Tag Archives: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4 Jan

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The main character of the brilliant and wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a blogger and Nigerian immigrant to America rocketed to Internet fame by writing, “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She had me at her first words, about “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing” and how “she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public.” An otherizing eye on the familiar is always delightful, and Adichie’s voice is fluid, chatty and funny. This is the second book I’ve read of hers in a couple of months.

Like her breakout success Half of A Yellow Sun, which was about the short-lived state of Biafra, a chunk of Nigeria that tried to secede in the late 1960s with devastating results, Americanah has a wide scope. The main thrust of the narrative is a love story and social comedy about Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts and children of the Nigerian middle class who are swept along in a tide of foreign-immigration. The couple is torn apart by their experiences abroad, and, at the beginning of the story (which is told mostly in flashbacks), are just about to get back in touch with each other.  One of the many neat tricks Adichie employs is the seamless swapping of locations between the U.S. and Nigeria, which make it impossible to say really which country the book is about—they are intertwined.

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It’s a love story but it’s also, mostly, a book about race, which takes place primarily in flashbacks at an African braiding salon (and talks in powerfully exhaustive detail about black hair). The premise is that, as Ifemelu explains, you aren’t “black” in Africa, because everyone is black and so race is not an issue. And then you move to America and suddenly you are black, and in a wonderful position to see clearly what it all means. Ifemelu’s fictional blog posts are excerpted throughout the text in depth, and one particularly good one is called “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You are Black, Baby.” She dates a preppy white man, then a bourgie black man (an activist-professor in cultural studies at Yale, of course), all the while longing for Obinze and the comfort-in-your-own-skin that he represents.

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I’ve read some criticism of Adiche recently that she romanticizes the African experience, and is too UMC, and that her people are symbols rather than people, which is all somewhat true. She’s kind of like an African Tolstoy that way. And whatever else you may think about Tolstoy, he wrote excellent novels.

I can understand the criticism that she’s letting us be tourists through the lives of others, but during that tour she makes many perceptive observations about race in America, starting with the fact that Americans won’t talk about it. (Her anecdote is, If you’re in a store, and there are two clerks, and one is black and one is white, and the cashier asks ‘Who helped you?’ In America, you cannot identify the girl by race, despite that being the most obvious indicator.) She writes about how African blacks look down on American blacks, and in what specific ways. And then rejoins with the ways American blacks feel African blacks don’t get it. She says that Obama’s race speech was “morally unacceptable.” She tells us the various ways that white people look at a white man’s black girlfriend. Liberal white people come across like confused but friendly dogs who are probably going to bite you by accident. She is able to take this seriously and also laugh at it.

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And then there is American-ness, that grouping of qualities that we all wear and can’t even see unless we’ve spent substantial time abroad. I am familiar with the ways Russians find Americans perplexing—our loud voices, our positivity, our boundless childlike enthusiasm, our enormous toothy smiles—but since these ways are such an intense contrast to Russian-ness, I didn’t realize until reading this book that it was something universally perceived. I loved seeing Americans, black and white, through Adichie’s Nigerian protagonist’s eyes.

While reading I kept reading funny passages about Americans out loud to my Russian husband, and elicited the anecdote that when he tells his Russian father that “Things are great!” his father sighs and says, “Vanya, it makes me shudder to hear you say this.” (Admitting that “things are great” is something between bad luck and sheer insanity to a Russian…).

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This is an author whose books I’ll read more of.



Top 10 Best and Worst of 2014

20 Dec

2014 has been an amazing year of reading books for me—thanks to AWP, meeting more publishers of independent presses, and mostly avoiding mainstream literary fiction. The following is a best-and-worst of the books published this year that I happened to read this year. It does not include books by dear friends because I have three dear friends with great books this year, and that just gets silly. (If only all Brooklyn critics could opt out in this way, the year-end lists would be different indeed!)

1. Best: Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

An “autoerotic intoxication protocol” by a Spanish post-Marxist feminist and gender renegade that has changed the way I understand my body, my life and that emotional, intellectual and sexual cyber-prosthesis sometimes called a laptop. Scary, scary shit that everyone should read.

2. Worst: Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

This was a very good Brooklyn Mother book, impressively structured, witty, well-written, and deserving of its many accolades compared to the others in its genre, but its existence annoyed me for a large chunk of 2014. I felt that Offill failed to bring any heart or soul or greatness of spirit into the airless chamber of bitching that is her topic. She said it well, but she said nothing new.

3. Best: Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Fall down and start screaming and wailing and gnashing your teeth at this cult Hungarian writer’s unchecked brilliance. The Krasznahorkai is  a blizzard of ecstatic layers on art, transcendence and God. The Krasznahorkai is unknowable, immersive and deranged. Please read the Krasznahorkai. I also interviewed the translator for The Paris Review, which was good fun.

4. Worst: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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Has no one else noticed that David Mitchell’s voices are boring? As a young woman, I loved Cloud Atlas, but I also brazenly skipped the parts in dialect. Mitchell has moments of lovely prose and interesting, intricate plotting, but for vast rafts of the novel the point is to enjoy the voices, and I don’t. To me these quirky characters don’t feel like people and, thanks to plentiful mimetic indulgence, bring us gems like “I felt like a clubbed baby seal.”

5. Best: Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier (re-issued this year by the NYRB imprint)

This obscure volume by a sardonic teenage Frenchman starts with the smell of war and tells us everything from there. The most honest and illuminating book on trench warfare I’ve ever read.

6. Best and Worst: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich
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Lena Finkle got divorced and lived on to have hot sex and a happier life, contrary to what mainstream culture would have us believe. Best book, most beautiful illustrations, worst New York Times Review.

7. Best: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A NAB (non-American black) view on race in America in very-funny-immigrant-novel format. Adichie provides social comedy, social commentary and takes neither shit nor prisoners. This book is about blackness, but the send-ups of whiteness are also pretty eye-opening.

8. Worst: Sugar Skull, by Charles Burns
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This is only a “worst” book in comparison to the other two volumes of Burns’s X’ed Out series, two of my favorite graphic novels—or novels, period—of all time. I was let down by the overly literal and tidy end.

9. Best: I Loved You More, by Tom Spanbauer
Despite having spilled my own ink, I still prefer Rob from LitReactor’s statement on Tom Spanbauer: “The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.” Yes. That.

10. Best: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, by Hassan Blasim 

The absurdity and horror of living in the political catastrophe that is Iraq is laid out in these tight, disturbing, allegorical stories by an Iraqi writer. I haven’t read anything quite like this.