I really didn’t want to like Adichie’s new book, Americanah. Despite the fact that I got one of the first copies, and a signed one at that, I didn’t read it for almost two years. It sat, hardback cover and confident signature on my many university-room bookshelves, it’s large spine taking up pride of place, it’s crisp jacket (now oil stained) speaking of a newness, a freshness that should have been inciting, intoxicating even in its desirability. It blended cleanly into my pretence at a literary knowledge along with other ‘must-read’ African or African-American books, swilling from prose, to poetry, drama to criticism. Yet, for every month it went un-opnened, even throughout the summer when I couldn’t blame essays or supervisions, it reminded me of a fraudulence, a veneer of fakery that I had knowingly pasted over my face, its scent cloying, speaking of a knowingness, an intelligence, an awareness about the African experience which really wasn’t skin deep.
As Adichie has grown in the affections of white-educated-liberal society, the clamour for her work has, in a way, become cloying. I remember reading Purple Hibiscus when I was still a pre-pubescent teen and loving it (my own well thumbed copy has gone on a long loan/walk to a friend). I had always preferred it to Half of a Yellow Sun. There was a simplicity about the novel, a freshness and a pain in the characters – but never pity. Adichie didn’t (and still doesn’t) try too hard to breathe life into her world. Whilst my own attempts at any kind of creative writing have always been lugubrious, heavy handed and verbose, hers was stark, naked, clear and in that cleanliness it was seering, pernicious almost, unflinching. Whilst Half of a Yellow Sun became the literary love-child of all those politically-conscious white folks who were just so keen to ‘get’ the Post-Colonial experience, I didn’t love the book. I loved the meta-narrative that ran throughout, I loved learning about my matrilineal heritage. I loved a book that featured twins, but the narrative was detached from me – something to observe but not to feel. I felt the same when I dutifully ploughed through her collection of short stories (The Thing Around Your Neck) for A-levels. Her style effortless as though she doesn’t try she just tells. But I couldn’t help but fall into the romance of her craft when I analysed the stories, wrote essays about them – essays that got me my place at University, I learnt to admire her, yet still felt my heart ached as I saw glimpses, shadows of myself in her syntax, shadows that I recognised but did not fully understand.
So, when it came to reading Americanah, egged on by the girlfriends and soul sistas who kept plugging the book, the whispered comments of a smugness that surrounded Adichie now she was an established figure in the ‘African canon’, gave me a weak, immature excuse not to open it. I wanted to find a reason to resent her, to find fault with her, or at least her work. I wanted to struggle, I wanted her to be novel, unique, and not as celebrated as she was – as known. I wanted her to be mine, the way I had thought of her when I read the still unknown Purple Hibiscus. So instead I returned to her literary father and discovered that Achebe’s prose is indeed like palm wine, his criticism sharp, his fiction…beautiful. I devoured Things Fall Apart,reading the whole novel out loud in a 2-day sitting during my exam term last year. It’s one of the only times I ever sat in the armchairs of my lavish room. I don’t speak Igbo, but speaking Okonkwo’s name out loud, attempting to intone the proverbs I imagined my Grandfather would let slip from his lips as he sat on his verandah in Onitsha, gave me a degree of firmness, like a long lost child returning home after a long time, discovering the dusty memories of old rooms and forgotten wallpaper that had always been there, but one hadn’t had the clarity of mind to see. The last few sentences stilled my heart, and even speaking of it to a friend only a week ago, I felt my body plunge again into the wretched pool of pain and awe at his craftsmanship, at the reality that he described so unflinchingly, so un-ironically. I devoured A Man of the People, and began No Longer at Ease, and all the while my mind was pulled back to Adichie, and I saw just how well her form matched her forefather, just how talented her written sculptures were.
So, at the start of this term, I decided to cut the pages of Americanah at last and begin reading. I laughed, I was intrigued, but I grew bored and it sat on my bedside table for weeks on-end as the mania of term swept me away (or rather I turned on the fan and said – Micahelmas – Take me Now!). But then today, having passed out from sheer exhaustion after working till 5am and waking up at 1.30pm causally missing my 10am lecture, I thought – screw it – i’m going to indulge myself. And I read, and read, and read, and only just finished.
Americanah is exquisite. Painfully, beautifully, exquisite. People throw slogans like – best thing ever written – around too easily. But it was bloody brilliant. And I could launch into a wonderful critique of its arcs and curves, but that would spoil your own journey of it (because you will read it). But reading it made me understand more why I so wanted to dislike it.
There is a certainty in Adichie that is both compelling and unsettling. She knows who she is. Like Ifemelu, she might be buffeted by transition but she is not overblown. She might ‘code-switch’ but her tongue is not loose, not flaccid, it is not confused, it can always return to its original nuances and intonations. Though Adichie primarily writes in English (her work is littered, like Achebe, with Igbo sayings), she is not confined to speak in a language that is not her own. Hers is a choice, not an expressive requirement.
