Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin
queerbychoice

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Americanah

I just finished reading the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author is a brilliant writer. I kind of feel that she might be a not very good human being, though.

She grew up in Nigeria and now divides her time between Nigeria and the United States. The title of this book, which is also about a woman from Nigeria who moved the the United States and then back to Nigeria, is an exaggerated spelling of a Nigerian pronunciation of the word "American" - with the final "n" stretched out admiringly into an additional syllable for emphasis. It's not pronounced like "Americana" but rather like "American" followed by "ah."

Beyond that . . . well, if you're planing to read this book anytime soon - soon enough that you'll still remember this plot summary - you should probably not read the rest of this.

I read this novel because it was recommended to me by a woman I went on one date with more than a year ago. Clearly, it took me a while to get around to reading it. (I did much more quickly get around to reading two books written by the woman I went on one date with, and they convinced me not to go on any more dates with her, so at least I did read quickly when it was important.) This is a beautifully written novel, but it is a terrible novel to enthuse about to someone you're on a first date with. Doing so kind of amounts to saying that you think marrying someone you don't love, having a kid with her, and then dumping her to get back together with your high school ex-girlfriend is a very romantic idea.

The book is beautifully written, though. I can tell by the fact that I didn't at any point hurl the book violently across the room. Or even really feel tempted to. This is a remarkable feat that the author has achieved.

The novel is a love story about a terribly immature woman, whom the omniscient third-person narrator doesn't seem to recognize as being any more than just a little bit immature, and a man who is presented as being Mr. Impossibly Perfect but who ends up being plenty immature in his own right. I kept wondering whether the author recognized the characters as being terribly immature, and I figured that when I got to the end, the way the author ended the story would let me know the answer. The answer is that as far as I can tell, the author doesn't seem to recognize the characters as being terribly immature either.

The characters are Nigerian. A boy and a girl meet in high school in Nigeria and have a beautiful relationship. The boy is totally devoted to the girl; the girl is almost as devoted to the boy but maybe ever so slightly less so. The boy longs to move to America. The girl gets a chance to actually move to America, and she takes it, while the boy remains in Nigeria. They write love letters back and forth for quite a while. The girl struggles to find work in America; the boy sends her money. This isn't the direction that money is supposed to flow in; Nigerians in America are supposed to send money back to Nigeria. The girl is ashamed. She runs out of money again and can't bring herself to admit it. In a moment of weakness, the girl answers a classified ad that she knows amounts to prostitution and has sex with an icky American man for money. This only happens once; soon afterward she finally manages to find a regular, legal, respectable job. But she's so ashamed of what she did with the icky American man that she abruptly stops replying to her long-distance boyfriend in Nigeria, with no explanation. He has absolutely no idea why she's suddenly cut off contact. All their mutual friends and family try to get her to explain why she's cut off contact with him, but she won't say a word about it. He goes on longing for her for years and years and years and years. She goes on heartlessly ignoring him.

I totally related to the guy. Who hasn't had the experience of being inexplicably dumped with no explanation at all? You're very lucky if you haven't. I had that experience with one boyfriend (Jeremy, when I was 26) and two best friends (when I was younger than that). With the best friends, I eventually managed to drag some explanation of them. With Jeremy, I eventually managed to drag some relevant background information out of his previous girlfriend, but I got nothing much at all out of Jeremy himself. Anyway, I think it's pretty much the single cruelest thing you can do to a person. Really, I think it would be less painful to be abused in any other way, because at least then you'd have a better chance of comprehending what was happening to you and making a clear decision about how to feel and react.

So then we get a few decades of the girl, by now a woman well-established in adulthood, dating American men. Her maturity level does not improve, and the maturity level of the American men she dates is not very impressive either. She dates a rich white guy who mostly seems to be just using her as a token exotic black woman to enjoy upsetting his family with, although he's affable and easy enough to get along with if she doesn't inquire too deeply into his motivations for being with her. At one point she catches him carrying on a flirtatious email correspondence with another woman. He apologizes, and she seems to forgive him. But then she cheats on him: she has a casual one-night stand with a random stranger and immediately confesses to it. She expects him to forgive her, but to her shock, he breaks up with her over it. She practically stalks him for months, begging him to take her back. He doesn't.

