Friday, May 31, 2013
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
480 pages Hard Back
Reviewed by Biko Agozino
All novels, by definition, are packs of lies. Most novels explicitly or implicitly come with the common consumer warning that the contents are fictional and that resemblances are coincidental, perhaps to safeguard publishers against potential liability writs. On the other hand, writers and literary theorists, sociologists and the consuming readers of literary works almost always seek what Stuart Hall would call the hegemonic interpretation when decoding the messages encoded in mass communications. Kathryn Schultz, for instance in her New York Magazine review, credits Americanah with being so realistic or so ‘endotic’ (the opposite of exotic) that the book exposes certain truths that Americans pretend not to notice.
What almost all literary theories have in common is that they privilege verisimilitude or the extent to which literature qualifies as a simulacrum of the real world. Jean Baudrillard went farthest in the opposite direction by reminding theorists that reality has been ‘murdered’ by virtual reality and so the major question in discourse is no longer whether a proposition is true or false but whether it is good or evil. He concluded that the principle of evil is dominant because of its elasticity; one person’s good could be another person’s evil whereas the opposite of the real is rigidly a nonentity.
Adichie indirectly proposes a fresh Baudrillardian perspective: that novelists have been trying for centuries to convince us that the real world is full of virtual realities. Things like straightened hair or fake hair, foreign lands or romantic love, instant coffee that does not taste like coffee to returnees while the natives insist that ‘coffee is coffee’ versus ‘real coffee’, ‘real potato’ fries or imported frozen ones that taste disgusting (the waiter proudly announced that theirs were of the imported unreal variety, of course), cheating husbands who claim that ‘it did not feel like cheating’, and ‘it is like saying that every Nigerian is a 419ner’ (or fraudster) when someone confessed that the only reason why she subscribed to Digital Television Service was so she could watch ‘Cops’ where all the criminals are black – these things are judged on the basis of beauty or aesthetics rather than on the yardstick of truth and stories about them are judged as edutainment and are used ideologically for agitational or propagandist purposes and or just for fun.
On page 46 of Americanah, Adichie states that ‘The Devil is a liar’. This was a statement attributed to a fundamentalist Christian woman who went from church to church in search of the gospel of prosperity in Nigeria only to hear that her husband had been fired for refusing to address his new boss as Mommy. Here, Adichie is trying to remind us that human societies tend to punish honesty and reward pretentiousness so much so that it is surprising how much virtue we associate with truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the law courts where lying under oath is a crime of perjury.
The heroine learned that telling the truth about her recent arrival in America was disrespected by fellow immigrants and so she started adding years to gain more respect as a long-timer. So the readers have a hint to be skeptical about the melodramatic Mills and Boonesque story of Americanah that ended with the high school sweetheart returning from America and stealing her former boyfriend from his wife and daughter. That ending was obviously not an ending but a new beginning that offers Adichie’s fans the promise of a sequel in the tradition of Nollywood movies – Amerikana Part II – or maybe not since the predictable sequels to her earlier works are yet to materialize.
It is interesting to read about romance from the point of view of an African woman who started dating with a Nigerian man, then dated a white man (sub-plot of Half of a Yellow Sun), dated an African American professor (Adichie, the child of professors, always has a professor character in her stories perhaps to show that Africans can be egg heads for real; although, as Obinze's professor mother complained in Americanah, our professors are notorious for doing no original research and for simply fighting with their female colleagues to force them into exile as was the case in Purple Hibiscus too) who was probably the one who was racially profiled by the police as a suspected drug dealer in one of Ifemelu’s blogs on race, gender and class.
The blogs are consistently mis-identified in the novel simply as the race blog while some commentators extend the focus to race and class but not always to the more obvious gender perspective as well. Yet the female voice is also fake rather than real simply because it is made up and not an ethnographic report that is also made up, by the way. If we cannot trust the realism of the female voice that Adichie privileges in all her work, a welcome addition to African literature from female authors that is not always matched by the men; can we trust her representation of the male points of view in her romance?
The devil is a liar but so also are novelists, little adorable devils they are. The allusion to the devil is echoed in the Wall Street Journal review of Americanah but with reference to Kipling’s racist portrayal of Africans as a race of half devils and half children. Only half? Which half? The stereotype that Africans are habitual liars not to be trusted is one of the dominant myths of colonialism and Wole Soyinka recalled how he was embarrassed to lie effortlessly and needlessly to the white couple who taught at his Ibadan high school after being told earlier that black people were habitual liars. During the pro-democracy campaign against the Abacha regime, a Nigerian Foreign Minister told journalists during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, not to take the statements of Soyinka seriously because he was a fiction writer who invented tales.
Adichie appears to be trying to demonstrate that all novels are full of lies but that readers prefer delightful lies to inconvenient truths. That is why novels sell millions of copies while boring scholarly tomes manage a few hundred copies in sales. Adichie’s Americanah is a book about lies human beings tell themselves and tell others for many different reasons. Salman Rushdie once alluded to the Fatwa placed on his head for his Satanic Verses by asking what was the use of stories especially when they were not even true, as in the form of all novels. Adichie appears to answer that question by demonstrating the many diverse uses of lies in real life.
The characters speak with phony foreign accents or a mixture of them, an ‘assortment’ of accents like the ‘assorted’ meat and fish in their delicacy soups and their assortment lives. It took the reader to the middle of the book (p.173) to encounter the announcement that ‘Ifemelu decided to stop faking an American accent on a sunlit day in July, the same day she met Blaine’, her African American lover. The marriages in the novel appear fake because the partners yearn for other lovers as in real life where more and more marriages end in divorce but the allowance of polygeny in Nigeria permits a man to date while still married.
Ifemsco (as the heroine is fondly called by her friends, as if she branded herself like a corporation) lied to her hairdresser about having a man to return to in Nigeria and lied to her parents about bringing her African American boyfriend home with her. Her African American boyfriend was more into abstract arts and pretentious academic posturing while her former Nigerian boyfriend, Obinze, ‘the Zed’, was a married father.
The deliberate celebration of lies started right from the title, Americanah. It is not true that this is what all Nigerians call those who have stayed long enough in America (washing toilets for a living, and it is not true that we all wash toilets like the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who did so with a big smile on his face in 1920s Virginia when he realized that there was nothing wrong with cleaning toilets to pay his way through college).
It would not be artistically enchanting in a novel to admit that in fact Nigerians still call one another by their real names and that the appellation, Americanah, was deployed very sparingly in Adichie’s book itself especially in chapter 44 by her friend, Ranyinudo (meaning, leave us in peace, but also capable of a lewd interpretation in Igbo), who mocked on the unnumbered page 385 (half the pages have no page numbers but that is another lie because readers are expected to figure out their true numbers by looking at the numbered pages next to the blank page numbers):
“Americanah! You are looking at things with American eyes. But the problem is that you are not even a real Americanah. At least if you have an American accent, we will tolerate your complaining”. She complained about the air being so hot that she could not breath on her return to Lagos when in reality she was breathing all right or she would be dead. Another lie in the title is the spelling of Amerikana with a 'c' and the ending with 'h' when few Nigerians would follow such an orthodox orthography in broken English. The reference to Lagos traffic as being ‘still’ is so strange because the common parlance in Nigeria is ‘go-slow’ which is far from still.
Adichie appears to have completely abandoned her more realistic representation of the broken English style that is common among most Nigerians as is found in a few passages in her earlier work and she reduced the frequency of Igbo expressions, perhaps to please her foreign paying audience. Even when she spells an exclamation such as Ah-Ah, she foreignizes it as Ahn Ahn when, in reality, there is no ‘n’ in ah-ah but the author could have been representing a dialect that I am not familiar with. When she deploys the broken English word, sha (signifying a rhetorical question) at the end of a longish sentence, it looked a bit forced and reflected her apparent distance from the real cadence of the people, a sign of an Amerikana like the author who had relatively lost touch with home.
Another lie-lie that the author is trying to pass off as real, like all novelists, is that her book is about real people when in reality, it is a fictional narrative rather than an autobiography or biography. However, even biographies are also full of falsehoods, according to Femi Osofisan. Americanah is not really a story about the adventures that black women go though just to get their hair fixed as the author and some reviewers have suggested in comments about the book, it is about much more than hair. It is not true that the book is simply about what Stuart Hall analyzed as race and class articulation in societies structured in dominance, it is more exactly about race-class-gender articulation or intersectioanlity.
The heroine lied to her mutual friends when they asked why she called her boyfriend, Obinze, ‘Ceiling’. She lied that the short man devil was so tall that his head touched the ceiling. She may not have lied about bringing to life the Mills and Boon narratives she re-enacted with her school friends because the influence is visible in descriptions. The author makes the reader imagine what it felt like when the heroine’s stomach was said to be in knots the first time she danced with the said boyfriend and discussed real and unreal books on the dance floor or what was going on when she said that her eyes were open but she did not see the ceiling during simulated intimacies or the first time they went beyond pretend sex.
Ifemelu and Obinze probably lied too when they said that they had read every title by James Hardly Chase, a British pulp fiction author with a fictitious name that we all read and passed from hand to hand while growing up in Nigeria. We thought that he was American, not knowing that he only visited America briefly twice and we loved his books without knowing that his novels were both racist and sexist, perhaps because he relied too much on an old-fashioned dictionary of American slangs for his memorable titles.
It is completely untrue that scented flower-trees and plants lined Princeton is completely deodorized while inner-city Trenton stank to high heavens and it is not true that all the fat (or ‘big’) people in America are black people as Ifemelu suggested at the beginning of the book. It is untrue that teenage pregnancies would ‘never’ happen in ‘Afrique’ as Mariama, her Senegalese hairdresser, suggested in contrast with the supposedly inferior African Americans given that it is legal in may parts of Africa to marry underage girls to dirty old men. It is not true that mothers threaten suicide if Igbo children plan marriage with non-Igbos, such marriages are quite common as Mariama suspected when she asked Ifemelu to tell her two Igbo boyfriends that it is all right ‘for Igbo to marry not Igbo’. It is not true that once she stepped off the plane in Lagos, Ifemelu stopped being black or that race does not work in Nigeria. Black people are not even black, we are brown; and white people ain't white, they are pink.
It is not true that waiting for the train to arrive in America is a frustrating experience when the remarkable thing is how the trains run like clockwork. It is not true that expatriate staff of companies in Nigeria are dubbed General Managers for show in order to obtain contracts from white-deferential officials. it is probably more true that the Nigerian partners are the phantom bourgeoisie or compradors of Frantz Fanon who make little or no productive contributions to the development of such partnerships but enjoy their shares of the profits with wasteful parties and feasts.
On a coincidental page 419 (the law against fraud in Nigeria is section 419 of the criminal code), the author suggests that many women also hustle for rich men who buy them flashy cars that they cannot afford on their salaries. Some of the women pay editors to publish flattering profiles about them devoid of inconvenient ‘judgmental’ observations that they talk to their domestic servants without looking at them. Adichie tells us directly that it was not true when the mother of the heroine said that it was a miracle that an army General was ‘mentoring’ Aunt Uju with gifts of a posh car, a nice house and plum opportunities just because he liked her.
The only times that the truth is told in the novel, it is frowned upon. For instance, when a new housemaid arrived at the home of a couple who fronted for a big man in corrupt properties development schemes, the housewife searched the bag of the new maid and found a packet of condoms in it. She asked the maid if she came with plans to practice prostitution in her house and the maid answered that she was regularly raped by her previous male employers and so she was taking precautions for her protection. The maid was fired on the spot and the ‘joke’ of the husband that it makes sense for the maid to think about protecting herself was not taken well by the wife.
It is profitable to pretend that you like people whom you cannot stand in the novel than to tell them that you are sick of them, just as in real life. Ifemelu opines on her blog that there is an ‘Oppression Olympics’ in existence for real but that ‘liberal Americans’ use that phrase to silence anyone who believes that (205). But of course, it is not true that there is anything like Oppression Olympics. Another blog tells her fellow non-American blacks in America that they are ‘Black, baby’, as if there was any doubt about that even in their dreams.
Lies are not the exclusive preserve of novelists, Adichie appears to remind us. The ability of diplomats to lie for their country with the same passion that soldiers could profess readiness to die for their country is a well established ethic in international relations, according to Oliver North. Clinton lied that he smoked but did not inhale and that he did not do anything with ‘that woman’. When Romney claimed that as a father, he knew that children liked telling lies repeatedly in the hope that they would turn into truth; Obama should have counter-punched with: If you say that your children have the habit of lying, I can only wonder where your children get that, for I can tell as a father that children are remarkably honest and would not have the motivation to lie that 47% of the electorate were not deserving of the attention of a presidential candidate. George W. Bush lied about Iraq weapons of mass destruction and lots of people died for that. There are false prophets in religion and fraudsters in business, corrupt politicians and immoral people in the novel as in the real world. When we expect novelists to represent reality, we must not forget that lies are also part of reality, Adichie appears to admonish us.
Chinua Achebe, who influenced the flawless clarity of Adichie, was attacked more for his non-fiction than for his fiction which is ironically seen by most critics to be full of realism. Magical realism is the genre that tries to satisfy the appetite for realism and for magic in literature but Adichie is trying to remind us that common to all narrative fiction genres is the principle of lies. People often find it difficult to handle the truth in real life and yet they go about looking for it in works of fiction that are untrue.
Americadabra could be an alternative title for Americanah because the magic trick is that it is not really about America (without the presidency of Obama, despite the blog in chapter 31 about what Michelle Obama would look like in a natural Afro that she and Obama used to rock when they were dating as a young couple and which was satirized by the New Yorker in a cartoon depicting their so-called ‘terrorist fist bump’ following victory in 2008, no psychoanalysis by Adichie of the trendy baldhead that more and more men have adopted in resistance against the crowning glory of gray hair which Soyinka celebrated with a poem to his first white hair). Nor is the book about Nigeria (without Boko Haram terrorism and general insecurity). It is about romance with distractions from blogs about race-class-gender issues. However, Adichie’s effort to reflect aspects of life abroad is a commendable contribution to African literature in line with the works of Buchi Emecheta, Dilibe Onyeama, Ama Ata Aidoo and others because African literature was never intended to be exclusively about life in Africa.
Americanah is an enjoyable and instructive read like the earlier works of Adichie in which she started challenging the hegemony of the truth principle by querying the fake Christianity of the abusive big man in Purple Hibiscus which ended with a son taking the fall and being sentenced to death in place of a mother who confessed to poisoning the abusive dad (maybe the woman was lying to save the life of her death-row son). Adichie also tried to affirm the value of the traditional religion that was falsely dismissed as devilish by the rich comprador in that book. She did something similar in Half of a Yellow Sun in which she debunked the myth that the genocide against the Igbo had any justification given that, in reality, there is no justification ever for genocide. In Americanah, she continues her subtle questioning of the expectation that novels are full of truth. Quite the contrary is the case in fact.
The moral of the story is that African men and women can also be very romantic (contrary to stereotypes) even though some ladies remain ‘fake’ and are out to find ‘the next big thing’ while some of the men are ‘assholes’, a very American word, we are told. But as Adichie warned in her popular TED talk, readers should beware of the single story. There are still men who are near perfect enough to deserve the return of a true lover from a distant land and to be seduced afresh with girly stories of a dancing peacock who did not seem to have impressed the ever-hungry peahen that ignored his prattling little dance, as is the case in the animal kingdom where females play hard to get and in sharp contrast to the liberated womanism of the returnee ‘Nigerpolitan’ who made sure that she bought a packet of condoms for protection just in case her married ex-boyfriend forgot to put some in his pockets, as if they were candies. It appears that the moral is a bit immoral.
Dr. Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech. He is a Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, May-July, 2013. He is the author of Today Na Today (poetry, 2013), The Debt Penalty (play, 2010), Counter-Colonial Criminology (2003), and Black Women and the Criminal Justice System (1997) Agozino@vt.edu