Not a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

I really enjoyed Americanah, though I don’t think it’s Adichie’s best novel (and certainly not her best book, but I prefer her shorter work anyway). I also refuse to review this because it was my sick day reading but I did mark out bits in my copy and make useful observations like “hah!” and so forth. So here are some quotes and some thoughts anyway.

So much of Americanah is so sharply observed and genuinely funny.

The man standing closest to her was eating an ice cream cone; she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public. […] The graying hair on the back of his head was swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious. A firm science like chemistry, maybe.

Delight.

While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be:

[…] their different accents formed meshes of solacing sounds. They mimicked what Americans told them: You speak such good English. How bad is AIDS in your country? It’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa. And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again. Here, Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.

Ifemelu has a successful blog about race, and occasionally the text is interrupted by an entry from this which is pertinent to a situation Ifemelu has just faced. The blog voice sounds like a lot of other race blogs and some of the jargon is certainly there—she links, for example, to Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh when she talks about privilege, and she mentions (and dismisses) the phrase “Oppression Olympics”. What Americanah doesn’t do, though, is give us much in the way of internet discussion, the fluid ways in which conversations take place in comments sections, through links across blogs. The blog isn’t the point of the book and I don’t think Adichie is particularly interested in this particular facet of internet life, so it’s not surprising that she shouldn’t have spent much time exploring it. But I still find it interesting because so much of what Americanah has to say about race seems to me to be pertinent to the discussion of race online. Because (and some of my best friends are American POC, she says hastily) I spend so much of my life on the internet and the internet is still so strongly weighted towards the idea that everyone lives in the first world, that a third world-residing (I want to add a disclaimer about how far from “third-world” my privileged, airconditioned, South Delhi life is, but the UK still thinks I’m high-risk, so I’m owning the title) person with opinions and access to the means with which to express them is some sort of mythical beast (actually I am a pretty manticore). And Americanah understands that the bonds between third world postcolonial and other third world postcolonial can be based on as much or more common ground than American person of colour and non-American (or non-British, let’s not let them off) person of (same) colour, and that sometimes there’s a comforting solidarity in banding together against first world privilege for a bit, no matter what colours and histories it may come in.

Ifemelu and Jane laughed when they discovered how similar their childhoods in Grenada and Nigeria had been, with Enid Blyton books and Anglophile teachers and fathers who worshipped the BBC World Service.

“The African Americans who come to our meetings are the ones who write poems about Mother Africa and think every African is a Nubian queen. If an African American calls you a Mandingo or a booty scratcher, he is insulting you for being African. Some will ask you annoying questions about Africa, but others will connect with you. You will also find that you might make friends more easily with other internationals, Koreans, Indians, Brazilians, whatever, than with Americans both black and white. Many of the internationals understand the trauma of trying to get an American visa and that is a good place to start a friendship.”

 

And yet it seems that Ifemelu’s American blog is read almost exclusively by people in America—whether they are long term residents and citizens or more recent immigrants—and the Nigerian blog she starts later by mostly Nigerians. There isn’t a spillover of readers from one blog to the other, no note of “this is where I’m going to be, come read me there if you like”. I can’t imagine a hugely popular blog ending that way.

 

He had not been back to Nigeria in years and perhaps he needed the consolation of those online groups, where small observations flared and blazed into attacks, personal insults flung back and forth.

This is that man in the comments on Times of India or Rediff or wherever, who is outraged by the reservation system, feminist activism and everything that is ruining our great culture and whose profile says he lives in California. There’s nothing original here, because is anyone really surprised that other countries have them too? But I smiled anyway.

 

There’s an enjoyable  encounter with an annoying white girl who wants braids but has no idea what sorts there are or how they’re made, and who thinks the finest, most “honest” book about Africa she’s read is A Bend in the River. Adichie goes into (well-deserved) attack mode—this bit has been widely quoted in other places.

She did not think the novel was about Africa at all. It was about Europe, or the longing for Europe, about the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not having been born European, a member of a race which he had elevated for their ability to create, that he turned his imagined personal insufficiencies into an impatient contempt for Africa; in his knowing haughty attitude to the African, he could become, even if only fleetingly, a European. She leaned back on her seat and said this in measured tones. Kelsey looked startled; she had not expected a minilecture. Then, she said kindly, “Oh, well, I see why you would read the novel like that.”

“And I see why you would read it like you did,” Ifemelu said.

