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

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge