Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
good enough that I wish it was better, as they say
I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated third novel Americanah under unusual but happy circumstances. At the time I was still employed by Brooklyn College and was teaching a freshman writing class on the side, not for the paltry adjunct wages but because I found in my first year as an administrator that I missed teaching a great deal. Americanah was the freshman common reading that year. Teaching at CUNY was very rewarding; I have taught in some diverse contexts, in my 14+ years of teaching for colleges and universities, but there was nothing like the variety in a Brooklyn College class. CUNY also had all of the problems I associate with the modern university, most obviously the straightforwardly sad circumstance where poor schools and systems feel compelled by financial need to admit students who are simply not prepared for college-level work. When you teach freshman classes, you are the one who has to most directly confront the consequences of those decisions, made by distant leaders whose concerns with dollars and cents overwhelm their commitment to students.
In any event, we were asked to incorporate the book into our first month or so of classes, so I did. It was, to me, typical of the pleasures and frustrations of discussing literature with older adolescents, in the sense that some had sharp and intelligent insights, more engaged only on the level of the plot, and most didn’t read it at all. Current trends in college pedagogy and petty politics compel most professors to romanticize their students to the point of absurdity, but of course specificity is the mother of all real praise, and so I must acknowledge that these students, like all students, were a mixed bag. Like all college classes, a healthy portion of them were there out of a sense that they had no other real options rather than intrinsic desire to learn, a condition which I certainly sympathize with. Anyway, I taught them the book for awhile and then we moved on to other things. While I enjoyed it at the time, I was ultimately glad we set it aside, as the more I continued on in the book in the following month, the more conflicted I became.
Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu, a poised and perceptive Nigerian woman who immigrates to America as a young adult and leaves behind a complicated love affair with a man named Obinze. I like that story, despite a real faceplant in the central romance towards the end of the book. But Americanah is also a book about the immigrant experience, about race, and about the dual consciousness of a recent African émigré. I like that book well enough too, I suppose, though it offers little that you haven’t read already if you’ve received an education in the humanities in the past quarter century. Americanah is also also, I’m afraid, a book about people endlessly talking about the immigrant experience, race, and the dual consciousness of recent African émigrés. That book is… not very good. And as the novel drifts towards the 600 page mark, it becomes less and less interested in the complex and affecting love story of its best parts and more and more concerned with cramming in one more lecture about whatever strikes Adichie’s fancy. It took me a week to read the first half and a month to read the second.
Adichie’s book, a bestseller that won a bushel of prizes, received the blessing and curse of the publishing industry’s Black woman author hype cycle. It’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, the well-meaning attempt to highlight the work of Black women, who in the past were legitimately marginalized by the industry, ensured that it ended up getting the critical attention it got. This in turn helped get it adopted as the freshman reader at Brooklyn College and otherwise on the curriculum at many other schools, which makes me happy. But as is always the case, highlighting the demographic characteristics of the book’s author ended up distracting from its inherent particularity, its individuality, in gross ways. Goodreads reviews aren’t generally a font of delicate reading in the best of times, and some of the reviews of Americanah seem to really be about Book I Imagined Based on My Conception of a Generic African Woman. I saw the little blurb for this book in the Staff Picks section of a bookstore comparing it to Toni Morrison, which makes me wince in a couple different ways. (Morrison’s work is as quintessentially American as anything I can name and to my lights profoundly unconnected with this story of an immigrant’s unfamiliarity with the United States.) I don’t have a clever workaround; I support continued efforts to publicize great books by women and Black authors. I look forward to a time when we can undertake those efforts without draining such books of their essential character in doing so.
(I suppose I must acknowledge Adichie’s celebrated and derided recent essay on cancel culture, now seemingly deleted from her website. So… this is me acknowledging it.)
The book turns on Ifemelu’s conflicted feelings towards both her adopted country and her native one. Though there is something universal about her experience, Adichie takes place to locate Ifemelu in a uniquely contemporary context. Ifemelu has a popular blog with a pretentious title that’s all about the African immigrant experience, and in particular she comments on American race relations from the perspective of someone who is Black and yet not African American, someone who experiences day-to-day racism and yet is clearly distinct from the descendants of African slaves. The blog, and the larger sense of Ifemelu as a cultural commentator, offers an admirable self-deprecating quality to the book’s first half; I don’t think Ifemelu is an author stand-in, not in any simplistic way, but I think Ifemelu’s pretensions and preachiness are clearly meant to function as Adichie poking a bit of fun at herself.
That meta quality, well, I’m conflicted. This is not, contra what some reviewers who should know better suggested, a classic immigrant’s narrative of a fish out of water, or of a character who exists only to suffer. Ifemelu struggles, including at one point being moved to take on what’s essentially sex work, but Adichie admirably avoids cheap pathos, and we are reminded that Nigerian Americans are in fact a remarkably successful class. (They perpetually rank as one of the two or three richest ethnic demographics in the country, as it happens.) Ifemelu’s observer’s eye cements the sense in which she is embedded in the American racial conversation but not entirely a part of it, and this helps rescue the book from treading worn-out territory. (Usually.) Unfortunately, the meta quality also speaks to the book’s biggest problem, its here’s-another-Tumblr-essay-about-privilege quality, which I’ll get to in a moment. I also find myself increasingly unsure of Adichie’s orientation to all of this as time goes on. When Ifemelu delivers a speech on the importance of Essence magazine, in a scene that reminds me of nothing so much as one of those preachy Tik Toks where they talk into the camera about a political concept they learned two hours before, it’s so on the nose it feels parodic. But I'm not sure! I have no problem with that kind of ambiguity in general, but throughout the book I frequently struggled to grasp how Adichie wanted me to feel about Ifemelu and her by turns wise and self-aggrandizing opinions.