 

“I just can’t get up and go to Paris. I have a Nigerian passport. I need to apply for a visa, with bank statements and health insurance and all sorts of proof that I won’t stay and become a burden to Europe.”

This! This is the sort of thing that made me feel, as I said, that reading the novel I was among friends. I’m sure no one needs me to rant about this (Ekaterina Sedia recently suggested on twitter that a useful measure of privilege could be the number of countries into which one can enter without needing a visa or having to worry that one would get one). (See also “America“).

 

“He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgment of his own many privileges. He never allowed himself to have an opinion. “Yes, I see what you mean,” he said often.”

I know you, this guy. I like you; I kind of wish you’d own an opinion (and possibly be shot down for it) more often, but you’re rather nice.

 

“I was actually going to tell you about it. It’s called the Nigerpolitan Club and it’s just a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.? Really low-key, just like sharing experiences and networking? I bet you’ll know some of the people. You should totally come?”

Ooh, this is interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere Adichie respond to Taiye Selasi and this whole concept of “Afropolitans” unless this is it. And it … is complicated, and again I’m sure I’m likely to draw false equivalencies between the situations of being a privileged Indian who has travelled a bit and lived in other countries and being a privileged Nigerian or a privileged Ghanaian (if Selasi identifies as such?) who … etc—and perhaps even assuming too much of a similarity between Nigerians and Ghanaians in that position is silly. But it’s one of the most interesting sections of Ifemelu’s return that she joins this club of “Nigerpolitans” and finds herself, on the one hand, despising them for being the sort of people who talk about “the sort of food we can eat” and whining that their cooks don’t know how to make the sort of food they’ve grown accustomed to while admitting that she does have a lot in common with them and she does miss quinoa. Most of the time Americanah is placing Ifemelu in wider context of the world, and the first world, and her place within it; this is one of the places where we see her within the more specific context of Nigeria. And of course it is as complex, and as contradictory as her wider context is.

 

 

5 Responses to “Not a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

  1. Hm, yeah it’s complicated – I’ve always wondered how to process/categorize the complaints of fairly privileged people from the global south. I remember a knee jerk reaction when I read her bio, I mean how hard was your life really? I remember thinking. And now you’re going to coast both on your global cred and your ivy league connections? Not that a hard life is pre-requisite for good art, but surely the work produced by the privileged should be held to higher, or at least differently calibrated standards?

    but yeah, I do see your point about the potentially necessary comradeship from fellow brown folks while in white majority countries. yet, I personally never have related to it. I mostly found the extracts you cited from Adichie’s book extremely pedestrian, and I remember going to an Indian party the first time I came to America, where quite similarly everyone had the laziest critiques and zeroed in on the silliest of things to cavil at among [white] Americans, which seemed stupidly cliche (particularly coming from academics/wannabe academics) and I left early. This is not to deny people who really need the comfort of fellow folks of color to assuage real post colonial trauma. i’m obviously very privileged, adequately anglicized and a free agent, it should go without saying, but here we go again.

    I don’t know maybe it hit too close to home – both my white father in law and my very brown father (and mother) enjoy eating ice creams. So yeah, what now? :)

    Teju Cole’s book bothered me too, last year. His auto-ethnography seemed pointless – well now you’re in New York and went to prestigious schools and everyone [all the white folks who matter in nyc] thinks you’re the literary bees knees! who cares about your angst?? – ah, who knows maybe it’s just jealousy and resentment.

    The real “america” story for my money is the bicoastal elitism, middlebrow euro fetishism and just as a matter of course, shitting on middle america. I feel Adichie reinscribes the same old cliches, that her supporters at NPR are all too happy to help her do.

  2. Just to clarify, I do wish someone would reverse the white gaze in an amazing and incisive way – I mean the one thing that comes to mind isn’t a literary intervention at all but a juvenile yet stunningly radical/accurate bit Dave Chappelle did in the “I study white people – what you looking at n-? these are vegetahbles!”

    And here’s Adichie bellyaching about not being able to go to Paris to do white people things, which is a generic liberal bourgeoise harangue, and seems kinda indefensible coming from folks of color, but is all too common. the #firstworldproblems hash tag seems all but redundant in this iteration.

    Incidentally, I recently met Chinelo Okaparanta’s sister whom my [very white] friend is dating, and we all went out to dinner and she mentioned her sister being up for the Caine prize – too bad she didn’t win. I’m curious about her book for obv reasons, but your plug definitely helps.

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