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.

Americanah
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

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage