Americanah. A Faction-Fiction. A Tale of A Waiting Two.
For my Childhood Love. Mother of my Children. 6th September is your Birthday. Happy Birthday.
I finally read Americanah. Let me start on a lighter note, if you are yet to read the novel, please do before you die. Chimamanda wrote a good book. Before you read. Take your time. As much as you need. To decide you are convinced about reading it. This is what I did. When I facebooked few days back about me reading for the first time Chimamanda’s latest novel, reactions were between surprise and strangeness. Well, by reading it, I put an end to that strangeness that it did take me so long to open the book. It was a review, I suppose, and coupled with the time I bought the novel that made me dump it after flipping through few pages. It wasn’t time to read the book, I concluded. I would rather have it kept on the shelf than spoil what would have been a good read with a bad timing. So, after four months, or even longer, I opened the pages, and the words from the few pages which I had found dry and lacking in beauty were the same words that launched me into a consumed reading over the past few days.
Chimamanda started the novel with a description of the smell of Princeton and the scent of other cities in which one of her lead characters lived. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine. Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. Princeton had no smell. A clear preference for the latest city was made by Ifemelu, this lead character. Or put differently, the choice was made for her by the unseen but overarching voice of the author, who many times spoke through her characters, so obvious that she sometimes forgot to distinct the voices of the characters in some places in this work of fiction. I will come back to this at a later time. Back to (city) comparison, with which the book started out, a reader will notice that this is a tool that is very strongly present to the end. Talk of race, relationships, hair (styles) and talk of food, Chimamanda relativised and compared this or that throughout this work, moving between Nigeria and America, then England. She did so aptly.
She finished the novel before she started by telling what Ifemelu intends to do: She is leaving America. To return home. To a life she missed throughout all her stay (thirteen years) in America. We know this truth early in the novel, and Ifemelu, being a character so resolute, self assured and practical, readers know she will stop at nothing to realize this goal. Hear Chimamanda inform us of the decision:
“She began to plan and to dream, to apply for jobs in Lagos, she did not tell Blaine at first, because she wanted to finish her fellowship at Princeton, and then after her fellowship ended, she wanted to give herself time to be sure (…) and she added, “I have to”, knowing he would hear in her words the sound of an ending.” Americanah, Page 8.
As if to keep nothing secret, Chimamanda also left us in no doubt as to the decidedness of Obinze, the male lead character, whose life is as good as bound by fate to Ifemelu’s, to wait “forever” to live with what fate had long apportioned him. This was already in chapter two. See the confirmation in Chimamanda’s own words: “When Obinze first saw her e-mail, he was sitting in the back of his Range Rover in still Lagos traffic (…) He stared at his Black Berry, his body suddenly rigid (…) wishing it were longer. Americanah, Page 23.
Still in part one, using Kosi, a “temporary” wife and mother of Obinze’s daughter, the author, in my opinion, succeeded in her wholesome presentation of the truest Nigerian woman character. This is Kosi, according to Chimamanda:
“She had, in the years since she got married, grown an intemperate dislike of single women and an intemperate love of God. Before they got married, she went to service once a week at the Anglican church on the Marina, a Sunday tick-the-box routine (…) but after their wedding, she switched to House of David because (…) it was a Bible believing church. Americanah, Page 43.
In the same paragraph Kosi confirmed she stopped her university friend Elohor from visiting them because she was still single. Kosi also joined the prayer service for those willing to “Keeping Your Husband”. This way, Chimamanda left us in no doubt left that Obinze would eventually leave (read abandon) her unsecured wife. From the beginning, Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s love was a case of two lovers, who were not sorry to love each other, and ready to help even fate to lead their paths to meet, no matter what. At a point in the novel, one got the feeling even the author now seemed forced to dance to the defiance of these two characters, they made her plot the whole piece towards their final destination, namely being together.
Part two returned us to the hair salon where Ifemelu had gone to braid her hair for the homecoming, the salon was located faraway, away from odourless Princeton. To Trenton. The city and the environment are distinctly poor, the picture of the typical African salon in The West/Europe jumps in the reader’s face. Without being told, more pictures of the decay beyond the shop bare themselves in the mind. A continuation of comparison in the work perhaps, is the choice of food. Mariama, one of the hairbraiders, decided “I’m going to get Chinese.” Her fellow hairbraiders told her what they wanted, Ifemelu refused to buy anything. In response to Mariama’s light protest that she needed food because her hair would take long, she said: “I’m fine. I have granola bar.” In a way, one could see Mariama’s counter-response, declaring “That not food!” a resistance, even if not pursued further, to the author’s fictional proxy- Ifemelu’s- condescending thought-strands.
Of course, we have to be clear, Chimamanda is not Ifemelu, but one must not shy away from telling that many times the line separating both are so thin, even invisible, especially when Chimamanda crossed that border, in my opinion, of authorial’s intervention. She did so often in the book. And of course in the weeks and months following the book’s publication. For example, in what might seem a symbolic act of defiance against those who might dare equate her with Ifemelu, Chimamanda’s hair was nothing different from this strong-will female character. In an exchange about Ifemelu’s hair, the braider’s obvious truth was firmly thrown back at her. Ifemelu would not accept her African hair is hard, it is the braider’s choice of the wrong comb. Period. This does not however make the texture of the hair less hard in that instant. A work of fiction to challenge an established perception? Very much like it, I would submit. This isn’t the only instance of hair-talk in the work. Besides the predominant theme of race, immigration etc that run through the novel, Mariama’s salon is another constant, thus the recurring hair-matters, that pervades itself in it.
So strong was the presence of hair-talk in the work that we were introduced to Ifemelu’s mother through her hair. She used two containers of relaxer at the salon because her hair was black-black and it took hours under the hooded dryer (…) when finally released (…) flowing down her back like a celebration. Americanah, Page 49. We also met her sudden metamorphosis in the name of having given her life to Christ through her hair. “She chopped off all her hair.” Of course, Ifemelu was stunned by this brutishness meted to her mother’s hair, not that she would have cared if her mother had other reasons to chop off the hair. The author definitely was passing a message: She is a champion of Africanness as much as possible, it must but be one borne out of clearheaded conviction/reasonableness. This conclusion is helped by the fact that the religiousness of Ifemelu’s mother has always been there, and it was present in the novel to the end, only her hair was no issue again after this incidence. That is a statement, an authorial intervention with purpose, in this instance to reposition the talk of/around African hair, its texture, its acceptance among us and our faulted perception of what good hair is.
Chimamanda’s attempt at compressing almost all those “little but things that matter” because they make us uniquely Nigerian into this part two of the novel succeeded to a large extent. Think of a mother’s religiousness, of sugardaddyism, of pentocostalism, of patriachial matriarchy, of everlasting childhood love, of our lives during the military era, of all that is right and wrong with us, and of the readers’ factual memories, especially those who were already of age while these things shaped and made them. I will now break them down piecemeal in order to bring the issues closer to readers.
I have hinted already on the mother’s religion; since her salvation she was not the same again. She only could hold tighter to it in the years that followed her conversion, conditioned by the criticalness of things in the country, she became even sheepishly lost, something of a paranoia, in her commitment to God with her husband loosing his job, she believed and prayed for goodness and miracles, positively coverting anything good, her change of churches was not unconnected to her pursuit of financial breakthrough. When Aunty Uju talked with Ifemelu upon the instruction of the latter’s parents, she was sure to make her point, pointing out the insincerity of the whole Pentecostal religiousness of her mother. Hear her: “Why can’t Mummy like the things you get from The General without pretending they are from God?” Americanah, Page 65.
No doubt, Ifemelu’s rebellion was naive, one could assume a certain kind of harmlessness about it considering the manner in which they came across. She never intended to hurt anyone, even if she did. She could be forgiven on the alter of her youthfulness, a youth who possessed a mind yet to be immersed in the culture of who we are as a cultural entity, what and how we talk. Her naivety was gently rebuked by Aunty Uju, in a way that brought laughter to Ifemelu. Good laughter. Aunty Uju was wise in her rebuke, she applied the good side of “how we talk” in passing her message. This appealed to Ifemelu. She said: “Who says they are not from God? Aunty Uju asked, and made a face, pulling her lips down at the sides. Ifemelu laughed.” Page 65.
