REREADING CHIMAMANDA’S AMERICANAH

“Fearless. A towering achievement…From the place of Africans in the race politics in America, to love across continents, AMERICANAH dares to bring us a world of a confident and self-made woman making her way in these complicated times. This is the Africa of our future. Sublime, powerful and the most political of Chimamanda’s novels. She continues to blaze the way forward.” – Binyavanga Wainana

What is the Africa of our future? Americanah, or confident and self-made women making their way in the world? Are the Africans of the future then a flight of transcontinental birds? Or is it that Africa of the present is void of confident and self-made women who make their ways in these complicated times?  Save a thought then for that African of the Present, the one who will never leave the embrace of her village, of her municipality, of her province, of her country (or even when she leaves is back before she can assume a double-, triple-edged identity), and yet makes her way in a complicated world. Save a thought for her in the face of the New African, whose head has touched the clouds, whose feet are worldly-wise, whose mind dances to a medley of tunes. Save a thought for her, for she will only be n when n+1 is the vogue. Save a thought for her. And save a thought for Binyavanga, and his personal Africa.

The blurb, however, does not make the novel.

I have nothing to say about my first reading of the novel. I barely recall it.

But,

Have you ever read a Mills & Boon romance? Or a Harlequin one? Have you ever watched a Nollywood romance? If you have, you must realize that historically, the romance (in the boy-girl sense) has been the genre of the underdog.

The romance is typically structured by the odds stacked against the realization of the romantic ideal. There are odds of class, race, creed and commonsense. Royalty may not fraternise with the commonality. Single men and women with children make problematic partners, as do Ijeshas and Ijebus. Bad boys and girls are too dangerous for good boys and girls, who are in turn too prosaic for bad boys and girls. In the romance, strong forces must be overcome, and the underdog emerges at the other end, triumphant.

At its heart, Americanah is a romance, a transcontinental romance played out against a transcontinental backdrop. In the West, the romance flickers and dies out like candlelight in the wind. In Nigeria, it finds both provenance and redemption.

But Americanah is a subversive novel, right down to its heart.

Because it is subversive, not many conventions can survive unscathed, and the first convention turned upon its head is the triumph of the underdog. Here, the underdog is thoughtlessly thoroughly chewed and spat out, like sugarcane, her sugary essence having been extracted. Ifemelu is an irrepressible topdog. Kosi would normally have our sympathies. Kosi is honest-to-God, guileless, spunkless, ultimately powerless in the face of Ifemelu’s ethereal hold over Obinze, the kind of hold that would normally present an obstacle to be surmounted. If this were a fight, Kosi would be El Rufai would be the oblivious fighter who has been rushed into a silent arena, a blindfold over his eyes, his feet bound to his hands. Waiting would be Ifemelu would be Gentle Jack, wielding in addition, a sledge-hammer. By the time the gong strikes begin!, the fight is over.

Obinze is perhaps even more of an underdog than Kosi. It is he who suffers the debilitating effects of Ifemelu’s extended mood swing. It is he who is putty. He is the chameleon who adapts himself to suit Ifemelu. It is he who cannot quell the flames Ifemelu kindles in him. It is he whose blood pressure spikes, while Ifemelu’s hums along at a steady pace. Ifemelu presents a compelling, antagonistic force that would be surmounted in your conventional romance. But this is Americanah we’re talking about. Nothing of the sort can happen.

Plus Obinze is a shortass. Imagine that: a shortass. If the central man in a romance does not have blue—or any array of startlingly coloured—eyes, at least he is usually tall, dark, muscular, handsome and perhaps rich. In short, he is made to certain specifications, of which physical magnificence is crucial. In much fiction, short men are a sideshow. (Perhaps I might write my PhD thesis—if it ever comes to that—on the portrayal of shortness in Literature.) But we’re talking Americanah here, and convention be damned to hell. The grounded Obinze may be a compromised protagonist, but protagonist he is.

If Americanah is a romance at its core, then layered around it is politics. Here too it subverts, and not in the straightforward we-should-all-be-feminists anti-patriarchal mode. Americanah can be contained in the postcolonial framework—its material reality having been conditioned, however distantly, by the colonial experience. That said, is not a writing-back; writing-back as a form of postcoloniality having largely fizzled out by 1968, as (European) colonialism assumed more diffuse, no less effective forms fronted by USA! USA! USA!.

Americanah then is simply a writing, and in this new America-centred world, a writing-to. It proceeds with this lack of historical baggage. It does not attempt to establish its right to exist. It simply exists, duh. It is fully individual. And because it particularly does not excuse its existence, it eschews the familiar solidarities of the “postcolonial” novel. There are no racial or national solidarities. Whatever familial solidarity (in portrayal) there may be only exists between Ifemelu and Dike. Americanah satirizes everything; white, black, African, Nigerian, the pretensions of family, friend, foe and bystander.

Americanah, like Ifemelu, is tart, like lime.

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