Tag Archives: United States

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.

 

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Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.