But it’s all rendered so gorgeously. I haven’t meant to get into such a habit of saying “this book is flawed, but the author’s prose is a highlight,” but… Americana is flawed, but Adichie’s prose is a highlight. I think that there’s something to be said about mastering a fictive writing style that is clean and relatively unadorned without being artless. Adichie’s writing is straightforward but not free of artifice, which is good, because I like artifice. Artifice has gotten a bad rap. I think one of the consistent advantages women fiction writers enjoy over men right now is that they write prose far less self-consciously, which in turn makes them more free to do interesting things. I suppose it’s kind of a contradiction - I think a lot of women writing novels right now worry less then men do about appearing affected, which makes their affectations seem more natural. (I’m not being deliberately convoluted, honestly.) It’s cool to be deliberate with the way you write, and Adichie is deliberate, her prose a prose of choices, keeping things syntactically and symbolically simple but reaching into whatever higher register she wishes when called for. That confidence to write as driven rather than to play defense is so refreshing and speaks to someone who knows how good she is. I don’t think Benjamin Kunkel is a bad writer, but when I read something like his book Indecision, I think to myself, boy, this guy is fussy about appearing unfussy.
The unapologetic prose does not, I’m afraid, justifies this book’s interminable last 200 pages. Americanah’s got one of those classic parabolic quality curves, in that it starts out slow, really gets moving in a deft and engaging fashion in the middle, and then rushes to bring it all to some sort of meaningful conclusion in an overly operatic tying up of Ifemelu and Obinze’s story. I like opera, personally, and I have always had a lot of tolerance for melodrama, so the particulars of the conclusion of the romance aren’t really my issue. My issue is that the way the love story is wrapped up feels rushed and unfinished, which is remarkable given that it is the ostensible centerpiece of a 588 page book. Why does Adichie give short shrift to the emotional heart of a book with that many pages to work with? Because of the lectures, my friends. Oh, my, the lectures. So many characters wandering into the book to deliver political lectures, then wandering out once they’re done delivering a Vox.com essay on race or class.
I want to be clear that I don’t mind discursive fiction, or politics in my novels, or Adichie’s politics in particular. I don’t much care for her more straightforwardly political writing, the little I’ve read of it, but that’s not my concern when it comes to her fiction. With Adichie’s prose chops and her eye for detail I can easily imagine a novel from her that engages with politics directly and unapologetically and that satisfies the dictates of drama at the same time. It’s just that this is not that book. Not in its last third, anyway. As we drift further from the love story that truly animates the novel, the minor characters who give disquisitions on Africa and race and identity are less and less welcome, at least for me. I know this is a bizarre connection to make, but this book reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 and the interminable sections about Goldstein’s manifesto in the latter parts. There, as here, I found myself tapping my foot and waiting to return to the human drama that attracted me in the first place - but here, as there, I’m not sure how much book there would be if you deleted the digressions and lectures.
(Yes, I am saying that 1984 isn’t a great novel. Important and timely, but I think in the purest sense as a story to read it does not equal its reputation. Forgive me.)
There are other complaints. Some of this stuff is just so on the nose, to reuse that phrase. Does Ifemelu’s political but passionless boyfriend have to be named Blaine? (How about he teaches at UConn and is named Blaine or teaches at Yale but is named anything else, just not named Blaine and a professor at Yale.) Does Obinze’s wife Kosi have to be so perfect? I get that, given the arc of the story, there’s a built-in need for some narrative sympathy for her, but she comes across as a caricature or exemplar of African womanhood at times. Does Barack Obama’s election have to drive the most essential dramatic action of the book, reading like that Shepard Fairey illustration come to life? I also think that the considerations of African hair, while perfectly legitimate as subject matter, take up too much space to break so little new ground. At first, I thought it was a smart nod to A Raisin in the Sun and the enduring issues of white America’s expectations of Black self-presentation. But as we go deeper and deeper into that same theme, at some point you’d like to get the sense that the analysis of this issue has developed since 1959.
In the end, what I got of Ifemelu and Obinze was less than what I wanted, and what I got of a recent Nigerian immigrant’s experiences as a Black woman in 21st century America was more than I needed. Is this the opinion of a white man who can’t muster interest in problems he doesn’t have? Perhaps. But let me frame it this way: the book taught me more about being Ifemelu than it taught me about being Nigerian, more about being Nigerian than about being African, and more about being African than about being Black, and I wish that the narrative priorities matched that hierarchy. Is there some grander point to make there? Maybe, but I haven’t got a handle on it if so. There is something awkward and touchy and grasping in Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship, and I love all of that, and I would gladly follow them across an epic story of this length if that’s what I was given. I do not, I’m afraid, have the patience to wade through almost 600 pages that make me soldier through uninspired lectures in order to get to the beautiful portrayal of a complicated love story that I actually want to read.
My desire for Adichie to use her considerable gifts to tell a simpler and more focused story could, I say with zero irony, be a function of my privilege, my being situated in my race and gender. But that is my heart’s true desire all the same.
"he book taught me more about being Ifemelu than it taught me about being Nigerian, more about being Nigerian than about being African, and more about being African than about being Black, and I wish that the narrative priorities matched that hierarchy"
Really good way to express something that I feel with a lot of modern authors and author-influencers... they have a very specific perspective that's interesting, but an underlying assumption that what they're doing is political and universal (it's not) and another underlying assumption that if they were to just be a well-done representation of a highly idiosyncratic perspective (which is, in fact, what they actually are, and that's a strength), that would be a failure.
It’s like they say. Race & gender are really the least interesting things about most people.