AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Published by Knopf, $26.95
I first read Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 collection of short stories The Thing About Your Neck earlier this year and was immediately struck by the breadth of her writing palette. Here was a writer who spoke openly of race relations – the reasons why sexual relationships between white men and black women can flounder; the condescending attitude of some white intellectuals towards black intelligentsia; the hostilities faced by black African emigrés to the West; and the turbulence, violence and social upheavals of modern day Nigeria. Adichie, I discovered, wrote with elegance, intelligence, wit and often savage satire, wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions and tackle rough ground. I immediately chased up her best-known novel Half of a Yellow Sun, a searing account of the Biafran wars, which won The Orange Prize and is being made into a movie. And eagerly awaited her third novel, Americanah.
To put the Adichie phenomenon into perspective, she divides her time between Nigeria and the USA where she writes and has lectured at Princeton. She was awarded a Macarthur “Genius” grant in 2010 and the New Yorker featured her in its list of 20 best authors under the age of 40 – she’s 36. Young, gifted, articulate and (though it’s not PC to admit it) drop-dead gorgeous, Adichie is a publishing PR dream. What’s more, Americanah ticks all the boxes: it’s a sprawling, rich tapestry that spans three continents, a 20 year time frame and explores race, ambition, love, identity, Barack Obama, social media – and the politics of black hair. In fact much of the narrative takes place in flashback as the heroine, Ifemulu, is having her hair braided during an eight-hour marathon in a hair salon before returning to her homeland.
At the start of the novel Ifemulu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, but when Ifemulu wins a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Phlladelphia, they part, she bound for the USA and he to Britain. Skillfully, the novel weaves Obinze’s struggles to win the “holy grail” of a work permit with Ifemulu’s own desperate attempts to find part-time employment. Adichie observes both the subtleties – and overt knocks – of racial discrimination with keen detachment whilst depicting the rawness and intensity of the pair’s loneliness and social isolation. Ifemulu obtains her coveted Green Card; Obinze, who has been working illegally, is deported. Back in “the new” Nigeria, he becomes a wealthy business-man in a country where greed, ambition, knowing the right political allies, plus a healthy dose of corruption, can get you to the top. Adichie’s withering account of Nigerian nouveau-riches parvenus and society wannabees is both humorous and dangerously close to the bone. So too is her account of Obinze’s discomfiture at a middle-class dinner-party in Islington, where an old school friend now married to a white solicitor is holding court, more English than the English with his pukka Sloane Ranger accent, as they dig into a series of “ethnic plates”. Adichie is in her element as a satirist of the chattering classes, skewering both black and white, and her accounts of social gatherings in Lagos, London and New York are a highlight of the novel.
By now Ifemulu and Obinze have drifted apart. He marries a socialite; she has a series of relationships with both white and black men, and becomes a famous blogger, penning irreverent and controversial insights into race: Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. A selection of her blog posts is included in the novel. These are both challenging and confrontational and though they occasionally disrupt the flow of the book and signpost Adichie’s polemics too relentlessly, they still force readers into questioning their own attitudes to race relations.
“To my Fellow Non-American Blacks in America. You Are Black, Baby
Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t black in your own country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up. And admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you say “Don’t call me black, I’m from Trinidad?” I didn’t think so. So you’re black, baby.”
Ifemulu’s posts cover the media’s treatment of black women in beauty and fashion (under-represented); white society’s desire to “whitewash” prejudice; the role of the black intellectual in WASP society; the Obama phenomenon; and the insidious perception that unrelaxed “native” black hair is “jungle” hair and has no place in white society. In fact, each post is a pointed reminder that the black experience remains that of the “other”, Obama or not – and is an uncomfortable truth for the liberally-minded.
The last part of the novel, when Ifemulu returns to Lagos and is reunited with Obinze, seems a trifle rushed, a touch forced, as if Adichie had covered all bases and simply wished to conclude matters with a happy ending. Nevertheless, Americanah is a wise, perspicacious, funny, and always thought-provoking novel in which Adichie shows off her literary prowess, her impressive grasp of form and her global consciousness.
Read it: to immerse yourself in a skilful novelist’s view of politics, history and race relations.