Then she dates a black American man who is a professor at Yale. She had met him once before she started dating the rich white guy; they sat next to each other on a train and flirted, and he asked for her phone number, and she gave it to him, but he didn't give her his, and he never called her. When they meet again, years later, he explains that the reason he never called was that he was in a relationship with someone else. There is zero acknowledgment that his failure to actually call her does not actually make it perfectly okay that he led her on and got her phone number while he was in a relationship with someone else. Anyway, they date, and they're kind of happy together, but their different cultural backgrounds give them conflicting perspectives on some racial issues, and also she's weirdly jealous of his affection for his sister. One day, her professor boyfriend organizes an anti-racist demonstration to protest against the wrongful arrest of a black man in the university library. She's not very interested and can't be bothered to attend; besides, she's already accepted a conflicting invitation to a farewell lunch for another professor. She doesn't tell her boyfriend this, though; she lies and claims she accidentally slept through his anti-racist demonstration. He finds out that she lied. He doesn't speak to her for days. They tentatively reconcile for a while, sort of, but then he goes and expresses affection for his sister again. They break up.

Despite her lack of interest in her professor boyfriend's anti-racist demonstration event - it's never much explained why she was so uninterested in that - she does have considerable interest in opposing racism. The blog entries she writes about racism are some of the best parts of the novel. She writes most of these during her relationship with the professor at Yale, but since the story isn't told chronologically, the blog entries end up spread fairly evenly throughout the book. Chapters often end with a blog entry. The blog she writes while in America has the unwieldy title Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She makes money from her blog and is invited to do public speaking as a result of it, particularly for corporate "diversity training" workshops, though she soon learns that the people inviting her to speak usually haven't actually read her blog, and that she's not actually supposed to speak her mind at diversity training workshops; she's being paid to just say stuff that makes people feel like they're already doing all the right things and don't need to change in any way. She's free to speak her mind on her blog, though, and she gains a substantial following among academics, which is how she comes to be seen as worthy of dating a professor at Yale. During their relationship, Barack Obama is running for president in 2008, so she blogs about all her hopes and fears related to how this reflects the state of race relations in America.

Meanwhile, her high school boyfriend is unable to move to America as he had once hoped to do, because the tightening of immigration law after September 11, 2001, has made it much harder for anyone to immigrate than it used to be when his girlfriend did. So instead of moving to America as he had once dreamed of, he eventually moves to the U.K. While there, he pays someone to arrange a sham marriage for him and meets his sham bride-to-be. He's attracted to her and feels that she's attracted to him too; it's unclear quite how much of a sham this marriage is really going to be, but they both decide it's better to get married first and wait until afterward to explore their possible feelings for each other. Unfortunately, when they show up at the courthouse on their wedding day, immigration officers arrest him for overstaying his visa and deport him before the marriage can be solemnized. He never sees nor, apparently, hears from his sham bride-to-be again.

Back in Nigeria, he uses his connections with white co-workers in the U.K. to build a successful career for himself as a real estate mogul. He also gets married, apparently just because this is the thing one does when one has built a successful career. He gets married to a nice, conventional Nigerian woman who is extraordinarily beautiful but whose conventional thinking bores him. They have a daughter; she apologizes to him for not having given him a son instead. He is horrified by her assumption that he would prefer a son, but he says nothing to correct that assumption; he just silently stews about how stupidly misogynist his stupid beautiful wife is. In subsequent years, she repeats that she wants to try to have a son with him. He continues to stew resentfully while saying nothing to correct her misperception of his preferences. Her lack of mind-reading ability is extremely offensive to him.

His high school girlfriend emails him out of the blue and says she's moving back to Nigeria. They strike up a passionate correspondence for some months, during which he inexplicably never asks her to explain why on earth she abruptly cut off contact with him all those years ago. (None of her mistreatment of him ever has any impact on his perfect devotion to her. He seems to be the author's imaginary dream man, with no capability for any emotions other than a totally immutable devotion to this one woman all his life.) She moves back to Nigeria but pretends to him for months that she hasn't moved yet. They continue to correspond. She knows he's married - mutual friends told her that before she ever emailed him to say she was moving back to Nigeria.

She casually lies to all sorts of people about all sorts of random things throughout the book. She lies to all the fellow African immigrants she meets in America about how long she's been in America; it's conventional, she says, to exaggerate how long she's been here. After her Yale professor boyfriend breaks up with her, she lies to every African she meets, both in America and after she moves back to Africa, about being single; she tells everyone she's engaged to the Yale professor and he'll be moving to Nigeria to marry her very soon. (Except her high school boyfriend: she doesn't tell him she's still engaged to the Yale professor. She does leave him a little uncertain about whether they've really broken up, though.)

When she eventually gets around to admitting to her high school boyfriend that she's back in Nigeria and arranging to meet him in person again, she lies to him with almost every sentence she says to him. She calls him and asks if he can meet her immediately. When he pauses for a moment before answering, she lies and says, nonsensically, that actually she's running late for a meeting. When he agrees to meet her immediately, the meeting she claimed to be late for suddenly ceases to matter; she now comes up with a different lie and says she's on her way to a bookstore to buy a book. When he meets her at the bookstore, he asks her what book she came to buy, and she says that actually she just lied the idea of meeting him at the bookstore; she wasn't actually planning to buy a book. He says, with apparent sincerity, that he's so glad she hasn't stopped being honest. I guess being "honest" is now defined as "being a pathological liar who doesn't even bother trying to hide the fact that almost every sentence she says is a lie."

Anyway, he is presented as being a very conscientious, upstanding, responsible man. The evidence presented to prove this to us is the fact that he feels vaguely guilty about dumping his wife and daughter for his high school girlfriend. This does not, however, stop him from doing it. It does cause him to delay it for some months, though. That's terribly noble of him, isn't it? Also, in this section of the book, the author never lets us forget for a moment that he's totally filthy rich now. He's rolling in dough! So that makes everything okay. Dumping your wife and daughter for another woman is fine if you're rich enough. Strangely, I don't actually remember thinking, when Susan left me for Rebecca, "The reason this is morally wrong is that you're just an ordinary middle-school teacher. If you were one of the nation's leading real estate moguls, this would be totally fine." Perhaps I'm just not well versed in the ways of the world.

Anyway, we're led to believe that these two people with chronic, massive communication problems live happily ever after. I'm not buying it. Though he does eventually get around to asking her why she abruptly cut off contact with him all those years ago, and she actually tells the truth for once in her life, I don't see how that's anywhere near enough to change their long-term patterns. It doesn't seem that either of them has actually learned anything.

But I told you the book was beautifully written. Then I went on to point out all its plot holes and unrealistic characterizations, so now this sounds as if I hated the book. The astonishing thing is that I didn't hate the book. There's plenty in it that I could easily hate it for, but it has so many such beautiful passages in it that I can't summon any hatred for it. I want to give you a sense of the beauty along with the ugliness, so here's a long passage that I loved, describing how he feels in the early stages of their renewed email correspondence as she's planning to move back to Nigeria.




Four days, four whole days, passed before she replied. This dampened him. She was never coy, and she would have ordinarily replied much sooner. She might be busy, he told himself, although he knew very well how convenient and unconvincing a reason "busy" was. Or she might have changed and become the kind of woman who waited four whole days so that she would not seem too eager, a thought that dampened him even more. Her e-mail was warm, but too short, telling him she was excited and nervous about leaving her life and moving back home, but there were no specifics. When was she moving back exactly? And what was it that was so difficult to leave behind? He Googled the black American again, hoping perhaps to find a blog post about a breakup, but the blog only had links to academic papers. One of them was on early hip-hop music as political activism - how American, to study hip-hop as a viable subject - and he read it hoping it would be silly, but it was interesting enough for him to read all the way to the end and this soured his stomach. The black American had become, absurdly, a rival. He tried Facebook. Kosi [his wife] was active on Facebook, she put up photos and kept in touch with people, but he had deleted his account a while ago. He had at first been excited by Facebook, ghosts of old friends suddenly morphing into life with wives and husbands and children, and photos trailed by comments. But he began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background the things of which they were proud. Now, he reactivated his account to search for Ifemelu [his high school girlfriend], but she did not have a Facebook profile. Perhaps she was as unenchanted with Facebook as he was. This pleased him vaguely, another example of how similar they were. Her black American was on Facebook, but his profile was visible only to his friends, and for a crazed moment, Obinze considered sending him a friend request, just to see if he had posted pictures of Ifemelu. He wanted to wait a few days before replying to her but he found himself that night in his study writing her a long e-mail about the death of his mother. I never thought that she would die until she died. Does this make sense? He had discovered that grief did not dim with time; it was instead a volatile state of being. Sometimes the pain was as abrupt as it was on the day her house help called him sobbing to say she was lying unbreathing on her bed; other times, he forgot that she had died and would make cursory plans about flying to the east to see her. She had looked askance at his new wealth, as though she did not understand a world in which a person could make so much so easily. After he bought her a new car as a surprise, she told him her old car was perfectly fine, the Peugeot 505 she had been driving since he was in secondary school. He had the car delivered to her house, a small Honda that she would not think too ostentatious, but each time he visited, he saw it parked in the garage, coated in a translucent haze of dust. He remembered very clearly his last conversation with her over the phone, three days before she died, her growing despondence with her job and with life on the campus.

