Wednesday, April 09, 2014

289. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every art enthusiast has at least an artiste he or she is dedicated to, whom he would follow thoroughly. They may not necessarily like everything about these artistes but they make it a point to know them and their works. This is common about musicians and visual artists. Almost five years ago, when I was making a list of 100 Books I want to read in five years, I took such a decision. I promised myself I would read every book Chimamanda publishes, irrespective of the reviews that she would garner. (Another author I mentally selected was Ayi Kwei Armah.) Since then I have read all four of Adichie's known published books, including Americanah (Fourth Estate, 2013), the author's third novel after the highly-successful Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and her fourth published book following her anthology of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009). 

When a writer achieves success and fame with his early works and comes to symbolise a people, their aspirations, their potentials, their future, willingly or unwillingly, his critics fall into two distinct camps: those who critique him for fame and those who obsequiously grovel before him and cannot move a step beyond the praises and salaams. The former are leeches. In Economics they could be referred to as free-riders. Their only focus is to be considered intelligent because they have read and found loopholes in the work of an author considered by most as intelligent. Their only aim is to look for 'what is wrong with the work'. They seek fame by riding on the back of the famous whilst shrouding their ulterior motives in layers of dark calico. They are like the double-faced god Janus. Their Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour always exposes them in the end.

The latter, on the other hand, is much worst. They see roses where there are are boundless dunes. They are afraid to be criticised for criticising or critiquing the work of such a writer of monumental standing. Their thinking and behaviour is based on the principle that 'if one cannot fight the hounds, then one must join the hounds'. And that is what they do - they join the hounds. In fact, they are the hounds. They bar others from doing so, erecting tall walls around their idols and descending on any who attempts to climb it. They take every critique as a personal attack and riposte in a so devastating a fashion that sometimes the author himself becomes worried. On several internet forums any article by Achebe or Soyinka divides the commenters into almost two parts: those praising Achebe and dissing Soyinka and those praising Soyinka and dissing Achebe. I wonder how there could not be many great writers at a time.

However, there is always a third group. These are people who, without any objective of gains, say exactly what they want to about book without contradicting themselves in anyway. They are sometime just readers who express themselves and react to a novel in as simple a way as possible without the trappings of forced interpretations and associations of the academics. Theirs is a feeling to and not a deconstruction of the work. They cannot handle the academic-ese that the scholars draped their criticisms in. Sometimes they are are academics who are interested in scholarly implications, explanations, expositions, interrogations, of such works and are not worried about being descended upon for criticising a work or being criticised for falling for a work so trivial. They are able to deconstruct the work and shows its flaws and strengths. Their outputs however remain within their circles and those who are able to decipher their jargon. With no training in literature, writing, deconstruction, and any of the other subjects these critics are immersed in, I am just a reader and my reactions of the layman's.

Chimamanda has become a household name in literature around the world. The New Yorker listed her as one of the best twenty writers under forty. Her books have won numerous awards. If African literature (just writings by Africans and no more than that) has a face, it would be hers and no other, or so it has been made to be. She gives talks in universities and the one on The Danger of a Single Story is a hit.  It has been watched over a million times on Youtube. When Americanah was released it was met with high praises. The buzz was loud and the reviews were wild. The story, as was reported in interviews and articles, was about hair, love, and race. Suddenly, Zadie Smith's White Teeth - an excellent story about race, migration, love, genetic research, religious upheavals, and activism - popped into my head. It remained the only Americanah flotsam until I finally opened the novel and began to read. However, for reasons that will be stated presently, I was disappointed with Americanah not that it did not imitate White Teeth - that would have been worst and I expected not a replica of that book in this - but this is supposed to be a novel about hair and all that. Besides, after seven years of waiting for an Adichie novel, I expected more. This one is comparatively disappointing. And by comparison I mean with the author's own works; not with the Kouroumas who have cured me of their writings. Yes, she commanded my attention  but the euphoria dipped.

