Monday 2 March 2015

Precious or Pretentious

"Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with bright covers, have two  choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you're going to write about race, you have better make sure it's so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn't read between the lines won't even know it's about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy." (p.335-6)

'Americanah' by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is definitely a novel about race. I liked the quote because I wondered whether she was mocking herself slightly, though I don't think this book is either watery or fuzzy. This book is a huge jump from 'Half of a Yellow Sun' and gives us the Nigeria of the 21st century. In this story we have Ifemelu and Obinze who's university love affair is rent asunder by political  discord that leaves them searching other means to get an education; Ifemelu joining her Aunty Uju in America and Obinze heading to London. They both live lives under the radar, finding jobs illegally to support themselves. We join the story as Ifemelu is about to return to Nigeria after many years away, but then jump back in time to learn the beginning of their relationship and follow them both through their respective struggles. 

It reminded me somewhat of Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy in that it deals with the character's sense of identity, both in their home country and as incomers in another place, and when they find themselves in an alien culture they struggle to fit in, to assimilate, not to forget their background but as a self preservation technique, to protect themselves even a little from the hostility they encounter. The story tackles the sense of confusion, particularly on the part of Ifemelu, about who she wants to be and what part her Nigerian-ness plays in her new life. She becomes a blogger and writes about her observations of American culture from the point of view of (as she terms herself) a Non-American Black. It is as if she wants to be part of this place, but can't help but keep her self at a distance, because she acknowledges that America is not keen to accept her. The book is punctuated by her blog posts, describing incidents and exchanges with people she encounters. 

I liked the book because it is really in-your-face about what she wants to get across. As she points out in the quote at the beginning there, most books tiptoe around the issue and allow readers to ignore it if they choose. 
Here Obinze is at a dinner party listening to polite conversation, but not daring to give his real opinions:

"Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty." (p.276)

Ifemelu, at a similar gathering, does not have quite the same restraint when encountering patronising crap:

" 'The only reason you say that race is not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was 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're 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 white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we're worried they will say we're 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 have been illegal for us even to 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. It's true. I speak from experience.'" (p.290-1)

An Americanah is what one is called as a returnee, someone who has adopted the manners and customs of America, they gather together for company, a bit like expats in Spain. Ifemelu craves certain aspects of Nigeria, but once back she is loath to admit how much she has become americanised:

"They have the kinds of things there we can eat. An unease crept up in Ifemelu. She was comfortable here, and she wished she were not. She wishes too, that she were not so interested in this new restaurant, did not perk up, imagining fresh green salads and steamed still-firm vegetables. She loved eating all the things she had missed while away, jollof rice cooked with a lot of oil, fried plantain, fried yams, but she longed, also, for the other things she had become used to in America, even quinoa, Blaine's speciality, made with feta and tomatoes. This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had: a 'they have the kinds of things we can eat' kind of person." (p.409)

I found myself irritated by the Nigerian affluent classes that Obinze and Ifemelu live amongst on their return; their obsessive pursuit of not just money but extremes of wealth, and their tendency to judge themselves and each other by their possessions, the cars they drive, the houses they live in. Obinze, having lived in quite dire and desperate circumstances in England, seemed to slip back into that world easily and comfortably. It is not a political book, it is not making judgements or analysing the nature of political and economic corruption, just telling it the way it is; this is the way our country works, if you can work the system then good luck to you. I confess I was not completely convinced by the supposed intensity of their relationship and the love story itself did not seem so important, it felt more like a vehicle for getting across the other ideas. On last quote that did seem to explain some of the cultural attitudes to possessions:

"When I first started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn't make sense. Nigerians don't buy houses because they're old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn't work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past." (p.436)

The book swaps back and forth and tells both tales, then catches up on itself and we watch the resolution of their love affair back in Nigeria, and although I did not find myself invested so much in their relationship I did become invested in the two characters. It is a long book so there was plenty of time to get to know them. I did enjoy the relationship between Ifemelu and Uju, two women looking out for and supporting each other, a real bond that went beyond family loyalty. A wonderful book.

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