Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a big, serious novel all about big, serious things. It is intelligent, articulate, humane and human, and somehow both didactic and deeply emotionally-involving, which I honestly didn’t believe was possible.
Oh, and I’m sure there are people reading this saying that I only liked it due to white liberal guilt, that I only read it because I’m already interested in race and was always going to like it. Well, none of that is true. To be honest, I have pretty much no interest in race. Of course I don’t, I’m white, I don’t have to be interested in race. And if I was, it’d be a bit arrogant of me, there’s always something a tad condescending when white/male/straight/middle class people start throwing out opinions related to the prejudices faced by any of those other groups. Because of the way I behave and dress, I have received homophobic abuse on many occasions, but it’s ultimately meaningless because what’s being insulted is not my sexuality, something innate and personal, but something frivolous. When a man threatens me because I’m an occasional drag performer, I’m able to shrug it off because, to me, it is a frivolous part of queer culture that I, as an outsider, have appropriated and enjoy. I don’t feel like a woman on the inside, and thus I am able to laugh when a fellow human exhibits hatred for a lifestyle different to their own, because the day to day experience of my life is not that, is accepted, and I can shut off the abuse by washing the make up off, putting on trousers and leaving my fishnets at home. What I’m trying to say, inelegantly, is that I’m in no position to comment on homophobic abuse/prejudice/hatred. There are no places in the world when I’d be warned about receiving violence for my choice of partner, where I’d be disrespected because of my genitalia, you know what I’m saying?
Yes. What I’m doing is justifying a general disinterest in race. I’m pro-equality, but that’s as far as my thoughts go. Americanah opens with a protagonist who has thought similarly little about race, Ifemelu, a middle class woman who has grown up in Nigeria, who moves to America to study.
“When I moved to America, I became black” Ifemelu says*, and this is key to Americanah. The USA is a nation so obsessed with race, that race is everywhere, it colours everything. Ifemelu becomes a “race blogger”, running a successful website and rapidly becoming a prominent cultural figure in the US – offering the views of a “non-American black” on issues of class, culture and discrimination in the country she has relocated to. She moves amongst intellectuals and the rich, but does encounter those who live in or near poverty too. But Ifemelu – as young, attractive, intelligent and foreign, so a novelty – is very quickly submerged into an affluent, discursive world.
There are passages of the novel where I lost a bit of attention, those where academics discuss things academically**, but as Ifemelu is not an academic, she does not speak – or write, for Americanah includes a lot of its protagonist’s blog posts – like her acquaintances. Not friends, I note, for she doesn’t really like them either.
Ifemelu is a great lead – enough wit, intelligence, charm, vulnerability and imperfections to be intriguing without being incomprehensible, written as successful without appearing smug. Where Adichie is at her strongest is in moving this very fully-formed individual repeatedly into locations where she has to adjust previously solidified opinions of herself. Race is not something she is aware of until she lives in America, yet it is not something she can forget when she returns to Nigeria. She possesses a lot of ideas and ideals held with great importance, but these are always fought with as a result of circumstances outside her control.
Her teenage boyfriend, Obinze, is the novel’s second most important character, and some sections of Americanah are viewed from his perspective – most significantly the events of his brief stint as an illegal labourer in the UK, after his own attempts to move to the U.S. fall through. While Ifemelu travels and has a glamorous life, Obinze has a far more muted migrant experience – he cannot find work, he cannot get a visa, he cannot see anything in his life has been improved by the move. Eventually, during attempts to arrange a sham visa marriage, he is caught and deported to Nigeria. It is here – as a very wealthy man – where he exists at the start of the novel, most of which occurs in flashback.
With the additional perspective of Obinze, Adichie is able to explore both the grime of unsuccessful immigration as well as the murkiness of money in Nigeria. Obinze gets both sides of the coin, so to speak – foreign poverty and domestic wealth. Ifemelu gets foreign wealth, too, so the novel could be criticised for its lack of exploration of domestic poverty. But we don’t need that, as readers, in this text, do we? Because Americanah is a novel about culture and class and race, but centred on specific cultures and classes and races, it has no obligation to investigate every last example of either. I suppose I’m arguing with myself here.
What’s been strangest for me whilst reading a novel about race is the fact that I, somewhat arbitrarily***, brought it along with me on a trip to Russia. Russia is notoriously a country with a bad reputation for racial equality. My guide book shockingly includes the advice that “Non-Caucasians should avoid quiet streets in the suburbs”, and whilst here in St Petersburg I have seen some truly 18th-century images of race in very public, non-censured locations. Most significant is the advertisement for the Chocolate Museum, which I am too liberal to even try to describe.
The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen four black people. Four black men. I wasn’t counting on purpose, but they were all together and thus I counted them sub-consciously. They all wore the uniform of a foreign navy, and were near to the massive international port complex that takes up half of one of St Petersburg’s many islands. I’ve seen no black people who look like residents, no black people who look like tourists, only this: four black men visibly here for work, only a few streets away from where their ship probably lay.
Adichie’s novel mentions a lot about black people standing out – something which they don’t do in London – but in reading about race I was hyper-aware of it. Hyper-aware of its absence.
And this is why the novel led me, full circle, back to the position that I had to begin with. By engaging with race as a topic, I become more aware of race as an issue, and when that happens I am thus more conscious and sensitive of people’s races. In my opinion, this is where problems come in – when white liberals think about race, they feel an urge to “make amends” or prove their lack of racism. In writing this article, I almost started doing it myself – discussing black friends, you know, and that is trite and patronising and beneath even me.
This is the real message I took from Adichie’s novel – white liberals interested in race are still fascinated by difference, and make as many faux pas as non-liberal whites do, but feel the need to go on and on and on about them when they happen. And there’s a part of me that almost feels like Americanah is promoting something it is vehemently against – look at the praise it garnered from liberal media – “it shows up our prejudices and errors” etc etc etc – the book is a fine novel, far better than the masochistic barbed wire around the thigh that many liberals probably read it for.
Though it is set in America and England and Nigeria, it is about people and attitudes and differing cultures and opportunities. It is far-reaching and wide, and as much about the social mores of contemporary Nigeria as it is about North American racism.
An over-consciousness of race produces racism, that seems to be the reading and assessment of America. Well-meaning racism, sometimes, but prejudice and presumption of difference nonetheless.
What matters isn’t the colour of someone’s skin, where they were born, where they grew up, who or how they like to fuck, what flesh exists between their legs and how they relate to it; what matters is whether or not someone is a dick. And you can be the blackest, gayest, poorest, woman in the whole entire world and still be a total arsehole. Just as you can be a white, straight, middle class man and be a caring and considerate individual. And Adichie – who is not a racist – expresses that perfectly. How we are born matters far less than how we behave to others.
Humanism, humanism, humanism.
To return to the novel: it is well-structured, well-written, intelligent, witty and deeply moving. I was crying on the last page. Nothing cements a novel as great in my mind more than that.
* That may be an inaccurate quotation – I didn’t keep notes.
** See my occasional references to the Shakespeare scene in Ulysses, possibly the least enjoyable “fiction” I’ve ever encountered.
*** Well, not that arbitrarily: big book I’d wanted to read for a while.