Digitizing the Experience of Reading: An interview with Lauren Tuiskula

Any conversation about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is bound to be complex. Through Adichie’s novels, speeches, and interviews, we have seen and heard of her complex opinions informed by her complex history of weaving through many cultural and physical landscapes. One of our 5CollDH fellows Lauren Tuiskula finds Adichie’s complexity through one of her most popular novels; Americanah . Tuiskula’s project titled, “Digital Adichie: Identity, Diaspora, and Transmedia Practice”  uses a web form to pair textual and visual elements as means to study the immersive nature of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. The scope of her analyses include blogging, the presence of digital communication in the text, and constructed identity. After reading the book more times than most of us, Tuiskula felt pulled to read the novel as a critical piece of literature that informs her own understanding of self, and her understanding of the world as a melting pot between the digital and the non-digital. Throughout the interview, we speak with a lot of “air-quotes” because in speaking, we both come to realize that the words we use are often more fluid and fragmented than we formerly assumed them to be. “Fiction” “science fiction” “reality” “digital”…these all come to staple words that drive the conversation to a really electric discussion between two people, from different cultural and physical landscapes.

 

Sheila: So…. where you are approaching this project from? and where in the project itself do you see your identity?

 

Lauren: That’s actually something I struggled with. It is complicated because in the middle of working on this, I took a course called “Digital Africas” with Professor Cobham Sander. For context, there’s a story that explains the anxiety I had about feeling like I was tackling a subject that might not be mine to tackle. So, a friend of mine who also took the course in a different semester, after me, told me about an experience she had in the class when she made some claim about a book they were reading. But then, people in the class had pushed back on her comment. They pushed back on her saying that she really couldn’t make the claims she was making especially because she was white. While Professor Cobhams Sander shut those sentiments down (while that was going on in class),  hearing that story fuelled all these anxieties inside of me… like why do I even care about this subject as much as I do? And when that happened, I talked to my advisor, Professor Parham, about that: I asked her if I should even be doing this.Her advice was: “Don’t touch things that aren’t yours.” That put things into perspective for me because I left feeling like “ok, it’s okay that I feel like I have nothing to say about race in America that Adichie didn’t say already.” And so I decided to leave things like that alone

 

S: Apart from the conversation on race, were there other “things like that” that you decided to leave out? things you felt uncomfortable (and maybe ill-equipped) to approach?

 

L: Honestly, most of it was conversations about race in America- especially with all the details that Adichie gets into. It’s great for me to read about her thoughts on race; those were things that touched me while I was reading the book. But for my project, I thought I could say more about things that weren’t exactly that; for example, I was excited to speak on the relationship of the novel Americanah to the novel Cane; I was excited to speak on blogging, just things that I was more familiar with. It just didn’t feel right to talk about the other things in this extensive project. I could have analyzed how it (Race) works in the book through the language but just having it as a theme on its own (shakes head) that’s not mine.

 

S: So it seems like you stayed within the world of the book and tried not to take your analysis outside that world…?

 

L: Yes

 

S: Do you think in anyway, that affects the 360 “wholeness” of your analysis?I mean, in the way that you’ve spoken, it seems that you separate the world of the book from the world outside the book

 

L: Yeah, it was always a constant back and forth with that too because I was also really trying to not to do the thing where I say “Adichie is Ifemelu” which was a really hard feat to achieve because there is so much pushing for it. And I must admit, there are times I’ve slipped (laughs). There’s a part in my thesis that talks about Toomer and Cane and connecting Toomer, Ifemelu and Adichie and I really couldn’t not do the conflating thing. But then again, I did my best to let those blurred lines between author|protagonist inform my readings but at the same time, I did my best to make sure those readings did not not seep into the analysis. I really wanted to let the book stand in for itself and let it create this world that it creates. And I wanted to have a website that let people have an immersive experience because I had an immersive experience reading Americanah. Trying to conflate both the experience of reading the book and using the website, while also trying to let the two things live separately, on their own. So the entire process was really me, trying to find balance.

 

S: This might be tangential, but I have to ask: How did you find the ending of the book?

 

L: Okay (laughs), I was really happy because I was rooting for them (Ifemelu and Obinze) the entire time. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a love story

 

S: (laughs) I’m actually asking because the people I know, who I speak to about the book, don’t seem to agree with the ending. They tend to feel like that wasn’t an ending…they say they wanted more. But I liked it! I liked the ordinariness, an “everyday goes on” feel

 

L: A feel like “here is what the everyday is”

 

S: Yeah, exactly

 

L: And that (to me), feels like the point of the whole thing: It is an everyday story, and that’s also why it’s a blog.

