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Friday, December 03, 2021

A Language of Foreign Things

An absorbing story about immigration,race and romance

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan |
July 20, 2013 5:54:22 am

Book: Americanah

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Publisher: 4th Estate

Price: Rs 399

Pages: 400

“Americanah” is a word used in parts of Nigeria to make fun of someone who affects American ways. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel explores the many unexpected dimensions of that word through Ifemulu,a sparky young woman who moves from Nigeria to the US and back home. The love of her life,Obinze,follows a rockier path — trying his luck in England,coming back to a precarious success in a new Lagos.

“I only became black when I moved to America,” asserts Ifemulu. In her 13 years there,she is pulled to examine how questions of race are evaded or elided between Americans,writing about it in a hugely popular blog called Raceteenth. Her own life provides ample material — she lives with a white trust-fund type,Curt,then an African-American political scientist,Blaine. The blog device allows Ifemulu/Adichie to range freely,to write mini-essays on phrases like “oppression Olympics”,why black women must be described as “strong”,but must be careful not to shade into “scary” by actually speaking their mind,what it is to travel as a black person,and the sneaky workings of white privilege. She and Blaine,with their far-apart histories and cultures,bond over Barack Obama,almost to the point that the 2009 election is a vindication of their relationship.

Ifemulu,as a freshman,is bemused by America,but comes to better understand its tribalisms,its sanctimonies and its insensitivities. Adichie captures the cultural gulf,Ifemulu’s feeling of not fitting into a group of young people,with this perceptive line: “How did they know when to laugh,and what to laugh about?” She obsessively scrutinises appearances — the politics of black hair,the skews of women’s magazines and waxing parlours. Apart from the production of femininity and all that,she is also simply,unapologetically,interested in clothes and looks.

But to some extent,this section is marred by how unoriginal many of Ifemulu’s thoughts are,for all that we are told about her caustic social summary and how successful her blog is. Her analysis often consists of things like how Americans make an illness out of depression,how they are too superior and disregarding to dress well,how teenagers chant “cool” and “gross” in unison,salespeople say “you’re all set”,and so on. Then there are details about the organic pomegranate juice and vintage clothes and exposed rafters,smug parody that is about as penetrating as Stuff White People Like.

The novel really blooms when it tackles other things,beyond this lover’s quarrel with liberal America. Adichie captures the affectations of an in-between generation in Nigeria,the waning pull of England,the allure of America,the mockery of that longing for other places. Obinze is “fluent in the language of foreign things”,American films and magazines and presidents. It is in this sense that it’s a post-colonial and global novel,in the way it holds an uncanny mirror to many of us in India. In fact,the hustle and hopefulness of Lagos,the shady land deals,the new kinds of jobs,the preference for expat tenants,the ease with which people say “Do you know who I am?”,the dark jokes,hold true to a lesser degree about Delhi. Adichie’s tone is wry,not anguished about the way these other countries cast shadows over Nigeria. Obinze,whose encounter with England is more fraught,speaks of those “conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else,eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else”,but the novel doesn’t lament this,it levels with it.

Americanah is a smooth read,you glide,almost fall through it,because it has the familiarity of pulp fiction. The rich white guy she hooks up with while babysitting,the ease with which he swings her a work visa,his inevitably haughty mother — Ifemulu’s life has the giddy ease of a novel. Some of the plotting and character-building also seem contrived — for instance,the first time we are introduced to Kosi,Obinze’s wife of many years,he helpfully thinks,“as he often does,what a beautiful woman she was,eyes perfectly almond-shaped”.

The one article of faith in this novel is romantic love. The relationship between Ifemulu and Obinze,for all its breaks and silences,is the safety railing in a confusing world. And for all Americanah’s hits and misses as pamphlet and social satire,it is an unambiguous success as a love story.

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