Americanah: Through a looking glass glumly
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
For you. “Ceiling,” poor thing!
There are many good reasons to buy Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s publisher should rise and take a bow. Americanah is an ode to editorial excellence. Not a word out of place. When the book is good, it is really good; defiance pops out of well-dug trenches, igniting wars that give the middle class and the poor in Nigeria and America the middle finger. Americanah confers on the reader a deep respect for Adichie’s industry and writing prowess. Many of the characters in Adichie’s Americanah live in my part of America. I do see my daughter in the book’s dingy apartments negotiating a hair weave. In this book of many opinions, Adichie handles the sensitive subject of child labor and house help abuse with mastery; this is what Adaobi Nwaubani should have done. The reader will swoon at her re-telling of America’s love affair with Barack Hussein Obama, of how millions of Americans held their breath on that night in 2008 as they waited for Obama to win the presidency.
Americanah is not a perfect book, but it is perhaps the best narrative on contemporary Nigerian life I have read in a long while. Campus life in Nigeria is expertly handled. Adichie captures the hustle – and the filthy bustle of campus life in Nigeria. The love-making between the two main protagonists, “Ceiling” Obinze and Ifemelu, may be cringe-worthy to some but felt authentically Nigerian. Adichie builds convincing characters in Aunty Uju and her son and the relationship between her and Ifemelu is moving. Adichie uses Nigerian lingo in convincing and refreshing ways. She captures the culture clash going into America comically; read Aunty Uju, the apologetic Nigerian, trying to be an American. As she channels Jhumpa Lahiri in the soulless tenements of her America, in the blandness of her America and her food garnished with tasteless spices and pretty words, the sadness weighs on you like a heavy winter coat three sizes too big for you:
In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often. He would walk fast on the pavement, turned tightly into himself, hands deep in the coat his cousin had lent him, a grey wool coat whose sleeves nearly swallowed his fingers. Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station, often by a flower or a newspaper vendor, and watch the people brushing past him. They walked so quickly, these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (p 227)
Americanah is an ambitious but flawed chronicle, immensely readable, brilliant in parts, showing off some good writing. Tension snaps the pages. Adichie spares neither Nigeria nor America; she does have a soft spot for England. Her analysis of the politics of hair in the book is fascinating and engaging, even though there is hair everywhere, hair fascinates Adichie, and she shrinks from nothing, not even pubic hair. It is a near-fetish. In public interviews and comments, Adichie seems to regard growing natural hair as the next civil rights movement, and she comes across as evangelical and judgmental. Her treatment of the subject in the book however is actually entertaining and illuminating; not in-your-face judgmental. Yes, Americanah is an engaging book. Messy. Like life. Brilliant. Like life. Dumbass. Like life. Infuriating. Like life. Adorable. Like life. Bipolar. Like life. It is not hard to fall in love with a book that sighs like this:
For months, the air in their flat was like cracked glass. (p 41)
This is my favorite passage; it spoke to me in many ways:
And so she sent them invitation letters, bank statements, a copy of her green card. The American embassy was better now, the staff was still rude, her father said, but you no longer had to fight and shove outside to get in line. They were given six-month visas. They came for three weeks. They seemed like strangers. They looked the same, but the dignity she remembered was gone, and left instead something small, a provincial eagerness. Her father marveled at the industrial carpeting in the hallway of her apartment building; her mother hoarded faux-leather handbags at Kmart, paper napkins from the mall food court, even plastic shopping bags. They both posed for photos in front of JC Penney, asking Ifemelu to make sure she got the entire sign of the store. She watched them with a sneer, and for this she felt guilty; she had guarded their memories so preciously and yet, finally seeing them, she watched them with a sneer. p 301
What is the book about? It is several conversations about identity, race, immigration, class, exile, longing, and heartbreak, all of this drama carried out in Nigeria, England and America. And oh, it is about women’s hair, the politics of women’s hair, that is. Ifemelu, the protagonist, seemingly affected with the Sokugo wandering disease walks through life in a funk, draped in a supercilious daze, hating any and everything and every human in her tortured sights. It gets annoying really, well, until you meet “Ceiling” Obinze, the liberated, some would say, emasculated Nigerian man that is the only one good enough for Ifemelu. And boy, is he liberated. He chops greens in kitchens, cleans and cooks and does not grunt, fart and dig into his butt like most Nigerian men seem to do in the book with gleeful abandon. You almost expect to see him in the next page with a baby firmly tied to his feminist back with a woman’s wrapper loudly featuring the picture of a scowling fist pumping NGO feminist and the words I LUV MY STRONG BLACK WOMAN! Many would say he Obinze is weak also; he deserts his long suffering wife who is not good enough for his eclectic and intellectual tastes (he did marry her, duh!) and ends up with Ifemelu, the love of his life. And they live happily after. End of discussion. Well, not really.
It must be said: Americanah is a work of intense industry, it is not easily dismissed. Adichie’s research skills are meticulous for the most part; you fall in love with her demons’ passions and obsessions. It features good, well-edited writing. Every writer should get a copy of the book. Part 3 houses my favorite passages. It is lucid and fluid. Adichie is on the saddle here. It is as if two different people wrote the book. Here, Obinze the male protagonist stars and shines and Adichie is at her best; tart prose and attitude strutting all over the place, stab, stab, stab with the mind. The book is more comfortable with England than with America and Obinze is a more believable and pleasant character than Ifemelu. He rescues the book somewhat from the carcinogen of Ifemelu’s intense neurosis.
What is there to dislike about Americanah? Plenty. For starters, the pseudo-intellectual over-analysis grates on the weary reader; it is is cloying and eye-roll inducing – Adichie’s mind reaches for intellectual complexity where the simple would do. Supercilious anecdote after patronizing condescending pat on the head and the reader is soon done with the book. Adichie, using Ifemelu as a proxy, analyzes everything and the analysis is not always the best. No wonder the book is hefty. Many African writers tend to deploy caricatures to analyze issues. It can be effective. In Americanah’s case it is simply overdone and it diminishes the book immensely. Also, sometimes, Americanah feels and tastes like sugary processed food. Top that with cheesy romance layered on social commentary, and the reader soon chants Halleluiah! as the book mercifully trots mechanically to a pre-determined end, like a mass-produced batch of cookies out of a Starbucks oven.
Americanah proudly shows off botched attempts at innovation. Ifemelu’s “blog posts” in the book would have made good provocative essays. However, they are not very good, filled with generalizations and specious arguments, prescriptive at best, never examining why things are the way they are. They are at best mildly thoughtful as if the blogger was too lazy or timid to fully flesh out the thoughts. There is no vision here which is fine if it is just for entertainment but then the book strains to be taken seriously. It tries too hard. And in there lies the possibility that like many African writers straining to write “fiction” true success may lie in simply writing good essays.
There is a formulaic feel to Americanah. There is no perfect novel but as fiction goes, Americanah plays it safe, straight off the orthodoxy of an MFA program. All the rules of “good writing” are checked. Meticulously. As a near-aside, I would hate to be an author today. In the age of social media, readers already burdened with ADHD issues have more reading options than in the halcyon, analog days of old. Today, a book must engage readers or they are back to typing “LOL” on inane luscious Facebook gossip. At almost 500 pages, Americanah is too fat for the 21st century. It is engaging but unless you are a hermit, reading it will take forever.
For many African writers, fiction provides a sense of security and a wide, comfortable palette to discuss social/political issues. It is fair however to question whether Adichie should have used the essay format instead of fiction to address all the social anxieties in the book. After Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe stopped using fiction to comment on social and political issues. He wrote brilliant essays as a result. I think Americanah should have been a book of essays. Even at that it would have needed considerable work.
