Tag Archives: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Thanks to Knopf for a review copy of Americanah.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah is an ambitious novel about race, love, and belonging. It’s a rich work that sheds light on being black in America and being middle-class in Nigeria.

Americanah follows lfemelu, a Nigerian girl who moves to the US for college. Adichie’s own biography inspires the plot. Like Ifemelu, Adichie relocated to Philadelphia for university in her late teens. Like Ifemelu, she went on to hold a fellowship at Princeton. And like Ifemelu, she eventually moved back to Nigeria (though Adichie still spends part of her time in the US). The way the novel reads reflects this closeness to Adichie’s own life. It comes across like her collected observations on cultural issues — most of which pertain to how being black alters your experience of being American.

Although Ifemelu has dreamed of living abroad, a host of social, economic, and cultural problems conspire to make America never feel like home. The trauma she suffers in her adopted city of Philadelphia also estranges her from Obinze, her high school beau, whom she’d planned to marry.

While Ifemelu’s early years overseas are replete with the pains and dilemmas of poverty, her fortunes reverse when she lands a babysitting job for two wealthy kids. This leads her to a relationship with Curt, who is part of the East Coast old money scene. Borrowed privilege abruptly replaces financial troubles for Ifemelu. Curt helps her land a cushy job, showers her with the fruits of his fortune, and inserts her, however tenuously, into an élite social circle.

Yet this newfound socioeconomic bliss has a dark side, and it turns out it’s her. Or, more precisely, her skin. Race mediates Ifemelu’s relationship with Curt, with her employer, indeed with everyone in America.

This is one of the “American tribalisms” Adichie aptly describes in the novel. The term works well, and it’s also nice to see her fight fire with fire when it comes to belittling descriptors often used against Africa.

Race hijacks the novel just as it hijacks Ifemelu’s life. In Nigeria she never really thought of herself as black. But in America she can’t escape it. Even small things — like whether she wears a weave or an afro — are laden with judgement. They affect everything from job prospects to restaurant service.

Unfortunately, even the white folks who abhor racism dare not speak of the issue. It’s a taboo that eventually breaks up her relationship with Curt. He’s a minimizer who tries to interpret the racism Ifemelu faces as a series of innocent misunderstandings. While he thinks he’s smoothing her world’s rough edges, this alienates and disempowers her. She’s silenced by his rationalizations. Or if she rejects them, she appears unreasonably angry.

Either way, there’s no room for her experience of being black in America. And this experience stands Pan-Africanism on its head (at least in its racial forms). Black people of the world are not united, the novel seems to suggest. Instead, being black is a uniquely American experience worlds away from being African, which, at least in Adichie’s Nigeria, is mostly nonracial: to be Nigerian is to ignore the racial othering African Americans face on a daily basis.

Consequently, despite great career opportunities in the States — she is at turns a successful race blogger, an invited diversity speaker, and a Princeton fellow — Ifemelu ultimately quits America and head back to Lagos. She even gives up her long-term relationship with Blaine, the African American Yale professor she found after Curt.

There she starts a new blog about the Nigerian well-to-do’s foibles. Much as her US blog explored American cultural fault lines from the perspective of an outsider (an “American African” not an African American), her new one draws attention to sensitive issues locals want to sweep under the rug: rampant materialism, pretentious charity, the state’s rough treatment of the poor. And she also falls back in love with Obinze.

This is where the novel turns sentimental. It’s also where the structure shows weakness. Ifemelu and Obinze have not seen each other in well over a decade. They have not spoken in years. Obinze has married an ultra-kind, ultra-understanding, and ultra-attractive woman with whom he has a lovely daughter. There are also some 400 pages of American life separating this bookended Nigerian love story. (At almost 500 pages, Americanah is a long novel.) Yet somehow they wind up back together.

This does not work well because it’s improbable and because the novel’s focus is elsewhere. The real heart of this book is in the race question.  There’s enough material at its core to make a full novel about that issue alone.

Indeed, the section after her move back to Lagos is mostly extraneous. For one, her observations on Nigeria are not nearly as broad in scope as those on the US. Her America encompasses the poor and rich. It gets at the whole country. Her Nigeria, however, reflects a southern Christian élite. Although her observations about this group are piercing, they’re narrow.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Adichie may have included this. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is a validation. It says Lagos isn’t a place to be from, it’s a place to go. And her focus on the well-to-do — whose worries include convincing your significant other to buy you a new car and increasing your gossip magazine’s circulation — shifts the conversation about Africa away from stereotypes of fly covered children. It shows a side of the continent many don’t know.

Yet one of the consequences of Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria — without Blaine — is the novel reads like it rejects cross-cultural communication. There seemed to be nothing fundamentally wrong with Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship. Her choice to leave for Lagos shocked him. Indeed the decision was shocking, because it seemed grounded in nothing more than a vague feeling that she couldn’t be with him because he was simply so… American.

This makes Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze all the more disappointing. In some ways it flies in the face of her anti-racism critique, as it implies people “belong with their own.” While Adichie surely wouldn’t support such a proposition, the narrative seems to suggest as much because Ifemelu’s reunion with Obinze lacks grounding and her relationship with Blaine seemed rich.

Nigerian questions aside, Adichie’s treatment of race in America shines. What Americanah says about being black in the US is akin to what Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question said about being Jewish in the UK. Its observations penetrate, and it holds nothing back. The entire skin tone hierarchy comes in for close and witty analysis. The book explores all the possible relationships between black, Latino, Asian, and white Americans in settings as diverse as the classroom, the workplace, the hair salon, and the internet. The book is a major contribution to the cultural conversation on this question.

And while it also speaks volumes to the immigrant experience, plumbs the depths of long-lost love, and sheds light on southern Nigerian élite culture, these subjects are like birds resting on a cow: relatively small, and tenuously connected to the main subject. Had they been left for later treatment, the book might have had a more pleasing unity.

Nonetheless, Americanah brims with intelligence and sensitivity. Adichie is razor-sharp and her emotional acuity impresses. Her third novel is deeply considered, highly readable, and well worth checking out.

 

Review: 419 by Will Ferguson

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Will Ferguson's Giller-winning novel about Nigerian email scams.

Will Ferguson‘s Giller-winning novel about Nigerian email scams.

To be 419’ed is to be fooled. Duped. Swindled. At least that’s the meaning as far as Nigerian slang is concerned — of which this book has plenty on offer. The question is: does Will Ferguson’s Giller-winning novel deliver on the award hype, or does it 419 us? The answer is… yes.

419 begins when a hapless Calgarian falls for a Nigerian email scam (for more info, see your spam folder from ten years ago). He subsequently ruins his finances and offs himself, setting in motion a quest that will see his surviving daughter, Laura, attempt to find out who is responsible.

From the beginning, the novel flits back and forth between Laura picking up the pieces in Canada and a host of Nigerian characters whose roles in the story will not become clear until the climax. With Nnamdi (the young man from the oil-tainted Niger delta ), Amina (the troubled girl from the Muslim north), and Winston (the educated city boy turned scammer) we have three intertwining narratives that provide something of a portrait of contemporary Nigeria. The stark differences between north and south. The oil-slicked hellhole of the southern delta. Rural poverty. Urban chaos. More on this depiction later.

This fast-paced movement is one of the novel’s strengths. It doesn’t give you time to get bored, because the scenes aren’t overdrawn — particularly at the beginning. Indeed, with 129 chapters, the average length of each is only three pages (1000 words), and many are as short as a paragraph. One page you’re in a Calgary food court, the next you’re walking through ash under the Sahelian sun, and the next you’re motorboating through an oil-drenched mangrove forest on the Bight of Bonny.

That being said, there are some slack parts. In particular, a 32-page section chronicling Nnamdi’s coming of age and the gradual environmental destruction of the Niger delta.

It’s not that the topic doesn’t merit a 10,000-word treatment. A subject like that is worth a book of its own, or several. The real problem, rather, is the Nigerian narratives are slightly didactic.

Ferguson has apparently never been to Africa, and quite frankly, it shows. While he has a real talent for rendering rich scenes and bringing the Nigerian environment to life, my enjoyment of the narrative was brought low by unlikely dialogue that would be more at home in a political science text than in the mouth of a real human being.

Let’s look at an example. It’s taken from a section about how Shell’s local development projects were little more than cynical PR stunts:

“The health-care clinic has no roof!” people shouted at the members of the larger ibe. “How much dey payin’ you?”

“Not stolen, taken. That clinic was empty. No nurse, no doctor. Why let the roof just sit over nothing like that?”

“A nurse comes!”

“Once a year! If that. Once a year from Portako, nurse be coming to inject us with inoculate for everything except oil…” (p. 178)

This kind of dialogue is parachuted into the narrative in such an instructional fashion that it robs the characters who speak it of any personality worth noticing. These characters’ purpose seems only to convey information about injustice in Nigeria, not to speak like normal human beings. And in a novel you must always prefer true character over information. If I want to bone up on Nigerian history, I’ll hit the library.

