The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful.
Other Shiny Stuff
Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
“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.”
“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”
I’ve taken a break from this series because I didn’t like the format I was using. I’ve been playing around with new ones and I hope you like this one. Also, I’m going to make an effort to make these a regular Monday feature, so check back next week for another recommendation!
Drama, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
A series of vignettes, set in a Black community in a late 30s Ohio town. They center around Pecola, a neglected dark skinned girl who comes to believe that, in order to be happy, she needs blue eyes.
Character empathy rating
Toni Morrison loves her characters. She loves their darkest thoughts and their most hopeless moments and the day when life strangled the will to be good right out of them. She writes them with so much gentleness and heart that you cannot help but love these ugly, broken people, even as they destroy each other.
Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
This book is all scenes that are hard to read, but you can’t put it down, because they are too beautiful. There are so many books that I’ve tried to read, because they are Informative and Very Important Grown Up Books That Will Change Your Life. More often than not, I leave them half finished, because they are so ugly I can’t read them and keep going through my day. Then I join the ranks of lying intellectuals who say, “oh yeah, I’ve read that. I too am cultured.” That didn’t happen with this book. It hasn’t happened with any Very Important Grown Up Book written by Toni Morrison, because she doesn’t lecture. She just loves so deeply that your heart breaks with her.
Other Shiny Stuff
Talks about a period of Black history that often gets erased
Audible.com has a version that she narrates, and it’s amazing. Her lilting, smoky voice fits the novel perfectly
If child abuse or sexual abuse are triggers, this might not be the book for you.
“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we has a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”
A while ago, Hank Green of Vlogbrothers (a youtube channel he runs with his somewhat more famous brother, author John Green) did a video on his fifteen favorite feelings. He did it because in part because videos like “fifteen things that annoy you” were commonly requested, and despite their popularity, they always left him feeling bad. He wanted to do a listy video that was positive. It actually was a very popular post as well, and since then some other people have borrowed the idea, like Malinda Kathleen Reese of the Google Translate Sings videos. (She runs song lyrics through Google Translate until they screw up, and then sings them dramatically. It’s wonderful.)
I’ve liked all these videos, so I decided to steal the concept for my blog. I’m doing two versions; one here that is specifically writing themed, and one over on The Brunette’s Blog for more general good feelings.
Getting a new idea. There are downsides to this one. Sometimes my brain is overrun with unwritten stories. Sometimes I’m struggling with a story and the arrival of a new idea seems timed specifically to tempt me away. Still, that flash, that “what if?” followed by myriad implications that make my heart pound with scripturience… it’s the whole root of the reason I write, and even if I have too many stories on my roster, it’s nice to be reminded that one thing I will never run out of is inspiration.
The sense that there is a story hiding in something. Often, before getting a clear idea, I feel drawn to something; a piece of music, a person, a picture, a scene. I feel like if I let myself be open to it, a story will unfold to me. According to Better Than English (and I’m not sure how reliable that site is) koi no yokan means the feeling that someone is going to inevitably fall in love. This is like that.
The moment when slow, plodding writing becomes quick and easy writing. The best cure to writer’s block, as many writers will tell you, is to write. There’s a scene in Finding Forrester (a flawed white savior movie, but still very good) where Forrester, an established prize winning author, gives Jamal, gifted aspiring writer, some of his own work to start him typing. He says the mere physical act of writing will get Jamal’s own ideas flowing, and he’s right. The blank page is terrifying, the first few sentences clumsy, the first paragraph agonizing, and then suddenly it’s all a beautiful dance in which time and the outside world completely disappear.
When I listen to my characters and they tell me something brilliant and unexpected. It can be such a struggle to surrender control of a story to the characters, but without that I can’t get this, and this is the coolest thing.
Reading or watching something so good, it gets me excited about writing all over again. ‘Nuff said.
When I observe something that I don’t think I’ve read about before. When I was a kid, my family went strawberry picking every summer. One day, I plucked a strawberry and, instead of putting it in my box or eating it right away, I took a moment to really look at it. I noticed that, if I stared directly into the flesh, I saw glitter. I saw that same glitter in every other strawberry I looked at that day, and I looked at every one I picked. Strawberries sparkle in the sun. At the time, the observation made me sad. I had never heard anybody speak about this before, and being the only one to notice it made me feel lonely. Now, I realize that it’s a blessing. The world is so full of strange and beautiful and sad and incredible things, it will take all of human history to notice it all. To notice something new and to share it with the world is one of the best jobs of the writer.
When I give my readers something I don’t think is that good, but they love it. Giving my writing to somebody else to read is scary, and I’m always prepared to hear that I utterly suck. It’s such a relief to find out that I don’t, especially because all my regular critics are people I trust to not spare my feelings. Speaking of which…
When a reader has a criticism and I realize I know how to solve it. Not only do I often hear that my work is quite good, the criticisms I get are less “you are awful and should give up immediately,” more “there are some fixable issues here, here and here.” It’s wonderful to replace that overwhelming dread with a sense of control.
When somebody gets exactly the reaction I want them to get from a story. Obviously the best of the three possible reactions that my alpha readers give me, but the others are pretty great too.
When somebody’s advice on writing gives me a brand new perspective. I like studying the art of storytelling, and one of the coolest things is that there’s no one right way to write a story. There’s just different strategies that are better or worse for different aspects. It’s always fun to discover there was more to learn.
When I find a simple, clear, reliable source on a topic that is hard to research. Writing research is hard to do, simply because of the oddity of the information writers might look for. Even Google can’t always save you. Sometimes, when I come across a good source on rare topics, I don’t even care if it’s something I’m currently writing about. I’ll just gobble it up for future reference.
When I have a terrible experience, and a little voice in the back of my head goes “you can put this in a story someday.” I’ve always thought this is one of the great consolations of being a writer. No matter how awful life gets, if you make it through, you can write about it. Remembering that always gives me a feeling of power over my adversaries.
When a new use for an old abandoned concept appears. All writers have the ideas that they loved, and were used up in stories that didn’t pan out. Sometimes those include your favorite ideas. Luckily, the really good ones tend to be resilient. If one story gets trashed, they’ll crawl out and find their way into something else. When they do, it’s like starting a scary new job and finding an old friend already works there.
When I’m watching quietly with my writer’s glasses on, and I’m struck by the beauty and variety of the world around me. Part of my brain is always writing, but sometimes I’m specifically focusing on the world around me as a writer. I’m trying to notice things. Sometimes what I notice is simply that the world is really, really cool.
When somebody likes a blog post. Hint, hint. Thanks for reading, everybody!
I just came back from a party I went to, mostly to keep my extroverted boyfriend happy, but I ended up having a good time. There was a guest there who I hopefully didn’t stare at too much. I’m bad about staring at people. I blame it on being a writer; often I notice things about people that trigger some writerly thoughts. There’s something about the way they are dressed or carrying themselves that gives me an idea, and I want to stare to imprint the idea into my head, to fully process it, sometimes even to consciously understand what is unconsciously appealing about them. Of course, at the same time I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I keep finding my eyes drawn to them when I’m bored, catching myself and looking away in a way that I’m sure people notice. In this case I felt particularly awkward, because she had vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a condition where certain patches of the body lose pigment over time. The extremities and face tend to change first, so it’s very visible. It’s occasionally associated with more severe diseases, and can cause some stigma and insecurity, but in and of itself, it isn’t dangerous, nor is it contagious. What made drew my writer’s eye wasn’t the vitiligo itself, but the fact that she was very pretty. And I don’t mean pretty despite her vitiligo, or would be pretty if not for the vitiligo. She had vitiligo, and she was pretty, and I was trying to figure out how to describe that.
See, I’ve realized that prose has done a seriously terrible job of handling body positivity, and I don’t think it’s gotten enough finger wagging for that. Most of the criticism ends up directed at visual media, but I think in a way prose can be more destructive, and often is. The typical approach to describing characters is to declare them lovely, plain or hideous, and then offer up a list of traits that support the author’s claim. As a result, thin and blonde becomes officially beautiful, fat and freckled become officially plain, and highly unusual traits, like vitiligo, don’t get to exist at all unless the author wants an ugly character. It encourages people look at themselves like they are unassembled puzzles, and the bits writers have declared unattractive automatically outweigh the officially attractive ones.
That’s not how people actually look. Real people are composites, not only of their physical features, but also of their personalities and attitudes. Often, a larger than average nose or a scar or a rotund waistline occur in a person who, as a whole, is very good-looking. Furthermore, that’s not always the case that removing that trait would necessarily make them look better. So it was with this woman. She had light brown skin, with the area around her eyes and nose white like a raccoon’s mask in reverse, and she had a pleasant smile and soft dark eyes, a light pinkish-purple top that went well with her black hair, and she was pretty.
Visual media at least has the ability to show us people as a whole, and let us make up our own minds. Where a book would just state that Lupita Nyong’o is unattractive because her skin is too dark and Adele is unattractive because she is fat, a picture can’t hide the truth that both of these women are utterly gorgeous. I first realized this when reading a rant on how Emma Watson was too pretty to play Hermione, who was supposed to start out very ugly, and of course this was a sign of cinema giving us unrealistic standards of beauty. Hermione is described as having frizzy hair and buck teeth. Emma’s hair looked frizzy to me, and her teeth… I couldn’t really tell. Teeth have to be pretty dramatically deformed to be noteworthy, and Hermione’s parents were dentists. They would have taken care of anything worse than a slight overbite, which is often cute. Honestly most ten year olds are cute. It’s how they survive to puberty; they have faces that make adults go “awww, let me feed you.” The critic got it backwards. The movie was honest, and the book was giving us unrealistic standards of ugliness.
