Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

[This is a journal in five sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

11 June 2015
From Chapter 1 to the beginning of Chapter 9…
…which takes in the two chapters that make up Part 1 and half of the much longer Part 2. Part 1 is the scene-setter, introducing us to Ifemelu, the Nigerian woman who has become what we later come to recognise as an Americanah. She has decided to leave her comfortable academic life in Princeton – and her comfortable academic boyfriend, and the blog she’s been writing about the experience of Africans in the USA – to go back to the country she left thirteen years before. We also find out about the love interest, Obinze, the man she left behind and who never did follow her when she left to finish her degree in the States. He has a comfortable life too, but a completely different one making money in Lagos. To go with the chauffeur-driven lifestyle he has a beautiful wife and daughter – and we find out, mainly in the context of a single evening, that he feels there’s something lacking. His success is as the charming, educated face of a business run by ‘Chief’, the man everybody defers to when he throws the party Obinze and his wife attend. I assume he’s the love interest because he is composing several drafts to make sure that this time his reply to Ifemelu’s unexpected email is more likely to get an answer.

So far Part 2, with only brief visits to the gossipy, African-run salon where Ifemelu is having her hair braided in preparation for her return, is all set in Nigeria when she and Obinze are in their late teens. By the start of Chapter 9 Ifemelu has arrived in the USA, and I suspect that the rest of Part 2 will stay there. The style of the Nigerian chapters is relaxed, as Adiche takes us through not only the school romance that is almost immediately far more than that, but also the lives of the middle classes. Adichie writes as though for a Nigerian readership, with no apparent concessions made to those aspects of life that western readers will find strange. But, really, it’s a strategy. Aside from the details, there is little about the characters’ lives that is unfamiliar, and we know exactly where we are in the conventional romance between the clever boy and the girl he singles out not for her looks, but for her refusal to be like all the rest. With a few tweaks, the love story could be taking place in any senior high school in America.

The adults are more interesting. In Nigeria it isn’t possible to rely on the certainties of the west, and Adiche likes to remind us that the government – this must be the late 1990s – is a military junta. The threat of another coup is ever-present, as Ifemelu’s Aunt Uju discovers to her cost. She is a trained doctor, but life as the mistress of one of the generals is more appealing. She lives entirely on gifts from him in a house he owns, and eventually bears him a son. A year after this, when the general is killed in what everyone assumes to be a staged air crash – the current leader is seeking to purge some potential opponents – she is forced out, taking only the child and the things she can salvage quickly. Before this, she had been able to help her brother, Ifemelu’s father, sacked for refusing to call his boss Mummy as a mark of respect. Now he helps her, and advises her to use her American connections to get over there quick. Her medical training is bound to stand her in good stead.

There are other differences with the west, although reading it sometimes feels like cultural tourism. Ifemelu’s mother goes in for evangelical Christianity, and it seems sincere for a while – until she changes church again and buys into the idea of God-given wealth. When Uju starts to receive gifts from the general her sister-in-law sees it as proof of God’s bounty. Adichie satirises the obsession with money among this class of Nigerians, seen in Ifemelu’s family, in the constant talk of her schoolmates, and at Chief’s party in Part 1. Fine. But she’s also affectionate regarding some aspects of Nigerian life. There seems to be a real respect for education – Ifemelu’s father, who had been unable to attend university, loves to use educated-sounding vocabulary and wants the best for his daughter. Obinze’s mother is a university teacher on sabbatical – not, as the rumour has it, having been forced to take leave after fighting with her boss – and is another of Adichie’s strong, intelligent women to place alongside Ifemelu herself.

It’s a crisis in education that sends Ifemelu to the States. She and Obinze are attending university in his home town, Nsukka, where is mother teaches. (He wants to be near her, good son that he is, as she has blackouts and he fears for her health.) But their education is disrupted: the lecturers are often unpaid, and eventually here is a long strike across the whole country. By the time the strike ends, Ifemelu has been persuaded that living with her aunt in the States would be a safer option, and Obinze agrees that this would be best. She has a scare before she goes – having had disappointing sex with him for the first time, she mistakes food poisoning for morning sickness – but things seem to be back on track with Obinze by the time she leaves, and he will soon follow.

Anything else? Plenty, I’m sure, but it’s time to read on.