There are a number of sections like this throughout the book that weaken the Nigerian side of the narrative. They often take the form of Character A making small talk about his people’s sacred beliefs and customs with Character B, the two of whom have just met (see sections 78 & 80).

Maybe this won’t bother readers who aren’t familiar with Nigeria — you might be intrigued by the descriptions of water gods and creation myths and so forth — but Africans just don’t talk like this. Nobody does. It would be like if you bumped into someone from Finland and the first thing the two of you discussed were your cosmological beliefs.

I can see the process that led to this. I can imagine exactly how it happened. Perhaps it went something like this: the writer has never been to Africa. The writer wants to do well, so he studies up — reading, talking to people, surfing the net. He accumulates a lot of information. What an interesting place, Nigeria! What fascinating cultures! What colour that would bring to the story! And how educational it will be!

This is a laudable impulse. People should know more about Nigeria. But it leads to two problems. The first is that it pushes the African characters toward objectification — their role in the story is to convey difference, exoticism. So Nigerians don’t eat mutton, they eat goat head. And they have unusual beliefs — about how to be buried if you die childless, about consulting ancestors through casting stones, about potions to stop bullets from entering the body. And the world they inhabit is the opposite of ours: hot to our cold, polluted to our clean, impoverished to our affluent.

And of course this is all true. These are, so to speak, the facts. Nigerians are poor, and I’ve seen plenty of roasting goat heads in Africa myself — particularly after Eid al-Adha, or what many West Africans call Tabaski, when goats are sacrificed. Yet as always in literature, it is a question of emphasis. And the emphasis in 419 is too often on strangeness.

In that sense it parallels colonial ethnography — a catalogue of the unknown, a juxtaposition of here and there. Yet serious students of Africa have moved on. These days they’re more interested in Africans as people rather than Africans as Africans, if you see the difference. In 419, while the main Nigerian characters are multifaceted, they are too often animated by didactic tendencies that erode their position as people. They become, rather, spokespeople.

This leads to the second problem, which is that this sort of writing undermines the believability of the characters. Again, people don’t neatly lay out their worldviews, philosophies, and social problems to near-strangers — unless those strangers are, perhaps, anthropologists. Not that I’m a great expert, but no African I’ve ever met talks that way.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. But this may be a good way to find out: pick up any famous Nigerian novel — Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Purple Hibiscus — and see if the characters speak like a drama scene from an International Development Studies class. If memory serves me right, they don’t.

Predictably, this made the Canadian side of the book the most enjoyable. Ferguson’s protagonist, Laura, is likeable and well-drawn, and when she gets on the trail of the African conmen responsible for her father’s death, you can’t help but smile. Pretty gutsy for a timid copyeditor from Calgary.

The pace of the novel is snappy, too, and when I think of this book the phrase “Good to read on an airplane” comes to mind. Maybe it’s because it’s easily digestible — the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all short and clear. The story is solid. 419 is a very respectable piece of entertainment.

And this brings us back to the Giller question, because winning big prizes always conjures up fun terms like “literary gravitas,” along with the question of whether the book is not just a heart-pounding thriller but also a contribution to letters.

Heart-pounding thriller? Page-turner? More or less. I must admit the final fifty pages had me revved up. The story does have a kick to it.

A contribution to letters? Mmm… no. For one thing, the prose isn’t what I’d call lyrical. ‘Serviceable’ is the word that comes to mind. ‘Satisfactory.’ It gets the job done — and, to be fair, it does sparkle in places. But I don’t think there is a remarkable literary voice to be found in 419. I wasn’t transported to emotional heights by Ferguson’s phraseology. I wasn’t in awe of his sentences. I didn’t feel I was swimming in his words, the way I do when reading Julian Barnes or Howard Jacobson. And whatever you might say about the subject matter or plots of these recent Booker prize winners’ novels, their mastery of prose isn’t in question.

With Ferguson, on the other hand, it was hit and miss. Maybe that brings us back to the stilted dialogue.

And maybe that was never Ferguson’s intention — to write a ‘literary’ novel. If so, it would be unfair to judge him by those standards. But ultimately all I have to guide me is my taste. And in my opinion, this is not an outstanding novel. Decent, but not outstanding.

My sense is it will appeal more to the lover of thrillers and popular fiction than to the ‘literary’ type. If you aren’t so demanding of dialogue, and you don’t mind Ferguson’s over-exotic bent, you may really love 419.

But if you’re the person who likes picking up the latest Booker and Giller winners to see what passes for literature these days, prepare to feel lukewarm.