By Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
All Posts Contain Spoilers
It’s always interesting, being shown your own culture from the outside. Depending on your inclinations, it can either be great fun, or, I sense, really not fun, irritating, wounding even.
Probably, the sense of the fun of the thing, the jolt of the change of perspective, that strange thrill of recognition of behaviors you know seen from a different angle, is directly related to your own personal distance from those behaviors: it’s neat to see your neighbors in the fun-house mirror, not yourself.
But that can’t be the whole story, because sometimes it’s even fun to see yourself, your own quirks and artifacts and preoccupations, examined by a mind which has not bought in to your norms, your assumptions. It makes you uneasy, yes, but it’s still kind of mesmerizing, right? In a slightly narcissistic way? It’s like watching a video of yourself when you hadn’t known you were being filmed – do I really do that? Is it that obvious? Is that how that shirt actually looks?
Books about America are usually written by Americans (we’ve been very lucky that way). Sure, every once and a while some acidic European will launch an attack at us from across the pond, but since they do it from a safe distance, and since their tone is always a little hysterical, it’s easy for us to ignore them. We roll around here, enormous and convivial, and most of the culturally critical literature that we read comes from within.
And there is enormous value in criticism of Americans by Americans. To put it plainly, we understand ourselves in a way no one else does. But there is something bracing in reading about what we look like to transplants, immigrants, people who have come here, who have, in some senses, opted in to our systems and values, but who nonetheless see us as alien. A good book which does that, shows us what it feels like to walk, as an outsider, among us, is really fun to read.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. She came to the United States when she was 19. Her list of degrees and accolades is enormous – among other things, she is a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient (for the record, there is almost no single award which impresses me more than this). She spent decades living and studying in the United States, now splitting her time, apparently, between Nigeria and the US.
And that’s what ‘Americanah‘ is about: it is about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who comes to the United States, studies, lives, becomes a writer, and returns home. It is about what Nigeria is like, what America is like to a Nigerian, what it means to return home, how you love people who are like you, how you love people who are not like you.
And it’s about race. Ifemelu rises to prominence in the United States as a race blogger, someone who writes about race in this country from the perspective of a non-American African, someone who is simply a person in her home country but, upon arriving in ours, discovers that she is now considered ‘black’.
Adichie is, I think, kinder to Americans than we deserve, essentially amused and frustrated by us. White Americans (of which I am one) are, in her book, mostly well-meaning but oblivious, or irrelevant, or genteelly racist. The incredible toxicity of the race divide in the United States, the deaths and incarcerations, shootings and violence and long economic oppression, all form the backdrop to this novel, but they are not foregrounded. It is, at its heart, a love story, and I experienced it that way: as a story of two lives who wind around and around the world before they find their way back to each other. Their racial otherness in other countries is part of their journeys, but ‘Americanah‘ is their story, not the story of civil rights in the United States.
One of the blurbs on my copy is from New York Magazine: “Adichie is to blackness what Philip Roth is to Jewishness: its most obsessive taxonomist, its staunchest defender, and its fiercest critic.” I don’t know about everything after the colon, but the first assertion makes sense to me. Roth’s books, though so much less humane, less lovely than ‘Americanah‘, are also about Jewish people rather than about Jewishness. It is possible to connect with his protagonists as individuals, not merely as racial stand-ins, and their stories are wider than their categories. Imefelu is like that – she is having a whole, complicated life, of which her blackness is but one part.
“Americanah‘ is the kind of novel I really struggle to judge critically. It comes down, I think, to the question of what novels, as an art form, are for. Some novels, a very, very few, are Great Novels: when you read these novels, you have the constant awareness that you are in the presence of Art. Sometimes, you enjoy them; sometimes, you don’t, but you always feel enriched, and virtuous, for having read them. These novels have characters, but they are about Humanity. For me, the best example of this kind of novel, the one I perhaps love the best, is ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.
Then, there is another kind of novel, the kind where, as you read it, you aren’t aware of anything at all. These novels are so absorbing that you get lost in them – you forget your own name while you read them. I tend to fly through these novels, carry them with me everywhere, read them in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom during the work day.
But is magnetism, the ability to captivate your reader, the same thing as greatness in a novel? These novels rarely, say, impress me with the beauty of their language (in fact, in order to be really absorbing, in some ways the language needs to not be great – if you notice a lovely sentence, you are pulled out of the narrative). They do not employ sophisticated or subtle metaphor. They don’t push the boundaries of the form. They are excellent stories about fascinating characters, but maybe those specific characters are all they’re about. Is that a Great Novel?
Jonathan Franzen is, for me, the best example of this kind of novelist. I devour his novels, just blow through them. I live in them while I read them – I find his world-building super thorough and effective. But, when they’re done, they don’t stay with me at all. I can remember only the barest outlines of the plot. Are they Great Novels? Or are they simply great reads?
‘Americanah‘ was like this for me. I was glued to it. I really cared about what was going to happen next; I was invested in the characters. I loved the experience of reading it. But there was no passage which will stay with me. There is no beautiful description, no language to which I will refer again and again. I don’t even remember, now, the name of the man Ifemelu loves, though I remember descriptions of him, I remember his story.
However, in some ways I expect that ‘Americanah‘ will stay with me more than other novels. Adichie’s depiction of my country has lodged in my mind, and will tweak the boundaries of my perception a little, widen out my scope. When someone shows you yourself from the outside, it’s almost impossible to unsee. I guess I’m one of the people who finds getting a different glimpse of myself fun, even when it isn’t flattering.