Years ago, before the country’s independence in 1960, Nigerians referred to a countryman who had spent time in England as a “been-to,” especially those who affected British mannerisms, sometimes after the briefest of visits. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah—easily her finest—the been-to has returned from the United States, though a certain Western worldview persists. There’s a school girl early in the novel who has returned from “a short trip to America with odd affectations, pretending she no longer understood Yoruba, adding a slurred R to every English word she spoke.” And much later in this wonderful story, someone says to Ifemelu, the novel’s main character who has some adjustment problems after returning to Lagos, “You are looking at things with American eyes. But the problem is that you are not even a real Americanah. At least if you had an American accent we would tolerate your complaining.”
The characters in this huge novel arrive in the United States, expecting to acquire an American education that will aid them when they return home with their exceptional skills. They are not the 419 grubbers or Nigerians engaged in criminal activities but perspective students, willing to work hard to gain a higher education—or, in some cases skilled Nigerians immigrating to the United States in pursuit of more steady work. Sometimes they are professionals. Above all, they are hard workers, mostly operating within a system they believe will reward them the same way that Americans have believed in the American dream. And the result of that diligence? Too often lowly pay and exploitation, sometimes contributing to depression and deportation.
That said, the sections relating to Nigeria can still be rather unsettling, especially during the military dictatorships. That’s true of Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, who was the mistress of an important General, and once he dies in an airplane crash, her life is never the same. But she has skills—she was trained as a doctor—so she sets her goals on America, in time assisting Ifemelu in her own objectives to reach America. Both struggle, especially Ifemelu, who tries to support herself when she works on her undergraduate degree. It can be questioned whether Ifemelu would eventually have been successful but for the lengthy relationship she has with an American, who is white and enormously wealthy.
I’d like to believe that Ifemelu succeeds because of her own ingenuity, which is eventually the key to her success in America. By that time, she’s abandoned the white guy for an African American, and—perhaps more importantly—become a very successful blogger on racial issues. These blogs are especially revealing, aimed as they are at the growing numbers of Africans in the United States, explaining why they are lumped together with African-Americans as soon as they arrive. One of the pleasures of Americanah is Adichie’s inclusion of Ifemelu’s random blogs which typically offer a counterbalance (and, in fact, a counterpunch) to incidents within the story itself.
Note the following, preliminary advice for newly-arrived Africans to succeed on American shores: “If you go to eat in a restaurant, please tip generously. Otherwise the next black person who comes in will get awful service…. If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”
Tongue of cheek, of course, but there is as much wisdom about the United States in Adichie’s novel as you are likely to find in works by the most perceptive American writers who were born and raised here. Nowhere is that more evident than in multiple passages recording Barack Obama’s decision to run for President, his campaign and eventual victory. The references to Obama’s successful rise to the presidency are so ubiquitous that it’s accurate to say that Obama becomes a contributor to Ifemelu’s success in the United States. Certainly, that is true of her racial honesty, recorded in her blogs. Here, for example, is one of the most revealing, titled “Obama Can Win Only If He Remains the Magic Negro”:
“His pastor is scary because it means maybe Obama is not the Magic Negro after all. By the way, the pastor is pretty melodramatic, but have you been to an old school American Black church? Pure theater. But this guy’s basic point is true: that American Blacks (certainly those his age) know an America different from American Whites; they know a harsher, uglier America. But you’re not supposed to say that, because in America everything is fine and everyone is the same. So now that the pastor’s said it, maybe Obama thinks so too, and if Obama thinks so then he isn’t the Magic Negro and only a Magic Negro can win an American election. And what’s a Magic Negro, you ask? The black man who is eternally wise and kind. He never reacts under great suffering, never gets angry, is never threatening. He always forgives all kind of racist shit. He teaches the white person how to break down the sad but understandable prejudice in his heart.”
Still, during the election—as did many people—“Every morning, Ifemelu woke up and checked to make sure that Obama was still alive.” Some of us are still checking.
Americanah is a profound analysis of race in the United States—especially during the last decade. But it is also a love story in a rather old-fashioned way. Obinze, Ifemelu’s childhood friend and eventual boyfriend when they were teenagers, follows a parallel path, not going to the United States but to England. He has many of the same goals: education, skills he can take back to Nigeria with him. But he also encounters numerous difficulties and is forced to take on the lowly jobs that no one else wants, such as cleaning toilets. I’m not going to reveal what happens to him other than to say that his situation becomes so difficult that he faces basic survival. Always, there are problems with immigration, and eventually he is deported.
Thus, Adichie gets both of her main characters back in Nigeria, in Lagos, but—no surprise—they have been away so long (this is especially true for Ifemelu) that the adjustment problems begin all over again. This part of the novel is as compelling as the passages when her characters are overseas, suggesting a country (and a contemporary world) in enormous flux. The suffering, the pain, the obstacles—these are the focus of much of Americanah, richly chronicled by an amazingly gifted young writer who (after she published her first novel) was heralded as Chinua Achebe’s successor. At the time, I thought the assessment was premature, but now that she has published her third, impressive novel, she has truly earned the accolade.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
Knopf, 496 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.