In Americanah, Adichie handles the new Christianity, the new plague destroying much of Black Africa well, but there is nothing new here really; it has been covered ad nauseam by many contemporary African writers, most recently by the brilliant NoViolet Bulawayo in her stunning debut We Need New Names. Similarly, the analysis of exile and alienation comes across as dated. Example: In the 2000s Adichie’s characters are still writing letters and mailing them in place of email. This is a possibility, a quaint, remote plausibility though. Historical fiction is still as relevant as ever, however the writer has an obligation to be true to the times. A writer must understand and be in sync with the new culture of life today. Social media, cellphones, the Internet have reengineered how we live in spectacular ways and with muscle. Adichie proves convincingly that she does not much understand the culture of social media. She grafts their tools clumsily on the old and they sit in the book like congealed oil on water. Chat rooms! It is cringe-worthy reading about chat rooms today. Who goes to chat rooms anymore?
Where Adichie really loses it is in her analysis of race issues in the West. The book swims in cute anecdotes about race – in black and white, but it is complicated. Adichie’s world view on race relations in America misreads the huge demographic shifts sweeping America. America is browning. It is strange, for example, that a book on exile, immigration and race is virtually silent on Hispanics (there is a little paragraph in the book somewhere that seems to do no more than acknowledge the existence of Hispanics). America is browning and Hispanics and Asians have a lot to do with the phenomenon. In many parts of America whole swathes speak only Spanish. In the 21st century, America is not just black and white. There are other races and ethnicities. And there is the Internet.
The discussion on race in Americanah also seemed contrived. In order to cover the prism of race, Ifemelu, the protagonist dutifully dates a white man and then an African American man. Sadly, perhaps mercifully, the book clatters to a cheesy end before Ifemelu turns her jaundiced eyes on a Latino. Adichie touches on the tension between African Americans and Africans but it is a blurb. It could have been teased out more. Some of the dialogue on race is simply awful. When Ifemelu snarls at VS Naipaul’s self-loathing, the retort might as well have been aimed at her – she reeks of self-loathing. (See my essay, The Naipaul in us). Ifemelu channels Naipaul in her despair and shows little compassion for the truly dispossessed immigrants who fled the black-on-black crime of their ancestral lands. An overly Westernized Ifemelu and Obinze are now the caricatures that Ifemelu despises.
How far is the book removed from Adichie’s life? We may never know but when Adichie riffs about Baltimore the book seems merely autobiographical and morphs into a book about terrifying personal anxieties. At Adichie’s book reading in London, to her chagrin the white moderator kept mistaking Ifemelu’s views for Adichie’s. That faux pas spoke volumes about how readers may perceive the book. The moderator may be on to something. In this video clip Adichie admits that a lot of the protagonist’s views are hers. Interestingly, at the book reading, Adichie also called Americanah a “Nigerian” book. Perhaps. It is certainly a book about Nigerian lives. If it is an authentically Nigerian book, she has a strange way of showing it. Americanah is a book struggling for identity. Nigerian words are meticulously italicized and neat tricks are deployed to explain them to a presumably Western audience. All the blurb writers are “posh white men” Adichie’s favorite phrase at the book reading. Surely there are Nigerian writers of stature who could have been coaxed to write a blurb for her book. Instead she trots out Dave Eggers and Colum McCann, “posh white” thinkers who proceed to be effusive in praise of a book allegedly about Nigeria.
Americanah is about a lot of issues, several of them handled rather poorly. In Adichie’s treatment of class issues, there is not much tension here, just a meandering exercise in upper middle-class narcissistic navel gazing, with reams of condescension and a certain lack of compassion shown to those ruined by Nigeria’s ruling and intellectual elite. One gets the sense that for Adichie and many African writers, fiction is a convenient proxy for airing societal dysfunction, preferably in self-absorbed prose. The reader is paying for someone else’s navel-gazing.
In Americanah, Adichie displays a knack for detail, nothing escapes her cynical eyes. Nigeria’s Jhumpa Lahiri, she is this fastidious house inspector groping for dirt in your bathroom. She takes superciliousness and patronizing condescension to chic heights. Americanah bears heavy echoes of Lahiri’s superciliousness. There is no joy here, just people waking up and doing what they have to do. Ifemelu will not be pleased. Nothing impresses her. Ifemelu is anal-retentive, indeed many Americans would call her an asshole. She has a huge chip on her cute shoulders. And it is ugly, bristling with impatience, a quickness to judge others using pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. And she overanalyzes everything. I mean everything. Even the peppersoup is overanalyzed. Just eat the damn thing. While Ifemelu’s preferred romantic relationships were with Western men, she hardly had any respectful conversation with anyone in the West. Everything is tinged with race. In Ifemelu’s world, America is a tired, smelly place clothed in a culture of despair. Many would disagree.
Americanah is pages of caricature perhaps because in the eyes of many writers, Nigeria is a caricature nation. I could see the white editors gleefully preparing the book for the market. Do you blame them? White folks come off easy compared to Africans. With Africans mimicry is chic. And then there is the misandry. The book sometimes reads like one long lament about misbehaving slovenly Nigerian men. It is as if Adichie is gathering evidence, doing a “discovery” for possible divorce from horrid Nigerian men. In Americanah and I must observe, much of the fiction written today by female African writers, the subtext seems to be to portray African men as buffoons. One is struck by the rising tide of misandry, a surging contempt for African men. It manifests itself in many forms: African men as bumbling caricatures, relationship-averse, overweight butt-scratching, belching cave-men, usually absent (at least emotionally) from their kids, pathetic shadows of what they should be, as measured against an absurd asymptote – an idealized man drawn from Western feminist babble-speak.
While exaggeration is a useful tool for providing clarity in debates, much of what I am reading lately is over the top pompous nonsense, uncritical mimicry of the chic contempt Western feminist militants hold for the evil men that live rent-free in their red-wine addled heads. There is a crying need for a more original and nuanced analysis of the troubled relationship between men and women in Black Africa. The persistent negative depictions of African men in these books read like misandry. And it is. There are two separate issues here that are at risk of being conflated: Patriarchy and its attendant brutalization of women and children, and, the misrepresentation of men in these books, of African men as inarticulate bumbling idiots with the manners of unwashed cave men. We need original thinkers, looking at African lives out of the box of Western dysfunction.
There is no true fiction; there is the politics of fiction. We know what the word has done to the perception of African Americans. We know, thanks to Chinua Achebe, what Joseph Conrad’s words were signifying. Achebe in deconstructing Conrad and VS Naipaul was not attempting to censor them. Achebe was right to stand up for Africans; Africans are not the dolts that are represented in Conrad’s books. Similarly, much of what I am reading about men in contemporary writing by female African writers is arrant nonsense, borne perhaps out of self-loathing and an unconscious desire to measure everything against a White asymptote. It is pure mimicry, there is no intellectual depth to the conversations (Why are things the way they are?) The mimicry is of comic proportions and ultimately diminishes everyone, and the authors.
Here is a typical description of one of the men of Americanah:
“Bartholomew wore khaki trousers pulled up high on his belly, and spoke with an American accent filled with holes, mangling words until they were impossible to understand. Ifemelu sensed, from his demeanour a deprived rural upbringing that he tried to compensate for with his American affectation, his gonnas and wannas.” (p 115)
And there is more:
“Ifemelu should not have spoken, but there was something about Bartholomew that made silence impossible, the exaggerated caricature that he was, with his back-shaft haircut unchanged since he came to America thirty years ago and his false overheated moralities. He was one of those people who, in his village back home, would be called “lost.” He went to America and got lost, his people would say. He went to America and refused to come back. (p 116)
Adichie’s Americanah came out at at the same time as stunning debut works by NoViolet Bulawayo and Taiye Selasi (We Need New Names and Ghana Must Go respectively), featuring fresh scintillating prose and new and mostly profound analysis of our world and the challenges of the new immigrant in the 21st century. Scholars would do well to study these three books and try to make sense of the differing visions of these three thinkers of color. The contrasting visions of these three writers signal many things; a paradigm shift in how we view exile, alienation and race relations – and an end to the domination by Adichie of contemporary African literature. It is a good thing. We need new and fresh voices. At the book reading in London, a fawning member of the audience called Adichie the mother of contemporary African literature. Adichie shot back in swift repudiation of the insincere title: “See me see trouble O!” Adichie is perceptive and astute. Who wan die?