Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Watchman

This much-publicized novel is either the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, or its sequel, depending on which origin narrative you believe. Some say that this novel is not complete, and/or was not meant to be published in its current form. The relationship that you have to that first novel will largely determine how much you like this one. If you put TKaM on a pedestal as perfect, you will probably be offended by Watchman. I remember reading TKaM fairly uncritically as a high school freshman and taking in its great white savior narrative as fact; since then I’d read and come to agree with criticism that it wasn’t as progressive as I was taught it was. So I think I was open to whatever Watchman would turn out to be.

I liked the experience of reading the book and being in Maycomb again. Between the two books, Lee has created a small town setting that feels real and full of life and humor. Young Scout’s vivid first person voice in TKaM was perhaps the single best thing about that book, and this one has an adult third person narrator with a bit less charm. Some of the best passages of this book are the flashbacks to childhood, which is telling because that’s also where TKaM came from. I don’t think this book would make much sense to a reader who hadn’t read TKaM first.

I honestly still don’t know what to think of Go Set a Watchman. The argument about race that the novel seemed to be making was that it was ok and right for white people in the South to fight to slow down the progress of integration so that their less enlightened neighbors could have the time they needed to get on board, because otherwise there would have been even more violence than there was. Everyone seems to agree that the federal courts and the NAACP are out of line to try to tell Alabamans how to run their state, despite the fact that they are running it in an unfair and unlawful way. African-Americans as a group are called “backward” by all characters and this idea is never contradicted in the text. (They seem mostly to mean uneducated, which may have been a historical fact, but it also seems to imply a lack of capacity for education and self-improvement, which I find offensive.) Then again, I could be completely wrong in this interpretation. Much of the plot was a series of arguments between Jean Louise (grown Scout) and various members of her family about the racial situation in Maycomb County and her father’s participation in a “citizen’s council.” The arguments get bogged down with historical trivia. They’re constitutionally meticulous, emotionally intense, and never really get concluded. The ending is very open, although my generous interpretation is that Jean Louise will stay in Alabama and struggle mightily to move public opinion in favor of integration.

I guess I agree that this book does kind of trounce the unblemished character of Atticus Finch into the mud, but that doesn’t bother me much. The part of the book I liked was the idea that Jean Louise had to detach her conscience from her father’s in order to grow up and learn to think for herself, and that necessitated a huge disagreement between them. In order for that to happen, Atticus had to disappoint her. Parents are human beings who do inevitably disappoint their kids, and so I think Atticus is a better character if he’s fallible, compared to the endlessly wise and flawless father of TKaM. So I don’t have a problem with that part of the book. The most compelling part of this book might be the idea that there is no inconsistency in the Atticus of the two books, that Atticus, our great hero, was always bigoted and paternalistic. And the fact that we can all recognize that means our standard for being racially inclusive is higher now, and it should be.

I won’t go as far as to say that it would have been better for this book to remain unpublished. It may be exactly the right time to have these discussions, and a shocking book full of racist views from half a century ago might be just the thing to get people talking.

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Americanah

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I read and enjoyed Adichie’s first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, back before I had a blog, and since then her star has been rising, as Beyoncé quoted her on feminism in her album. I liked Half of a Yellow Sun, but I loved Americanah. I wonder if the difference is that this book is that much better, or if I am the difference. Half of a Yellow Sun is set entirely in Nigeria, but Americanah begins in the US and the narrative travels between the East Coast, Lagos, and London. For some reason the familiarity of the setting allowed me to connect immediately to Ifemelu, the protagonist. I loved learning what she thought about places and situations that are familiar to me, because it taught me to see old things in a new way. Meanwhile, the Nigerian setting of Adichie’s first novel meant that I had to learn about an unfamiliar place and characters both, which might have prevented me from forming such a strong connection. But the question is, why should it? I don’t like the thought of being a reader who can be so disoriented by strange settings that my human ability to relate to a character gets disabled. I don’t want to be limited in that way. I don’t know what to do about this idea except just note it and maybe be extra aware of it in the future.

Americanah is a love story about two young people in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers and are separated when they each seek their fortune in the US and the UK. Their long distance relationship ends abruptly, and they are reunited again in Nigeria years later. Most of the action of the book is about the adventures of these two as they try to make a living in the first world, dealing with poverty, immigration issues, fraught friendships and relationships with other Nigerians, African-Americans, white Americans and Brits, and their constant longing for each other.

I read Americanah while the news reports were full of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the contrast between reality and the hopes expressed by the book’s characters made me wish I could make every cop, judge, and legislator read this book. I feel like this book does a better job of explaining white privilege than anything else I’ve ever read. The subtleties of the way the white people Ifemelu and Obinze encounter don’t understand what their lives are like, sometimes despite good intentions and efforts, are the perfect thing to educate those who are well-meaning but ignorant. The many, many microaggressions endured by Ifemelu and Obinze are startling, and seeing the world from their perspectives makes the reader understand how wrong the assumptions people make about each other can be. The point is often as simple as this: When people whose experiences are different from yours tells you what their lives are like, listen and believe them. In this way, this book does exactly what fiction should do: it enlarges the sympathies of readers by exposing them to the inner lives of people who aren’t like them.

My one gripe is that this book makes it seem like money just drops in your lap when you write a blog. Ifemelu is able to make a decent living from a blog, without even seeking out sponsors. (Her blog is so amazing, they seek her out.) Overnight, she receives a vast audience of both popular and scholarly readers. She even leverages it into a fellowship at Princeton. Then she shutters her blog and moves, and is able to open a new, equally successful one almost instantly. If monetizing a blog were that simple, I’d have a much larger house.

Best of all, there’s going to be a movie starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo!