A few months ago, the literary world suffered a great loss when Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author and wielder of words passed away. Achebe is remembered chiefly for having blazed a trail where few had dated to venture before him—he took on the task of representing ‘African history’ to an English-speaking (and hence, international) audience, putting forth a viewpoint that most of the world had never considered before. Africa, he attempted to say, was not the ‘dark continent’, the ‘heart of darkness’ in which Europe saw its primal, barbaric reflection. It was a continent made up of diverse peoples and cultures, with a rich history that its inheritors could and should be proud of.
Achebe has left behind him, along with a rich legacy of work (of which I’m ashamed to say I have read only Things Fall Apart), successors who have taken up the mantle, bringing Africa’s voice to the rest of the world. Of those, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is among the most well-known and celebrated, thanks to her ability and choice of writing in the English language, as well as the hefty prizes she has scooped up early on in her career. Those prizes are very well deserved, and with her latest novel, Americanah, she proves once again that she is a formidable talent, a voice to be reckoned with on the literary stage.
Americanah tells two stories: that of Ifemelu, the ‘Americanah’ the title refers to, and her one-time lover, Obinze. The novel starts with Ifemelu having decided to leave her cushy Princeton fellowship, close her extremely popular and hard hitting ‘race blog’ and return to her roots in Lagos, Nigeria. To prepare for her journey home, she goes to a new hair-braiding salon. As the hairdresser works on her braids, we are taken on an elliptical journey, tracing both her and Obinze’s lives from their childhood in Nigeria to where they are now. As the braid is woven, so their histories come together and fade apart, Ifemelu having cut off contact rather abruptly after a traumatic incident in Philadelphia.
The second half of the novel talks of Ifemelu’s arrival in Lagos, the disappointments and surprises she faces, and the manner in which she encounters Obinze, now a married and highly successful business head, one of the ‘big men’ of Nigerian society. The novel ends with their charting of a new relationship, hazy on the details of what exactly is to happen to the two one-time lovers. Is there hope for renewal and forward movement? Only time and the readers’ imaginations will tell.
The book, in my humble opinion, is brilliant. Adichie writes with a simplicity that cuts right to the bone, describing, first, Ifemelu’s prickly negotiations of a subject in America that she confesses she never had to think about growing up. Ifemelu discovers the curious dance of avoidance that hedges the subject of race in upper middle class American society and academia, her blog a response to the denial that she sees writ large over the majority of the (white) American population. Adichie refuses to be hackneyed in her presentation of ‘race’ and class questions, using the metaphor of hair to deliver her message. Black women, Ifemelu notes, seem to hate their hair, using products such as relaxers in order to tame its natural kinkiness. In order to score her first job in the U.S., Ifemelu heeds a friend’s well-meaning advice and uses a relaxer, subsequently deciding to never opt for such a step again. As she begins to claim her hair and see it as a mark of her own beauty and individuality, her acceptance of herself grows and she finally manages to throw off the vestiges of depression that life in America had foisted upon her.
Through Obinze, Adichie tells the story of thousands of illegal Nigerian immigrants, struggling to survive on the fringes of Western society (in Obinze’s case, London), plying hopeless, dead-end jobs in the long wait for security numbers and citizenship. She brings in the convenience marriage, having Obinze nearly marry an EU citizen in order to obtain his legal papers (that would allow him to work in the UK), but the operation is sadly shut down and he is summarily deported to Nigeria. Adichie evokes beautifully the anxiety, fear and yet, almost bizarrely, the rays of hope that keep these workers alive and working in a society that seems little to want them. Iloba, Obinze’s friend in London, is an excellent example of a man who clings on to optimism in this world.
The characters that populate the novel, American, British, African, are amazingly real and well-drawn. The Lagos of Ifemelu’s childhood and the Lagos she returns to are both distinct, allowing even readers who have never been there (such as yours truly), to imagine vividly the vastly different sights and sounds that assault her as she re-enters a world she had left behind (and which many people wonder at her for returning to). Despite their many periods of darkness, and the trials they face, Adichie allows her readers to hope for the best for these characters. Perhaps they too, like the city, will find ‘small redemptions’, moving forward (like, Obinze would insist, the good Third-Worlders they are) from a ‘legacy of defeat’ to a future of slanting sunshine.
In short, go read it. You will definitely get more than your money’s worth.