As a post-colonial writer who commands (global) mainstream attention, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still one in a thousand. Her two previous novels and short story collection have won various awards, including the Orange prize, and she’s been included in The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list. She’s presented at TED. So if anyone is in a position to tackle some of today’s burning cross-cultural issues, it is Ms Adichie. And this is exactly what she’s done with Americanah.
The thread holding Americanah together is the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts whose story spans decades. The Nigeria they grow up in is full of uncertainty: frequent university strikes mean young people don’t even know when they will graduate; for those without connections the hope of finding a job is remote. Like many of their classmates they dream of moving abroad. Ifemelu realises her dream, obtaining a scholarship to study in the USA; Obinze is less fortunate and finally ends up in Britain, getting a visa only after his academic mother puts him down as her research assistant for a conference trip. Telling the truth ‘had become a luxury that they could no longer afford’. Following a traumatic incident Ifemelu breaks off contact with Obinze and their lives go separate ways, finally converging again back in Lagos, but the bulk of Americanah follows their various experiences as immigrants in the USA and UK respectively.
This framework is a vehicle for a comprehensive discussion about race and immigration, straddling the USA, UK and Nigeria. Ifemelu realises that in the USA she is black, and this fascinates her. Over the next fifteen years she will live a variety of experiences that will encompass almost all aspects of the race issue. She will date a white guy, then a black American, she will relax her hair then go natural, babysit for a well meaning but naive white woman. She will keep in close contact with her aunt and young cousin, who moved to the USA as a toddler. She will write a blog about race from a non-American black perspective. The inclusion of Obama’s campaign captures the excitement of potentially having and then getting a black president. Back to the sub-plot (immigration) over in the UK, Obinze works a string of menial jobs before getting deported for outstaying his visa, but still manages to attend a dinner party where privileged Londoners show up their ignorance and biases while discussing the developing world.
There’s no attempt to soften the impact for the benefit of privileged white readers, and as I am a member of this group (with, it seems, fairly predictable preconceptions) at times Americanah made for uncomfortable reading. Americanah has more of an agenda than Adichie’s previous novels, more blatantly setting out to challenge the worldview of its readers. As a novel it’s less successful because of this. The observations are perceptive, the human interactions are sparky, often it’s funny. But, the story seems to have been engineered around the issues the book needs to cover, with inevitable compromises on structural elegance. Maybe sometimes you need to be blatant to get your message across.
Any Cop?: The massive scope of what’s being tackled here is really too much for one novel, and it only just holds up under the weight of it. Adichie’s perceptively stylish writing saves the day.