Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An issues novel unashamedly open about its intentions

Adichie's observations are always sharp, intelligent, humorous and humane. They show a radically defamiliarised version of western society, seen through African eyes.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate, 400pp, £20

In the interests of full disclosure: I am wary – an acquired wariness; all tastes are acquired – of the novel as platform. Legitimately, editorials are platforms, opinion pieces are platforms, blogs are platforms. But fiction that announces its debate too loudly risks simplification. “Subtle”, “complex” and “nuanced” are almost always positive critical terms.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (the 2006 Orange Prize winner) was subtle, complex and nuanced. The book dealt with the experiences of Igbo civilians during the Biafran war. It was a tense, high-wire walk of a novel that took in politics and history without forgetting the primacy of the personal. With Americanah, Adichie has chosen to loosen that tightrope – to step on to the more dangerous slackrope. The heroine, Ifemelu, and her first love, Obinze, grow up in modern-day Nigeria. During university strikes, Ifemelu decides to continue her studies in the US; after graduating, Obinze moves to Britain. Both are intelligent, educated and middle class: compelled to emigrate not by conflict or poverty but by “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”.

For many years Ifemelu and Obinze lose touch, and the bulk of the novel is dedicated to charting their experiences in the US and the UK. Ifemelu gets the most airtime. She eventually becomes a famous blogger writing “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” – a blog started after her enthusiastically received post on happilykinkynappy. com (devoted to natural African hair). “Posting on the website was like giving testimony in church; the echoing roar of approval revived her.” Her blog posts – many are included in the novel – have a deliberately preachy flavour, more parable than anecdote. Sample opening line: “So this guy said to Professor Hunk, ‘White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged?’”

Although the blog posts are clearly Ifemelu’s polemics, and although the narrative surrounding them is more (to use that word again) nuanced, the subject of the book is race. At times, it feels like an anthology of examples – an agglomeration rather than an arrangement. We have the under-representation of black women in fashion magazines, the white woman who indiscriminately calls black women “beautiful”, the black man who insults Ifemelu for her “jungle” look (ie, non-westernised hair), the absurdity of privileged westerners treasuring roughly finished ethnic tableware.

No issue is left uncovered. Everything is held to account. And Adichie’s observations are always sharp, intelligent, humorous and humane. They will challenge the way you think about race and show you a radically defamiliarised version of western society, as seen through African eyes.

An issues novel, then, that is unashamedly open about its intentions. Formally, Americanahis baggy. The story often feels like a vehicle for the discussion. There are wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance. Adichie is aware of the danger. For readers uncomfortable with the novel’s relentness focus, she includes what seems to be a small manifesto, or perhaps even a warning. Shan, an African-American writer, is annoyed when her white editor wants to change various anecdotes in her memoir.

“He says it’s not subtle. Like life is always fucking subtle,” Shan tells her friends. “He thinks we should complicate it, so it’s not race alone. And I say, but it was race . . . ‘Nuance’ means keep people comfortable so everyone is free to think of themselves as individuals and everyone got where they are because of their achievement.”

Adichie is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her. Although I will continue to prefer the elegance displayed in Half of a Yellow Sun, this bold book is – among many other things – an important reminder of the privilege inherent in that preference.

Claire Lowdon is an assistant editor at Areté

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking from the pulpit at Westminster Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis