way into this novel, we can see that it is a moving tale of the lives of Nigerian characters at home and abroad, mainly in the USA. With a keen insight and enjoyable writing style, Adichie explores themes such as relationships between men and women and between races, cultural differences, and the mystique of America.

Africans who have lived in America can relate to the situations and experiences described in Americanah. I can guarantee this, having written Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Video Commemorating Ten Years of the book, "Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences."

Today, I uploaded a new video on You Tube, commemorating the tenth year anniversary of the publication of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. I thank my readers, family, friends, and supporters for inspiring me all these years. I also thank my daughter Zawadi for suggesting the idea of a video and for doing all the technical work involved in the project.

To view the video click here.

As part the commemoration, I will ship a copy of the book anywhere for only $12. The offer ends at midnight, March 31, 2015. Contact me: email, africonexion@gmail.com; phone, (507) 403-9756

Monday, March 9, 2015

Thinking About Hemingway

I constantly think about Ernest Hemingway. Yesterday, thinking about his reference to the hot springs at Lake Manyara, Tanzania, I picked up his Green Hills of Africa, intending to read his actual words.

I randomly opened the book and found myself on page 108, which is not what I was looking for. I started reading it anyway, and was engrossed by it, as usually happens when I read Hemingway. Although I had read and taught this book several times, it seemed as if I was reading his words for the first time:

P.O.M. was reading Spanish Gold, by George A. Birmingham, and she said it was no good. I still had the Sevastopol book of Tolstoi and in the same volume I was reading a story called "The Cossacks" that was very good. In it were the summer heat, the mosquitoes, the feel of the forest in the different seasons, and that river that the Tartars crossed, raiding, and I was living in that Russia again....

I finished this page and read the next, from which I wish to quote the following section:

A country, finally erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practiced the arts, and these now wish to cease their work because it is too lonely, too hard to do, and is not fashionable. A thousand years makes economics silly and a work of art endures for ever, but it is very difficult to do and now it is not fashionable. People do not want to do it any more because they will be out of fashion and the lice who crawl on literature will not praise them. Also it is very hard to do. So what? I would go on reading about the river that the Tartars came across when raiding, and the drunken old hunter and the girl and how it was then in the different seasons.

I see echoes in this passage of Hemingway's Nobel Prize speech and of his reflections, in other contexts, on writing. I admire Hemingway for many reasons, one of which being his philosophical insights, although people rarely talk about Hemingway as a philosopher. Yet he has a unique perspective on various subjects, from women to drinking, hunting, and writing. His meditations on life in the second passage I have quoted above is a case in point. It reminds me of Shakespeare's Macbeth who, upon being told that his wife has died, responds as follows:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing
(William Shakespeare,
Macbeth. V, V, 19-30).

All this happened yesterday. I better return to Green Hills of Africa, to read Hemingway's words about the hot springs ("maji moto") at Lake Manyara.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Skyping With a Mythologies Class

Yesterday morning, I held a Skype session with a Montana State University Mythologies class. Their instructor, Kristofer Olsen, had told me that the class would be reading my book, Matengo Folktales, and had wondered if I might be willing to talk with the class via Skype. I gladly accepted the request and asked my daughter Zawadi to show me, again, how to Skype.

The class started, as planned, at 10:30, and we covered much ground. As soon as the class got underway, I was asked to tell a tale, a short one. Noting that I always tell the tales instead of reading them, I told the tale of "Hawk and Crow."

I wanted the class to experience a live performance, even though I was telling the tale in English, as opposed to the original Matengo, my mother tongue. Above all, I wanted them to hear the song which features in the tale and is repeated a number of times.

The class knew that the songs in Matengo Folktales are available in Let Your Voice Be Heard, a CD by a group called Cantus, which was based at St. Olaf College. I briefly talked about how I had sung the songs for fellow St. Olaf College Professor Peter Hamlin, which he then arranged for Cantus.

I enjoyed the experience of Skyping, interacting with a class located more than 900 miles away, in Bozeman, Montana. Particularly memorable were the questions they asked me, about the process of recording and translating the tales, the nature of language and cultural groups, the prevalence of killings in the tales. Regarding what my favourite tale was, I stated that I saw each tale as special in its own way.

The subject of trickster came up, with a focus on Ananse. I broadened the scope by noting the variety of trickster figures, including those who appear in the form of animals, such as Ananse (Spider), Gizo (Spider), Ijapa (Tortoise), and Hare, as well as those who appear unambiguously as humans, such as  Nasreddin Hodja, and Abu Nuwas. I also mentioned Carl Jung as a valuable source of insights into the origins, meaning and function of the trickster figure.

As an advocate of cross-cultural learning and interactions, I salute any initiatives that advance that goal, such as the Cantus project I have mentioned and the Mythologies course I participated in.