 

S: So, you think the idea of the blogging embedded in the book works as an instrument to amplify the sense of ordinariness?

 

L: Definitely. I wrote about it a little bit in the blogging section: this idea that the entire story is not outlandish. Americanah is a story about a real thing that happens all the time. Every blog post Ifemelu (the protagonist) writes is an experience that she had, which happened every day. And that’s showing that yes it is a novel, and yes, it is a fantasy and it is fictional. But there are still all these non-fantasy/non-fictional/accessible “ordinary” things that inform it

 

S: I was going to ask about the idea of having this everydayness but then, by terming the book fiction, are we supposed to remove ourselves from that sense of “reality?” In the context of Americanah as a fictional novel, what is the word “fiction” doing? How does it operate in a space of the fictional while insisting that it isn’t fantasy?

 

L: Well, I think there’s this popular concept of novels as the kind of things you pick up and say “okay, i’m  reading, i’m experiencing this” Then once you’re done, you shut the book and say “well, that was nice and now it’s over”, like the story stays in the confines. And actually, changing that notion is one of the reasons I explored and analyzed the effect of the hyperlink (that I use in my project), to say that your experience of the book is also a network experience that reaches across things. So because you’re reading it and you’re immersed in the moment of reading does not mean that that immersion has to stop when you are done with your reading for the day. It can linger outside, which even makes it part of the effect of the references because you can carry the thing you’re experiencing in the moment, to the outside. It is supposed to sit with you in some way

 

S: Is it?

 

L: I think so. I’ve been thinking a lot about “the experience of reading” (laughs)

 

S: (laughs) Why did you put that in air quotes?

 

L: Well because Professor Sanborn (who teaches English at Amherst) talks about it all the time. Now, I keep thinking about it in this…floaty, academic world. But I really like the way he talks about reading actually. He says if you’re truly engaging with a text in the way you’re supposed to do it, you should come out changed on the other side of it. I mean, I shouldn’t shut Faulkner and not be affected by the words because that would mean that I’m isolating my reading experience from my experience of life. I should have something different on the other side of it. Maybe not in every experience that I have, but there should be some degree of change. Or, I should recognize “I don’t agree with this” and “here’s why I don’t agree with this”, you know what I mean? So I do think there should be some type of affect.

 

S: Is it that people who do isolate the world of the book from the world of their own experiences, would not acknowledge the affect? because how else would you be able to read a book and not have it change some perspective?

 

L: I believe that people tend to isolate it as a fantasy. It is easy to categorize fictional/fantastical novels like they all exist in this realm of nothingness; like it’s just the other’s imagination. Which isn’t wrong, but still, that other’s imagination should be able to inform something to some degree

 

S: It reminds me of this thing that someone once said (I think it was Toni Morrison, and I’m going to paraphrase), that there is no really new and out of this word science fiction. I think she meant that there is no thought in the human world that is not humanly. But in a way, when we think about science fiction (and fiction generally), me and a lot of other people I know think that it is supposed to be other worldly and non-human. And it’s just now that I’m beginning to see that my sentiments might have been misplaced/inaccurate. There’s a quote from some roman senator, Terentius Lucancus that says; “nothing that is human is alien to me” and I think —especially in the context of this conversation—it’s such an interesting statement because it is not defining human by certain things, it’s saying if it exists in our human space, it is human

 

L: Right. The science fiction thing is interesting because I agree that people think it’s supposed to be this outer worldly thing. However, the only reason that it is accessible (and maybe even consumed) is because most times, fiction novels still have defining things that are recognizable- maybe there’s love or romance or something, showing relation between people

 

S: Or aliens

 

L: Right! It’s like every alien thing is humanized. Maybe we can’t really identify with a ship and floating things but there are still things in the story that are human and make the stories accessible

 

S: Can we actually take a moment to think about the intersections between mythology and science fiction. I’m wondering how people make the distinction between those two genres of storytelling, so that someone can say science fiction is “not real” and yet, believe that the mythology of cultures or religions is “real.” I mean, how does our brain work to make those separations?