"Nobody publishes in international journals," she had said. "Nobody goes to conferences. It's like a shallow muddy pond that we are all wallowing in."

He wrote this in his e-mail to Ifemelu, how his mother's sadness with her job had also made him sad. He was careful not to be too heavy-handed, writing about how the church in his hometown had made him pay many dues before her funeral, and how the caterers had stolen meat at the burial, wrapping chunks of beef in fresh banana leaves and throwing them across the compound wall to their accomplices, and how his relatives had become preoccupied with the stolen meat. Voices were raised, accusations flung back and forth, and an aunt had said, "Those caterers must return every last bit of the stolen goods!" Stolen goods. His mother would have been amused about meat being a stolen good, and even by her funeral ending up a brawl about stolen meat. Why, he wrote to Ifemelu, do our funerals become so quickly about other things that are not about the person who died? Why do the villagers wait for a death before they proceed to avenge past wrongs, those real and those imagined, and why do they dig deep to the bone in their bid to get their pound of flesh?

Ifemelu's reply came an hour later, a rush of heartbroken words. I am crying as I write this. Do you know how often I wished that she was my mother? She was the only adult - except for Aunty Uju - who treated me like a person with an opinion that mattered. You were so fortunate to be raised by her. She was everything I wanted to be. I am so sorry, Ceiling [her pet name for him from high school]. I can imagine how ripped apart you must have felt and still sometimes feel. I am in Massachusetts with Aunty Uju and Dike and I am going through something right now that gives me a sense of that kind of pain, but only a small sense. Please give me a number so I can call - if it's okay.

Her e-mail made him happy. Seeing his mother through her eyes made him happy. And it emboldened him. He wondered what pain she was referring to and hoped that it was the breakup with the black American, although he did not want the relationship to have mattered so much to her that the breakup would throw her into a kind of mourning. He tried to imagine how changed she would be now, how Americanized, especially after being in a relationship with an American. There was a manic optimism that he noticed in many of the people who had moved back from America in the past few years, a head-bobbing, ever-smiling, over-enthusiastic kind of manic optimism that bored him, because it was like a cartoon, without texture or depth. He hoped she had not become like that. He could not imagine that she would have. She had asked for his number. She could not feel so strongly about his mother if she did not still have feelings for him. So he wrote her again, giving her all of his phone numbers, his three cell phones, his office phone, and his home landline. He ended his e-mail with these words: It's strange how I have felt, with every major event that has occurred in my life, that you were the only person who would understand. He felt giddy, but after he clicked Send, regrets assailed him. It had been too much too soon. He should not have written something so heavy. He checked his BlackBerry obsessively, day after day, and by the tenth day he realized she would not write back.

He composed a few e-mails apologizing to her, but he did not send them because it felt awkward apologizing for something he could not name. He never consciously decided to write her the long, detailed e-mails that followed. His claim, that he had missed her at every major event in his life, was grandiose, he knew, but it was not entirely false. Of course there were stretches of time when he had not actively thought about her, when he was submerged in his early excitement with Kosi, in his new child, in a new contract, but she had never been absent. He had held her always clasped in the palm of his mind. Even through her silence, and his confused bitterness.

He began to write to her about his time in England, hoping she would reply and then later looking forward to the writing itself. He had never told himself his own story, never allowed himself to reflect on it, because he was too disoriented by his deportation and then by the suddenness of his new life in Lagos. Writing her also became a way of writing himself. He had nothing to lose. Even if she was reading his e-mails with the black American and laughing at his stupidity, he did not mind.
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