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Nigerian novel critiques U.S. attitudes toward race

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie richly imagines contemporary African lives.

OKEY ADICHIE PHOTO Enlarge Image

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie richly imagines contemporary African lives.

The title of acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's painfully novel and fourth work of fiction is African code for her African characters' searing experience of contemporary American culture.

Upon her return, the mocking Nigerian term brands the main character, Ifemelu, as an expatriate at home, and she was an exile abroad, subject to intricate and powerful layers of discrimination.

Born in 1977, Adichie, who now divides her time between the U.S. and Nigeria, is one of the most prominent African novelists of her generation. Her own experience in coming to the U.S. to attend university informs Americanah; but the novel reaches well beyond autobiography to analyze and critique contemporary American attitudes towards race.

Ifemelu's rebellious response to the various forms of oppression she encounters forms one core of Americanah. During her American sojourn, Ifemelu creates a highly successful blog, intermittently reproduced in the pages of Americanah, in which she comments trenchantly and acerbically on the tensions between African and American conceptions of race relations, of cultural norms and of gender.

Complementing and amplifying her blog entries are the narrator's biting observations on both Nigerian and American societies. As she showed in her award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), Adichie has a fine eye and ear for the foibles of contemporary Nigerian culture.

Her vivid portrayals of life in Lagos at street level as well as in its kitchens and bedrooms, in the mansions of the powerful as well as in the hovels of the poor, are counterpointed by her pungent recreations of everyone's speech, from general to street hawker.

One arc of Americanah's plot line opens in the U.S. just before Ifemelu's planned return to Lagos after her years Stateside. The backdrop to her American years has been Obama's first campaign and election, events she follows fervently; in Lagos, what precipitated her departure was the chaos following the overthrow of the generals who had dominated Nigerian politics.

But her daily experience as an Americanah is far removed from the hope imagined in Obama's rise, and her relationships with American men, white or black, leave her emotionally scarred and unfulfilled.

At the centre of Americanah, however, is the more intimate trajectory of Ifemelu's departure from Lagos, followed by her return after her American years. She leaves her first love, Obinze, behind in Lagos, and becomes estranged from him over the years of her absence; meanwhile Obinze undergoes his own forced transformation as his years in the U.K. -- the other popular avenue of emigration for Nigerians seeking escape from a country where they can see no future -- are cut short by his deportation home.

The twinned, if separate departures and returns of Ifemelu and Obinze -- and their conflicted estrangement, followed by the tensions that inevitably accompany their meeting again as adults, with their own troubled recent histories to contend with -- form the nucleus of the novel, and the arc of their unresolved relationship hovers over Obinze's spectacular ascent.

Ifemelu's return to Lagos also sees her beginning another blog in which she lays bare the shallow worlds of the new class of Nigerians (including Obinze, of course) that has emerged in the wake of the country's new oil wealth; subtending the sharp-tongued rhetoric of this blog, as is the case in her American blog, are the counterpointed rhythms of Ifemelu's own disillusionment and growth as she surveys the contemporary scene.

Readers might well be at once sharply surprised and moved by the novel's ending, which is neither inevitable nor unforeseen. Rather, the conclusion of Americanah suggests that the enduring mystery of love is a deeper and more fully hopeful and human story than the confounding politics and the aching distances separating and confounding the contemporary African lives that Adichie so richly imagines here.

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is provost and vice-president, academic and international, at the University of Winnipeg.

Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf Canada, 352 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 J9

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