 

L: Exactly. Why is science fiction so often dismissed when everything has roots somewhere else? And all these are things assumed to be embedded in our history and so, we have to “take it as it is”

 

S: Yes! And there’s something about historicization that’s important here: I was reading this book Politics of Adaptation, written by Astrid Van Weyenberg. In it, she speaks extensively about how Greek mythology was a-historicized (i.e not confined to time, timeless); as a result, it was made to seem not political because it was not historical. When I reversed that logic, I realized that she was implying that things only become political (and debatable) when they seem to have a history-

 

L: Some concrete backing of sorts

 

S: Exactly. And so, it seems (even more clearly now) that we think science fiction is born from nowhere…

 

L: We actually talked about this in Professor Parham’s class, during a discussion of one of Toni Morrison’s novels. I can’t remember which novel exactly, but it was probably Beloved because we spoke of the idea of “Haunting.” We spoke about the rise of science fiction novels, and how those novels/stories have actually been around for much longer than people think. Now, the entire genre is seen as revolutionary. Before that discussion, even I thought of the window of their existence within a very small time frame. But Professor Parham let us know that they have been around for a really long while, and you can actually trace the way they’ve existed in certain waves with themes that are now recurring, even though in different ways. However, the past manifestations aren’t categorized as science fiction. So you can’t track them under science fiction, but you can track the themes of science fiction and find the history

 

S: I feel like, even if we take a step back and look at the naming “Science Fiction” as a category and then consider “Fiction” as another category…we might find a lot to say. I mean, what’s the difference between Adichie’s Americanah and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter? What makes Harry Potter some kind of fantasy/fiction that doesn’t seem to make Adichie’s Americanah that same fantasy/fiction?

 

L: What’s pure fiction and what’s not, right?

 

S: Yeah. The more “science fictiony” that a thing is (science fictiony isn’t even a word but alas) the more it is able to “pass”. For instance, JK Rowling could have written about her life through Hermoine but no one would really know because Hermoine seems to be this other worldly character that was a wizard, and we all know JK Rowling is not a wizard. On the other hand, we have Adichie writing about Ifemelu and people can confidently say Ifemelu is Chimamanda Adichie. And somehow that’s okay. So what it seems is that there are many more consequences for writing fiction that is not too other-wordly

 

L: When people make claims about Harry Potter and the deeper messages in Harry Potter, they usually point out something as a metaphor for something else. And it’s easier to make those claims in that case because the world of Harry Potter is distant. And that’s why there are like 50 million things about Harry Potter that represent capitalism, and in that case, that’s fine. And because it’s so outlandish, it also sanitizes the book because people can reconcile those metaphors

 

S: In many ways, that speaks to`what you said before about staying within the world of Americanah, and not trying to extend your read outside its world  because if I read Harry Potter and I talk about Slytherin, no one is going to tell me “Well, I was born in Slytherin, so you have no right to be talking about my home like that” It’s Slytherin! Not many people are going to stand up to say “I was born there.” But even in a fictional novel, if you mention a place like Nigeria, people can always say “well, I’m from Nigeria” and claim something from that fiction belongs to them. So in that sense, it’s like there is some fiction that can pass as other-worldy and some that can’t… But before I step ahead of myself, let’s come back to this idea of “passing” which is significant in Toomer’s Cane. How did you get to the realization that Toomer’s Cane was embedded in Adichie’s Americanah

 

L: It was so wild!! So I had read Americanah about four or five times (both for classes, and for fun). And all those times, I had never ever heard of Cane. Then I took Professor Parham’s course on Toomer, Faulkner & Morrison and Cane was the first one on the syllabus. I was really into it, loved it. We moved on to new novels but Cane was still sitting with me. And then, I took Professor Cobhams Sanders’ Digital Africas course, just to visit (because they were discussing Americanah in that session). Then someone read, out loud, a passage from the book where a character (Ifemelu) pulled out Jean Toomer’s Cane…everything just clicked in that moment. Actually, my original (thesis/fellowship proposal had nothing to do with Cane because I had truly never heard of the book. I was more focused on blogging and just more restricted within the confines of Americanah, the novel. But then, Cane became very central to the entire project; the chapter dedicated to Cane in Americanah is my favorite! I really like it

 

S: I think it’s an explosive connection to make. But I have a question though: Did you ever think the book’s title Americanah contained Cane within it?

 

L: No (laughs)

 

S: Good! because if i were you, I would think that. But is one of those things were the situation in history is not true, because Americanah is a Nigerian term used to describe people who come back to Nigeria from America or who speak with an American accent or who have any American-ish vibe

 

L: After moving back from the US?

 

S: No, you don’t even have to have lived in America. So for instance, you have people who would watch American movies and tv shows and would start speaking like the characters they see on their screens. And people might ask them “why are you speaking like Americanah?”

 

L: Oh! That’s funny. It reminds me of the moment I really realized I need to do what I know. So, in class, we had just spoken of Toomer as a foundational author; how people like Toni Morrison mentioned Toomer as someone who gave her her start. Apart from Toni Morrison, there are all these well-known artists who reference Toomer, and it made me wonder why I had never heard of Toomer. I thought about that, and as I came to the connections between Cane and Americanah, I also noticed that there were other books within Americanah that were referenced, and it got me thinking about critically hyper linking those too

 

S: What other novels are referenced in Americanah?

