Book Reviews
8:06 am
Tue May 14, 2013

Black In America: A Story Rendered In Gray Scale

Originally published on Mon May 20, 2013 8:00 pm

American literature has plenty of coming-of-age novels. What we need more of, judging by the strengths of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, are novels about coming to America. In particular, books that address our biggest problems — in this case, race. Because things natives don't see about themselves often stand out like neon to foreign eyes. And if you think racism expired when President Obama was elected, this is perhaps not — or absolutely is — the book for you.

In Americanah, a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, moves to the United States for school, leaving behind her boyfriend, Obinze, and her family. It's a story of relocation, far-flung love and life as an alien, spread across three continents. It's also about the lonely but privileged perspective a stranger gains by entering a new culture. Indeed, it's more powerful than that in Americanah, because Ifemelu experiences America both as a black woman and as an African woman. In the U.S., those two identities combine for experiences dark and light that Adichie skillfully renders in gray scale.

The story begins with an electricity familiar to readers of Adichie's previous novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book, about the life of two sisters during the Nigerian-Biafran War, won the Orange Prize for Fiction six years ago. I'm still pressing it on strangers; it rests comfortably in my top five favorite books published in the decade.

Americanah's first chapters, mostly set during Ifemelu's childhood and teenage years in Nigeria, have a similar crackle. Describing a party at a local big man's house, Adichie writes of some aspirational guests, "They were wearing the uniform of the Lagos youngish and wealthyish — leather slippers, jeans and open-neck tight shirts, all with familiar designer logos — but there was, in their manner, the plowing eagerness of men in need."

After Ifemelu lands in the United States, she becomes, among other things, a blogger, writing funny, punchy updates about black life in America — from hairstyles to politics — intended for America's blacks and nonblacks, and for non-American blacks. She writes, "Of all their tribalisms, Americans are most uncomfortable with race. If you are having a conversation with an American, and you want to discuss something racial that you find interesting, and the American says, 'Oh, it's simplistic to say it's race; racism is so complex,' it means they just want you to shut up already."

But about Ifemelu's offline existence, from surviving fraternity parties to finding employment, Adichie's storytelling is surprisingly flat. We get explanations in lieu of action; discourse, but little drama. Of one character, we read: "Ifemelu knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded." Ifemelu's boyfriend, Obinze, leaves Nigeria too, and his story, working in a British warehouse, has a much stronger heartbeat. But ultimately the novel suffers the absence of a tougher editor.

Adichie's goals on the page, however, are noble and her hard work obvious. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos, "the heaps of rubbish ... rose on the roadsides like a taunt. Commerce thrummed too defiantly." It's that type of evocative power, transporting my imagination while keeping my feet firmly on the ground, that has me looking forward to Adichie's books for years to come.

Rosecrans Baldwin's latest book, Paris I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down, comes out in paperback next month.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The writer Chimamanda Adichie has long been exceeding expectations. She was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008; two years later, the New Yorker named her to its list of the best writers under the age of 40. But reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin says Adichie's newest book didn't live up to his expectations.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: There are a lot of books about coming of age in America. What we don't have as many of, and what we need, are books about coming of age in America as an immigrant 'cause there are things that natives can't see, but stand out like neon to foreign eyes. In "Americanah," a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, moves to the United States for school, leaving behind her boyfriend and family.

It's a story about relocation, and about far-flung love, but it's also about being a stranger in a new culture - lonely, but at same time, privileged. If you read Adichie's previous novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun," you'll remember the electricity of her writing. That book won the Orange Prize six years ago and it's so good, I'm still pressing it on friends and strangers.

"Americanah's" first chapters, which are set mostly in Nigeria, have a similar crackle. Adichie describes a party at a rich man's house. She writes of some aspirational guests, they were wearing the uniform of the Lagos youngish and wealthyish, leather slippers, jeans and open-neck tight shirts, all with familiar designer logos, but there was, in their manner, the plowing eagerness of men in need.

After Ifemelu lands in the U.S., she becomes, among other things, a blogger. She writes funny, punchy updates about black life in America, from hairstyles to politics, but the writing falls surprisingly flat when she's experiencing life offline. We get explanations instead of action. There's discourse, but little drama.

And some weak writing does sneak through. One character is described as wearing the pashmina of the wounded. But ultimately when Ifemelu returns to Lagos, Adichie writes that, the heaps of rubbish rose on the roadsides like a taunt, commerce thrummed too defiantly. The novel's flaws aside, it's that type of evocative power that has me looking forward to her books for years to come.

SIEGEL: That was Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book is called "Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down." He reviewed the novel "Americanah" by Chimamanda Adichie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.