In Nigeria, we are brought up on foreign movies, sitcoms and TV shows, foreign books and foreign news, we know how English should be spoken, and many of us who bother to read a lot, are very familiar with the colloquialisms of the west.
This is perhaps why, we do not recognize how much we miss our own particularly Nigerian way of expression, in the literature we read. It is perhaps why, when we read a phrase that is essentially Nigerian, in a novel like Americanah, “Tina-Tina, how now?” “Why are you looking like a mumu?” “How will you cope/how are you coping?” all familiar Nigerian modes of speech, we are infinitely grateful.
I am probably biased towards this novel, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not only because Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which I read as a very young girl, awoke in me the possibility of good writing and beautiful prose by a Nigerian like me, but because of the familiarity of the book.
It’s like the word Americanah, such a Nigerian word, used to describe someone who had lived abroad for so long, they no longer understand the nuances of being Nigerian. They use American swearwords, or complain that the fries at KFC Onikan are limp, even though you see nothing wrong with them. This is when you turn to someone who understands and say, (No mind am, na Americanah), Don’t mind him, he is an Americanah.
Adichie’s latest follows Ifemelu, a bright, sharp and observant girl, from her early years in 1990’s Nigeria, to a life in America, where after the first rude shocks of culture change in a new world, where ‘fat’ is a bad word and not merely a statement of fact, where colour is such a big issue that it can rule people’s lives, and where everything is different, she slowly and surely starts to become an Americanah.
In Americanah, Ifemelu observes, and we are informed by her observations, she converses and we see her character, and she remembers, and in her memories we see a rich story that begins in Lagos, journeys through the cities of America, and gains a body that is beautiful to savour. It is through Ifemelu’s observations, we experience what Americana is about.
Hair, specifically Black/African hair. Why do black women hide their hair? Would Beyonce ever allow the world to see her hair the way it really is, or would Michelle Obama? These are the questions Ifemelu asks In her blog, where after having lived in the United States for a long time, she broaches issues of race, hair and life in America from the eyes of a ‘Non-American Black’.
We experience race, Kimberley, the white woman who uses beautiful as a word to describe ‘black’, because for whichever reason, black is a word that should be said as little as possible. Kurt, to whom Ifemelu’s race means nothing, and Blaine, the Black American Yale professor, whose influence, in my opinion, would be the biggest in turning Ifemelu’s observations from the disinterested and amused observation of a ‘Non-American Black’ or ‘NAB’, who calmly tells Kimberly, “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.” to those of an ‘American Black’ or ‘AB’, who would say in her blog. “If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery?” The old Ifemelu would have told the descendants of the slaves to ‘get over it’.
We also experience love, Adichie herself describes Americanah as a love story, and this is true. There is love in almost every book, but in Americanah, it is not incidental, it is a central part of the story. Before America, and race and hair became issues, there was Obinze, the love of Ifemelu’s teenage life. If Ifemelu, the daughter of a civil servant who lost his job because he would not bow to the excessive respect that Lagos Yoruba’s employ and call his boss ‘Mummy’, and uses English in such a way as to provide a hilarious sort of comic relief, is sharp and confident, then Obinze, the only son of a university professor, with his love for American books and his quiet belief in himself, is self assured and mature. They fall in love soon after they meet as secondary school students in Lagos, and when Ifemelu tells her aunt and friend, Uju, about him, saying she has met the love of her life, there is a hilarious moment when Aunt Uju advises her to “let him kiss and touch but not to let him put it inside.”
While most of the story is seen though Ifemelu’s eyes and memories, we also get to see some of Obinze, we follow him to London, where he lives as an illegal immigrant, after failing to find a job in Nigeria, or to fulfill his dream of going to America, (he later visits America, when he becomes rich, and isn’t impressed, he lost interest when he realized that he could buy his way in.) He is arrested on the eve of his sham wedding, and repatriated. In all this Obinze never loses a certain ‘solidity’, that he seems to effortlessly possess. In a democratic Nigeria, where a new middle class is rising, and the money that used to be the preserve of the top army generals starts to filter down, Obinze gets lucky in the way that only happens in Nigeria, where there really is too much money, and overnight he is a very rich man.
When Ifemelu starts to hunger for home, Obinze, with whom she has lost touch, is already a husband and father. “Meanwhile o, he has serious money now. See what you missed!” her friend, Ranyinudo tells her, on a call from Nigeria. (How Nigerian to say something like that!) The central question becomes, will they get back together? To some, this is a weakness of the story, the descent into the fantasy of a happily ever after for the heroine and hero, but it is not such a bad thing in itself, it makes enjoyable, and hopeful reading.
In summary, I loved the story. I loved the familiarity of it, Ifemelu’s mother’s ridiculous religiousness, her fathers ludicrous use of English, Aunty Uju, Ginika, Kayode, Emenike, who is perhaps one of the more interesting characters, as he strives to shed the life he was born with, to become what he wishes to be, and all the other different kinds of people that make up the rich tapestry that is Nigerian life.
Ifemelu is an interesting character, observant, watchful, sure of herself, even as a teenager, she is confident in a way I wouldn’t have understood at that age. Obinze, knows himself in such a way that he doesn’t need to follow any crowd, or have anybody validate him. However, I did feel that the ending was rather rushed, as if the author had other things to do, and was hastily putting the final scenes together.
The main grouse I had with the book was the fact that I saw some elements from Adichie’s previous works. When Barrack Obama wins the election and her cousin Dike calls her to say that his president is black like him, I remember an interview long ago where Adichie says that her nephew had said the exact same thing after the elections. It make me feel cheated, this, the similarity of her relationship with Curt to the relationship of the characters in her short story, The Thing Around Your Neck; when Obinze describes his house in Enugu, and I see the house in Birdsong, the scene of another adulterous affair in another of her old short stories. How autobiographical is her work then? I ask myself. I begin to feel suspicious, perhaps all the characters are really her and the people she knows, perhaps Pat Peoples is really Matthew Quick, and Nick Hornby’s characters are really just himself?
I noticed that apart from Dike, her little cousin, and Obinze, and perhaps Obinze’s mother, Ifemelu does not seem very emotionally involved with the people that shape her life, sometimes she seems like a watcher, an observer, and not a character in the story. Also, because this novel is really many observations and opinions, sometimes it does feel contrived, like a character or event has been introduced, solely because they are a means to present an issue Adichie wants to discuss. Lastly, I did not find the blog interesting, unlike the prose of the novel, the writing is not fluid, or vey descriptive, and seems to jump from one issue to another, trying to cram many thoughts into one jumbled package. This may be because I am not an NAB, and those issues mean little to me, perhaps the AB’s would read it differently.
Regardless, Americanah is a wonderful read, sometimes laugh out loud funny, sometimes sad, but always interesting.