To begin with, the story is hardly about hair in particular and more generally about race relations, though it forms only fraction of the story. This is not to say that a story cannot be more than one thing. Zadie shows the way. But this is basically a story of  love between two childhood sweethearts separated by over four-hundred pages of writings and thousands of miles. Though it is not the cheesy type of romance by the likes of Judith McNaught, Danielle Steel and their ilks - the romance is not dripping all over the pages - it has a subtle semblance to such stories plot-wise; especially in its belief in the long-lasting nature of love or the belief in childhood-love maturing into adult romance and the existence, and sudden appearance, of second chances in those novels. It is not that love does not exist or such types of love is impossible or do not make good literature. Ask Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. She knows how devastating such love could be and he how love could make a good story. Love exists and expresses itself in ways that sometimes makes observers wonder about how vast and all-encompassing and sometimes evil love can be. Vronsky and Anna are a case in point. However, in Americanah the love story was too simple and hardly excites. It lacks the emotional swings and philosophical investigations of the Tolstoys and the cheesiness of the Steels for those who like them soggy.

Obinze fell in love with Ifemelu the first day he enrolled at her school. However, a series of economic and political instabilities and strikes and a momentous opportunity saw them separate at the university when Ifemelu had a scholarship to study in America. As an immigrant, Ifemelu suffered a series of discrimination and it was there that she realised she was different. This race shock got her into blogging (the part of the story I enjoyed most). Her incisive insights into race relations, her spot-on no-nonsense blog-posts brought her fame and soon she was paid to give lectures all over. I became a fan. This part of the story brought home the experiences and observations of the travelled black person. There were newly-arrived blacks versus settled blacks; African Americans versus Whites; African Americans vs African Blacks. The issues seemed endless: some white folks pretending not to see colour; and others doing nothing to hide their racism. There is also the issue of successful blacks who are no longer thought of, or considered, as blacks like Oprah (though a recent event at a Swiss boutique shows that a black person never outgrows his or her skin). 

Another angle of race discrimination is accent. How this is important has always bothered me as anyone who has an accent speaking another language is most likely to be at least bilingual. However, in the life of an immigrant it becomes an extremely important determinant of intelligence. The closer an immigrant's accent is to a native speaker's the more suave and genteel he is considered to be and the wider the variance the thicker the idiocy ascribed to him. This led to a general craze among immigrant communities to strive to sound as American (or British, depending on where one is) as possible and he who achieves this is looked upon with envy and respect by his people. In the search for this, and to live the 'civilised' life and harvest all the advantages that come with it, some emigres refuse to teach their children their local language, lest it interferes with and stubbornly intrude upon their acquisition of the posh accent of the elite. The acquisition of a British or American accent, per the story, seemed to even excuse spoil behaviour by African children. Thus, they who acquire posh accent lose their African identity and consequently any African sensibilities associated with it. Similarly, stretched, silky, shiny hair is considered professional and braids and the natural woolly African hair are looked upon with disgust. In fact, the fastest way for an African to not be considered for a job is to arrive at the interview in braids or in her natural hair. The images Chimamanda painted here is no different from what we are bombarded everyday. Recently, when a young American with first generation African parents became the first person to be enrolled in all eight Ivy Leagues, some readers attributed it to the fact that he was black, and that had he been white he would not have had such a privilege. And those who spoke like this refused to look at his score; they only saw his skin and the success and connected the two with a straight line. Yet, the black man cannot get to rise in certain jobs; is racially profiled; is discriminated against at every turn; and they form the largest population in prison. How this became a privilege is hard to see. When Gabby Douglas won her Olympic gold, the talk was not on the success. It was on her hair. The next time she appeared it was at the back of Essence magazine in shiny, silky, straightened hair.

Chimamanda also discusses the extent to which immigrants will go to obtain legal documents and citizenship in western countries - the underground business of fake marriages; working with the other people's insurance and social security numbers, which comes with a drastic change in identity (names); the fear of being arrested and deported; the hopelessness of the African professional in search of a job in a country that does not need him or recognise his worth. These were the quite important flag-posts of Americanah.

Like Seffi Atta's A Bit of Difference, Americanah opens a discourse on Nigerian (African) middle class society. It discusses the Nigerian upper-middle and lower-middle class families - those who are working so hard (legally and fraudulently) to live the life of the upper class. In this discussion of Nigerian societies, class and social-mobility become significant themes and the Oga-Girl relationships is one of the identified ways for an upward rise on the social ladder. The other is looking for, and finding, an 'Oga' (a big-shot) who would guide your path and introduce you to all the right people with the right deals. And this was what Obinze did, when his cousin Nneama introduced him to one such man who fancied her, to help him find his feet in an economy he was over-qualified to work in but has been prevented from doing so because he knew not the right men. The discussion also touches on the middle class's disregard for the lower class and their hatred, love, and envy of the upper class. They feel insulted for not having enough and in striving for it look down upon others. They become the most fragile of the economic classes. They lack the wealth of the upper class and the hardiness of the lower class to make them resilient. Unlike the lower class which has developed deep and lasting coping mechanisms for themselves, the middle class live a risky life in their strife to be and be seen wealthy. Thus, though they may be richer than the lower class, they are mostly hovering on the borderlines of penury and the slightest economic wind could make them fall on either side.

