Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
REVIEW: Bongani Kona
At several points during my reading of Chimamanda Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, which centers on the life of a Nigerian woman living in America, I found myself thinking about my own journey from Harare to Cape Town. So finely rendered is the black migrant experience in Americanah that it washed ashore a tide of memories I had long forgotten: the nervous wait at the visa office, the gradual estrangement from friends and family ‘back home’, the difficulty of establishing roots in a foreign land.
Even if the crossing of borders has become a feature of modern life that most of us, at one time or another, by fate or by design, have to endure, such departures – tinged as they are with loss – are always a kind of mourning. Like most immigrants, the memory of where I come from – regardless of the passage of time and maybe because of it – is never far from my mind. And perhaps this is what it means to live in diaspora: it is to live with the memory of loss – a place, a community – of something that is no longer there.
Ifemelu, the headstrong heroine of Americanah, moves to the United States after a series of protracted strikes halt her studies in Nigeria. The novel opens with her sitting in a hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, and moves back in time through a series of flashbacks chronicling her 13-year sojourn in the U.S. and her earlier life in Nigeria. She has, at this point, given up her fellowship at Princeton and shut down her popular satirical blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, in order to rekindle her lost love affair with Obinze in Lagos.
The thoughtful and scholarly Obinze is the novel’s other main protagonist. Americanah also charts his journey from Lagos to London and back again. While Ifemelu after a desperate start to stay afloat manages to build some semblance of a successful life, Obinze has no such luck. He is plunged into the dark underworld of undocumented migrants and has to make do with menial jobs and the constant threat of deportation hovering over his head. It’s a life of unremitting misery and he finds solace only in visiting book shops.
To show the drudgery of his existence: at some point he gets a job cleaning toilets and one day he gets to work only to find a mound of faeces on the floor. Instead of cleaning it up, he removes his gloves and disappears into the London streets. At a later juncture he finds work with a delivery company using someone else’s national security number but he has to handover hefty percentage of his salary every month. Eventually, and the outcome is almost inevitable, Obinze is deported. However, homecoming is good to Obinze. Not long after his return, albeit through underhanded dealings, he becomes a real-estate mogul and marries a former beauty queen.
Americanah is at heart an epic 500-page love story spanning three continents yet it more than that. To paraphrase Ifemelu, a novel doesn’t have to be about only one thing. Adichie’s previous novels, the Orange Prize-winning Half a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus found their lifeblood by delving into Nigerian history. This is her best work to date, and both old and new readers of her fiction will marvel at her writing. She might still be in her mid-thirties and yet she can be counted as one of the leading writers of our time. Americanah is hotwired by some of the urgent issues of our time, namely immigration, race – and the politics of black women’s hair.
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country” an African-American writer says to Ifemelu halfway in the novel. “If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.”
Yet both Ifemelu (writing her blog) and Adichie are undaunted by this advice. Ifemelu starts blogging in response to her growing awareness of race and how it plays out in American life. “I did not think of myself as black” she writes, “I only became black when I came to America”. It’s an acknowledgement that identity is not only a matter of how we see and label ourselves but also a matter of how we are seen by others.
Elsewhere she also writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in your own country? You’re in America now.”
It took Adichie five years to write Americanah and she joked during a radio interview that she spent four-and-a-half of those years watching YouTube videos of how to style her hair without using chemicals. It’s not coincidental that Americanah opens with Ifemelu get her hair braided.
It may be a minor act but it’s an act of reclaiming oneself and that, I believe, is the lesson here. – Kona is a freelance writer and he works in advertising.