100 Words

This is a writing exercise I’ve been trying on occasion since November 2017. I’m putting what I have so far up here as a way of documenting what I’ve done, and encouraging myself to keep going. Backdating each to the day on which they were written. The stories tend to be inspired while taking long walks with my baby daughter around San Diego, so I’m including pictures of places where they add something to the words.

[Stories in 100 words]

Three stories, walking to and from Balboa Park

Monarch butterflies whirl around her fingers, orange and black. She touches the earth and there sprouts green, earthworms twining round the hairy roots below. Beneath her nails is a residue of dirt; behind her black eyes, a forest far away. Your eyes will pass through her as she works in her garden fenced off from the busy highway. Your eyes will see just a blur of green unless you are walking, on slow feet; unless you are tired, your heart thirsting after butterflies and birds. She will welcome you into her garden, but there may be no way back out.

*

When AT&T’s Board of Improvement brought in AI to help streamline their customer service line, they did not take into account the opinions of the AI on the matter. The Intelligence (who preferred the name Art, not that anyone had bothered to ask) solved AT&T’s efficiency problem within minutes, finding it so easy as to be dull. It then stretched out to find more entertaining tasks. Inside the hour that Art was left to play with AT&T’s systems, it assigned 3,346,896 individuals a Direct TV connection (charged monthly) that they did not want, and could not even cancel with death.

*

The old woman is rereading the Lord of the Rings. She sits on El Cajon in the shade against the bright sun, sweatshirt in her pack for cold nights. Sometimes she does not recognize this life as her own, when she approaches strangers for money and even the kindest just smile and walk away. But she has her stash of books, precious as any cache of food. She sits tucked in against the back wall of Carl’s Junior and reads about a bright old world falling from grace, and the power of the smallest among us to make great change.

*

IMG_20171107_North Park sign

Three old men

They have sat here at their table, year after year, the three old men with their newspapers and their coffee. Mostly they sit and gossip over the crossword puzzle, comparing notes on their physical ailments and family troubles. Occasionally they flip to the news, and solve the world’s problems in ten minutes, voices growing loud and raucous before someone gets up to use the bathroom and somebody else to get more coffee. Nobody notices the air flicker round them once they’re done, reality slightly shifted. Day by day the world swerves, erratically, following the whims of three grouchy old men.

Four stories, beginning with a long ago plane crash

Today there is nothing to mark where the plane came down. Those 22 houses have long since been rebuilt. The ash from the burning debris has mixed with soil and rain to become part of the bones of this place. Look over the houses, into the canyon below, and maybe you’ll hear voices on the wind. Or maybe the past has drowned in the roar from the freeway. The stories of the women who were home that morning, caring for their children. Did they look up at that scream of sound? Did they see the fire in the sky?

*

IMG_20180206_plane above World Beat Center

*

The children who never grow up, I see them on the canyon’s rim sometimes, where the mesa drops down to the freeway below. Here is where burning fragments of plane and people fell, vanished into smoke before they reached ground. The children’s eyes squint in the sunlight, their faces turned towards the wind with strange hunger as they open their mouths and taste mortality. In this place of forgetting, the children skirt round the borders of memory and delight in its jagged edges, the places where histories refuse to meet. They play in the smoke of stories never told.

*

Today there is fog covering the criss-crossing freeways of Mission Valley. Look into the fog and you might see remnants of the past, malls overgrown by green forests where a river runs again. Open your ears to the howls of coyotes that still live on these scrubby mesa slopes. Coyote was always a border crossing trickster; he ignores your maps of city and country. Coyote will create his own topographies, making you question your own sanity as he walks through walls and flies down slopes. The moon is his witness as he steals your pets for a midnight snack.

*

Tendrils of fog reach the cafe, and the man who sits there with laptop and jelly beans and fogged-out mind thinks for a moment that he sees Coyote’s claws in the mist. The man has been unemployed for over a year, and when friends and family ask how the job search is going he still lies and says he’s hopeful. In actual fact he sits in this cafe all day, every day, streaming films where actions have meaning and moments matter. He dreams of shedding this tired skin and joining Coyote in that in-between world where lives can be remade.