13 June
Chapter 9 to the end of Part 2
Why am I not enjoying this novel? Maybe it’s to do with how conventional it all seems, how comfortable. If for a moment you forget it’s about a Black African woman – bear with me – what do you have? Middle class girl struggles to find her own identity in a world that seems very strange to her. Her bankrupt father can’t pay her fees, she can’t get a part-time job to pay the bills… and she becomes so depressed it feels like she’s hitting rock bottom. It’s around now that she loses touch with the boy she left behind – and, unaccountably, she never does re-establish that link. But by this time she hasn’t only got lucky, she’s landed a dream job as a nanny. Not only does she do a better job than the mother at bringing up the two mixed-up kids; she is able to mix with the upper middle classes and meet a man who can take her all around the world on expensive trips – you should see the visa stamps in her passport. But, inevitably, she feels her own identity being compromised. She meets another man on the train, someone we know she will live with in the future because he’s been mentioned already, but he’s on hold for now because he doesn’t reply to her calls. And don’t let’s even start on her bad hair days.

In other words, all this novel really has going for it are the insights Adiche offers into the experience of ‘non-American Blacks’. She does a similar thing for immigrants in the USA to what a whole generation of authors has been doing for years in British fiction (I’m thinking of Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and others). The experience is by no means the same but, despite some interesting and very particular pressures on Black immigrants in the USA – and more general points that Adichie makes about African Americans too – it makes me think I’m not the target audience for Americanah. Adiche is the bringer of wonders, writing for an imaginary readership for whom the ideas are all brand new.

I’ll happily join her in feeling superior to the WASPish attitudes Ifemelu encounters – and aren’t there plenty of those in the 120-odd pages? – but Adichie overdoes it for me. She is so sure of how fascinating Ifemelu’s situation is that she interleaves her story with pages of what feel like lecture notes on the life of the non-American Black. They aren’t lectures, but extracts from the blog that Ifemelu is supposed to have written later. These are often genuinely interesting. But, printed in a sans serif font and appearing regularly as a commentary on the events, they become a platform for Adiche to buttonhole us, like the bore at the party, about all the things we don’t know about the experience of being her kind of Black. Meanwhile, in the main narrative of the novel, we see how everybody goes on their unthinking way, getting it wrong. Even Ifemelu, Adiche’s alter-ego, gets it wrong – but, crucially, she learns from her mistakes, and can pass the lessons on for the edification of us all.

It means that every character is there, to some extent, to illustrate an aspect of Adiche’s thesis. I found myself ticking them off mentally as I read. The hairdressers and their unthinking acceptance of what America expects of them. Aunty Uju, exhausted and almost beaten down by a system that has no interest in her life in Africa – African countries, Ifemelu quickly learns, are never differentiated by Americans. Uju goes for the conventional option in the end, despite her eventual success in the US examination system: she marries an unsatisfactory co-immigrant and regrets it. The Nigerian friend in America who has lost her accent and straightens her hair. Ifemelu’s university classmates who each seem to represent a particular Black sub-group, so distinct that Ifemelu (or Adiche, I forget which) ascribes them labels, complete with acronyms. The boy born in Nigeria, Uju’s son, finding out about how difference is treated in the American school system though he’s been there since he was one year old. And there are the different tribes of Black taxi-drivers, American or non-American, who resent or admire or are baffled by Ifemelu’s apparent ease in a world in which most of them feel like outsiders.

There are the whites who later get special mentions in the blog, like the liberals who feel they have to apologise for every perceived wrongdoing, down to a relative’s faux pas. (This is Ifemelu’s employer, the earnest but ineffectual mother.) Or they tell Ifemelu all about the African charities they work for. Or are so keen to show how interested they are in Ifemelu’s culture they never ask her anything about her experience. Alternatively, there are the not exactly racist whites like the university registration official who speaks slowly because she assumes any non-American Black will have problems with English. Or the repair-man, tight-lipped with resentment at her wealthy lifestyle until he realises she’s just the help after all. And, of course, there is the rich WASP boyfriend, the one for whom the American way of doing things is so perfectly set up he assumes it’s that easy for everyone. What’s not to like about his easy charm, his clear and straightforward love for Ifemelu? Ok, we’ll leave aside for a moment his confident expectation that he will never meet any obstacles in his life (he doesn’t)… and the small matter of the white woman he met at a convention who sends him emails to which he has been replying.

The earlier Nigerian chapters contain their own tick-box characters and situations. The silly, self-serving religious hobbyist looking for favours from God. The intelligent, educated woman who accepts an expensive lifestyle based on corrupt wealth in return for sex with a member of government. The privileged kids who have expectations far beyond the usual in Nigeria, and the others around them who try to keep up. The man who is uneasy about the way he makes money, and the meaningless of his life – but who goes along with it anyway because it’s comfortable.

Rising above them all is Ifemelu, capable of errors but able, through those blogs, to look down on all the other poor fools still getting it wrong. She’s aided in this by Adichie, looking on indulgently like a good parent, or like the author who reveals her cleverness through her alter-ego. And like any indulgent parent, this author doesn’t give her character too hard a time. There is a crisis – the approach of Ifemelu’s first winter, with no job and down to her last $100 – but it’s short-lived. As she sinks into the depression she’d previously assumed was just an American indulgence – another life-lesson for us all – her old friend finally reaches her to tell her that the job she didn’t get some weeks before has suddenly become vacant. And that’s it. There’s the unending question of what to do with her hair – braids? straightened? Afro? – because any choice sends unintended coded messages. A bad experience with the straightening chemicals makes her resort to a short ‘natural’ look, which she stays with as it grows. And, after finally mastering an American accent, she gives that up too. From now on she sounds as proudly Nigerian as she looks. (Sigh.)

16 June
Part 3
Time to rewind some years, and move the focus 3,000 miles east to England. Obinze ends up there because in the post 9/11 world, almost all applications by non-white foreign men for a visa to enter the USA are met with a blank ‘ineligible’. His mother pulls strings to get him a temporary visa for England in the hope that he might be able to get to America from there. Previously, this kind of dishonesty would have been something she wouldn’t dream of, and it is Adiche’s sly sign to the reader of how times have changed. Middle class Nigerians with their old assumptions about their place in the world are having to make uncomfortable adjustments, and the bending of old principles now is a warning of what Obinze is going to have to do for the rest of Part 3. It ends, as we’ve always known it would, with his deportation back to Nigeria.

There’s an Ifemelu-shaped hole in his heart long before this, as he finishes his degree in Nigeria and waits in vain for replies to his emails and, finally, the letter we know she will never open. And there’s nobody in England to fill it. His contact with women is minimal, although there is one encounter in a café – which goes nowhere – and a woman he has sex with only once that we know of. And, before his arrest, he has met his wife-to-be often enough to begin wondering whether there might be the possibility of a real relationship. Ah well.

There’s nothing else for Obinze in England, and with a few tweaks it would make a bleak little novella in itself. But at least this section is only half as long as the section covering Ifemelu’s USA experiences so far, and Obinze isn’t as bound up in the details of his own personal Bildungsroman as his ex. He’s as mortified as she is by the compromises that have been made by former friends and other schoolmates, but he doesn’t turn his findings into a thesis to share with the world. However… Adiche covers a different set of atrocities one by one, culminating in a gruesome dinner party at which Adichie can tick off a whole list of unsatisfactory attitudes. The host has picked up all the pretensions of the whites that he and his partner mix with, but it’s made worse because Obinze can remember what he used to be like.

This comes shortly before the marriage of convenience that never takes place, arranged ‘exactly two years and three days’ after his arrival in England. This is how Part 3 opens, so we know he isn’t going to be having a good time. His visa is only for six months, so if he is going to stay he has to work illegally. He has to take the very job the middle class boys all used to joke about, cleaning toilets – which he leaves in disgust one day. I’ll spare you the details. He becomes used to routine indifference and suspicion – this is a time of headlines about floods of illegal immigrants, and the government is clamping down – but eventually lands a job fitting kitchens with a cheerful white boss. He gets on with the young driver, and to them he is Vinnie-boy: he is using the National Insurance documents of a venal, uneducated Nigerian called Vinnie who specialises in this kind of thing. He has to pay 35% of his earnings, and it’s when he ignores Vincent’s demand for 45% that things start to go wrong. They carry on going wrong until his arrest at the registry office in the north of England.

This section is mainly descriptive. It fits Adichie’s purpose to have Obinze become the archetype of the illegal immigrant, so we get the menial jobs, the seedy accommodation, the exploitation both by employers and sharks providing false papers and a woman with British citizenship willing to marry. But, being Obinze, he has the intelligence to see the limitations of his countrymen’s ambitions. For the other illegals he flies home with, another attempt to re-enter is all they can think about. For the ones who have made it there’s either the status-anxious drive to fit in that he witnesses at the dinner party or, in the case of the boy with the greatest potential for intellectual success in the Nigerian school they both attended, the routines of wife, job and the kids’ academic progress. It’s English middle class culture, and it seems small to Obinze. And through him, Adiche makes sure all the boxes are ticked.

There’s one reference to Obinze’s later life. When ‘Chief’ needs a white front-man, Obinze thinks of Nigel, the man who drove the van in London. We don’t know yet how Nigel replies.