As I tried to avoid staring at the woman at the party, I realized I wanted to talk to her about this. I wanted to ask her if she had ever read a book with a character who had vitiligo, and how she would want to be described. I wondered whether it would make her happy to hear that I thought she was pretty, or uncomfortable; as a trans person I know many people are are uncomfortable hearing certain parts of themselves described in a positive light, and I wonder if that’s a gender dysphoria specific thing, or if it applies to other stigmatized traits. Every way of framing this sounded awkward to me, so I never asked. Instead I’ll address the question to the internet.
To anyone who is reading this, think of some part of yourself that you think a book would blindly deride. How would you feel, if you read a book with an attractive character who had that trait? Are there ways that could be described that would make you feel uncomfortable? Are there ways that would make you feel good? Do you think books have affected how you think about your appearance?
This blog is a little bit of self-indulgent experimentation. I like to play a game when I watch a movie that I think has problems. Not movies I don’t like, in fact its often easier to play with movies I do like. I mean movies with what I identify as storytelling problems that go beyond matters of subjective taste; plot holes, inconsistent characterization, sloppy worldbuilding, etc. I take those movies, and I try to think of the single simplest fix. That means keeping as most characters, scenes, subplots and other story elements the same; I have to work as much as possible with what’s there. My goal is not to throw out the story and weave something new out of a handful of scenes and characters I liked, but to find the good story lurking in the muck and bring it out.
I think its a good mental exercise for writers. It has certainly helped my editing skills. The downside is that at the end I’ve got a story that I think is pretty good, but that I can’t do anything with, because its not mine. Then I thought, “maybe I can turn this game into an interesting blog post?” And then I thought, “no, nobody’s interested in that.” And then I argued with myself for several months. Today I have several blog posts I’m wrestling with and a pressing desire to post something, so I’m going to give this a try. Please give me some comments if you want to see more posts like this, because while I sometimes use this blog as a place to think aloud (see my endless meanderings on the nature of theme) I also want it to be a fun, interesting place for people who, you know, aren’t me.
I wrote for a bit back in November on my issues with Pitch Perfect. I think the biggest issue was that the overarching conflict didn’t make sense. The Bellas kept reusing the same song in all their performances. They knew from the judges feedback that this was a problem, and yet they didn’t solve it until the final scene because… saving costs on choreographer’s fees? Epic final dance number? It made the characters seem like idiots. To make up for it, there were a number of secondary issues. The team wasn’t getting along well. Why? Personality conflicts between team members besides the two protagonists weren’t established. It seemed to be just there to pad out screen time. One of the leads has an anxiety condition that makes her throw up unpredictably. Again, this doesn’t come with convincing characterization that fits in with her being stressed and anxious. Also, it’s really gross. Oh, and a lead singer has a random rare medical condition that isn’t life threatening, but might damage her voice. This only comes up when the writers need it to, and is solved with a lucky coincidence when the writers needed things to be happy.
Now, it is good to have multiple obstacles and conflicts, but stories that feel tight and well-written have an overarching problem, and the supplementary obstacles tend to feel like natural compliments. They are realistic consequences of the paths the characters choose, or they are thematically related to the main conflict, or they tie in some other way. This story feels like the writers cobbled together whatever they thought would give their characters a problem.
The story starts with the group leaders, Aubrey and Chloe, trying to assemble a new team. The old Bellas looked like this.
Later on, twice characters will comment on how the new team is less pretty, by which they mean two characters are fat, one of the fat ones is lesbian and gender non-conforming, one is scrawny and flat chested instead of lean yet curvy, and one is tall and sex obsessed in a “I love sex because I love it” way, instead of a “I like to be pretty eye candy for you to objectify” way. These two mentions cause problems at the time but are lost among the morass of poorly developed side conflicts.
Why not make that the central conflict? Pit the Bella’s desire to sing and have fun and be judged primarily for their singing against society’s tendency to evaluate women aesthetically first, and treat all other attributes as secondary. It’s an interesting, realistic problem that is culturally relevant and, in keeping with the rules of my game, works with material that is already there.
In my amended version of the story, the Bellas used to win because they combined genuine musical talent with sex appeal, but as old singers have graduated over the years, the leaders, Aubrey and Chloe have struggled to find replacements. Because the visual style of the Bellas is very rigid and narrow, they can’t count on always finding women who fit that aesthetic while also being able to dance and sing. Aubrey and Chloe decide that sex sells and start prioritizing looks over ability, and the quality of their group declines rapidly.
