The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:
Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.
[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]
So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.
I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines. This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.
There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.
The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)
This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).
First published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.
‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:
Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.
Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.
When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.
As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:
The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’
Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.
… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.
From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.
How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.
Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.
And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:
It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.
Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.
How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.
It took me a long while to get started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, but once I passed the first chapter mark, I was hooked. I took it with me everywhere and it became a conversation starter. At the hairdresser’s, appropriately enough, we started comparing the immigrant experience of black Africans in America, UK and France (my hairdresser is from the Republic of Guinea and has family in the US as well as ‘back home’).
It is a love story, but that aspect of it is almost lost in this sweeping collection of anecdotes and stories. Different facets of the Nigerian exodus to other countries are explored, as well as that uneasy tension between making a new life abroad and returning to something that is possibly no longer quite home. The language is scalpel-like in its precision, the scenes described are hard-hitting, yet there is much beauty and even lyricism here.
Prickly, honest, smart Ifemelu and handsome, effortlessly cool Obinze fall in love as teenagers in a Lagos school, but life and emigration separates them. Ifemelu goes to the US to study, experiences many humiliations but also small triumphs, finally finds a job, has relationships with both a black and a white American and becomes a successful blogger, before deciding to move back.
…and yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living. that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness…. Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.
Meanwhile, Obinze is left behind in Nigeria, is devastated when he no longer hears from his girlfriend, tries to join her in the US but fails to secure a visa and ends up cleaning toilets in Britain. He manages to save some money for a fake marriage, but is stopped and deported by the immigration police.
‘I’m willing to go back to Nigeria,’ Obinze said. The last shard of his dignity was like a wrapper slipping off that he was desperate to retie.
The lawyer looked surprised. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, and got up a little too hastily, as though grateful that his job had been made easier… He was going to tick on a form that his client was willing to be removed. ‘Removed.’ That word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.
I did not care over-much for the lop-sided structure of the book: we keep returning to that hair salon where the heroine is having her hair braided for at least three quarters of the book, while the return to Nigeria is handled in only the final 90 pages. I would also have liked to see a less hurried conclusion – it felt like there was too much build-up leading up to it and then it petered out in just a few pages. But I loved the stories of the immigrant/emigrant experience – in the US, in the UK and in Nigeria itself (past and present). And, despite the author’s reminder that the experiences of black Americans and other ethnic minorities are all different, there was so much here that made me laugh (and shed a little tear) in recognition.
The slow, deliberate, loud talking when people read your foreign name or see your differently coloured skin (even though your knowledge of English grammar and literature may be superior to theirs). The exaggerated political correctness of calling all black women ‘beautiful’ or ‘strong’, of pretending not to notice race, of talking about Africa as if it were one large amorphous mass with all its many cultures jumbled up in the pot. There are so many sharp, humorous observations about the cultural quirks and blind spots which strike foreigners arriving in both America and Britain. Especially foreigners from the so-called ‘developing world’. The pretentiousness of a ‘simple lifestyle’ for those who can afford everything, over-reliance on medical diagnosis and drugs, invitations for meals which have nothing to do with generosity but end up with a (hair)splitting of the bill, the superficial friendliness disguising a deep-seated mistrust of the ‘other’. Above all, the distinctions made between desirable and undesirable migrants, the expectation of gratitude and lack of historical guilt, the often arbitrary policies which almost force people to cheat the system.
[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convince that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.
Back in 1992, when I first went to the UK, I too experienced that well-meaning political correctness and curiosity about my country; even the charities’ activities could feel patronising and demeaning. I was asked if we had flushable toilets in our houses, while I was shocked that the English (who invented the ritual of tea-time for Europeans, after all) popped teabags into mugs, rather than the elaborate teapot, sugar-bowl, dainty cups and saucers affair that all of my Romanian acquaintances used. The mother of a Lithuanian friend of mine had been a high-level scientific researcher in the Soviet Union, but once that Baltic State declared its independence, the Russians stopped funding her institute. She came to the UK to help support her son and became a chambermaid at a hotel in London. I couldn’t help remembering her story when I read about Obinze’s experiences in Britain.
Ifemelu is not the kind of person to ‘play nice’ in an effort to adapt. She initially adopts an American accent, but then deliberately switches back to her Nigerian one. She refuses to tone down her opinions or play by the rules, but she also has a mix of bad and good luck along the way. The author pulls no punches when it comes to race issues, which makes me think that reviewers in the States almost felt compelled to praise the book for fear of being labelled racist (a situation that is openly mocked in the novel).
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America… But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off… because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive… We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.
I could go on and on, giving examples and quotes, for the author is equally clear-eyed about the Nigeria she and her protagonists have left behind, the corruption or what she calls the ‘ass-licking economy’, the barely legal deals, the foreigners who avert their eyes so that they can exploit all the better, the snobbery and materialism of the wealthy citizens.
My only criticism would be that Ifemelu’s blogs are a bit too polemical and essayistic for this novel – perfect debating points, but they just don’t feel right (or perhaps there are simply too many instances of them) for the story. Ultimately, this starts to feel too much at times like a collection of anecdotes, rather than a tight-knit whole, and that is perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise thought-provoking, entertaining, panoramic book.