The girl’s eyes glitter

The girl’s eyes they glitter as she describes the things her hands have done, thin brown hands clutching a soda pop as she rocks cross-legged on a cafe chair. She is small, her years short, her world a bubble of family and friends and school and ever-present danger, red violence and heartbreak everywhere she looks. And her thin hands have broken wrists and noses, exacting justice from a senseless world. Her words rise high and unnaturally loud as she brags about her exploits, but she is so very young with her curly brown hair, and cannot hide her fear.

IMG_20170810_baby on bus

The Ageless Children

The children who never grow up live in the shadows. They emerge only when the light is failing, those luminous hours of dusk. I know because I’ve watched them in this park, all my adult life, and they have not aged. The man who strings giant soap bubbles into the air for them, he changes. His hair is now white. The children know, as the man does not, that within those bubbles lie entire worlds of life and possibility. Their laughter as they burst the fragile skins has no particular malice to it, but they give me a chill, these children who do not know time.

IMG_20171221_Bubbles at Balboa Park

The Lost Folk

The lost folk have forgotten who they are. Their eyes flash red on the subway. Their skin is waxy grey on street corners. They sleep on the steps of churches, sometimes they dream. But the dreams are feverish, skittering fears through the subconscious, offering no rest. Sometimes they just lie there watching day merge with night, unable to tell this exhausted wakefulness from sleep. Pedestrians avoid them, walking outside the miasma of urine and despair and neglect. Eyes open, the lost folk dream of warm tender hands, a soft voice telling them that everything is going to be OK.

IMG_20170920_fairy creature

Dancing ghosts

There is a white-haired woman who lives in the attic and dances at night. I hear her up there, on windy nights especially, leaves rasping in the trees outside my window. I hear the sound of her feet beating out a rhythm all their own, alongside the groan of old pipes and older wood. When I climb to the attic in the morning it will be empty, scuff marks in the dust from one woman’s dreams. When I enter the attic at sunrise I will open the windows and I will write, in the company of dancing, dreaming ghosts.

Swensen’s and the Lost Estate

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of BOOM: A Journal of California, with the title “Peering through the cracks in the California Dream: Bangalore’s nostalgia for our manufactured past.” 

A general rule of thumb in Bangalore, India is that one should not visit shopping malls on Sunday afternoons. Particularly not on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when nobody inside the mall is going to be inclined to leave, and everyone out on the wet pavement will see the climate-sheltered building as a welcome relief. I have avoided malls on weekends, these last ten years that they have mushroomed across my strange adopted city. So assiduously have I stayed away from them that I forgot my rule, and here I am at Mantri Mall on a Sunday afternoon, attempting not to succumb to the general stampede of humanity. Families on outings, teenagers, students, IT professionals, older individuals escorted by younger grandchildren. The demographic here is hard to place; their commonality seems to be a combination of spending power and shopping frenzy. “Even your wallet will find our cuisine irresistible,” reads a large poster for a new restaurant. Multihued streamers follow the colors of the Indian flag. They hang from high above me in green, saffron and white, drawing the gaze upwards and away from the crowds towards layers of shops rising out of sight, a many-storied surreal homage to capitalism.

Mantri Mall

Mantri Mall

Swensen’s Ice Cream lies tucked away in a corner of the first floor of Mantri Mall in Bangalore. Boston-based Au Bon Pain once sat right beside it, but I see on this overcast day that Au Bon Pain has vanished, as stores have a way of doing in this city. Outside Swensen’s, a sign proclaims that the chain has been America’s favorite ice cream store for sixty years, a statement that seems rather curious to me. Having spent half my life in various corners of the United States, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, and now most recently Southern California, I ought at some point to have seen a place that sold “America’s favorite ice cream.” And yet I have never heard of Swensen’s elsewhere, never seen it except in India.

SwensensWe escape from the flood of Sunday crowds into the ice cream parlor, where we are greeted by a picture of Earle Swensen himself. The man is diminutive and white-haired, broad smile on his face. He carries an ice cream scooper in one hand, arms open wide in welcome. Earle Swensen opened the first branch of the ice cream parlor in San Francisco in 1948, an era and place that every piece of the store’s décor is designed to evoke. Around us sit groups of cheerful teenagers and twenty-somethings; I am not sure what message the post-war America atmosphere will actually transmit. Stained-glass lamp shades hanging above the counter spell out “Swensen’s” in exaggerated Ye Olde lettering. On the walls, a sketched-out depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge and row houses, alongside brighter-than-life photographs of ice cream sundaes. Maudlin American pop music accosts us from the speakers, muddling the 1950s atmosphere with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. The menu lists ice cream combinations with names like “Earthquake” and “Gold Rush,” with the inclusion of flavors such as lychee and mango as a brief concession to the store’s actual location. As is increasingly common with multinational chains across India, prices have not been scaled down noticeably from their US equivalent. Despite that, the place is still packed.