In the first half of the book, Ifemelu, our striking, forthright yet at times vulnerable protagonist attends the African Society of her university, where she is told, laughingly (but not mockingly) that African Americans who seek to be part of the society are those who ‘write poems about Mother Africa and think every black woman is a Nubian Queen’. I laughed wistfully when I read it, because I realised that was me.
For those of us born and raised in, and here i’m specifically talking about the UK diaspora, we are not rootless, like African Americans. Many of us know ‘where we come from’, whether we are Caribbean or African – and will say (now with pride, when we were in primary school the question either confused or mortified us) – I’m from Nigeria, Jamaica, Grenada, Ghana etc. Even if we are not that attached to those countries of ‘ethnic origin’ (as if 2nd generation Polish, German or Spanish people don’t also have a country of ‘ethnic origin’), we will at least state – my parents are from XYZ. So we are not rootless. But we, or at least I, have still suffered a trauma, a blow to that fragile process anthropology will call the constitution of self. Because though we are not rootless, we are also not rooted.
I wasn’t raised to think of England as my home, neither was I raised to think of Nigeria as my home. Home was something that existed in the present, where I was right now, it didn’t extend into the future and it didn’t link into an ancestral past, at least not in daily life. On applying to University my father emphatically challenged me about saying I was British Nigerian, insisting I was British but cited the fact that I had never lived in Nigeria and carried a red passport as the reason. My mother agreed, but only because she feared my CV could be rejected on account of 419s and other shitty prejudice. But aside from that, whenever we did something bad, they would remind us that we were not from England, therefore we dare not act like these oyinbo people with no home training. Sometimes it would even resort to – Do you know who your people are, where you come from – by which they referred to our tribal people group or home village – a culture we barely understood, a language we didn’t speak, a place we had never been to (or if we had, we’d been too young to formulate concrete memories). Sometimes my mother would say, why do you want to claim Nigerian, when I went through my ‘Mother-Africa-down-with-Colonisalism-BS phase’ – what has Nigeria ever done for you?! But then we rarely spoke about what England had done for me. It was taken as a given: education, amenities, healthcare, safety – but in terms of culture, values, history, I was never taught to be grateful to England for those things. So we (I) existed in a liminal space – a non-space, having to carve out Rushdie’s imaginary homeland. A space where people who looked like me and carried, as Adichie beautifully typed, the fine stamp of culture, existed. A space where people who had taught themselves to code switch spoke loudly and over-confidently. Reading Americanah, I wondered when that had happened. My ability to at best mimic at worst parody a Nigerian accent. In primary school I was as English as they came, in fact I remember actively learning long complex words to make sure by Englishness was permanent. And then, towards the end of year 6 this weird craving for America arose.
Fresh on the wave of TLC and Destiny’s Child, being African American wasn’t just sexy (as If 11 year old me even knew what sexy was, though in a way we did) it was acceptable. So I walked into secondry with the fakest Californian accent ever straight out of Saved by the Bell, My Wife and Kids and all that Disney crap. I remember feeling so proud when two year 10 girls asked me curiously if I was from the States one break time. But then the softness of the accent got to me, and I found myself switching from my Shepherds Bush accent into a weird cockney mockery, into faux American into Received Standard English, until I got to Uni. I got to Uni and met real Nigerians, the one’s that actually knew what to say in pidgin’ and not just how to intone it. They humoured me, and my tonal flexibilities increased, but always hollow. I made my voice. I don’t actually know what it should sound like, but today it’s a beautiful pan-world mishmash that is simultaneously ugly, phoney and lifeless.
The diaspora is a trauma, and not just the trauma of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Even when we moved by choice, moved for a better life, for safety, for whatever London streets promised or required, trauma was inflicted. And not just on the parents, safe in their knowledge of ‘home’, safe in the knowledge that they even have place to call ‘home’, where they don’t have to explain why their English is so good even if their name is ‘foreign’, where they don’t have to straddle a place that gave them culture and a place that gave the rudiments of basic survival of human nurture. Where they are not limited to expressing themselves in one medium even when they are surrounded by a multiplicity of other languages which teaches them to create parts of themselves that can only be expressed in non-English sounding words (when i’m angry, or impassioned I want to reach for Yoruba like my parents, but just end up with an exasperated Ahn-Ahn, You know, Ha! Because I can’t say anything, I can just sound things).
I hate being rootless. I hate being rooted in that rootlessness. I hate having multiple homes that are more like rented apartments rather than deeply dug foundations. But I acknowledge that it is an emerging existence, and it is something Americanah pulls out so teasingly, so exquisitely. I loved it. I loved Americanah and I mourned when it ended because, some small part of me, wanted the security Ifemelu has at the end, wanted someone to say to me ‘Come In’, and to take my hand, and lead me home. But I am glad Adichie wrote it, and I know that now, those of us that are the Non-African (but perhaps still Afrcan) Blacks, need to write for our own – for we are an ‘our’ now, as much so as we’ve ever been.