The apparent racial integration in the major cities turns out to be, too often, a lazy indifference towards each other. A racial and circumstantial invisibility that allows us to live together yet keeping us apart. A matter of accepting the new-comers as long as they are far away from us and don’t interfere with our lives. In here, Ifemelu, the main character, shows it all quite well from the beginning: she lives in a white part of the city thanks to her relationships with white men, she doesn’t have problems with anyone because she works and has money but when it comes to having an African hairdo, when she wants to do something remotely linked to her culture and tradition, she has to take a train and go the the black side of the city. It would be unacceptable that someone dared to open an African hairdresser in the centre of an American city! Integrated, yes, but nicely segregated.
Precise description of contemporary novels: “novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” 21 years after, we are still stuck with the Pulp Fiction aesthetics.
There is a feeling felt by the people who move abroad to live in a different country. An strange feeling which is a combination of surprise, illusion, nostalgia, deception, cultural shock and incomprehension. Chimamanda Ngozi describes it perfectly through Ifemelu’s eyes and the patronising, disgusted and ignorant treatments she gets from the citizens of this country which is not hers. Facts that every stranger faces in major or minor degree. But there is also the enjoyment of seeing and living brand new things every day, of experimenting a supermarket (just like Ifemelu explains), of hearing new words (because even though they all speak English, in each country words have different meanings), of seeing different behaviours that you could have never thought possible and that, consequently, make you feel better with yourself. Yes, living abroad is living in a mirage, in a fake world from which you know you can always escape if things turn sour. A game ground where to play this game of living while being aware that there is a reality awaiting for us back home right on the other side of the ocean. But then, when you do go back home and things don’t improve, where can you go? When you find out that the land you had idealised from afar is much worst than you could never accept, where can you find shelter?
“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” And the same happens with plays. Every time I have to talk about a new play of mine (or whenever I am introduced to someone new as a playwright) I have to answer to the seemingly unavoidable question “what is the play about?”Well, I don’t know. Honestly. It is not about just one single thing, that’s for sure. Antonio Bones, when it came to review the New York production of my play Los Columpios (The Swings) made a list of up to 27 topics dealt with in it. And maybe he left some out. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is. There is no thrilling plot in my plays, nor a mystery or a crime to be solved. There are no betrayals nor scams or robberies or violence… the play is about everything and nothing at the same time. But you must never say that because that’ll put an end to your conversation and the audience’s interest. It is a matter of relying on topical answers like “it is about universal issues…” Recently, a new version of this impossible to answer to question is coming up too frequently: “what do you do for a living?” Philosopher, blogger, journalist, teacher, playwright, unemployed… there are so many options and the time deployed to any of them so little that it is hard to say. Maybe it is just a wittgensteinean enigma and, consequently, there is no possible answer for it and the question must not be uttered…
“In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. […] Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era.” But racists are still around, it is just a matter of, just like Ifemelu says, calling them different names, maybe we should “scrap the word “racist”. Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome, And we could have different categories of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.” Exactly, let’s change the name of the problem and carry on with our sad little lives. A clear example of this can be found in the adjective used by Europeans and Americans to refer to the foreigners coming to our countries: “foreigner“, “immigrant“. With all the pejorative connotations of the words (someone who doesn’t belong, who is strange in the Sartrean sense of the word). But instead, when the one leaving his/her own country is an European or an American, then we are not “foreigners” or “immigrants” but “expats“. With all the good things linked to the word. Words are never just words.
The similarities between the main character of Americanah and the one from the film Dear White People (despite the political activism of the latter) are striking: blogger/radio presenter, both of them tired of the hypocrisy of the American society when it comes to race and integration; using the same examples like the seemingly unavoidable need of American people to touch afro hairdos. But, mainly, their shared irony and cynicism. Two characters alike offering a much needed vision of a reality we pretend it doesn’t exist.
“You can’t even read American fiction to get a sense of how actual life is lived these days. You read American fiction to learn about dysfunctional white folk doing things that are weird to normal white folks.”
“He began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background things of which they were proud.” Suddenly, a generation of visual illiterates begins to understand the importance of imagery when they begin sharing them on Facebook. It’s not enough anymore to show our godsons photos to whoever comes to our place, now we must show how we want to be seen, too. We no longer are but we show ourselves, just like Byung-Chul Han told us a few years back.
“We are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past so they have to make a fetish of the past.”
“There are many different ways to be poor in the world but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.” And, after a couple of months living in China, this sentence becomes even more meaningful. The poverty that you can see on the streets of China is different in every corner and different to the one you can see in the States or Europe but the richness, or the appearance of being wealthy, is exactly the same everywhere. Everybody who is worth something “must” have an iPhone 6s, no matter that it will cost them over a month salary (and that’s the lucky ones who earn more than 4.000 RMB monthly). Everybody must go to Starbucks, even though then they order an overpriced milk tea because they hate the sourness of the sweetened coffee they are giving them. With Globalisation has come a global spread of stupidity and shallowness as well while, at the same time, the frontiers seem to be getting stronger and the visas harder to obtain. For the poor people, of course, if you have over 30 million US dollars in your bank account you can ask for a Chinese residence straight away. In the end, all our problems (and solutions) rely on the same thing. That’s how simple-minded they want us to be and that’s how simple-minded we have become.