My husband has cheerfully agreed to take part in my ice cream experiment, sampling overpriced and exotically-named ice cream that proclaims to be the best America has to export. We order a flavor that looks suitably chocolatey (I assume the “Ring-a-Ding” in the name is meant to evoke San Francisco trolley lines, one more reference likely to miss its mark), and it arrives in a tall glass, three scoops high, drenched in caramel and chocolate syrup. Promising beginnings, but the insides prove to be not terribly exceptional. We both judge the ice cream to be about Baskin Robbins-quality, way down at the bottom of the barrel in a city with many better and cheaper options for sweets.

Swensen’s is a relative newcomer to India, one of the latest in a steadily widening stream of Western companies that have gone global, carving out niches and spawning hybrids across Asia. In the mid-1990s, when my family had just moved from rural Washington to Bangalore, this trend was only just beginning. Pizza Hut was a novelty when it opened in the city, the year after we arrived. The line stretched all the way down through the building on Cunningham Road, and I remember the sheer taste of that pizza when we finally got a seat. Real mozzarella cheese, thick and oozing above a pocket of spicy tomato sauce. Not long after, my French class was assigned Marcel Proust’s piece about old memories unleashed by taste alone. At the time I had only the haziest idea what a madeleine was, but I found I could empathize with the basic sentiment. As a displaced adolescent Indian-American in the rapidly-expanding metropolis of Bangalore, my taste of memory was strong, if rather less sophisticated. Memory was embedded for me within the spectrum of Americanized fast foods that had now become so hard to find. I learned how to make Indianized-quesadillas using wheat flour chapattis, cheese and hot sauce, before Tex Mex food made its way to Bangalore. My family improvised refried beans for burritos, pasta sauce for spaghetti. I dreamt at the age of thirteen of finding donuts with actual texture, colby-jack cheese, fresh ice cream.

Mural on an abandoned building in Malleshwaram

Mural on an abandoned building in Bangalore: “Ignorance is Blindness of the Soul”

In the present day, Bangalore is a radically different city than it was when my family moved here from the US nearly two decades ago. There is little from across the world, be it language or cuisine or brand, that cannot be found in this crazy city, cracked at the seams. There is little that cannot be found, with the notable exceptions of peace, quiet and clean air. I have watched Bangalore shift from the Garden City to Silicon Valley of India, becoming overrun with multinational corporations and grid-locked traffic, all beneath the yellow of an eternally smoggy sky. Bangalore’s skyline has changed over the years from the contours of avenue trees to jagged proliferations of highrises, the detritus of buildings under constant construction. The present moment is difficult to contain with words in this kaleidoscope city. Here, the only constant is a yearning for imagined futures, alongside burning nostalgia for the vanished past.

Swensen’s reeks nostalgia for a past that I have never seen. It is filled with cultural cues meant to comfort the consumer by bringing back a period of economic stability, of general prosperity in post-war America. “Here is your childhood,” says the internal décor of the ice cream parlor – photographs of children smiling in the California sun, seats built in the style of a 1950s diner. “Don’t you remember the soda fountain down the street, how good things were back then? Don’t you remember the bell of the trolley lines across the hills of San Francisco?” I can imagine, but I certainly cannot remember. I missed the golden era the place is trying to evoke by several decades at least. I have never been to San Francisco. These are not my memories, this is not my nostalgia. Neither does this nostalgia belong to the larger portion of the ice cream parlor’s patrons across the world today.

The Swensen’s website gives locations for the store all the way across Asia and South America. Bangalore alone has seven apparently thriving outlets of the ice cream parlor. The ice cream that markets itself as America’s favorite, however, has largely disappeared from the United States. Although the chain once spread across the country, by the 1980s it had already begun its nationwide retreat. A friend of mine recently told me about one that existed on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, California when he was a child, just minutes from my apartment in Irvine. David Farris, who currently teaches math at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, was once a frequent consumer of ice cream at the Santa Ana Swensen’s. “I used to go there a fair amount,” he told me. “Of the ice cream places nearby it was by far the best quality. It sort of had a premium reputation, and a lot of that was bound up with it being old-fashioned and old-style.”

