May 2013

Josh Zajdman

fiction

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It's best to get one thing said and out of the way. Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's best work. In a career devoid of blemish, with four truly terrific and diverse literary gems under her belt, that's no small accomplishment. Ifemelu, one of the more interesting and complex female protagonists I've encountered in recent fiction, is a marvelous creation. She is textured and so fully rendered that Adichie's wonderful style, deftly woven through her first three works, has this time been molded into a kind of portraiture. Though the novel is incredibly compelling, its richness and rewards are best savored slowly. It's a big book, full of travel, considerations of heady subjects, and more, but it's a wonderful read even when it occasionally becomes a languorous one. In the age of trickery and gimmicks, this is not a bad thing. Americanah is a book full of things worth waiting for, things that gradually illuminate the work and the reader's understanding in exciting ways. For instance, the reason behind the particular spelling of the title doesn't come into play for quite awhile. These aren't the knickknacks you'd find on Antiques Roadshow; instead, it's the selling out of one's culture.

They roared with laughter, at that word "Americanah," wreathed in glee, the fourth syllable extended, and at the thought of Bisi, a girl in the form below them, who had come back from a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she had no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred R to every English word she spoke.

The novel opens with Ifemelu about to move back to Nigeria. Her time in America, spent largely in academia, is drawing to a close. She possesses a keen and alert mind but at the onset of the novel is governed by an almost sensual attachment to environment, offering perceptions so obvious they are taken for granted. She observes that "Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing," whereas "Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage." Given those options, where does one fit? Does one even want to? This is just one facet of the confusion bubbling beneath Ifemelu's composed, hyper-rational surface.

Outside of her academic preoccupations, Ifemelu keeps a blog chronicling a myriad of perceptions governing race. Her reflections, tinged with a sense of recent experience, acute observation and longing, make for a continually fascinating insight into her world and, by extension, our own.

If they asked what she did, she would say vaguely, "I write a lifestyle blog," because saying "I write an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black" would make them uncomfortable.

This distinction between what she refers to, as "African-Americans" and "American-Africans" is a central part of the book. In fact, race and its complexities form a large part of the way Ifemelu engages with her world. This is as a means of not only understanding it, but also protecting oneself from it. This dichotomy is present in Ifemelu's institutional and personal relationships as the novel progresses. It's African or American, black or white, and, ultimately, America or Africa. Has she adapted a personality dominated by Americanah? She's poised to move back to Nigeria, a place she considers home but one governed by a possibility she can't face.

Will you be able to cope? -- and the suggestion, that she was somehow irrevocably altered by America, had grown thorn on her skin. Her parents, too, seemed to think that she might not be able to "cope" with Nigeria. "At least you are now an American citizen so you can always return to America," her father had said.

When Americanah opens, Ifemelu is ending a relationship with a man in Princeton, a relationship she likens to "being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out." Outside that window, though he once sat next to her looking out, is Obinze, a now-married and very successful Nigerian businessman and first love of Ifemelu's. As she returns to Nigeria, she resumes communication with him after a long silence. Among the many characters introduced, it's Obinze who is most captivating, next to Ifemelu of course, and Obinze with whom she can be least guarded. It's a very real relationship Adichie gradually draws out. There is love and like, distance and proximity, frissons and frigidity. Like the book itself, there is no shortage of details offered, emotions evoked or thought provoked. For a book focused so thoughtfully on the black and white, it's those ambiguous grays that end up most alluring.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307271082
496 pages