Even among the middle class, there are differences. There is intelligentsia middle class, who in Chimamanda's writings, live on university campuses (Nsukka) surrounded by books. Their knowledge is almost boundless and are mostly liberals who have stripped themselves of every strand of the trappings of the traditional society. Obinze belonged to this household. In this household, there is no taboo subjects and religion is hardly given a thought. Subjects such as sex and boyfriends flow as easily as discussions of important works of literature and music. The other is the lower middle class - in letters and not necessarily in wealth - who hold onto their beliefs only as long as it serves or pretends to serve their needs. Into this household was Ifemelu with a religious mother  in search of financial miracles and a father who believed in nothing.

The role of religion in Nigerian (African) society was also dealt with. The sudden rise in the number of churches and the level of crime; the use of the church as a place for developing social connections by the middle class and for showing grandeur, in their demand for respect, by the upper class. The pastors have become the new parvenus. They put up the rich in their church as the standard of God's blessings and the poor and the middle class strive to reach and receive these blessings. It does not matter that these wealthy folks are known among the society to be corrupt or to be pathologically evil; as long as they are wealthy and attend church they are godly. In the end, religion becomes a means to riches and whatever one does, as long as it ends in wealth, it does not matter. In this way, religiosity is able to live within the same time and space with crime, which is not necessarily considered to be one as long as it has not resulted in an arrest.

Now the problems. In an article I read, it was attributed to the author that this was supposed to be her 'Fuck You' kind of story. Perhaps in a manner that challenges norms and breaks the thin hypocrisy that covers African societies and Africans with their penchant for pretence. They choose to do evil but see no evil - playing the proverbial ostrich with morality. Highly immoral, they are known to utter 'this is un-African' to anything even when they secretly desire it. However, I do not consider Americanah as a fuck-you novel. In fact, it is not even at par with Adichie's first two novels and whatever was achieved in this chunky 477-page novel, Sefi Atta did more in almost half the number of pages in her novel A Bit of Difference. Both novels were about western-educated single women who have hit their prime, intending to come home to settle and are not sure of exactly what they want. They are both about love, relationships, diasporean life, homecoming, and society; except that I enjoyed the Deola-Wade relationship more than the Ifemelu-Obinze (non)relationship. The latter was a bit forced into realisation. The dynamics of the middle-class family became a point of investigation in both novels especially of husbands making a lot of money and cheating on their wives and wives who do same, and what it takes to live the middle and upper class life in Nigeria. However, Sefi Atta did better on the family dynamism and on the love relationship. It was tight and provided room for speculation. Simply, Americanah is too simple and direct a story.

A large chunk of the story is told in flashback. It opens with Ifemelu going for braids and spirals backwards into her past life. At that point, she had made her mind of going back home - to Nigeria - for good. This created a situation where the reader knows that Ifemelu and her childhood lover, Obinze - who was flying high in Nigeria, were definitely going to meet end and all the reading in between were in anticipation of that. This is common in some novels. But in Americanah the reader, after the last page, realises there was no significant lateral story, no monumental event, nothing. All the fill-ins between the first page and the last page were just to delay this meeting and prolong the story. Even the blog-posts lose their essence when inserted into the love story. It is like watching a Ghanaian/Nigerian movie and seeing Jackie Appiah/Ini Edo in poverty and John Dumelo/Desmond Elliot in wealth; you will be dead sure that the two will meet in the end and in 9 out of 10 you will be right. You can go to the kitchen and do all the cooking you want and the first question you will ask upon your return will be 'have they met yet?'. That was how the story felt. A skimmer could just read the first fifty and the last fifty pages and would still get the gist of the story. In fact, the actual meeting between the two only occurred fifty pages to the end of the book. A reader wants more from a story; the story should draw the ohs and ahs from its readers - it should more than just imitate life. Perhaps, that is why it is a 'novel'.

