12/24/14

Americanah a Good Read, though Beware of the Hype


AMERICANAH  (2013)
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf  ISBN: 978-0307462126, 496 pp.
* * *

Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie certainly isn’t afraid to take on the big issues: race, immigration, gender, sex…. Hers is a book about liminality and identity formation. Its central characters are Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up and fall in love during Nigeria’s military dictatorship. It’s a land where corruption is rampant, women sleep with married generals to get ahead, but tensions are so tight that one misplaced word can take you from the top of the hill to obscurity (or worse) in the wink of an eye. Anyone with intelligence, connections, and resources seeks to get out.

Ifemelu has all three and bolts to study in the United States. Obinze plans to follow, but 9/11 puts the kibosh to his plan to join Ifemelu in America. Instead he illegally enters England, struggles, and is eventually arrested and deported. Luckily for him, Nigeria’s government has changed and he is able to rise in the world as a real estate developer via some don’t-ask-questions contacts. He acquires wealth and fine things: flashy cars, a luxurious home, a glamorous wife, a child.

But this novel is really about Ife. On one hand, she undergoes the classic immigrant story in that she’s caught between two worlds. The book’s title says it all; she is an “Americanah,” neither Nigerian nor completely American. As such, her anguish comes from trying to figure out which side of her is winning at various stages of her young adulthood. In addition, life in America and her experiences with various lovers also expose her to new ideas and new dilemmas. America teaches her about feminism, though some of the black men she meets fail to practice it. And, of course, she begins to refract her experience through the lens of race. Through her experiences (and Obinze’s), we see race in three contexts: the United States, Britain, and Nigeria (where lighter-hued Africans are seen as more attractive than darker-skinned ones).

Many of Ife’s musings are expressed in a blog she keeps that goes viral: “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She writes frankly about problems ranging from overt racism to the exoticism she suspects motivates a white lover. And, as becomes increasingly clear, she just doesn’t get American men—no matter what their color. There’s a wonderful scene in a Trenton braiding shop in which we witness Ife coming to grips with an existential crisis, the gist of which is whether it’s even possible to go “home.” (Maybe she’s already there.)

So far, so good. The book is certainly provocative. It also won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and has been nominated for many other prizes. I take issues with the acclaim.  I enjoyed Americanah  in the end, but I must caution that it’s a slow-to-develop book and one I nearly stopped reading on several occasions. There is an emerging standard in literature to honor as “important” any book that deals with significant social issues.  I reject that standard in favor of one that also includes skillful and compelling writing. Adichie passes that standard, but not with distinction. The cumbersome title of Ife’s blog is indicative of some of the book’s shortcomings. There are deeply moving passages, but also leaden prose. Many of the blog entries, for example, seem—and there’s no polite way to put this—trite. Maybe Adichie (age 37) captures the vacuous style of blogs written by 30-somethings, or maybe she’s cheapening the very ideas upon which she wishes us to muse. You decide, but I often found myself annoyed by the tone (not the content). I can say, without reservation, that Adichie telegraphs her plot from miles away. She spins the frisson between Ife and Obinze in such a way that it’s like watching someone paint herself into a corner: there is but one conceivable outcome.

For a book about identity, it suffers from a crisis of identity. Is it about the immigrant experience? Is it about racial and gender identity? About love unrequited and requited? It seems to be about all of these things, but for me the love story simply gets in the way. I liked this book, but the awards strike me as the triumph of good intentions over sterling prose. It’s worth a read, but ignore the buzz.--  Rob Weir


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