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Intertwining Worlds

Vincent van Bever Donker

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah
Fourth Estate, 2013
£12.80
ISBN 978-0-00-730622-0

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The complex relationships of mingled antagonism and emulation between Nigeria and the West—primarily the United Kingdom and the United States of America—has been an important concern in much Nigerian fiction since the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Situated firmly and self-consciously as one of Achebe’s literary descendants, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first two novels engaged with European and American influences on Nigeria insofar as they shaped and impacted local individual lives: first through a legacy of an intolerant European-centric Catholicism, and then, somewhat more obliquely, through Western involvement in the Biafran War. With Americanah—a term describing Nigerians whose mannerisms and tastes have changed due to living in the United States—Adichie has broadened her narrative focus beyond Nigeria to consider the nexus where these tensions of longing and repulsion are most complex and ambiguous: the lives of Nigerian emigrants, the “Americanah”.

Americanah is an ambitious novel that intertwines careful insight with humour and sorrow. It opens with the protagonist, Ifemelu, heading to have her hair braided before travelling back to Nigeria after thirteen years in the United States. Accompanied by comically accurate observations about the hair braiding salon that would look “like all the other African salons she had known” and would be “full of Francophone West African women braiders”, Ifemelu’s journey to the salon introduces, with a characteristically light touch, the complex of thematic strands that will be woven together to shape Ifemelu’s experience of life abroad. Divided into seven parts, the bulk of the novel is an analeptic narration of Ifemelu’s life that, between each major transition in the story, returns briefly to the narrative present of the salon and the gradual completion of Ifemelu’s braids. This centrality of the salon, together with the careful attachment of each narrative thread to Ifemelu’s present life, gives the novel’s structure something of the feel of the process of micro-braiding. Just as hair attachments are first carefully braided into the natural hair before the process speeds up until the last strands are woven together, so each theme is woven into Ifemelu’s present and past life with the formation of the interwoven braid gaining momentum as the novel progresses.

It is in the gradual introduction into the novel of Ifemelu’s blog—”Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”—that this structuring can be most clearly seen. First introduced to the blog during Ifemelu’s journey to the salon, we only begin to hear about it more frequently when we are told the story of her arrival in the States. Soon fragments of the blog begin to appear in the narrative, and the final three chapters of part two each close with a short blog post, as is each remaining chapter of Ifemelu’s analepsis in part four (part three’s narrative perspective being given, comparatively briefly, to Adichie’s other main protagonist, Obinze). The slight overlapping of the later section’s narrative pattern with the earlier one is further developed in the chronological layering between the point in the narrative at which the blog appears and the later narrative moment in which Ifemelu actually begins to write it. This layering and fastening of one thread to another recurs throughout the novel and gives it a texture that, in addition to Adichie’s prose style, makes it a pleasure to read.

Primarily a love story that narrates the challenges to romance presented by the difficulties of migration, Ifemelu’s recollections begin with secondary school in Nigeria when she falls in love with Obinze. Life in Nigeria during the nineties is vividly depicted in all its variety—an uncomfortable combination of joy and difficulty. It is both a place “starved of hope”, where Ifemelu’s father is fired for refusing to call his boss Mommy, yet inseparably a home rich with laughter and triumphs. For Ifemelu and her friends, though, Nigeria is also characterised by a mocking of, and simultaneous longing to be, an Americanah. As children, they laugh uproariously at Bisi, a girl in their school who returned from a brief trip to America “with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred r to every English word she spoke”. Yet while American mannerisms and their affectation are ridiculed, to be truly “fluent in the knowledge of foreign things, especially of American things” is considered a mark of distinction, and living abroad is the ultimate dream. Part of Obinze’s appeal for Ifemelu is precisely the glamour of the Americanah: he has lived abroad, speaks with ease of Manhattan, and says graduate instead of postgraduate school. Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship develops quickly into a strong connection, however, and when Ifemelu receives a scholarship to study in the United States they plan to maintain their relationship over the distance.

Upon arriving in the United States, Ifemelu’s dream of America swiftly loses its allure. It is the discovery of a discord between America’s image and its reality, the revealing intertwining of worlds, that forms the core of the novel. With a scholarship that covers only three quarters of her university tuition, and an aunt who is unable to offer any financial help, Ifemelu is quickly faced with a desperate situation. Racial prejudice, employment restrictions, homesickness and a sense of dislocation intertwine into a gripping portrayal of the trials and desperation faced by some African immigrants—a story that is briefly echoed in Obinze’s short time in London. Throughout her struggles though, and also as life gradually improves, Ifemelu never loses her perspicacity. The bright and varied characters that she meets, and the diverse situations that her romantic life (estranged now from Obinze) and career as a blogger place her in, are all subjected to a penetrating assessment that provides the raw material for the blog posts punctuating some of the novel. While Adichie’s detailed unpicking of Ifemelu’s life in America is generally done well, presenting a nuanced and engaging story, some of Ifemelu’s assessments are presented with a certainty that makes them seem na√Øve and reductive. The blog posts themselves provide an intratextual gloss on events that occasionally detracts from the novel by providing a (somewhat authorial) first person interpretation of events and therefore reducing the nuance. Ranging from the topic “Travelling while Black” to “What Academics Mean by White Privilege” to “Is Obama Anything But Black?”, the posts nonetheless provide thoughtful points for reflection and are connected with the narrative in interesting ways.

One of Ifemelu’s more prominent observations is the difference between being an American Black and a Non-American Black. It is a thread that is intricately developed as the story continues. Consciousness of race did not begin, for Ifemelu, until she arrived in America, as she observes that “race was not embroidered in the fabric of her history; it had not been etched on her soul”. However true this may be—and it is interesting to ask how this relates to the idealisation of all things European and American—when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria race ceases to be an organising concern. With her braids complete, and the interwoven stories of her past retold, Ifemelu travels to Nigeria, having closed the blog, and faces a new set of challenges. The detailed narrative braids that culminate in the return journey, the journey back not only to her home but to Obinze, make it a poignant negotiation of internal and external change, and the confrontation of old love. With Obinze now married and father to a daughter, the romantic challenges are significant, as are those of reacclimatising to life in Nigeria after thirteen years of absence. In foregrounding the journey out of Nigeria, however, Adichie has given us an enjoyable and insightful representation of the United States and London that tells an often untold story, and which could serve as an inverted sequel to Achebe’s novel of return, No Longer at Ease (1960).

Vincent van Bever Donker completed his D.Phil. in English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford, in 2012. He now lives in Oxford where he is teaching English language and literature.