17 June
Part 4
The sentimental education of Ifemelu, Part… whatever. It’s almost as if Adichie has given up on plot in order to get through a very long agenda. What plot there is charts the progress of her heroine’s second great love affair, with a man who ticks as many boxes for her – different boxes – as the white man she’s left by the beginning of this section. If this were real life, he would have beaten her to it. The life-lesson she gives him on positive images (or the lack of them) of Black women in American women’s magazines is at the level of consciousness-raising you would expect in a high school. He had had the temerity to remark that a magazine designed for Black women is ‘racially skewed’, so she drives him to the bookstore, sits him down with a load of mainstream (i.e. white-orientated) magazines, and gets him to count the Black faces. And so on. And on.

In other words, in Ifemelu’s chapters Adichie takes up where she left off. Only more so. Ifemelu recounts the magazines incident, which has already been featured in her blog, at one of the dinner parties so vital for Adichie’s debates. Various suspects are present, notably the Haitian woman who pretends that race is never an issue in her relationship with a white man. Ifemelu tells her this is a lie, and most of the rest of Part 4 is Adichie’s way of letting her prove the point. In fact, it’s fizzing with interesting points about what racism might be, whether it’s a useful term at all, whether it’s ever possible for Black people to raise the consciousness of whites. In one blog, near the end, Ifemelu appeals to that rare creature, the Special White Friend. He, or she, is the white person who ‘gets’ it, who doesn’t fall into all the traps that Ifemelu/Adiche has spent 80 pages cataloguing in this section. These whites need to say the things that Blacks can’t say because, among other things, they would be accused of ‘playing the race card’. Ok.

There are quite a lot of new characters in this section, although the new love isn’t one of them. Blaine is the man she met on the train all those years ago. She meets him again now at a bloggers’ conference – the creation and runaway success of Ifemelu’s blog is another thread – and quickly moves in with him. Curt, the white man, had been literally the blue-eyed boy. Metaphorically speaking, so is Blaine. He’s African American, and lives a life based on the highest of principles. ‘He’s a good man,’ someone tells Ifemelu early on, and she wonders whether there’s something loaded about the emphasis. Of course there is. He’s so good, and so good at arguing his case calmly and irrefutably – he’s a Yale academic, no less – that it leaves little room for anything but agreement. You can see how a woman like Ifemelu might eventually feel stifled, and it’s his easy assumption that she will attend the right-on protest he’s organising that makes her do something more interesting instead. And – horrors! – she lies about why she doesn’t go to his event. The relationship doesn’t end there, but the first crack has appeared and it never goes away. We’ve known from the first chapter in the novel that it does end eventually.

Blaine has a sister, Shad, a charismatic but inveterately self-centred writer. Her role is… to be Blaine’s blind spot. She is the only person in the world who makes him nod in agreement at ideas he would almost certainly take issue with otherwise. Then there’s Boubacar, a Senegalese academic Baline doesn’t like, but Ifemelu does. This is fairly late on in Part 4, and she welcomes the tacit understanding that is possible with a fellow African. For once, she doesn’t have to go along with the right-on, liberal, and ultimately American mind-set she always adopts in Blaine’s presence. It’s an event that Boubacar tells her about that she attends instead of Blaine’s protest…. Meanwhile Uju has moved on, having left the unsatisfactory accountant and found herself a man who values her. (Remind me why I’m telling you about these people. I’m bored writing about them.)

Dike, Uju’s son, was only four or five years old when Ifemelu first moved to the US. But time moves on, and as he grows through his teenage years he is able to provide insights about the experience of a first-generation American Black. He is popular, swaps anecdotes with Ifemelu, and seems to have overcome the difficulties he had at first. But in the last chapter in Part 4, set in one of the (now rare) framing chapters, Ifemelu leaves the hairdressers and gets a call that he has just made a very serious attempt to kill himself. All human life is there.

Inevitably, perhaps, the blog features more prominently than ever. In these sections Ifemelu/Adichie is able to reach into any nook and cranny of the Black experience not covered in the endless conversations we get. These range from Obama’s progress in the presidential campaign – it seems impossible at first, so he’s a godsend in a novel like this one – to what ‘natural’-coloured Band-aids look like on Black skin. Adichie makes the blog do a lot of work for her. As well as a platform for her complaints and other musings, its meteoric success soon provides more than enough income for Ifemelu to live on. Yeh, sure – as ever, Adichie is too kind to her alter-ego. Obinze’s gritty experiences in England are almost refreshing by comparison.

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