 

L: Light in August by Faulkner (which is a different thing that I’d like to do now) There’s another one, which I’m not remembering now but it’s on my list of things to read. And the multiple connections makes it interesting but also hard in a way, because there are so many connections. In Cane (for instance), I had to cut some of the stuff I had written: even though they were relevant, some of it started to feel like I was forcing it a little bit

 

S: Over-reading?

 

L: Yeah, reading too much into the texts and not letting them sit on their own. And as you can imagine, finding the balance between reading and over-reading was hard.

 

S: What would you say the role of “the digital” is in Americanah?

 

L: So, my original theory about blogging in general was that the digital becomes a space where people can act. I was thinking a lot about performance of identity and people changing who they are in different moments. And at first, I saw the digital as this place where a true self (whatever that means)(laughs) …where a true self can be. As a safe space where you can do whatever you want. And I’m thinking specifically of how Ifemelu constructs a certain identity for her blog. This identity is super constructed, but it also has real experiences. I mean, what do you do with that?

 

S: Are you saying that through the blog, Ifemelu in the blog becomes a different Ifemelu that we don’t see in the rest of the novel, outside the blog posts?

 

L: Yes. That’s where my idea of the blogging analysis started. In thinking of how she performs in public talks, when she is speaking as the blogger, and how that persona is not consistent with how she is in the rest of the novel. But then I did a section/chapter on Digital Communication and then the role of the digital became much more complicated. Turns out I was focused on Ifemelu’s own use of the digital. Until I realized, there are all these other things surrounding her use. So I don’t ever pinpoint the role of the digital because I just know that it informs the creation of identity and I know that the digital might also facilitate identity but then the digital also has it’s own agency. In my chapter, “Digital Communications” I explore mostly communication between Ifemelu and Obinze and all those moments of “he sent an email” or “he didn’t send an email” and the way those moments linger in the book, and how they even intensify the spaces in the book. So it got really complicated when I started having those thoughts because I saw that you can have one moment where Ifemelu is utilizing the digital to do what she wants to do and to create a sense of security. But then in another moment, the digital is messing up everything and making her feel a certain discomfort. So the digital swings back and forth between being a thing that creates agency and a thing that has agency

 

S: It seems that you’re saying at one point, the digital instruments are used by the characters in the novel to do as they wish. But then, at some other times, it may be that the digital controls them.

 

L: Exactly. It does both, it can consume you or you can use it for further gain. For instance, with other characters in the book, there is a a lot of discussion about facebook profiles and the “air” that you can put out to people for them to recognize that this thing you’re doing is a constructive thing. It still complicates everything though; including things outside the digital. For instance, it complicates jealousy. So the realm of the digital is something that you think you can control but it pops up in unexpected ways and actually does take control of you in ways you might not have anticipated

 

S: That is so true

 

L: Even with Ifemelu’s blog, she has control over it and she constructs it. Yet, it still consumes her in the end. The comments start to creep in, and all the emails flood-

 

S: Yes, and she affects her own (non-digital) friendship when she posts that blog about her friend sleeping with some man for money

 

L: That’s precisely the central realization of the digital communications section: the digital contributes to non-digital life. You have control over it to a certain degree but you cannot control how people respond to it, and then that falls over. She starts to question everything when all these comments pour in and she even chooses to delete the post.

 

S: So what you’re saying is that the digital isn’t really another world that’s separate. And in the context of Adichie’s book, the addition of the blog almost makes it double fiction? (laughs)

 

L: Right.

 

S: And so the digital is not really a fictional world, even though it’s thought of to be a fictional world. Because it’s another world, or more aptly, another way to exist in reality. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a different world

 

L: All those worlds are interconnected. There’s one moment I wrote about, with one of Aunty Uju’s boyfriends at the time, the one she has in America (I think his name is Bart). He writes blog posts that are— according to Ifemelu’s point of view— totally “distant from reality.” Eventually, she realizes he is writing these for a very specific audience, and it gives him a sense of community because they agree with him. But there’s no one else to disagree. It’s really everyone agreeing with each other. So Bart’s blogging world/space gives him a sense of community, even though that sense of community is disconnected from everything we call “reality”. So what does that do? It makes him feel great! And when she (Ifemelu) does push on it, he protests because he feels safe in that his space. So the digital does that: it can fuel your certainty and therefore, security. But it’s also precisely that fact that makes it possibly dangerous too.

S: dangerous because you know that it’s not security that’s backed up outside its own space?

L: Exactly.

S: And then when you get dependent on the space…

L: You don’t want to let go of it because there’s nothing else like it.

 

Please visit Lauren Tuiskula’s site here

 

 

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