Es­tranged in strange land

Amer­i­canah

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cece Ojany Cece Ojany

By Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie Fourth Es­tate, 400pp, $29.95

THIS third novel from Nige­rian writer Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie of­fers an un­var­nished look at con­tem­po­rary race and in­ter­cul­tural re­la­tions. It ex­plores the less-told nar­ra­tive of the com­pro­mises some­times made by young ed­u­cated emi­gres, not fac­ing dire cir­cum­stances in their home coun­try but who leave any­way, with ideas there is some­thing bet­ter on the other side.

Ifemelu and Obinze are two young Nige­ri­ans, in love and as­pir­ing to cre­ate a fu­ture to­gether. But in Nige­ria this can­not be a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Their ed­u­ca­tion and there­fore fu­ture ca­reer prospects are stymied by univer­sity strikes, for ex­am­ple. So Ifemelu opts to move to the US for post­grad­u­ate study. The plan is Obinze will fol­low her later, but fate leads him to Bri­tain in­stead and their con­nec­tion is sev­ered.

When she first ar­rives in the US, Ifemelu is struck by how ‘‘ dis­ap­point­ingly matte’’ the land­scape is. She had imag­ined that even or­di­nary things in Amer­ica would be glossy. She soon finds that even un­re­mark­able in­ter­ac­tions are en­cum­bered with iden­tity. Sim­ply say­ing how hot it is can elicit the re­sponse, ‘‘ You’re hot? But you’re from Africa!’’

At univer­sity she joins the African Stu­dents As­so­ci­a­tion to find a haven where ‘‘ she ... [does] not have to ex­plain her­self’’. Even­tu­ally she starts a race re­la­tions blog, where her ob­ser­va­tions are acute but made with­out blame. Her afro is not a po­lit­i­cal state­ment ("No, I’m not a . . . poet . . . or earth mother’’); she has just aban­doned us­ing po­ten­tially car­cino­genic hair straight­en­ers.

But droll mus­ings on an anony­mous on­line fo­rum can re­solve only so much. Ev­ery­day chal­lenges take a toll. In­tel­li­gent and ca­pa­ble im­mi­grants are re­duced to us­ing fake iden­ti­ties just to ob­tain ca­sual work and earn an in­come. Nam­ing your de­pres­sion is done with re­luc­tance, if at all, be­cause it is not a vo­cab­u­lary with which you grew up.

In Lon­don, Obinze pon­ders sim­i­lar is­sues. He ac­knowl­edges he is ‘‘ soft’’ and that oth­ers may find it dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand that peo­ple like him leave their home coun­try to es­cape ‘‘ the omi­nous lethargy of choice­less­ness’’, un­aware of how po­tent the fear of im­mi­grants can be.

He un­der­stands that when it comes to his­tory se­lec­tive mem­ory must be com­fort­ing: the de­nial that ‘‘ the in­flux . . . of black and brown peo­ple [is] from coun­tries cre­ated by Bri­tain’’.

Amer­i­canah — the word is used to de­scribe those who do come home — is a touch­ing, com­pelling read that goes to the heart of the long­ing we have to feel an­chored some­where.

Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie

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