Now the story has an explanation for why they picked the same song over and over again. It has a range and choreography that accommodates the skill level of their singers. It’s a sign of how far the Bellas have fallen. (As I write this I’m aware that if the scene explaining this backstory was executed poorly, it could fit the “dumb but sexy” stereotype of attractive women. There are also ways of writing it to make it clear that these aren’t bad or dumb people, just people trying to compete at a level that is beyond where they are. For example, if the women know they suck and leave because they themselves are fed up, it makes them look self-aware and intelligent.)
Now Aubrey and Chloe are trying casting based primarily on singing ability, but sticking with the costumes, choreography and genres they are used to (obviously not the same song anymore, because we’re leaving that with the old film, but the same style). It’s not working. People are making jokes about how Fat Amy* looks in the stewardess uniform, instead of listening to how goddamn fantastic her voice is.
Enter Beca. Yes, she spells it with one C, to show she’s a rebel or whatever. She has the looks of a classic Bella, but the exact opposite attitude. She’s a natural loner, and doesn’t even want to go to college. Her dream is to go to LA and become a DJ. In the film, she claims her father is making her go and being unfair, which I didn’t think was a fair characterization. He’s saying that he’s okay with her goal, but he thinks college will give her more options if that doesn’t work out, and also give her some experiences that she will treasure later on. He even offers a compromise; if she tries college for one year, on his dime, and gives it an honest effort by joining clubs and attending classes, he will let her do whatever she wants after that. All of this is not only reasonable, but its a much better deal than most kids get. In the end, the film proves him right. Beca joins the Bellas grudgingly but learns to enjoy it and learns some valuable people skills.
In the film that was actually produced, Beca fixes Chloe and Aubrey’s problem for them by making new songs with her DJ skills. In mine, the same thing happens, but now she’s not coming to an obvious conclusion that the two of them should have thought of ages ago. They are already trying to make new music, but they don’t know how to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Beca shows them how to combine different genres, so everyone can show off their individual style and the performance still looks good. The other thing that changes is that, while she is a good DJ, she doesn’t know how to schedule rehearsals, choreograph dances or design costumes. In the movie, Chloe and Aubrey pretty much throw the reins to her, but I think its more interesting to force all three to work together, and show that struggle to learn to cooperate.
This conflict lets them have ups and downs that flow organically from the central conflict. Some of their initial experiments might not go well, setting them back in enough competitions to keep them as underdogs. Beca and Aubrey can both have interesting character arcs. They are both preoccupied with an unrealistic image; Beca with the preoccupied loner who Just Doesn’t Care, and Aubrey with the perfect sexy yet pure and effortlessly talented feminine goddess. For both of them, those stereotypes do somewhat express who they are, but they are just that; stereotypes, images too limited for any real human being to live as for long, at least not without going crazy. Beca needs to understand that in the real world, constantly isolating yourself from people doesn’t make you happy. Aubrey needs to value people for who they are as people, not just who they are on the outside, and that includes valuing herself for more than just how attractive she is to others. Both of them need to learn to not be so scornful of people who aren’t like them.
The other cast members, meanwhile, learn to be fine with who they are, to stand up against a society that puts them down for being themselves. They need to tell Aubrey, to her face, that being stuffed into outfits that don’t go with their body type and dance like a trophy wife just gets them mocked for not fitting this specific standard of beauty, and that’s shitty. They aren’t ugly. They’re all beautiful in their own way; none of them are everyone’s cup of tea, because in the real world different people have different tastes, so why don’t they just be themselves and let their own natural beauty come out? And more to the point, they didn’t come to look pretty or to win, they came because they liked singing, so why don’t they just focus on singing? Over the course of the movie, they learn to collectively shift their priorities from putting on a show with audience bait, to putting on a show that expresses who they are and that they all can feel proud of, regardless of whether they win or not.
At which point, naturally, society reward their non-materialistic, individualistic choices with the a capella championship. It’s a very Hollywood ending, but not in a bad way. In real life, something born of authentic passion can often triumph over something calculated to be popular.
I have a few more personal tweaks that I would like to add to the above story. I wouldn’t want the protagonists to all be conventionally pretty, and all the unconventionally pretty characters to be side characters. Perhaps I would make Beca more obviously punk or goth, with piercings, tattoos and a mohawk. There are several clumsy attempts at a capella puns that I would cut, as well as two random anti-Semitic jokes that are in really poor taste. I would also make Beca apologize to her Dad for being a brat to him when he was actually being pretty awesome. Still, I think I’ve covered all the major plot problems. I’ve given it a structure that seems organized, but still works with the characters, something that can be light and fun but feels like it has more substance underneath. Also I had fun writing this.
So what do you think? Good story? Good post? How would you fix this story, or other ones that you’ve seen? Would you be interested in seeing more posts like these?
*For those who haven’t seen the movie, Fat Amy is the name she chose for herself, because she knew people were going to call her that anyway and she wanted them to know she didn’t give a fuck. I love her.