It can be frustrating that so many novels by African writers published in the West focus on the experience of emigrants in America, often echoing the choices of the author, rather than life in their home country. It would be unfair, however, to label Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as only interested in the expatriate experience. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was a coming of age story set in Nigeria; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, an ambitious exploration of the Biafran War. As its title suggests, her third novel, Americanah, tells of the Nigerian exodus to the West, with many of its characters fixated on making it to, and in, America.
Adichie has shown herself adept at tackling important themes within the context of straight-forward story-telling. Americanah is, at heart, a love story. Its two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, are a teenage couple who become separated when Ifemelu travels to America to study. The assumption is that Obinze will follow, particularly as America was always his dream rather than hers (he will read only American novels). However, after 9/11, he is refused entry and instead must settle for illegal immigrant status in England. During this time they lose contact, and only years later will they see each other again. On this rather frail plotline, Adichie hangs a great deal of weight, exploring both the issue of race in America and the development of Nigeria over a twenty year period.
It is America that Ifemelu becomes aware of race for the first time. We see this initially in a discussion about the word ‘nigger’ in a university seminar, but it comes to permeate the American section of the novel, particularly when she decides to articulate her observations in a blog:
“There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place.”
Adichie capture the style of the blog well, although this does create a clash with her own much more measured prose. Another difficulty I found was that there is little to suggest much authorial distance from Ifemelu’s views suggesting that the blog simply allows Adichie to articulate her observations on race directly. These are always interesting, as are the many observations Ifemelu makes about America in general, but can seem, cumulatively, condescending, whether it’s her shock that a child doesn’t know oranges have seeds, or her criticism of other students’ poor grammar.
Ifemelu’s story alternates with Obinze’s, though hers takes up much more of the narrative. Obinze’s time in England is therefore sketchier in comparison, but also tenser as he remains there illegally, at one point attempting a sham marriage to allow him to remain. Again, it is filled with pertinent observations:
“I think class in this country is in the air that people breathe… A white boy and a black girl who grow up in the same working-class town in this country can get together and race will be secondary, but in America, even if the white boy and black girl grow up in the same neighbourhood, race wold be primary.”
Both Obinze and Ifemelu return to Nigeria – Ifemelu because of the “cement in her soul.” Adichie presents us with a picture of a country where there is a huge divide between the rich and poor, corruption is endemic, and success is largely a result of who you know (it’s a little bit like David Cameron’s vision for Britain). At this point, however, the focus is very much on Obinze and Ifemelu’s relationship. As the novel progresses, I found it harder and harder to root for what, at the start, are two very sympathetic characters. Obinze is now a wealthy property developer. He shares Ifemelu’s condescension, laughing at the rich elite he is now part of. Ifemelu, meanwhile, begins a new blog in Nigeria.
Ultimately this is a novel of observation – and a very good one (though I suspect it might have made two better novels, one focusing on an immigrant’s perception of race in America and another on Nigeria). Its main characters, however, don’t seem subject to the criticism of those around them; nor do they seem interested in anything other than noticing the faults of others.