The weekend before last my Mum was in town. I hadn’t seen her since I was home at Christmas, and because I’m a terrible daughter I don’t call nearly enough. So a long weekend of talking, catching up, drinking tea, walking through my neighbourhood: it was long overdue. Mum filled me in on what’s been happening at home while I showed her fragments of my life here. We talked about books we’d been reading. Mum had recently read Barracuda after seeing my review here (thanks Mum!) so we talked about coming home, living away, starting new. I recommended she also read Questions of Travel which I also identified with (read more here). Twice I’ve lived in different countries, twice I’ve moved to Melbourne, four times now I’ve made homes away from home. It’s enticing, liberating, terrifying, heartbreaking and heart-warming all at the same time, but also something that’s really difficult to describe to family and friends – not only the being away but coming home. I’ve always struggled to communicate how it feels, but Questions of Travel and Barracuda both explain it so beautifully from an Australian perspective. But of course there’s more to living away from home than being a somewhat nomadic Aussie: I loved how Michelle de Kretser contrasted Laura’s story with Ravi’s in Questions of Travel, but there are still so many versions of this story to tell. So it’s fitting that while Mum was visiting, I started to read Americanah.
Americanah is beautiful book that at its heart is a love story. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love in high school but are separated when Ifemelu goes to America to study. Obinze is denied a US visa and they begin to lead separate lives. I’m sure you can see where this is going: it’s a classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, boy loses girl again, etc., story. But thankfully, not only has Adichie drawn two interesting characters in Ifemelu and Obinze, but she uses the novel to make some thought-provoking observations about race and identity through Ifemelu’s blog. Posts from the blog about race in the US cut through the book in an interesting way: they allow Adichie to make these observations in a fictional context, breaking up the novel with clever asides, without distracting from the overall plot. Material for the blog seems to be everywhere, but Adichie manages to use these posts to add to the plot, rather than beat the reader over the head. With titles such as 'Why Dark-Skinned Black Women-Both American and Non-American-Love Barack Obama' and 'What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White' they bring intelligence and humour, but they also sit alongside observations of a new arrival or traveller: an awareness from the outside.
Much of this novel is about seeing the world differently: race, family, relationships, career, travel. This is contrasted against a privileged America, never better than in this scene at a dinner party, reminiscent of a Woody Allen film:
“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”.
Adichie also writes well of the loneliness of new worlds. Of leaving behind loved ones and places known as home in order to discover new people and places. This reflection by Obinze I found particularly heartening:
“He thought of his mother and of Ifemelu, and the life he had imagined for himself, and the life he now had, lacquered as it was by work and reading, by panic and hope. He had never felt so lonely”.
But ultimately it’s about choices: when we get to make them and when they’re made for us. Early on in the novel, one of Ifemelu’s friends is about to leave Nigeria:
“’Ginika, just make sure you can still talk to us when you come back,’ Priye said.
‘She’ll come back and be a serious Americanah like Bisi’ Ranyinudo said.
‘I would give anything to be you right now’, Priye said”
Americanah is a beautiful novel. If you liked Questions of Travel I really think you’d enjoy this too. It’s a book you can sink into without needing to stretch too far, but you’ll be sucked in by the characters and wanting the best for them as they decide on the future.
Recently I’ve been working really hard at getting a good balance between work and play. All the usual freelance dilemmas of not bringing work home, not taking on too many jobs, staying organised, making time for my partner and friends, dedicating time to read and write and cook. Basically it’s impossible. But what I have become good at is planning for chaos. I often have one, two, three, four-week periods where I work twelve hours a day or more, six days a week. But then I’ll also have times where I work part time and do grocery shopping during the day with the local nonna’s and yiayia’s who are most certainly my people. It’s during these times that I try to get on top of everything. So over the Easter weekend, as well as making a million hot cross buns (see my Tenth of December post here), I also celebrated our anniversary with a fancy dinner out with my partner, went for long walks, did a tonne of washing, made plum jam, spent time with friends and made an industrial quantity of poached quinces.
Inspired by this Apples Under My Bed recipe for oven poached quince, I used the same recipe but cooked the quinces in my slow cooker on low for 6 hours, giving the oven a break after all those hot cross buns. This was the first time I’d ever cooked quinces, but after seeing Heidi post beautiful photos of porridge topped with these quinces on her Instagram thread Wednesday Breakfast Club I had to give them a try. They have become such a beautiful autumnal treat in the mornings: they have a similar consistency to cooked pears or apples, but a much more complex flavour that’s beautifully balanced by the warming spices used here. They are absolute monsters uncooked: in season they are massive, with a hard peel and hefty core that took a bit of grunt and patience to prepare. But once you’re through the tough work you’ll be rewarded with a beautifully scented home for a whole afternoon while they quietly simmer away. This recipe yielded me two big jars full of fruit plus a big container stashed in the freezer for a crazy time ahead when I know I’m going to need something warming, comforting and easy amidst the chaos.
A big part of the reason that life is about to become chaotic? The upcoming Emerging Writers' Festival here in Melbourne. I'm delighted to be appearing on a panel discussing food writing at Kinfolk Cafe on Wednesday May 28th with some great writers (including my friend Yasmeen who's recipes I've cooked in my posts for Questions of Travel and The Postman). Best of all, ticket price includes cake! You can book tickets here.