Lessons in new lands

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Photo: Jon ReidAMERICANAH
Nanjing Night Net

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fourth Estate. 400pp. $29.99.

Americanah is the third novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her first, Purple Hibiscus, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. Her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize in 2007. All this bodes well.

However, towards the end of Americanah, one of central character Ifemelu’s friends, Ranyi, says to her: ”Who are you to pass judgment? … Stop feeling superior!” I wanted to high-five Ranyi at this point, because she’d summed up my frustrations with Ifemelu. She’s a woman who says what she thinks. She’s lusty. She can be funny. She’s a sharp observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women. But she’s often strangely passive and lacks perspective on her own behaviour.

We meet Ifemelu on the day she decides to move back home to Lagos, after having lived in the US for 15 years, and despite having been granted citizenship. During those years she has studied, worked, dated and become a successful blogger.

Her blog is called Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. I enjoyed the conceit of Ifemelu’s extremely long titles for her blog posts, but any playfulness with form ends there. I became increasingly bored by the writing style of the posts themselves.

The obsession with categories and subtleties of race relations is interesting – Ifemelu observes that she didn’t become Black until she moved to the US – and is one of the main themes of the novel. Some of the observations, especially about the politics – and care – of hair are engaging. (Why does Michelle Obama straighten her hair? Are tight curls too Black?) However, Americanah is written as if Adichie thinks her readers won’t understand her themes unless they’re underlined by the blog.

This all has the effect of making the novel appear to hover uneasily between non-fiction and fiction. While I have no idea how much of the story is autobiographical, it shares with some autobiographies the sense that every detail of a character’s life is compelling.

The result of this is a flattening out of the narrative, with long sections that need to be waded through to get to the scenes that have more momentum. And the resolution, when it comes, seems rushed, despite the book’s 400 pages.

The central plot device is that Ifemelu had to leave her boyfriend, Obinze, behind when she went to university. Will they, or won’t they, get back together when she returns to Nigeria all these years later?

But the structure is too saggy to make that possibility seem compelling. Adichie uses a six-hour hair-braiding session in Philadelphia as a point from which Ifemelu can reminisce about her life as a young girl in Nigeria, and then her years in the US. Obinze’s experiences are interspersed along the way. This structure draws their relationship past the point of any tension, and in the end it feels like a technique to provide shape to a fairly formless narrative.

There is much to like in the novel. Obinze’s point of view informs the extended sequence in which he tries to find work illegally in Britain. It’s one of the strongest and most moving sections of the book. Dike, Ifemelu’s nephew, is a wonderful character, and his struggle as a child and then as a teenager to live with his mother’s decisions produces scenes in which a character actually embodies the challenges and complexities of racism rather than observing them.

Dike’s mother, Aunty Uju, is a terrific study of an intelligent, lively woman who places too much faith in men to help her navigate through life. As Ifemelu observes, America seems to subdue her. It also seems to affect Adichie’s writing about her, and Aunty Uju seems to slip away from the novel once she is forced to leave Nigeria. It’s a loss.

Despite this, there is a lot to like in Americanah. The challenges of immigration, the shock of finding yourself in a culture where you can’t read situations or nuances, are evocative. Not to mention the scenes where we feel what it’s like to fall from a confident middle-class life to one where you may literally die trying to get enough money for food and rent.

Adichie is marvellous at conveying the sense that the life of an immigrant (and getting your hair braided) involves endless patience. That’s when we get real flashes of what it’s like to live forever poised, waiting for that moment when you have permission – from yourself, from the government – to truly embrace life.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.