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July 22, 2013

“Like life is always fucking subtle”: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah“I’m going to blog about that.”/ “I knew you’d say that.”

I am really excited about the forthcoming anthology Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, which will include short fiction by Canadian authors including Jessica Westhead, Heather Birrell and Alex Leslie, featuring (I suspect…) stories which were some of my favourites from their collection–Westhead’s story that takes place in the comments section of a lifestyle blog; Birrell’s on an online pregnancy forum; Leslie’s comprised of descriptions of Youtube videos featuring a Bieber-like teen-pop sensation. Even Samantha Bernstein’s memoir in emails Here We Are Among the Living is part of this trend of authors using online and social media to change the shape of traditional literary forms, taking advantage of the uniqueness and peculiarity of online communication to contain modernity in their work, to say something new.

At first, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wouldn’t be the most obvious candidate to be part of this literary trend. Her previous novel Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize in 2007) was a sweeping epic novel about the Biafran War. She is the writer who brought me to Chinua Achebe. Adichie is Africa. She is history. Her scope is huge, when online communication can seem so ridiculous and small, so much lesser. And yet, it is also very much of this world, and it is the world that Adichie is concerned with. As she stated in a recent interview, “I love books that are social in the way that they engage with the real reality.”

In her new novel Americanah, Adichie’s protagonist is a blogger. Ifemelu is a Nigerian expat in America who has established herself as author of the blog Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She is able to make a living from her blog through advertising and speaking engagements, and has also been made a fellow of Princeton University. Her blog attracts hundreds of readers everyday with such provocative posts as “A Michelle Obama Shout-Out Plus Hair as Race Metaphor”, “Obama Can Win Only If He Remains the Magic Negro” and “Thoughts on the Special White Friend”. For Adichie’s purposes, however, the blog exists so she can include sharply-worded, strongly opinionated, polarizing ideas in her novel about race in America, ideas which have been flooding social media since George Zimmerman’s acquittal last week of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. The blog posts–humorous, pointed and passionate–read in tone and language as very authentic, and along with the novel’s references to Facebook, email, and an online forum about natural hair, infuse the novel with a fascinating intertextuality. The blog posts in particular give the novel an edginess that straightforward fiction might be too subtle to provide.

Subtlety was an issue for me as I was reading Americanah though. While it was compelling, the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who begin as a couple in high school and each escape the “choicelessness” of life in Nigeria (for the US and UK respectively) to find their lives taking radically different trajectories, there was a hollowness to the secondary characters these two encountered. “Some of the people we met had nothing, absolutely nothing, but they were so happy,” says Ifemelu’s first American employer of a trip to India. She eventually becomes a friend to Ifemelu but also seems to exist primarily as a mouthpiece for other such asinine pronouncements. Where was the depth in these characters, I was wondering, struggling to make sense of its lack in the context of Adichie’s talent as a novelist. Though could this be part of the novel’s satire, I wondered? And if we’re going to turn the tables, is not portraying characters of a certain race as stereotypical stock characters part of an age-old literary tradition?

There was more though. I love a book so textured that the answer to my criticisms are contained inside its very pages. I reached page 335 to find a tirade by Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s sister who is about to publish her first book, a memoir about growing up black in America. She explains, “My editor reads the manuscript and says, “I understand that race is important but we have to make sure the book transcends race…” And I’m thinking, But why do I have to transcend race? You know, like race is a brew best served mild, tempered with other liquids, otherwise white folk can’t swallow it.” Explaining an anecdote, she says, “So I put it in the book and my editor wants to change it because he says it’s not subtle. Like life is always fucking subtle.”

She continues, “You can’t write a novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them… have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.”

Blog posts, of course, are the very opposite of lyrical and subtle. Adichie has clearly found a way around the matter.

In some ways, Adichie’s novel bears a resemblance to Zadie Smith’s NW and it’s treatment of race and London, though Adichie shrugs off Smith’s experimental approach, preferring to focus on life as lived as opposed to its voices or the complexities of point of view. The story is the point, and the ideas contained within, instead of its delivery. Ifemelu leaves Obinze when she receives a partial scholarship to an American university, though the two promise to remain connect, to not be apart forever. She arrives in America, however, to discover that the reality of life there is radically different from what she’s seen on The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She must find a job to make ends meet, but she’s not permitted to work legally and has difficulty finding a job under the table as her accent, her appearance, and her lack of American job experience continue to stymy her efforts. She slips into a depression and is just about to hit rock bottom, which would have made this a short book if she’d managed it, when things between to happen for her. In a sense, while Adichie does not portray America or the experience of its immigrants in an easy or flattering light, she does demonstrate that the American Dream is possible, while it is not for Obinze in the UK. Though it must be noted what an exception is Ifemelu–I don’t know if it’s more likely that your average Nigerian immigrant would become a Princeton fellow or a professional blogger. In fact the odds of anyone becoming a professional blogger are unlikely.

IMG_20130714_172513Meanwhile, Obinze’s American dreams are dashed in light of the September 11th terrorists attacks, when the US tighten their visa restrictions and make him ineligible for entry. He receives a temporary visa to England through his mother, a university professor, and when his visa expires, he remains in the country, working under the name and number of another man who’s helping himself to a portion of Obinze’s wages. He gets a job cleaning shit off toilets, and then delivering kitchens, performing the tricky maneuvre of always watching his back while trying to look forward and desperately cobble together a better future. (Here, Adiche’s explores the world of London’s underground job market for illegal migrants, as did John Lanchester in his novel Capital with his Zimbabwean traffic warden.) The ticket is an arranged marriage to a woman with an EU passport, which can be brought about with the right amount of cash (although the last time he tried this, they took off with his money). Plans fail, however, and Obinze is deported, brought home in disgrace only to discover that things are changing in Nigeria, that there is opportunity for a bright young man who is willing to play the system.

Obinze is established as a big man in Nigeria by the time Ifemelu returns after thirteen years in America, and he is by now married with a child. Neither has ever forgotten the other, though the reasons for their estrangement have become unknown or blurry with time. The stakes for their reunion are high, and in a sense Americanah‘s first 426 pages are just a prelude to this point. Because yes, this is a love story, but it’s a love story with an unabashed agenda, rich and compelling. And while Adichie confesses to not being a fan of experimental literature, it can’t be denied that with her third novel, she has broken new literary ground.

One thought on ““Like life is always fucking subtle”: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”

  1. Erin says:

    You made me really excited to read both of these books!

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