Saturday, March 7, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: "Married to Africa"
Love and Marriage for an American Ex-Pat in Ghana
By Megan Harlan, San Francisco Chronicle.
G. Pascal Zachary's memoir 'Married to Africa' bridges his life as an American journalist with a Nigerian Igbo woman, his polar opposite.
"Love is an adventure," according to G. Pascal Zachary -- and, as it turns out, perhaps for him more than others.
Weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Zachary, then a Berkeley-based foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, was offered a high-profile assignment to report on the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He turned it down, instead making arrangements to return to Ghana -- and to a woman he'd met at the Accra Zoo, caring for an orphaned baby chimpanzee.
The two had dated for less than a month, but he couldn't stop thinking about her. On his last night in Accra, she'd wooed him with a dinner of roasted jungle rat and hired a glass eater and contortionist to perform for him on the beach. For them both, it was love.
Zachary, a frequent contributor to The Chronicle who's a technology columnist for the New York Times and a journalism professor at Stanford, here offers a vivacious, thoughtful, often gently humorous memoir of his relationship with and marriage to Chizo Okon, a Nigerian-born Igbo woman a generation younger than him, and, in many ways, his polar opposite.
Indeed, as Zachary tells it, their relationship represents a flash point between America and Africa, serving to symbolically underscore and occasionally bridge all manner of cultural and temperamental divides.
Take religion: Chizo is a devout Christian who also believes wholeheartedly in juju, the African spiritual belief system ("Never you joke with juju," she warns him). Zachary, by contrast, is a vocal atheist of Jewish and Italian background. Each seems to relish the impossible challenge of converting the other to his or her cosmic view.
The narrative skips back and forth across the duration of their relationship, opening with their wedding in 2003 at San Francisco's City Hall, both decked out in white Nigerian lace. Along the way, Zachary explores the universal mysteries of marriage, using the rather heightened and unusual elements of his own, while delving headlong into its complex racial components.
He does this most sharply in the chapters involving their families, extended and otherwise. For example, when the newlyweds move to Zachary's hometown of Berkeley, they live on the same property as his ex-wife (in a backyard cottage while a buyout of the main house is negotiated). This fact sends Chizo's mother, Edith, into a paranoid frenzy: She is convinced that the ex-wife will poison Chizo, and solicits her church congregation in Nigeria to pray for Chizo's protection. Zachary spends many hours on the phone trying to reassure both Edith and her pastor.
No poisoning occurs, though, in a misunderstanding over what constitutes "trimming," after Chizo takes a machete to Zachary's ex-wife's garden. Peace is restored through many helpings of Chizo's homemade pepper soup.
Chizo was born in 1971 to a family so impoverished that even a war reporter like Zachary admits to being shocked by her parents' living conditions (they raised 10 children in one room with no running water). He, by contrast, was born in middle-class Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the 1950s.
Despite her humble beginnings, Chizo is a lightning-quick study, possessing great optimism and confidence. Zachary, meanwhile, reveals himself to be a sensitive soul: Many scenes depicted here - ranging from their watching TV clips of Martin Luther King Jr., to their visiting a former African slave fort - end with tears streaming down his face, while Chizo admonishes him, in so many words, to pull it together.
In a chapter called "Jew Meets Juju," emotions and racial tensions run highest. Here Zachary admits to feeling "abject terror" when he brings Chizo to visit his widowed, elderly Jewish mother (whose name he never mentions) at her gated community in Delray Beach, Fla. And with good cause: His mother doesn't want them staying in her house, lest the neighbors realize that her son is married to an African woman. Zachary is furious with his mother's racism; Chizo, not the slightest, at least not outwardly. Pragmatic and unflappable, Chizo draws out her mother-in-law by respectfully discussing the elderly woman's need for a romantic life, wins her apologies and an invitation to stay, and brings the battling mother and son closer together.
Not every story has such a happy ending, and Zachary's background as a reporter serves him well. He raises insightful questions, but doesn't force the answers. For example, he observes that Chizo "never imagines her blackness as a handicap, but neither does she look beyond color." He wonders: Does his own attraction to Chizo involve color, culture or both? How can anyone look beyond the color he is attracted to?
If he doesn't solve, as he puts it, "the riddle of my romance with Chizo," that seems to be the point: "There are no certainties in marriage," he writes, "across racial and geographic lines or within them." Living with that uncertainty, even embracing it, is the real adventure story here.