Nigeria is a country which has produced its fair share of groundbreaking and influential writers of the African canon. If Americanah, Ngozi Adichie’s third novel is anything to go by, it would not seem unfeasible that in the future she may be joining her country men Achebe and Soyinka on literature syllabuses across the globe. This book more than deserves its place on this year’s Baileys Prize short list, and personally I hope to see it win.
Americanah is a multi-layered work, being both one and many things at once. At its heart it has employed the device of a love story, one of those great love stories which seems to transcend time and space and in its essence convey more than just the emotions of the two participants but also speak to a greater universal truth about the nature of these things. Following the childhood romance of Ifemelu and Obinze, Ngozi Adichie manages to convey a sense of true sentiment between two individuals even though for more than half of the novel, the two characters are not even on the same continent, let alone in contact with one another. It felt as though Ngozi Adichie had taken David Nicholl’s One Day concept, given it a good once over and, finding it lacking in substance, reinvented it with a far more realistic and poignant style. This handling of relationships, romance and attraction is deepened by the way that Ngozi Adichie deals with the other relationships that the two come across within their lives, from the sham marriage, to the inter-racial divide.
However, this work is far from a simple love story. Although Ngozi Adichie handles this device deftly her work is, in my opinion, something far more than a romance. She tackles themes of race, culture, identity and the diaspora in a unique way, exposing many of the worlds, and indeed our own, preconceptions, prejudices and hypocrisies. Ngozi Adichie has dealt also with the changing political situation in Nigeria in a subtle but acute way, in a sort of “not facing this direct on style” which is becoming familiar among African writers such as Zakes Mda or Tendai Huchu. However, the way that she weaves faceless politicians into her narrative, most obviously in the figure of The General, and the way the changing of these dominant names effects the lives of her characters illustrates the insidiousness of living under these changing regimes. Her protagonists have to deal with family unemployment, political exile, non-ending university staff strikes and state violence and yet, much of this remains to an extent distant, giving the impression of what it must be like when these events become common place. However, Ngozi Adichie does not paint her homeland in just one colour. Although she does not shy away from negative portrayals where necessary, she is also able to create contrasts of the elements of Nigerian life and culture which appear to be more positive than either the American or British milieus in which Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves.
It is within these two contexts of the diaspora that Ngozi Adichie explores the ways in which these situations transform those who find themselves caught up them. Whilst Ifemelu deals with becoming part of “Black” America, Obinze faces Blunkett’s war on immigration. The different experiences of the two highlight the way in which class and race hold different importance in the American and British contexts. What Ngozi Adichie also brings up time and again is the way that these receiving cultures are constantly attempting to form a singular African or a singular Black community, and what she successfully succeeds in highlighting are the impossibilities of this. By drawing attention to sites of conflict between different African nationals, Afro-Carribean individuals and African Americans or Brits, Ngozi Adichie demonstrates how often the rifts between these communities are as deep and as complex as these communities are globally spread. Through highlighting the way race changes in context, for example for Ifemelu’s “half-caste” friend Ginika whose mixed race takes on new meaning in America, Ngozi Adichie begins to subvert all we think we know about these socially and culturally imposed categories.
This is a superb novel and fans of African fiction should not miss out. However there is almost something of the Zadie Smith about this work in the way that it explores race and culture, however almost from the other side of the fence. Whilst so much of Smith’s work deals with the issues of what race and Britain mean to those who have been born into an ever more multicultural society, Ngozi Adichie deals with what it is like for two young Nigerians to come into contact with this. The result is tender, humorous and sad by turns, but always memorable and always worthwhile.