MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In our series, You Must Read This, authors recommend books they love. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of the novel "Half of a Yellow Son." It's based in Nigeria, her home country. Adichie has picked for our series is a story collection from Ghana that's called "No Sweetness Here" by Ama Ata Aidoo.
Ms. CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE (Author, "Half of a Yellow Son"): When I first came to the U.S. from Nigeria to go to university almost 10 years ago, my roommates were startled by everything about me: that I wore what they called American jeans, that I spoke English, that I knew who Mariah Carey was. They also seemed disappointed, as if they had been expecting a real African and then had me turn up.
Later, I began to suspect that this was because, apart from the Tarzan movies, all they knew of Africa was Chinua Achebe's magnificent novel, "Things Fall Apart," which they read in high school. But their teacher had forgotten to tell them that "Things Fall Apart" was set in the Nigeria of a hundred years ago.
And so I gave them the collection of stories by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called "No Sweetness Here." These stories of Ghana in the 1960s after independence are done so beautifully and so wisely and with such subtlety. The characters lie uneasily between old and new. They live in rural and urban areas, and they struggle to deal with the unpleasant surprises of independence. They have a keen but understated longing for the past. But Aidoo is too good a writer to paint with overly broad brush strokes. She does not at all suggest that the past was perfect, and there is no romanticizing of culture.
"No Sweetness Here" is the kind of old-fashioned social realism that I have always been drawn to in fiction, and it does what I think all good literature should: It entertains you. Aidoo has a fantastic sly wit, and she doesn't hit you over the head with her message. But after you have greedily finished each of these stories, you sit back and realize that you've been through an intellectual experience as well.
This book was particularly meaningful to me during my first alienating months in America. I dislike the idea of literature as anthropology, and yet I unreasonably wanted my roommates to read this book as anthropology — as a follow-up to "Things Fall Apart," as a way of making myself less of an unpleasant surprise. Of course I also hoped that they would love the stories. In the end, only one of my roommates read the book. It took her a while to finish it. And when I asked what she thought, she said, it wasn't very African.
I've always been curious about how much of our cultural baggage we bring to what and how we read. I suspect we bring a lot, although we like to think we don't. I loved my roommate's response because it meant that this wonderful book had challenged some of her stock ideas about Africa. And although she did not say so, I'm certain that it made her think and laugh as well.
BLOCK: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of "Half of a Yellow Sun." She was talking about the collection of stories called "No Sweetness Here" by Ama Ata Aidoo. You can find an excerpt from "No Sweetness Here" and the entire series of You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org.
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