Black In America: A Story Rendered In Gray Scale
May 20, 2013
American literature has plenty of coming-of-age novels. What we need more of, judging by the strengths of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, are novels about coming to America. In particular, books that address our biggest problems — in this case, race. Because things natives don't see about themselves often stand out like neon to foreign eyes. And if you think racism expired when President Obama was elected, this is perhaps not — or absolutely is — the book for you.
In Americanah, a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, moves to the United States for school, leaving behind her boyfriend, Obinze, and her family. It's a story of relocation, far-flung love and life as an alien, spread across three continents. It's also about the lonely but privileged perspective a stranger gains by entering a new culture. Indeed, it's more powerful than that in Americanah, because Ifemelu experiences America both as a black woman and as an African woman. In the U.S., those two identities combine for experiences dark and light that Adichie skillfully renders in gray scale.
The story begins with an electricity familiar to readers of Adichie's previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book, about the life of two sisters during the Nigerian-Biafran War, won the Orange Prize for Fiction six years ago. I'm still pressing it on strangers; it rests comfortably in my top five favorite books published in the decade.
Americanah's first chapters, mostly set during Ifemelu's childhood and teenage years in Nigeria, have a similar crackle. Describing a party at a local big man's house, Adichie writes of some aspirational guests, "They were wearing the uniform of the Lagos youngish and wealthyish — leather slippers, jeans and open-neck tight shirts, all with familiar designer logos — but there was, in their manner, the plowing eagerness of men in need."
After Ifemelu lands in the United States, she becomes, among other things, a blogger, writing funny, punchy updates about black life in America — from hairstyles to politics — intended for America's blacks and nonblacks, and for non-American blacks. She writes, "Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race. If you are having a conversation with an American, and you want to discuss something racial that you find interesting, and the American says, 'Oh, it's simplistic to say it's race; racism is so complex,' it means they just want you to shut up already."
But about Ifemelu's offline existence, from surviving fraternity parties to finding employment, Adichie's storytelling is surprisingly flat. We get explanations in lieu of action; discourse, but little drama. Of one character, we read: "Ifemelu knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded." Ifemelu's boyfriend, Obinze, leaves Nigeria too, and his story, working in a British warehouse, has a much stronger heartbeat. But ultimately the novel suffers the absence of a tougher editor.
Adichie's goals on the page, however, are noble and her hard work obvious. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos, "the heaps of rubbish ... rose on the roadsides like a taunt. Commerce thrummed too defiantly." It's that type of evocative power, transporting my imagination while keeping my feet firmly on the ground, that has me looking forward to Adichie's books for years to come.
Rosecrans Baldwin's latest book, Paris I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down, comes out in paperback next month.
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