There’s a sub-genre of fiction out there at the moment which publishers don’t seem to be able to get enough of: Africans-moving-to-America-dealing-with-immigrant/racial-issues-and-negotiating-their-return-to-the-Motherland. Part of you has to wonder why Africa-meets-America is deemed to be of greater interest than plain old Africa, but it offers plenty of opportunity for the sort of viewing culture as an outsider which always makes for good fiction.
Americanah is a prime example of this genre. It’s well written, readable, and – whisper it – light. Certainly lighter than it thinks it is. Where Ghana Must Go had something quite fundamental to say about African parenthood, for all of the race commentary that is crammed into Americanah it didn’t have the same depth.
The book follows Ifemelu and Obinze, school sweethearts, as they separately grow, emigrate and ultimately return to Nigeria. From a stuttering start, Ifemelu goes on thrive and write a successful blog on the subject of race. Race is the most dominant theme in the novel, specifically the experience of being black and African in foreign countries, and the novel is at its most slicing and acute when nudging out little inconsistencies and unquestioned norms in American and British culture. Adichie makes particular distinction between African-American (Americanised black people, historically from Africa) and American-African (those recently from Africa) which is fresh and thought-provoking – like the uncertain reaction of American-Africans to Ifemelu’s decision not to ape an American accent. Yet the extracts from Ifemelu’s blog are repetitive and rambling, the authorial voice much weaker than Adichie’s own. She’s probably just trying to distinguish Ifemelu’s writing, but the effect implies that the author just doesn’t think that Ifemelu’s writing is any good.
For me, the book really took off on Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria with 13 years in America under her belt. Having made her identity partly from rejecting western mores, in the context of Lagos she often finds herself more comfortable with them than local customs, struggling to regain the local eyes with which she used to see her country. These alien eyes lead to some of the most interesting observation in the novel – at once insider and outsider – which combine to give a vivid, social vision of Lagos as a city.
With this uneasy insider/outsider perch, the only place that Ifemelu can be an insider is in her relationship with Obinze who has been through certain parallel experiences. Perhaps the emotional heart of the book is the conversation in which they say that if you still have something to talk about with your partner when your from the same place and background – then that’s real connection. Despite the spread over three continents, the book has a profoundly local, past-rooted heart. For Adichie, you are where you come from and the people you have loved.