Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah” (2013) – Beyonce’s favorite feminist wrote this novel roughly around the time Beyonce made her famous, or at least famous for a writer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was reasonably prominent before then, a MacArthur genius fellow and all that, but it was the world’s biggest pop star taking a bunch of her words out of context and putting them in a music video that made her the figure she is today, about which position I understand (from her wikipedia article) Adichie herself is ambivalent. Understandable!
Beyonce-meme-ification or no, “Americanah” stands on its own merits, but is definitely a book by a prominent TED talker. The story of one Ifemelu, a Nigerian middle class girl who moves to the States for school, “Americanah” is part immigrant story, part love story, and part vehicle for the author’s observations and opinions about race, gender, the differences between America and Africa, etc. One of Adichie’s TED talks is about the importance of representation of varying viewpoints in media- to the extent anyone really founds any of the discourse of twitter and tumblr, she played a role in founding representationalism discourse as it exists today. One way this plays out interestingly is that beyond writing as a black African woman, Adiche writes as a specifically middle-class Nigerian- no starvation or war crimes for her, and she comments wryly on the white Americans she meets who expect such. Ifemelu’s briefly poorer in America than she is in Nigeria, but the book doesn’t dwell on that for more than a chapter or so. She winds up a young urban professional with a successful blog laying the cards on the table about race in America from a non-American black perspective.
The blog is interesting in that its observations are picayune even for a 2013 woke blog. Adichie’s observations of Ifemelu’s environment are inevitably more interesting and better-written than anything the character produces for the blog. Is this accidental, or is Adichie trying to say something about the blogging/social media milieu of the time? In general I’d say Adichie is a better novelist than an essayist, though I get the feeling as an essayist (based on Ifemelu’s blog and Adichie’s TED talks) she is pitching at a much more basic audience. She even depicts Ifemelu as dumbing down her material, especially her paid talks to workshops, for mostly white audiences. It’s interesting to consider if Adichie is doing the same thing.
As far as the novel goes, it’s not half bad. The characters are pretty well fleshed out. Incident in the novel is uneven, given how much of it is the opportunity to do observational bits, and at least one incident that should be harrowing (a teenager’s attempted suicide) kind of comes out of and goes nowhere. She has a good eye for the details of American life that blips sometimes but is generally reliable. There’s a central romance between Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze that’s made easier to believe in by how many obstructions it finds, and how ambivalent one feels about its final consummation. All in all, a decent read. ***’