Estranged in strange land
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