When Nigerians and Pakistanis start to think like Americans

The Third World in America

5 minute read
Converted to radical Islam, and then converted back.
Converted to radical Islam, and then converted back.
I guess I first internationalized my study of English Lit during class breaks at the University of Detroit, 1946-49, when I discussed the Canadian Broadcasting Company's daily humorist Joe Gentile with my college chum Hank Maloney. In fact, I think I had become more Canadian than American in spirit.

So you can imagine my dismay when, years later, the editor of the Canuck scholarly journal, Commonwealth Literature, accused me of being a CIA agent. Such are the vagaries of promoting global understanding.

It wasn't until I started teaching for Beaver College in London in the 1960s that I got more serious when I few to Dakar, Senegal, with my 12-year-old son Michael. (He was helping me shoot film about the first World Negro Arts Festival. Our first astonishment came when we left our hotel and almost stumbled over a Muslim praying on his knees.)

Stopped by police

Two years later I persuaded Howard Springer, secretary of the Commonwealth Cultural Association, to let me show an hour-long film on Nigerian literature at the U.S. Embassy in Lagos. My purpose was to motivate the other Commonwealth writers at their annual convention to make films about their writers for global instruction.

The film critic for a Lagos newspaper offered to let me join him on his motorcycle, gunning me back to the Federal Palace Hotel. Never had a native Detroiter experienced a scarier trip. Lagos traffic was the world's worst, especially from the back seat of a Harley.

More worries awaited me. At the hotel, three local police detectives stopped me as I picked up my room key— they wanted to "investigate" my room. Their chief began by turning on my tape recorder.

Confiscating my gear

"Why do you have a recording of the chief of the festival?" he asked.

I replied innocently that it was the opening oration. But Nigeria's civil war with its dissident Biafrans had rendered everything suspect. The police treated me as a spy and took my tape recorder, my 16-mm. camera and ten films I had already shot. Then they informed me that I must accompany them to the police station.

Suddenly I recalled that a local filmmaker had tried to buy my filming equipment the day before. His crew, I realized, had been trying to steal my gear. Never was I so relieved to enter a police station.

There I was interviewed by the chief of police, to whom I explained that I was teaching literature in London. He phoned the Commonwealth secretary and confirmed my official permission to attend the conference as a guest. But it took two days before the Canadian ambassador shamed the police in returning my gear— as I was about to taxi to the airport for a trip back to London. (I didn't get the developed film back for several weeks.)

Where did the Canadians get the idea that I was a CIA agent? Well, Nigeria's airline offered conference attendees a free flight north to Kano, an Islamic state. Springer said I could take a seat if one was available. It turned out that the head of the Ghana delegation came to the gate a few minutes too late, to find that I had taken "his" seat. He was outraged. Thus the CIA label.

Nigerian in Philadelphia

These memories came back to me as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah. It's the most complicated (and longest!) love story I have ever read, as high school sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, go their separate ways, she to America, he to London. (He couldn't get a visa to New York after 9/11.)

The novel's title identifies the new kind of Nigerian who spends 13 years in America, and how that isolation changes her and other Nigerians in many different ways— including how they respond to a global giant like America.

Adichie's novel begins as Ifemelu leaves Princeton (where she's finishing an important fellowship) to go to Trenton (where she can find an African hair shop to get her physically ready for a reunion with Obinze). Ifemelu spends her first years in America in Philadelphia's Powelton Village neighborhood while studying communications and political science at "Wellson University," a pseudonym for Drexel U.

A fascinating angle in Americanah is her creation of a blog that evaluates the complicated ways that Nigerians and other African nationals adjust (or not) to the complexities of American racism.

Converted Islamist

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is much shorter and more interesting. It's a love story between a rich American, Erica, and a brilliant Pakistani, Changez, whose family was once rich and now counts on his Princeton fellowship to restore the family's fortunes.

The Twin Towers disaster of 9/11 intervenes, and Changez reverts to fundamentalist politics instead of thriving as an "American" business consultant. The conversion begins in Chile where a Chilean lefty leads the Pakistani to Pablo Neruda's home in Valparaiso, then reminds Changez of Islam's historic first revolt against Christians more than a thousand years earlier.

He is re-converted: He rejects a small coterie's concept of American interests in the guise of their fight against terrorism, which the coterie defines only as the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians who don't wear military uniforms.

Psyching out the enemy

"I recognized," Changez reflects, "that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage.

"This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan." Changez had learned how to psych out the American enemy. So had his Nigerian coeval in Americanah.

Global conflicts disguised as love stories. More evidence that International English literature liberates the world from facile self-delusions!

What, When, Where

Americanah. By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf, 2013. 496 pages; $26.95. www.amazon.com. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. By Mohsin Hamid. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008. 192 pages; $5.86. www.amazon.com.

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