It took me a long while to get started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, but once I passed the first chapter mark, I was hooked. I took it with me everywhere and it became a conversation starter. At the hairdresser’s, appropriately enough, we started comparing the immigrant experience of black Africans in America, UK and France (my hairdresser is from the Republic of Guinea and has family in the US as well as ‘back home’).
It is a love story, but that aspect of it is almost lost in this sweeping collection of anecdotes and stories. Different facets of the Nigerian exodus to other countries are explored, as well as that uneasy tension between making a new life abroad and returning to something that is possibly no longer quite home. The language is scalpel-like in its precision, the scenes described are hard-hitting, yet there is much beauty and even lyricism here.
Prickly, honest, smart Ifemelu and handsome, effortlessly cool Obinze fall in love as teenagers in a Lagos school, but life and emigration separates them. Ifemelu goes to the US to study, experiences many humiliations but also small triumphs, finally finds a job, has relationships with both a black and a white American and becomes a successful blogger, before deciding to move back.
…and yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living. that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness…. Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.
Meanwhile, Obinze is left behind in Nigeria, is devastated when he no longer hears from his girlfriend, tries to join her in the US but fails to secure a visa and ends up cleaning toilets in Britain. He manages to save some money for a fake marriage, but is stopped and deported by the immigration police.
‘I’m willing to go back to Nigeria,’ Obinze said. The last shard of his dignity was like a wrapper slipping off that he was desperate to retie.
The lawyer looked surprised. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, and got up a little too hastily, as though grateful that his job had been made easier… He was going to tick on a form that his client was willing to be removed. ‘Removed.’ That word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.
I did not care over-much for the lop-sided structure of the book: we keep returning to that hair salon where the heroine is having her hair braided for at least three quarters of the book, while the return to Nigeria is handled in only the final 90 pages. I would also have liked to see a less hurried conclusion – it felt like there was too much build-up leading up to it and then it petered out in just a few pages. But I loved the stories of the immigrant/emigrant experience – in the US, in the UK and in Nigeria itself (past and present). And, despite the author’s reminder that the experiences of black Americans and other ethnic minorities are all different, there was so much here that made me laugh (and shed a little tear) in recognition.
The slow, deliberate, loud talking when people read your foreign name or see your differently coloured skin (even though your knowledge of English grammar and literature may be superior to theirs). The exaggerated political correctness of calling all black women ‘beautiful’ or ‘strong’, of pretending not to notice race, of talking about Africa as if it were one large amorphous mass with all its many cultures jumbled up in the pot. There are so many sharp, humorous observations about the cultural quirks and blind spots which strike foreigners arriving in both America and Britain. Especially foreigners from the so-called ‘developing world’. The pretentiousness of a ‘simple lifestyle’ for those who can afford everything, over-reliance on medical diagnosis and drugs, invitations for meals which have nothing to do with generosity but end up with a (hair)splitting of the bill, the superficial friendliness disguising a deep-seated mistrust of the ‘other’. Above all, the distinctions made between desirable and undesirable migrants, the expectation of gratitude and lack of historical guilt, the often arbitrary policies which almost force people to cheat the system.
[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convince that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.
Back in 1992, when I first went to the UK, I too experienced that well-meaning political correctness and curiosity about my country; even the charities’ activities could feel patronising and demeaning. I was asked if we had flushable toilets in our houses, while I was shocked that the English (who invented the ritual of tea-time for Europeans, after all) popped teabags into mugs, rather than the elaborate teapot, sugar-bowl, dainty cups and saucers affair that all of my Romanian acquaintances used. The mother of a Lithuanian friend of mine had been a high-level scientific researcher in the Soviet Union, but once that Baltic State declared its independence, the Russians stopped funding her institute. She came to the UK to help support her son and became a chambermaid at a hotel in London. I couldn’t help remembering her story when I read about Obinze’s experiences in Britain.
Ifemelu is not the kind of person to ‘play nice’ in an effort to adapt. She initially adopts an American accent, but then deliberately switches back to her Nigerian one. She refuses to tone down her opinions or play by the rules, but she also has a mix of bad and good luck along the way. The author pulls no punches when it comes to race issues, which makes me think that reviewers in the States almost felt compelled to praise the book for fear of being labelled racist (a situation that is openly mocked in the novel).
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America… But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off… because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive… We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.
I could go on and on, giving examples and quotes, for the author is equally clear-eyed about the Nigeria she and her protagonists have left behind, the corruption or what she calls the ‘ass-licking economy’, the barely legal deals, the foreigners who avert their eyes so that they can exploit all the better, the snobbery and materialism of the wealthy citizens.
My only criticism would be that Ifemelu’s blogs are a bit too polemical and essayistic for this novel – perfect debating points, but they just don’t feel right (or perhaps there are simply too many instances of them) for the story. Ultimately, this starts to feel too much at times like a collection of anecdotes, rather than a tight-knit whole, and that is perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise thought-provoking, entertaining, panoramic book.