Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, is vital in every sense of the word: it is full of life, teeming with a range of experience and character quite dazzling in its proliferation; it is itself a beating, pulsing thing, with supple and endlessly refreshing prose; and it feels important, the result of and response to a range of literary and extra-literary stimuli which demand – but all too often go without – this kind of elegant reply. Americanah is a book to admire, and one that we should be glad exists. Here is a wise, witty, heavily promoted novel by a woman of colour and talent that is acutely relevant, unapologetically romantic and undeniably complicated. Americanah is a good thing.
It is also baggy, potted and occasionally mean-spirited. I hesitate to point out any of that, if for no other reason than previous critiques of Adichie’s work have been of a poor and disingenuous quality. In the New Inquiry, Aaron Bady has already and with some aplomb filleted the tone of many of these agenda-peddling knee-jerks:
as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.
That is, Adichie has mountains enough to climb without my adding further to them. Indeed, it is in many ways churlish and tone-deaf to criticise a novel as expansive as Americanah for the imbalances in its wheeling structures. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two middle-class childhood friends in Nigeria who first become lovers and then emigrants – in Ifemelu’s case to the USA and in Obinze’s to Britain – Adichie’s novel struggles to square its migrant politics with its central love story. This isn’t to say that its romance is corny or unsuited to the issues of race, gender and identity which are its thematic focus; rather, it is that Ifemelu’s increasingly prominent role in America as a blogger on race – she writes the much talked-about and trenchat Racteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black – gives her part of the novel a clearer utility than Obinze’s strand of illegal immigrant poverty in London. Ifemelu dominates the novel, her voice and thorough imperfection flavouring and focusing the narrative. In this way, one half of a love story about which we are meant to care deeply – the novel’s final climactic pages deal with it, not with blogging – fades away.
This is in many ways small beer, however. I’m inclined, as always but in this case even more so, to put a lot of store by the words of Aishwarya Subramaniam: “While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be.” In large part, this is the feeling that Americanah is most interested in evoking. It wants, like Ifemelu’s blog but without the reactionary posing, to show us Western civilisation from an angle different to that taken in most middle-brow, middle-class novels about star-crossed lovers going to university. In this, it is both more or less successful, for instance, than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a campus novel which focused on race in America from the inside. On Beauty is minutely structured, very evenly written, and at times integrates its themes more organically with its form: characters discuss race more subtly, have conversations less avowedly About It. This renders Smith’s novel a better crafted novel in most of the usual senses, but Adichie has an answer to this argument: one of Adichie’s writing friends (herself not entirely likeable, but at the same time someone with whom it is hard always to disagree) groans about the literary fetish of subtlety. “‘Nuance’ means keep people comfortable so everyone is free to think of themselves as individuals and everyone got where they are because of their achievement.” That is, Adichie is writing a different kind of novel – and she is doing so deliberately to rub prim Western noses in it.
Ifemelu herself becomes rather prim within months of arriving in America – she dates white boys, straightens her hair – but by the time we meet her, and indeed for her around half the novel, she is sitting in an African hairdresser having her ‘do painfully braided. Ifemelu’s hair is “black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon”, and for her it is a political act to allow it to grow and be dressed in ways natural to it. At the same time, however, she is disparaging of her hairdresser, a woman who says she is from ‘Africa’ rather than from a particular country and to whom Ifemelu condescends about her own Princeton fellowship: “the sort of place Aisha could only imagine, the sort of place that would never have signs that said QUICK TAX REFUND”. Indeed, Ifemelu is prickly about and defensive of her achievements, and for the reader this does not always come across well. Adichie successfully ensures, however, that we understand – indeed, share – those experiences which have led Ifemelu to adopt this stance as the best available to her. “You know it was love at first sight for both of us,” gloats her professor boyfriend. “For both of us?” Ifemelu retorts. “Is it by force? Why are you speaking for me?” If Ifemelu’s blog is at times the over-generalised victim of its own need to declaim, we understand the ways in which Ifemelu must fight for her voice.
This is Americanah‘s great project: to refocus the novel reader’s sympathies. Early on, Ifemelu disparages the novels of “youngish men … packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” It’s hard not to think of Chabon or Lethem. Likewise, and as Aishwarya also points out, when Ifemelu joins the Nigerpolitan Club – “a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.” – we notice the nod to Taiye Selasi’s concept of the Afropolitan, a privileged set of African internationalists whose foibles Americanah seems particularly intent on highlighting. For Selasi, “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa”; for Adichie, they are cereal bar-chewing, organic food-eating dilettantes who are no more or less suited to pulling their country up by its boot-straps than anyone else. Americanah is a romance, but it isn’t always romantic. Obinze returns to Nigeria and does not help improve it; he is instead enmeshed in the corruption Adichie suggests is endemic. America is no paradise, either, of course: as in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Nigerians in the US refer to themselves in ways different than they did before, sit with other children and laugh about things they do not necessarily understand, and limit their public pronouncements, all in a bid to fit in:
During her talks [to corporations and schols] she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
Ifemelu was not black before she reached the US, she says; Obinze was a scion of the comfortable bourgeoisie before he was reduced to cleaning toilets in London. Americanah is not a story of culture clash, but of culture change; its trick is in seeking to do to the novel what is done to her characters, but in reverse: adapt it, change it, make it talk to and about different constituencies. “To be a child of the Third World is to be aware of the many different constituencies you have and how honesty and truth must always depend on context,” says that writer friend at one point. Like every other character in Americanah she is seen occasionally to wear feet of clay; but she is also shown occasionally to be right, and in this her emphasis on context is demonstrably important. No one person, no one country, no one form or style or mode of representation should be seen always to be the best, the most appropriate, the default. Ifemelu is sometimes awful, but she is sometimes worth emulating; Adichie’s structure is sometimes disciplined, and it is sometimes baggy. So what? That is rather the point, and I can’t imagine any other book on the Women’s Prize shortlist being this scattershot ambitious, this intermittently expansive and this imperfectly precise. It is not for nothing that another synonym for vital is necessary.