Foreign: An urgent fiction

FOREIGN: fiction’s dark underbelly

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Some contemporary books might call attention to being post-Obama literature, wherein a set of references to the milestone American black president becomes either the backdrop or a defining moment for characters within a novel. President Obama is barely referenced in the opening pages of Foreign as the subject of our protagonist’s latest book to demonstrate her own ease with the politics and identity of her adopted homeland, the place of her karma and terra firma, Dr. Katya (Katyaini) Misra.  Her American teenager perhaps takes after her in his own quest for identity and calling, as he breaks an ordinary vacation at his grandparents’ place in Mumbai, to set off in search of his long lost father, an activist in the hinterlands of drought ravaged Vidarbha.

Foreign follows Katya’s harrowing journey as she leaves the country to bring back her son to their home in rainy Seattle. What follows is a mature social drama about falling for one’s roots but also other niche identities that decide our place in the world, or as Katya might put it, “of whether one has a voice in society or one doesn’t.” Her attempt to bring back the hyperactive, curious son Kabir to their home in America and her fiancé Alec, is set against a deeper conflict of the farmers’ fight against bio-tyranny at the hands of corporations like Monsanto and local and political goons and bureaucrats seeking their own mileage in a drama that has played havoc for over a decade in the drought ravaged village of Vidarbha. So while our protagonists are busy fetching their own ends, the heart and soul of this novel is the social and moral issue of farmers getting the raw deal for their efforts, becoming bonded slaves to first world technology and being manipulated by politicians who evade their duty of doling out compensations to families of farmers who committed suicide – establishing a vague, inaccessible document of the 40 point criteria for a farmer’s death to qualify as suicide and for the victim’s family to be eligible for government compensation. The actors are all too familiar.

Katya is in search of her son Kabir who is in search of his real father, the well known Ammar Chaudhary, a hot blooded, self-respecting activist who left Katya years ago, under the shade of his cowardice but what he wields as his chastity card, wanting to avoid “moh and maya” (attachment and illusion). Orchestrated by the pious Mr. Chaudhry, almost immediately the mother and son are made at home by a host family of farmers to be embroiled in a series of events and suicides that change their lives and question their motives. Human weaknesses are overcome by human action, and that becomes the underlying strength of this novel: history cannot be overcome, but the future might reap harvest from a collective call to action.

Sonora Jha spins a taut tale between Seattle and Vidarbha, placing unexpected characters in a crisis zone a lot of us have only remotely heard referenced in news clippings and television. All the clichés about a returning “foreign” non-resident Indian woman are cleverly and economically communicated in her story, with two Americanised characters offset against the more rustic others, especially Anmar Chaudhary the blood father of Kabir, who stokes an unflinching love and hunger for his new found son.

Interestingly, Katya and Kabir are characters you may understand and empathise with, but not necessarily get under the skin of, at least not until you are more than halfway through the novel! This is because, the mother and son, like skillful reporters or vehicles, take you deep into lives and situations far more urgent, complex and foreign than theirs – the livelihoods of a family of farmers for whom the next meal could well mean selling their best kidney – where you meet Bajirao and Gayatribai, central characters of the farmers’ struggle, but also Katya and Kabir’s host family. Gayatribai and Bajirao’s problems become Katya and Kabir’s, but also the reader’s. The ease and agility with which the American teenager Kabir, adapts and innovates with adult calm, to the needs and cues of Gayatribai, the village, or his father, is slightly over remarkable, and also the catalyst for a life-changing decision taken by Katya towards the end.

There is one particularly brilliant chapter where the river assumes the metaphor of a bride, who in the wake of her groom’s arrival, the rain, is contemptuous of other human forms, deciding the arc of life for others who have grown up, consummated by her banks or been swallowed up in her. The hungry river continues flowing, avenging her hunger with a death toll of the old and wasted.

The story is consistently dark, intense, gripping and layered with societal tensions in the midst of an agricultural and economic crisis. The action is hectic, sometimes too much so, and for a plot that is realistic, there is never a dull moment of characters that are constantly transcending their identities or transiting different worlds between paragraphs.

Is Foreign the journalist’s approach to fiction? If so, how much journalism feeds good fiction, or how much journalism should depend on fiction for an issue to be advertised/conveyed to larger numbers? Foreign sits on years of primary and secondary research and groundwork undertaken in the region, and it shows. Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night was another successful, deeply interesting novel that treated an issue (female infanticide) among others, within the framework of a novel.

Foreign spans two countries (without parallel narratives, thankfully; nearly everyone is in the present tense), and protagonists you may not necessarily like or hate, but several heart-stopping moments of characters submitting to a range of conflicts and choices in a country that has witnessed the death of a staggering 2,70,000 farmers over a decade and a half at least, according to most sources. Is this immersive fiction like immersive journalism, or just journalism based fiction?

You feel slight relief on recalling this year’s ruling of Indian government rejecting the Monsanto patent in attempts to save the farmer from seed slavery and the more commonly known bio-rape. Foreign comes as a jolting reminder of the perils at the bottom of the pyramid, taking us through Bajirao and other farmers’ desperation, disputed or stalled land claims, chain funerals, widows farming, mass weddings, organ selling, ruthless moneylenders, vulgar and corrupt bureaucrats and law officials. To be a farmer is hard enough, to be a woman and a farmer, is to be political! This story unravels the farmer’s story, gives it cinematic scope, as an entire village protests its way out of seed dependence, chain suicides and continuing poverty with the reluctant heroine Gayatribai, at its helm.

