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Okonkwo's Funeral: Reflecting on Adichie's 'Americanah' & Beah's 'Radiance of Tomorrow'

September 29, 2014

I'll try not to spoil too much:

The distance between Lagos (in Nigeria) and Freetown (in Sierra Leone) is over three thousand kilometers. And, to drive the distance, according to Google Maps, would take approximately 42 to 43 hours. Such a drive would demand of a driver and his passengers that they traverse through at least six African nations, passing through not even half the number of nations that span the continent from its western most point to its eastern most point. In other words, the continent is massive and such a journey would leave most of Africa untouched, unseen, and unimagined. Meanwhile, such a journey in North America, of the same length and duration, would allow a traveler to dip his or her feet in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The world and humanity's journeys through it are far larger and more diverse than our local, national, and continental geographies suggest.




I undertook a rather tame rendition of such a road trip recently--if not by car, then by book--in reading Ishmael Beah's 2014 novel Radiance of Tomorrow and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 novel Americanah. (I read the two novels in the reverse order of their publication dates, and it is also worth noting that Beah's 242 page effort is approximately half the length of Adichie's.)

One reason for the size of Adichie's novel is that in addition to being set in Lagos the novel travels to London and several east coast U.S. cities. In many ways, more than anything else, the narrative is cosmopolitan in its tones, locations, and themes; a narrative of Africa's diaspora as it gathers at dinner tables, in kitchens, and various places of employment, both domestic and abroad.

However, in crossing the Atlantic Ocean twice, Ifemelu moves away from an identity rooted in either the geography of Nigeria or the U.S. She is a woman without a country, but she is a woman with a blog. And it's her words on an internet without borders that provides her a haven as she finds herself in a position akin to George Simmel's "The Stranger", for it is through her position as a Nigerian living in the U.S. and then as an Americanah returning to Nigeria that she is able to voice astute critiques of both nations and their cultures (more so the U.S.).


Ifemelu's blog entries, especially her commentary on contemporary race relations, makes the novel one part a successor to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, while the romance narrative between the characters Ifemelu and Obinze makes the novel one part Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. Of course, Adichie cites other texts more explicitly, most notably Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. And it is the former of these two titles from which no African literature seems able to escape (whether it needs to or not is probably up for debate).

And yet, Adichie both embraces and rejects the Igbo archetype established by Achebe's tragic hero Okonokwo. This complex acknowledgement of Achebe and Okonkwo's dual legacy is most explicitly voiced in Ifemelu's defense of her nephew's attempted suicide: "Foreign behavior? What the fuck are you talking about? Foreign behavior? Have you read Things Fall Apart?" (425). However, the characterization of both Ifemelu and Obinze's relationship (as well as Ifemelu's romantic relationships with two American males, one white and one black) reveals a world in which the power structures within the confines of the global economic system and its corresponding race relations are much more complex than those present in Achebe's Things Fall Apart. 

In this way, the novel's last line, "Come in" (477), reads as an invitation to not only the character Obinze but to Adichie's readers. But the Nigeria to which they are being welcomed has evolved beyond the apocalyptic despair that makes up so much of African literature, including Achebe's seminal narrative. And, in many ways, despite taking place in Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah's novel wrestles with that same legacy, only without finding such a grounded sense for optimism as Adichie's ending, despite his stated efforts to the contrary.

Beah's first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, in part due to its efforts at truth-telling, fulfills and perpetuates the expectations for violence and despair in the African lives and the stories told of them. This is not his fault. His experiences were terrible and in need of sharing. But the violence in the book's first half overshadows much of the healing in its latter stages.

Readers often compare an author's succeeding texts to the first impression made by the author, and Beah's first impression is one of cinematic violence; violence that by existing within a context of civil war echoes the suicide of Okonkwo. Moreover, Radiance of Tomorrow's book jacket invites the comparison of Beah's second book with his first, even if one is a work of fiction and the other is not: "If A Long Way Gone taught us to mourn the crimes of yesterday, Radiance of Tomorrow introduces us to a people who must survive their guilt and accept tomorrow, with all its promise--and radiance." This claim presents the novel as metaphorical sunlight to the very real shadows of A Long Way Gone. 




And yet, Beah's novel, while more quiet in its violence, exposes a war waged on the rural identities of Sierra Leone's people (in some ways reminiscent of Richard Llewellyn's 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley?). However, more so than Llewellyn's novel about a boy's life experiences in a Welsh valley, and more so than Adichie's multi-continent Americanah, Beah's novel is a story about place. Without being driven by a protagonist, the story collapses and unfolds from elders collecting burned bones in a village's ruins to the urban labyrinth of Freetown. And, because the novel indeed has no protagonist, the lives and deaths to be examined are those of the village and its culture.

And through the movements of a universe that shrivels and expands, Beah reveals the rupturing that has dislodged Sierra Leone's youth from the traditions of their elders. And that rupturing is a war that cannot be spoken but merely alluded to through the presence of those individuals living with amputated limbs, scarred bodies, and haunted memories. And, as much as Adichie's novel pries itself away from the tragic nature of Okonkwo's narrative shadow, Beah's tale of uprooted traditions, even in its moments of playful trickery, appears to walk a machete's edge. And, in that teetering between the future and the past, between moving on and falling apart, is perhaps something like the present--and over 3,000 kilometers of lived experience. Along those roads, too, is the body of Okonkwo marking just how far--and near--we've traveled, by the mile and the book.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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