I first encountered Adichie when, about a year ago, my literature teacher showed my class a TED talk called The Danger of the Single Story, in which Adichie talks about the oppressive reduction of onesidedness. And although I dropped out of the class after the first session, the talk left an impression on me, and I’ve since rewatched it several times (can recommend). Then, a few months later, I started hearing people wildly praising this novel called Americanah, and it made its way onto display tables of not just British but also German bookstores.
So when I finally picked up the book this past weekend in a Cardiff bookshop, I had very high hopes. Americanah surpassed them all. It engaged me, activated me, and moved me.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians who fall in love during their time at secondary school in Lagos. Their daily lives are polluted by Nigeria’s corrupted military government and, on a more personal level, by a lack of self-sustaining identity. Intrinsic contentment is foreign, literally. Obinze’s idea of literature is American literature, his and Ifemelu’s friends dream of shiny lives in Britain or the US. After they finish school, the two go on separate paths. Soon, both find themselves on their own in that Western world which they have so often fantasised about.
And maybe this is the way in for a Western reader like myself. I’ll be honest, it’s sometimes easier and more appealing to just pick up a book by a major Western European or North American novelist. But I do want to read African writers. My shameful resorting to the incredibly broad category ‘African’ is testament to my bias in reading choice. And so Americanah is perhaps more easily accessible to someone like me, whose literary inaugaration to Africa this has been (hopefully, I can soon shed this sweeping continental generalisation). Because this is a book not just about a country foreign to me, Nigeria, but also about two which I know quite well – the US and the UK.
The narrative travels the globe and goes to places ranging from Philadelphia to Princeton to London to Newcastle. There and back again. What is great about this is that you learn so much about, for example, America through the non-American perspective; sometimes, the indirect glimpse can be the most insightful. The longing idealisation of the USA is, of course, not a thing exclusive to young people from Nigeria. It’s prevalence takes place even here in Germany – apparently the country whose citizens hold the most powerful passport in the world. That’s why so many young Germans (I am not exempt) find it more attractive to read Fitzgerald or Hemingway than Mann or Hesse.
And so, because it is critical of such glossy adulation without being spiteful, this book truly is a worldy one. Immersed in the last third of the story during my trip home from Wales to Germany, on the London leg of my coach journey, I would sometimes put a finger between the pages and look out the window, just to imagine that the very streets we were passing could be the ones from the novel.
It felt at once unsettling and comforting. Unsettling because the story is so realistic; it didn’t take much effort to imagine a closed warehouse door outside the coach window harbouring the miseries experienced by Americanah‘s characters. Comforting because someone, Adichie, had written these stories – intelligently, observantly, funnily, and unapologetically. It feels strange to say, but I have to agree to a reviewer from ‘The Economist,’ who writes, “joyful to read.”
A joy not only only because the story transports important ideas, which it does, but also because of the great characters, who are not heroes but people. Ifemelu is not the simple recipient of the reader’s uncompromised advocacy but a person with ups and downs. This is what I value in realism, and it has certainly unfolded its in-your-face power in this novel. A joy also because the prose is on point, not too stretched, not too condensed; I wasn’t bored a single time while reading the novel, and the 477 pages flew by.
Leaving this book, I feel a little closer to a nuanced understanding of the world. Americanah is a wonderful contemporary tale of human relations, and I am grateful to have favoured the modern-looking purplish-green book that said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on its back over yet another Penguin English Library novel last Saturday. If nothing else, this was a step towards evading the danger of the single story. One story at a time.