On sugardaddyism, it was at a party Aunty Uju met The General who, said: “I like you, I want to take care of you.” Since this incidence Aunty Uju’s life never remained the same again. He took care of her indeed, one of the results of which was Dike’s birth. Accepting that The General and Aunty Uju’s meeting was a miracle was difficult for Ifemelu, but this is easily explained in her doubt of the miraculousness of it; to one it’s a miracle, to another it’s not. How else does one explain this fact other than the accepting of such as a miracle, at least in Pentecostal parlance. Reason being this: That Ifemelu eventually traveled to America to study was remotely connected to The General. After all, it was him, who had by fate ensured Aunty Uju found herself in America.
The dominant role played by Ifemelu’s mother in her growing up years was not uncommon in Nigeria, by extension in all of Africa. No doubt, Nigeria remains a country of near irredeemable patriarchy, but its functionality is sustained by a deference of patriarchy to matriarchy, i.e. of fathers who let mothers manage the familial front and many more, showing authority only when necessary, or when asked. This is confirmed in Ifemelu’s father, a man of few words and big English. I found this sentences particularly interesting, they came across so familiar upon reading them, just like when I heard my own father use words like “ignorant outburst”, “Satan’s machinations and manipulation”, etc in sentences. On such occasions, I could only smile or agree with all seriousness. Lets hear the father talking:
“(…) You must refrain from your natural proclivity towards provocation, Ifemelu. You have singled yourself out at school where you are known for insubordination and I have told you that it has already sullied your singular academic record. There is no need to create a similar pattern in church.”
Chapter seven introduced Obinze’s decision to attend the University of Ibadan because of a poem. He had read J.P. Clark’s poem titled Ibadan. So simple a reason to hinge a lifetime decision on, I was tempted to say, not until I remember how simpler a reason I had to change my choice of course to German when I was to attend university. I heard per chance German is studied in Nigeria. Just like that, I decided to buy a change of course form. Against all protest from my mother I insisted in my youthfulness I would study German or nothing else. I, like many Nigerians, will relate easily with this simple but deeply Nigerian phenomenon. It is such attentions to smallest of details like this that grant the book it’s touch of Nigerian originality.
Like fate would have it, Obinze’s choice of Ibadan would not happen because of his mother’s illness. He changed his mind. In the same way, such youthful spontaneity, and decisiveness, Ifemelu chose to refill her JAMB form, her choice of university became Nsukka. She wanted to be where Obinze is. Now, that is love.
Chimamanda talked about campus life, the infrastructure decay and inhuman condition in which the students lived, then the strikes, student protests and demonstrations. It was during one of the strikes the decision to leave the madness behind was taken. She talked about the humiliation/rigour of getting an American visa as Nigerians, and she talked about sex. It was Obinze’s mother who warned them sternly of the consequences of unprotected sex. She spoke in plain language, telling them irresponsibility is a choice but they must either choose to be responsible or wait to leave her care to be irresponsible. She would have none of Obinze’s shakara oloje. Ifemelu was smart enough to listen.
Talking about Obinze’s mother. She is to a large extent an imagination of the author, a wish to create an ideal mother with a Nigerianness stamped on it. There is of course a rare possibility of finding one fully like her. The truth is, a Nigerian mother, living in Nigeria, plus all status and class included, would still not be her. In this light, literature becomes an attempt to creating a reality from imagination- as in imagined realities- a calling into being of the how-it-should-be. In this instance, I believe Obinze’s mother is a close copy from the author’s imagination of what is possible and desirable in/of mothers with teenage children and young adults in Nigeria.
Literature can also be a (re-)doing of (societal) reality(-ies) into fiction to tell us how the narrated reality(-ies) truly is/are. Undiluted. There are many instances of this latter definition of literature in the work. Examples include the author’s discussion of life in America for starters and the attending difficulties. These busied the rest of part two. It wasn’t all about difficulties though. Observing and commenting in the background, using Ifemelu as a voice proxy, the author led us into Ifemelu’s world in America, Aunty Uju’s near resignation to whatever she got served by life and Bartholomew, poverty, infidelity-prone married men, desperation, survival etc etc. Ifemelu was able to settle into her new life roughly and well, she found a job, made friends, blocked Obinze out of her life, got a boyfriend and blogged about race, race and race again. With two parts gone, the reader is only five parts away from that primary goal the work set out to achieve, i.e. the eventual reunion of the two lead characters- Ifemelu and Obinze.
