Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Knopf
Americanah is a wonderful book, by one of the top writers on two of our largest continents.
Ifemelu, the novel’s central character, is preparing to return to Nigeria after a period of study in the United States. She has achieved fame and fortune as a blogger on race, invited to lead diversity workshops and speak at conferences. She has had relationships – with the Hot White Ex and Professor Hunk – and watched Barack Obama’s campaign with rising excitement (and no little skepticism that Americans would ever elect a black president). She is a smart, difficult, blisteringly honest and conflicted woman who is constantly searching for a way to live and love that is as authentic as her way of seeing the world.
With deep sensitivity, compassion and humour (Adichie describes a character imagining a woman “used to receiving homage; Obinze often imagined her belching champagne bubbles”), she tells many stories – of love and money and race and the struggle for an authentic life, all beautifully and poignantly woven into one.
Having lived both in the U.S. and Nigeria, the author is well placed to cast a gimlet eye on the quirks and follies of both cultures. By putting her observations of American society in the mouth of her Nigerian character, the trenchant blogger Ifemelu, she Adichie succeeds in being able to be thrillingly honest, taking everyone to task in turn.
White America doesn’t get an inch. “Racism never should have happened in the first place; you don’t get a cookie for lessening it,” Ifemelu writes. Neither does the African immigrant: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black… 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.” Nor does Nigerian society get off easy, with its church ladies, corruption and postcolonial distortions of status.
To see it through her eyes is a privilege, and one of the great pleasures of the book. For non-Africans who think of Africa as a starving continent, the portrait of that echelon of Nigerian society bloated by wealth and power will be a good corrective. For non-blacks unfamiliar with the politics of black women’s hair, Americanah will be an education.
Adichie allows us to listen in on a bunch of Yale professors, and watch an immigrant clean toilets in London. She shows us Ifemelu taking the train from Princeton, where she has a fellowship, to Trenton to get her hair braided. If you didn’t know already, that tells you all you need to know about the difference between Princeton and Trenton. Americanah is stuffed with the kind of detail that makes Adichie’s characters vibrant in the richness and complexity of their individuality without ever losing sight of their cultural contexts.
The love story of Ifemelu and Obinze is the thread that runs all the way through Americanah. And although Adichie doesn’t let us know until the very last line of the book how it will turn out – she is a masterful plotter, as masterful as she is at crafting sentences and observing the psychology of a wide range of human beings – it feels perfectly true and affecting throughout and is another of the book’s pleasures. Because as much as this is a book dense with intelligent views on big issues that make it a joy to read, it is above all a sad and sweet and affecting love story, shining with truth.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, is out from Groundwood Books. Now if you’ll excuse her, she must return to http://www.allnigerianrecipes.com/fufu-recipes/.
-photo: Okey Adichie