After the two met the story raced to the end. And it just ended. It was as if the writer suddenly decided that everybody has had enough. It is this sudden ending of the story that betrays Adichie's 'fuck you' objective. Instead of betraying the traditional African behaviour, it rather lends it a quiver of arrows to shoot its opponents. It does this with its use of that trite phrase men usually pull from the bag when they want to divorce their wives, who had submissively lived with them and of whom they could find no excuse for divorce. Yet, because a new woman is lurking on the horizon, a woman they intensely want, they manufacture such lame excuses as 'we should not have married; you are not the one for me' and others to justify their cowardice and accept responsibility. In the case of Ifemelu and Obinze, Obinze added a wicked line to it: the level of his wife's literacy; something he never considered until Ifemelu reentered the picture. The story would have been 'un-African' on several levels if Obinze had stayed married to his wife but had developed an erotic relationship with Ifemelu. Then the defenders of Africa's tradition would have argued first that Ifemelu is not married to Obinze and therefore she is immoral (though they would have wished for it and some do it); that Ifemelu is coming back into the society with all the trappings of western education and culture to influence young women to imitate such immoral acts. Ifemelu's mother would have whined for falling in love with a married man, after all her education. Her father would have fussed and fumed. And the feminists would have wondered which educated woman would stoop low to do so and be considered as a mistress. It would also have gone against the norm in such romantic love stories where almost always two people who had been in love since childhood definitely ends up married, no matter how far apart they go. Or Ifemelu would have decided not to contact Obinze and would have fallen for a different person and tricked everybody.

But Chimamanda is a fantastic writer. This is her greatest asset. She commands the reader's attention, and she commanded mine, even if she is not saying much or is merely repeating what one has heard before. She is like a musician with an extraordinary voice. Regardless of the lyrics, people will pay attention - even if only to her voice. Because this is from a layman's reading, it would be important if you read it for yourself and discover what it means to you. After all, it is not a boring book. None of her books is.

7 comments:

  1. This is the best review I've read of this book, Nana, thank you:) It makes so much difference when you have the cultural knowledge to analyse the background of the novel in this way! I have the book on my TBR shelf, and I have made a note of your URL so that I remember to come back to re-read your review when I've read the book.

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  2. Great review. I put off reading the book after seeing the first reviews, maybe I'll get it after all.

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  3. Nana ahn ahn.. only 3,5 rating?? unfair nah. LOL.OK. What a coincidence I finished reading this novel at the same time your review of it was published. I am glad I read your review after I finished, if not I would have read it differently. Well... Where do I start from? Yeah, you were right with the blog posts in the novel which were interesting, however, it was somewhat forced in the whole picture.

    Secondly, LMAO @ It is like watching a Ghanaian/Nigerian movie and seeing Jackie Appiah/Ini Edo in poverty and John Dumelo/Desmond Elliot in wealth; you will be dead sure that the two will meet in the end and in 9 out of 10 you will be right. You can go to the kitchen and do all the cooking you want and the first question you will ask upon your return will be 'have they met yet?'.
    Don't tell me you do Nollywood, I am fed up, cannot stand a movie from that industry. Totally predictable. Americanah to me was unforeseen.

    LOL@ Then the defenders of Africa's tradition would have argued first that Ifemelu is not married to Obinze and therefore she is immoral (though they would have wished for it and some do it)

    The rest I will reserve when I publish my review, by the way, with your permission will link your review to mine, would love my readers to read it.

    Awesome review.

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    Replies
    1. Yes 3.5. I think it is very fair. the story was too simple. Or? LOL.

      I don't watch the movies until I am forced to or there is no choice. In Americanah the beginning and the telling of the story shows that they are going to meet. Well, I could tell they will meet and something will happen not marriage per se.

      You have my permission.... you know that.

      We can talk more on this novel.

      Delete
  4. Nana, Chimamada rolled all into one book with a bang! That is how I feel She touched on too many themes. And she had to weave all into the love story. Also I feel the race issues dragged too much, but then hei I've never been a victim of racism! I must say ever the romantic I enjoyed the love story of Obinze and Ifemelu. If anything at all, some parts mirrored my own relationship with my husband as childhood sweethearts. The ending leaves much to be desired though I wasn't too surprised. Nana, stranger things do happen now between man and woman! Believe you me.

    I agree with you that despite the novel's shortcomings, the author is a fantastic writer. For me, her best work is Half of a Yellow Sun.

    Brilliant review, as always!

    ReplyDelete

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