This ambitious novel cleverly attempts to unite different worlds, across continents, economics, societies and technology divides, rife with uneasy encounters and life and death dilemmas that highlight the choices one makes, but also those implemented under the iron hand of society, circumstance, ideology and justice. Foreign offers some grim, enlightened reading to anyone in search of a good story.

“Americanah” is a racy romp through race structures in modern day America

Harper Collins (2013)

Harper Collins (2013)

Adichie is a brilliant entertainer, and I think she will take that as a compliment from her readers. True to her TED Talk, she does not stick with a single story for a certain person, or in other words, does not serve you down the stereotypes; although this does not mean you don’t relate with her characters, because, that you certainly do; it is just that the protagonist Ifemelu (by virtue of her creator) enjoys this sense of propriety, this Olympian outlook of having lived better, with so many other lives firmly kneaded into a strong fabric that weathers the uneven forces of nature and nurture, you emerge a richer reader.  The age old questions are tackled in Ifemelu’s story. Do you grow up as you intend to? Do you marry the one you love? What is your dream job, or thriving passion?

Independent young Ifemelu, who actually is quite an ordinary upper middle class Nigerian Igbo girl, is the apple of our eye, and we never forget that. After completing high school and attending college, interrupted frequently by university strikes in Nsukka, she is urged by her boyfriend Obinze and his lovely mother (who insists that Ifem inform her as soon as O and she become sexually active,  sowing the seeds of a special relationship between them), to take the SATs and apply for a foreign degree on scholarship, which she does and succeeds. Why Obinze does not follow her to America soon enough, is something we discover slowly along the way, without losing sight of the central character or plot.

Ifemelu’s arrival in America, is marked by the slew of familiar encounters: terrifying roommates, skepticism, the mantle of a new ‘black identity’ thrust on her, thanks to the fighting perceptions of race, and newly emergent discourses on ‘race relations’ in post civil-rights America. Race matters, she finds out hard enough. She is by turns exoticised, stereotyped, subtly and not so subtly discriminated against, embraced, accepted, but almost always challenged, by every rung of society in modern day America. And this is what makes the story so climactic! We follow her titillating journey (because yes, it’s racy as hell – including the nailbiting coverage of the countdown to Obama’s electoral win and milestone presidency) through her American citizenship, meeting other immigrants in her boat (legal and illegal), dealing with very real dilemmas of teenage suicide (affecting her nephew) and the Great American Depression hitting her in the peak and trough of every relationship. Ifemelu’s story seethes with hunger, quest and a love that is constantly learning, expanding itself as she learns and lives in America (this, especially when offset against Obinze’s own failing struggles with immigration in the UK draws quite a stark parallel, as it also reflects on differing political attitudes towards immigration and the cultural legacy of race and immigration in both continents). America for Ifemelu comes to signify want, desire, greed, the freedom to live with whom you want, the freedom to divorce (and maybe now, the freedom to even marry).

If this novel is satire, this satire is not what Americans normally seek through irony, but rather a delightful conjugation of simple and complex realities as reflected through Ifemelu’s deeply personal experiences. Here is a beautifully woven tale that not only pokes fun at Africanness, turning ‘Americanah’ or of the dilemmas of being a black immigrant in America and returning to one’s roots while making a fair share of references to the the late Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (poking fun at) VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, but refuses to constrict a relationship (sexual or otherwise) or label it as one thing, treading along with an athlete’s patience and endeavour for the real thing. This story seethes with love, longing and a cultural desperation to understand and behold the other. 

Americanah should be deigned prescriptive reading to all college freshmen classes in all American colleges. Immediately, before we are superceded by the next technology wave. This novel could easily fit a course in cross-cultural communication, contemporary literature, or generic compulsory reading. Especially in an educational climate where on-campus diversity is something most colleges hope to gain mileage from.

I love how savvy this book is, and compared with her earliest novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ I would definitely say, this book is more commercially aware, and does a tidy weave of brain and brawn candy drawing on the familiar habits of an American readership and a Nigerian and more global readership within a technologically relevant setting (without being intrusive at all her characters communicate through Facebook, Blogging, Blackberry, text messaging). Of course, what takes the cake, is Ifemulu’s entrepreneurial venture, her running blog on what she calls Raceteenth Century America, a wild romp through the everyday tussles of being a Non-American Black in  Post civil rights America.

Every blog post is a gentle and often fierce parody of inter-racial love, sex, advertising and lifestyle, as experienced by her. Hair is a hot button topic she returns to with liberal detail, something you don’t find in ‘regular’ consumer media.  Her blog becomes a popular forum for many distressed and  fashionably marginalised voices in pop culture. There is a soul searing scene where she takes down about twenty fashion magazines to prove that barely two or three even reference black skin, black hair, or black bodies for their consumership! Ifemelu’s cathartic blogging  not only reduces racial conversation to its roots, but becomes a basis for others to share their formal experiences, quickly bracketing her in the league of lifestyle entrepreneurs, leaving her a soaring (and this could be relative) commercial success!

A character in one of her several conversations about blackness in America says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” Which is true. How do you write about a painful past without being specific, without being political! This book tries well, cutting across deep boundaries. Is Americanah that honest novel today? It certainly does feel spontaneous, raw and a book I wish I had read before enrolling at college.  The minefield of talk about race and relationships in this book, and unflagging idealism could well be fodder for endless college-level debates. Finally, this entire story was hard earned, including the gratifying end. And yes, Ms. Adichie, treats all her characters very very well.