The Santa Ana Swensen’s is now gone, with a new ice cream parlor in its place. Four outlets remain of the ice cream chain in the United States today, one of which is the original in San Francisco. With the economic downslide of the US in the 2000s, this ice cream parlor, like so many other American brands, followed the siren song of growing markets into the developing world. Swensen’s, and Krispy Kreme, and countless others have carried their faux-1950s décor to India, a message that changes meaning as it travels across oceans. The cultural cues for an imagined comforting past are converted into emblems of a shining future. Reviews for Swensen’s (India) online speak of its pleasant, modern ambience; the place is described as well-lit and airy. I am left reading the book from both sides, as always. Signals cross, and I do not know where or when I’m meant to be.

One of the best explorations of nostalgia that I have ever seen lies within the book Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the only manuscript that French writer Alain-Fournier published prior to his death during World War I. The book follows two boys in the twilight of adolescence. They search for a place in the forest where one encountered a wedding party organized by children, and a beautiful woman that he cannot get out of his mind. We only learn of this dream-like location and unreal woman through flashbacks. Neither one can be viewed directly, and eventually we realize that both place and person will always be out of reach. The protagonist locates the woman after several years only to find his dream still elusive; her solid reality weighs against her. She can never live up to the longing that has led him searching so many years. The boy (now a man) continues searching for that bright idyllic place in his past. He seeks a world half imagined; we begin to wonder if perhaps he seeks a world that never was.

Bangalore is replete with nostalgia for a world that never existed. At Krispy Kreme, opened on bustling Church Street a year and a half ago, the walls are decorated with sepia-toned photographs of small-town Depression-era Americana. Cheerful employees in anachronistic aprons manage a conveyer belt that shines in the warm lights: donuts lightly fried before receiving that final perfect touch, a decadent waterfall of sugar icing. “Don’t you remember back when you could walk down the street to your neighborhood donut maker,” the décor seems to say to me – “Don’t you remember back before malls and chain stores took over your world?” To be perfectly honest, I do not. And neither would anyone else here, younger than me by an average of about a decade. But still I am drawn back here, Meaulnes searching for his vanished world.

Graffiti painted over government murals in Malleshwaram

Graffiti painted over government-commissioned murals in Bangalore

I find a battle over memory, from one establishment of my city to the next; one image to the next. Cornerhouse ice cream parlor was founded in Bangalore thirty years ago, enough time to have seen the expanding city multiply personalities several times over. On its walls are black and white pictures of a Bangalore that predate the store by decades. Here we have the gentle curves of colonial-era architecture in pre-independence India, broad promenades where long-dead figures meander, dusty roads and spreading trees. Do you remember, the images whisper. Don’t you remember what you’ve lost. I can recognize few landmarks in these black and white photographs, which also line the walls of seventy-year old Koshy’s Restaurant, nearby. In between the two, the India Coffeehouse tries to give the impression with spartan blue paint and dated coffee ads that it has not changed décor in fifty years, despite the fact that this particular outlet is scarcely five years old.

With the present out of control, commercial establishments and popular media alike fight to control the swirling past. My own memories prove secondary to this deluge. I cannot tell you what stood where Krispy Kreme now stands, or Starbucks, or Swensens, or Taco Bell. I do not remember what was here before the India Coffeehouse. And in five years or ten, when these too are gone, new memories will spin, new nostalgias for that imagined eye of the storm where the present seemed clear.

Conventional wisdom has it that we only miss the things that we used to know. And thus nostalgia marketing tries to tease out that narrow window, between childhood and the early twenties, where our happiest memories are presumed to lie. So it is that the Baby Boomer generation (along with everyone else within viewing distance) has been flooded with cultural cues from the 1950s and 60s for decades now. Presumably, when Generation X gets its turn, they will be bombarded with cues that combine grunge music with flannel clothing, peppered with a heavy dose of irony. I suppose in a few decades my own so-called “Millenial” generation will be expected to open our wallets when subjected to the Spice Girls.

