Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There are many reasons for me to be hooked on this novel and not solely because the two leading protagonists happen to be table tennis enthusiasts. Not even because the central character is a blogger of some considerable merit though these facts do help to endear me to the novel. No, the fundamental reason that I warmed to this work is that it is a fine polemic on both race and class and all the thousands of interweaving connections and nuances between the two. Anyone who naively imagines that either class or race are simple binary questions will be quickly disabused of this childlike belief after a close reading of Adichie’s fine novel. We learn very quickly that race and class might mean one thing in Africa and an all-together different thing in America and Britain. In the United States, class and race have become so inextricably entwined so by the end of play, nobody is precisely clear what it is they are fighting against and what it is they are fighting for. It’s the ambiguities in Adichie’s Americanah that make it such a worthwhile read and of course the wonderful self-deprecating humour that she effortlessly supplies throughout every page give it quality that elevates it to amongst the best novels of the century so far.

The storyline takes the reader across three continents and in each location the reader is treated to some wonderfully perceptive observations.

‘You know we live in an ass-licking economy. The biggest problem in this country is not corruption. The problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won’t lick anybody’s ass, or they don’t know which ass to lick or they don’t even know how to lick an ass. I’m lucky to be licking the right ass. It’s just luck. … I was well brought up. P77

Only a Nigerian national could so fully appreciate the subtleties of Nigerian society, and although ‘ass-licking’ is, you might argue, a universal trait, it invariably takes on national particularities and Nigeria it seems, is no exception. In Britain it is almost part of the national conversation to talk of Nigerian corruption as if such corruption does not exist in Britain. There is a huge difference of course. In Nigeria it is plain for all to see. It’s just a natural part of every-day life and if you want to get on you need to learn the rules and just play the game. If you can. But in Britain, with centuries of experience in high level corruption, everything is under the counter, so to speak. Everything is concealed and denied. Armies of accountants and lawyers build entire careers covering up for corporate and government corruption, but the national narrative would have it that our society is law governed and squeaky-clean.

There are many ways to describe Adichie’s polemic on being black both in America but none better than to quote from Ifemelu’s blog itself. To what degree this blog is a refection of Adichie’s own views, is up to the reader to work out, but I think it fair to assume that the blog and indeed the entire novel fairly accurately reflects Adichie’s own experiences. This lengthy passage seems to perfectly encapsulate the experience and contradictions of being a ‘non-American Black’ living in America:

‘Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So, what if you weren’t black in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class of undergrads when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So, I just made something up. And admit it – you say “I’m not Black” only because you know that black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder. And you want none of that. Don’t deny now. What if being black had all the privileges of being white? Would you still say, “Don’t call me black I’m from Trinidad”? I don’t think so.’ P220

That particular entry goes on for some time as it explores the complex experience of being a non-American Black person in America and it is obvious that you have to live that experience to really appreciate those complexities. Few, I suspect, have done better than Adichie in spelling out those complexities. Academics have no doubt provided detailed case studies and intricate theories but Adichie has the skill to lay it out in common language for the common person irrespective of national or class origin.

Adichie brings a freshness to discussions of race. She cuts through the political correctness with consummate skill. If you are white, middle class and of a socially liberal persuasion, it might make you squirm a little. If you’re Black, middle class and with a socially liberal outlook, you too will feel the heat. Neither are spared. When Adichie takes aim she invariably hits her target.

‘The only reason you say that race is not an issue is because you wish it were not. We all wish it were not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue. I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you are alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. WE don’t even tell our partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they’ll say we are overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would be illegal for us to even be a couple, blah, blah, blah, Because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway. But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. P290

Adichie’s novel is littered with similar observations, some lengthy, some just brilliant one-liners. I highlighted dozens whilst reading this fine novel but in the interests of brevity I’ll resist the temptation to include them all.

‘Americanah’ obviously has its own particularity, but there’s so much of universal value here too. Whatever tribe one cares to align to, be it national, racial, religious or sexual, those in the ‘minority tribe’ will readily relate to the anxiety and pain of living alongside the domineering ‘majority’ tribe. And, as Adichie is at pains to point out, one can be a put-upon minority in one setting, and part of the domineering majority in another. The fact that Adichie and her characters have experienced both, makes her observations that much more absorbing. To unravel the complexities and nuances of race and class is no easy task but Adichie does so with consummate ease. I suspect this novel is going to have a very long shelf life. And deservedly so.

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