Lest I forget to mention this before I move on to part three, there is poetry in part two. Like an ode to harmattan, a beautiful immortalization of this season of the year many dread. I love the poetic description. See for yourself:
“In Lagos, the harmattan was a mere veil of haze, but in Nsukka, it was a raging, mecurial presence; the mornings were crisp, the afternoons ashen with heat, and the nights unknown. Dust whirls would start in the far distance (…) and swirl until they coated everything brown. Even eyelashes. Everywhere, moisture would be greedily sucked up; the wood laminate on tables would peel and curl, pages on exercise books would crackle, clothes would dry minutes after being hung out, lips would crack and bleed, and Robb and Mentholatum kept within reach, in pockets and handbags. Skin would be shined with Vaseline, while the forgotten bits- between the fingers and elbows- turned a dull ash. The tree branches would be stark and, with their leaves fallen, wear a kind of proud desolation. Page 113.
Part three is Obinze’s sojourn in England, and eventual deportation to Nigeria. His mother was waiting to pick him up at the airport. In a way, Chimamanda felt she had to busy Obinze while Ifemelu, the fate-chosen partner/wife, ripened in personality and character in her wandering in America. To put it bluntly, he was kept busy in a way that could have been different but was not. Thus, we can conclude his sojourn in England is not unconnected with the author’s objective of tackling the problem of undocumented (Nigerian) citizens/workers in this part of the world and the kind of rough life they lead.
Returning to a point I raised earlier, namely the once-in-a-while-forgetfulness of the author to hide well enough her personal intervention/opinion (and she’s got many!) disguised as thoughts of her characters, particularly present is this in thoughts and statements attributed to Ifemelu. One could argue that, but when similar construction, hardly distinguishable from Ifemelu’s voice only for the attachment of the said thoughts to another character, then we are not wrong to point out this obvious truth as such. Lets see this example:
“(…) wondered if Emenike had so completely absorbed his own disguise that even when they were alone, he could talk about “good furniture”, as though the idea of “good furniture” was not alien in their Nigerian world, where things were supposed to look new.” Page 333.
The person wondering about Emenike here is Obinze. But this kind of voice, as we are used to thus far, without a name, could as well have been Ifemelu’s.
She is a voice (over-)critical of almost everything, so much that one is tempted to view her beyond the pages of the book, and each time this happened, the only person that comes to mind befitting such over-reactive personality is her creator- the author. Chimamanda overstretched her fictional character many times which blurs the border between realities and fiction-for-fiction sake. There was a time Mariama, the hairbraider responded to a customer she knew just the kind of hair the customer wanted. Ifemelu doubted she had not lied. There is a kind of picture painted about Halima, Aisha and Halima, syereotypes, I would call them. The author bought well into them. Good or bad. Considering scenes in/about the salon, if one isn’t familiar with a different way to be happy, one might as well conclude there is only one way to happiness in Ifemelu’s rapport with the braiders. Considering her thought-trend, words she did not say to the hairbraiders, but nuance of which readers can pick/see in the whole picture, there is subtle highhandedness to her relationship with them. Except there is anything wrong in treating a customer friendly, the African way, I am not sure the braiders treated her badly. She on the other hand would not pass a general Beatitude.
Part four handles her American (relationship) lives in details, first with Curt, later with Blaine. Her blog opens up a window into themes of racism, race, colour, a society enmeshed in a struggle with a horrible past and the present, we encounter a country where even the littlest of issues is going to be viewed with a racial lens, political correctness had never mattered so much in any other place if part four is a yardstick to measure with. I am not versed in matters of America, but there is a stomach feeling of an overdone, an exaggeration of sort about these matters raised in the work in part four, there is a forcefulness about getting these themes across, which in my opinion deducts from the originality of the whole. This is not to submit that the work is to be judged by this part alone, Chimamanda performed goodly well in other parts. To best put the American issues raised in the novel in the right perspective, I suggest reading ￼this.
With the ground prepared for a grande meeting of the two lead characters and lovers, part five gave way very quickly to part six, which in turn ushered in the last part of the novel. They made love, and made love again. They finally realized fate. So, the novel may end. On a second thought though, what seems like a happy end may not be so seen, if we went back to Doris’ prophetic lens when she answered Ifemelu’s question to know what spirit she has. She said: “Ma? I think you have the spirit of husband-repelling. You are too hard, ma, you will not find a husband.” Doris is Ifemelu’s junior colleague at Zoe Magazine. So, Ifemelu might as well be about to launch her next love affair heading for the “ceiling”.