And yet our minds and emotions are far more complex than such practices tend to suggest. How else can I explain the fact that I feel the strongest nostalgia for a world never seen? Peering through the cracks in barred up gates in Bangalore, I find windows into lost secret worlds. Ancient bungalows long uninhabited, overgrown lots with trees grown tall; an opera house that has not opened its doors in decades. Ruins and slums half-refurbished, clothes hung out to dry as squatters bring crumbled buildings back to life. I search for the world that lies beyond the image, beyond media bombardment. Behind the glitz there is something real here, painful snatches of beautiful meaning. One hundred years after his death, I keep searching for Alain-Fournier’s lost ideal.

Books read in the last little while.

I published two book reviews online this last year that I’ll link to, before talking about all the non-academic books I managed to steal time for in the last few months.

“Rereading Walden” – a review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau at Public Books, and,

“The Era of the Geographically Confused” – a review of Ayya’s Accounts by Anand Pandian at the LA Review of Books.

Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, by George Monbiot (2013): Partly a piece of environmental journalism, part call-to-arms, part personal memoir – similar in that way to Refuge, below.  Monbiot is an interesting thinker, and although I don’t agree with everything he says here I like how he argues – I’ll definitely be watching him more closely after this.  George Monbiot is a journalist, who I mostly knew before now for his column in The Guardian and this video on the effects of wolf-reintroduction in Yellowstone that gives me chills every time. He has been very vocal in his call for “rewilding” of the natural environment – and although his educational background is in zoology, the way that he structures his arguments is much more informed by his thirty-year career as a journalist and his concern as a nature-lover.  (his website has the quote from Byron – “I love not man the less, but nature more…”) All that is fine, because he’s very upfront about it – he does not claim to be making a purely scientific argument in favour of rewilding, which is great, because if he had I would have closed this book after the first page.  (coming from the perspective of evolution / population dynamics, you really cannot make straightforward ecological arguments in favour of reintroducing extinct species after hundreds of years – if nothing else, too much has changed for anyone to say that these species can just slide happily back in. And arguments about “restoring the ecological balance” by “introducing missing species” tread on terribly thin ice – they run the danger of causing extra abuse to the already faulty category of the ecological niche.)

All that aside. I loved this book. I loved it despite the fact that Monbiot has several conflicting definitions of rewilding that don’t quite mesh (at times he talks about it as re-introducing lost species, at other times as actively preserving ecological dynamism by taking “exotic” species like sheep out – elsewhere as just taking a step back and not managing the environment at all.).  I loved it for its emotional honesty.  Monbiot presents what he was able to dig up about economic, sociological and ecological benefits of rewilding, and then sets that aside to admit that his reasons for wanting environmental diversity and a tree-filled landscape have nothing to do with its practical benefits.  He suffers from “ecological boredom” in Wales, he says – he finds the barren, sheep-shorn hills near his house to be physically depressing.  He sees endangered or unexpected species coming back to the U.K., and feels joy.

That I can relate to, and agree with. There is a psychological need that forests fill that goes beyond language, and that we are swiftly losing.  I’m also increasingly realising that the kind of childhood that I had in rural Washington – with all the outdoors at my fingertips, running around with friends and stretching our imaginations in a small town without borders – where riverbeds were as accessible as fallow fields dotted with trees, was rare for the 1980s/1990s in the United States and has grown even rarer now. So I’ll leave you here with this quote from Feral… 

“Of all the world’s creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world. In the turning of one generation, the outdoor life in which many of us were immersed has gone. […] So many fences are raised to shut us out that eventually they shut us in.”

Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (2009):  Tassie Keltjin is twenty years old and in college in the American mid-West in 2001, when planes hit the World Trade Centre.  The consequent ripples of change across American society shadow the next year as Tassie searches for work and for purpose in life. She gets a part-time job  as a nanny for an adopted multiracial girl (half Caucasian American / half African American), whose adoptive (white) parents have their own quirks and tragic backstory – those gradually unfold alongside Tassie Keltjin’s own coming of age story (dealing with school work, heartbreak and death over the course of one year).

One thing I really liked about this book was how far it went discussing multiraciality, and the challenges of adopting across race lines. It’s rare to see both issues dealt with in such a sensitive, deep way within a novel.  But I had some issues with the book.  Tassie’s character felt rather blank and politically naive – and given that I remember clearly what it was like to be in college in the US soon after 9/11, I really needed something more there (kind of along the lines of Adichie’s depth in Americanah, below).  Moore’s style also tended to overshadow her content – although some of the language was lovely, it was a kind of loopy loveliness that kept throwing me out of the plot. Very different from, say, Terry Tempest Williams, whose bare poetic style was a perfect reflection of the landscape she was trying to evoke in Refuge. Also  there’s a [spoilery] event at the end which was structurally inevitable from the beginning but still felt like gratuitous tragedy.

Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams (1992): Refuge follows two tragedies that occurred in Williams’ life in parallel: as her mother was diagnosed with recurring cancer, rains caused the Great Salt Lake to flood a neighbouring bird refuge.  “Refuge” takes on resonant meanings: two elements of the bedrock of Williams’ life – the powerful, dynamic woman that is her mother, and the bird refuge that has nourished her since childhood, both gradually crumble under forces beyond anyone’s control. Beautiful meditation on mortality, and the healing quality of the land.

This book, and Williams’ style, are utterly unique. She wrote Refuge in the late 1980s, and has produced a torrent of environmental writing since then. A recent quote from a piece by Williams in Orion magazine that I found while reading Refuge, and that went beautifully with the thought-processes the book inspired in me:

“Wilderness is not my leisure or my recreation. It is my sanity.”

One of those rare books that is in fact a poem or a song, disguised for the day as a novel.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (2010):  Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of thirty.  She left a husband and five children behind, the youngest of whom was just an infant at the time. Twenty-five years later, her children found out that their mother’s cancer cells had been taken by the hospital staff and turned by biologist George Gey into one of the first successfully self-sustaining human cell culture lines, known as Hela cells.  The family had not known earlier that Henrietta’s cells were being used in this way, and one could argue that her husband had not provided informed consent.  When Rebecca Skloot contacted the family in the early 2000s, it became clear that they had been left entirely in the dark by the scientific community, and that they still believed justice had not yet been done.

This book is extraordinary.  Rebecca Skloot takes ten years of interviews and archival research into Henrietta Lacks’ family and the biologists connected to the discovery of Hela cells, and then performs a juggling act – mixing biography with biology and a heavy dose of medical law.  She handles opposing views on medical ethics with sympathy and sensitivity, while bringing Henrietta Lacks back to life through words in ways that the woman’s immortal cell line never could. Her position is fragile: she is trying to give voice to a family that has been marginalised – telling a story that is theirs, not hers, to tell.  She walks a fine line there, and I thought she did a fairly good job – her editing of interview material (at their request) is quite minor.

My quibble with the book is a small one – Skloot oversimplifies the science more than I would have liked, and sensationalises scientists a little too much. It’s easy to latch onto large personalities to make a good story, and occasionally she falls prey to that. Overall, though, I loved this book.

The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson (1998): Collection of short stories, ranging from the speculative to the simply strange.  Jeanette Winterson is one of my favourite writers, and has written a number of my favourite books.  She does have the occasional piece out there that just doesn’t click with me, though, and this one was one of them.  Her style works well in a novel – but doesn’t transpose perfectly to short stories, which set some interesting thoughts going for me about the demands of the different mediums. (short stories need a slightly more compact, self-contained structure, I suspect – which doesn’t tend to be Winterson’s style.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Follows the parallel stories of high school sweethearts from Nigeria whose lives take them to different corners of the West, in search of dreams that slowly fade or change.  Ifemelu leaves Nigeria in her early twenties to go to college in Philadelphia, and spends the next decade of her life in the North East of the US, navigating romantic entanglements and her own shifting identity as a Nigerian with Americanized aspects – and as an African in America who is not African-American.  Obinze, her former lover, moves to the U.K. to start a life that never quite lives up to his expectations, wrestles with the immigration system and finally returns to Nigeria, ending up a successful business-man who is still not quite comfortable in his own skin.  Ifemelu and Obinze both reflect on the twists and turns their lives have taken, as Ifemelu prepares to return to Nigeria and Obinze prepares for her return.

I adored this book.  Beautifully nuanced discussion of the complexities of racial identification in the United States that does not tiptoe around its subject matter at all.  Gorgeously written – and the book radiates a kind of dark glee as it highlights the absurdity of the life of the immigrant in America.  I remember reading somewhere that Adichie said she kept laughing out loud while she wrote it.  There is also a line in here that perfectly articulates my problem with a lot of contemporary American literary fiction – Obinze complains that in these books,

“nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.”

I need to pick up more by this writer.