Book review: Americanah is riveting and incredibly funny

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 7, 2013

AMERICANAH

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate/ Paperback/478 pages/$27.82/Major bookstores/****1/2

Americanah is a riveting and incredibly funny book, full of tender insights and wicked humour.

The third novel of Nigeria-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is part immigrant story, part romance and part paean to misunderstandings about blacks, Africans and Nigerians in particular.

Its charm comes from the author stating baldly and fearlessly, truths that are obvious, but which are rarely spoken of.

In countries such as America, where people of different races and ethnic backgrounds mingle supposedly without restraint, social cohesion is maintained through certain taboos. For example, comments on race and ethnicity are discouraged before they can cause offence, even though this also limits honest discussion of ingrained prejudice or causes unnecessary conversational hurdles.

Take this hilarious scene in Americanah where a shop assistant tries to narrow down which of her colleagues helped a customer and is stymied because she dares not ask: "Was it the black girl or the white girl?"

"Because this is America. You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things," explains a black American woman to her fresh-off-the-plane Nigerian friend.

Indeed, it is only because she is a woman writer of colour - a well-educated, well-travelled "Afropolitan" writer - that Adichie can bend the rules and articulate the unspeakable. Her characters openly query why, in a country where a black man is currently President, an Afro hairstyle is not considered appropriate for the office, or why many black people aspire to lighter skin.

"In America, you don't get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you," says the protagonist Ifemelu, who moves from Nigeria to the United States and discovers that African tribal distinctions such as Yoruba, Setswana and Igbo mean nothing in the new country. In America, Africans are quietly lumped with West Indians and indigenous Americans as "black" and then, depending on the company, either marginalised or deified as a personification of their race.

Things are little better for Ifemelu's soulmate, Obinze, who was denied a visa to America post 9/11 - young black men are now considered high-risk terror threats - and instead takes on an illegal identity in England. He might surf a wave of pity if he were fleeing war or poverty, but as the adored only child of a university lecturer seeking better job prospects, he fails to charm liberal society.

Immigrants such as Ifemelu and Obinze were forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere by the Nigerian military regimes of the 1990s that squeezed entrepreneurship and audacity out of the population. Yet some years later, Nigeria started chugging steadily forward and now it appears a more attractive proposition than the debt-ridden West.

So what if electricity is in short supply in Lagos? People have set up giant generators. Yes, corrupt authorities take their cut from entrepreneurs, but domestic demand and enterprise fuel big factories and lavish lifestyles. Overseas Africans therefore return in droves to seek their fortunes in the country they left. They find, poignantly and hilariously, that they are outsiders here as well: "Americanah", known by their accents and appetite for vegan sandwiches.

Americanah is a much more cheery story than the author's last novel, Half Of A Yellow Sun, a tale of sisters living through the 1967 Nigerian civil war. It won the 2007 Orange Prize for fiction and ended ambiguously, with a country torn apart by strife.

Violence and political turmoil are only part of the backdrop of Americanah. Taking centrestage is the on-off romance between Obinze and Ifemelu, which parallels each character's on-off romance with his or her identity. Most teens and adults go through a cycle of embracing, rejecting, then re-embracing their heritage and it is a pattern complicated by immigration and the fact that globalisation has made some individuals increasingly parochial.

Immigrants, like those of a minority race or persons of colour, are accepted only if they conform to type. Hair is a powerful metaphor in this book, with Ifemelu trying endless stratagems to tame her frizzy curls and fit in with American office codes before finally accepting her body.

Another excellent attack is made on the "Magic Negro" stereotype so often played up in Hollywood movies. The Magic Negro is an unthreatening figure who "is eternally wise and kind... never reacts under great suffering, never gets angry... teaches the white person how to break down the sad but understandable prejudice in his heart". US President Barack Obama, Adichie writes, is "straight from central casting", which is why he attained America's highest office.

While comical, this stereotyping or pressure to conform is what many experience in multi-ethnic societies. No matter how we reassure ourselves, the sad truth is that the world is not yet blind to colour.

Hopefully, books like this will lead to change and eventually societies where the word "race" conjures images only of a competition to see who is the fastest runner.

If you like this, read: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (2012 reissue, Virago, $34.78, Books Kinokuniya). A deeply moving narrative of a life scarred but not crushed by poverty, rape and racism.

akshitan@sph.com.sg