I had not heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or her new novel, Americanah, until they appeared on the list of new acquisitions at the Andes Library. And when I read the novel, I did not know that it had won the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. It turns out that Adichie (pronounced uh-deetsyeh) is one of the most feted authors to appear on the international scene since her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, came out in 2003. Since then she’s published another prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and a collection of short stories. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation award—probably the most coveted fellowship in the world—and has been a fellow at both Radcliffe and Princeton. If you Google her, you’ll see that she’s star material—stunningly beautiful, stylishly coiffed and dressed, with an expression that exudes hope and confidence. I am glad I didn’t know any of this when I read Americanah, because if I had, envy would have gotten in my way.
This is a magnificent novel. It has contemporaneity, sweep, passion, incisive social commentary, brilliantly staged scenes, and, for American readers, the fascination of an unfamiliar culture. It is unbelievably readable. The writing is energetic and polished; the pace crackles. This is a talent that seems to be peaking right before your eyes. I wondered, as I read, what she could do for an encore.
“Americanah” is the Nigerian word for a woman who has spent time in the United States and refers to the novel’s protagonist, Ifemelu. The novel’s early scenes take place in Lagos, Nigeria
and Nsussi, the university town where Ifemelu attends school. We get the flavor and temper of life among the Nigerian middle class, a life that is surprisingly familiar in some respects, and foreign in others. In this regard Americanah resembles many novels written by Indian immigrants to England and the United States; the common bond of a British and/or an American education makes you feel that you belong to the same world the authors belong to—they speak the same language, literally—have read a lot of the same books you have, and are part of a global culture which people who have a certain level of education, worldwide, inhabit. The narrator and her friends are familiar also, in that most of them are upwardly mobile aspirants after money and status—a trait so recognizable as almost to be taken for granted. For Nigerians, economic ascendancy can be accomplished most reliably by going abroad. Thus, Ifemelu’s boyfriend, Obinze, goes to England while she goes to America. However, Ifemelu and Obinze, whose relationship is intense and convincingly portrayed, don’t define themselves in economic terms, at least not at first. Their dreams are vaguer, more idealistic: In Ifemelu’s case, it is the reformation of society that matters, the cultivation of a public consciousness that would lead to a more just, prosperous and humane way of life. She herself struggles to stay afloat financially, once she gets to the U.S., applying for job after job so that she can earn enough to live on while studying for a degree. Having finally earned her degree while working as a nanny, she starts writing a blog about race for non-American blacks in America that makes her famous and enables her to support herself. On the other hand, Obinze, despite superhuman efforts, has been unable to obtain a work visa and is deported from England. He becomes financially successful in real estate back in Lagos by means which are never explained.
The center of gravity in the book are the blogs Ifemelu writes, commenting caustically, and brilliantly, on the various forms racism takes in the U.S. Adichie’s strength as a writer lies in her ability to describe in detail the nuances of social situations involving race, situations which abound in the experience of her protagonist—with boyfriends, with employers, with would-be employers, with friends, and in the manifold transactions of daily life. One of the most fascinating of these is her struggle over how to wear her hair. In order to get a job she really wants, she has her hair relaxed (“relaxed,” not “straightened,” is the correct term)—which is tantamount to killing one’s hair with chemicals, a process she finally rejects as unhealthy and undignified, though it is decidedly a risky thing to do. In the meantime, along with Ifemelu, we learn a lot about the ins and outs of dealing with kinky hair—a long scene in a beauty parlor in Trenton where she is getting her hair braided (a six-hour operation) cleverly ties together several strands of the plot.
It’s fun to be let in on the way American manners and mores look to a super intelligent young Nigerian who is not angry or vindictive but keenly observant and delightfully articulate about what she sees. And about what she hears. The speech habits of the American upper middle class–e.g. saying “great” and “wonderful” a lot, being “excited” about everything, the teenage way of ending all statements with a question mark—and the speech habits of educated Nigerians–her father’s love for polysyllabic words (what I was taught to call “elevated diction”)–are among the many mannerisms Adichie captures for our amusement.
For about the last quarter of the novel Ifemelu is back in Lagos, having returned for reasons she can’t quite explain. She’s broken up with her second American boyfriend—a high-minded Yale professor who eats a lot of vegetables and is on the right side of every moral question—but that’s not the reason for her decision. It has something to do with wanting to go home to Nigeria and her lost love, Obinze. This section of the story depicts the sorry state of Nigerian politics and infrastructure and critiques the self-satisfied materialism of the nouveau riches without being at all defeatist about the country’s future.
Recently, in response to the abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, Adichie wrote a widely circulated article pleading with Nigeria’s President Jonathan to stop temporizing, to step up to the plate as a leader and stop the country’s rising tide of crime and violence. She is an activist, a fighter, a person who puts herself out there and doesn’t give up. This willingness to speak out and to take risks also characterizes Ifemelu, her fictional counterpart. If the almost fairy-tale ending of the novel is a bit unlikely, you can’t criticize the author for it. You want things to turn out well for her frank, courageous and adventuresome heroine. So far, with all her accomplishments and all her fellowships and awards, life has turned out well for Adichie, too. If her other work is only half as good as Americanah is, she has certainly earned her good fortune.
One parting note: After reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, reviewed in these pages a few months back, I was glad to have been able to see contemporary Africa from a different vantage point, not the wide angle lens view offered by Theroux but the up close and personal one offered by Adichie. From her perspective, you see what it’s like to be African, to live with the blackouts, the potholes, the decay, the faulty leadership, and still have a meaningful existence. In her experience, Africa is not a place to be scolded and mourned over and propped up with aid, like a wayward child, but a place where human beings are struggling to bring a new social order into being. ~