An African Education in 'No Sweetness Here'
When I first came to the U.S. to go to university almost 10 years ago, my roommates were startled by everything about me: that I wore what they called "American" clothes, 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 movie Tarzan, 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, live in rural and urban areas, and struggle to deal with the unpleasant surprises of independence.
There is a keen but understated longing for the past in these stories, 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.
Here's an example: Traditional weddings in Ghana have always been full of what one character tells us is misguided foolishness. The past was not, in other words, one in which things were necessarily better — and Aidoo herself might question the usefulness of "better" or "worse" as categories — but rather a past that is longed for only because it was created by Africans themselves without the power dynamics of colonialism. It was a time in which people understood their lives and could create meaning from their interactions with one another.
Westernization has spawned an unthinking consumerism in the characters, a desire for Western things often unwanted by the West itself. One character describes this as "desiring only nonsensical items from someone else's factory;" another sees it as "people at home scrambling to pay exorbitant prices for secondhand clothes from America."
No Sweetness Here is the kind of old-fashioned social realism 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 humor; she does not hit you over the head with her "message," but after you have greedily finished each story, you sit back and realize that you have been through an intellectual experience as well.
This book was particularly meaningful to me during my first alienating months in America. It was a comfort — its familiarity, the way it captured ideas I understood but would never have been able to capture myself.
I dislike the idea of literature as anthropology, and yet I rather 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 didn't say so, I'm certain that it made her think and laugh as well.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
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