Adichie's new novel 'Americanah' focuses on Nigeria's present
The traffic is there, grinding life to a halt as the middle class pound out messages on BlackBerry mobile phones and worry about Facebook. The heat, the sweat and the daily tragedy of unclaimed bodies lying alongside roadways, passers-by hurrying past for fear of someone else's misfortune becoming entangled in their own.
This is modern life in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, which becomes almost a character of its own in novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, “Americanah.” And, within its pages, one catches self-acknowledged glimpses of the writer herself, who shot to fame with her previous love story set during Nigeria's civil war called “Half of a Yellow Sun.”
As that book is being made into a movie, more international attention will focus on Adichie, part of a raft of new Nigerian writers finding acclaim after years of military-induced slumber in a nation with a rich literary history. Yet, Adichie, like her new book's heroine, finds herself straddled between a life in the United States and one in Nigeria, where even seemingly innocuous comments on hair care and wigs can stir resentment.
“I'm writing about where I care about, and I deeply, deeply care about Nigeria,” Adichie said. “Nigeria is the country that most infuriates me, and it is the country I love the most. I think when you're emotionally invested in a place as a storyteller, it becomes organic.”
That sense of place runs throughout “Americanah” — make sure to stress the fourth syllable, says the daughter of a university professor and a university registrar. It's a term people use to describe the accents carried by some of the Nigerians now returning in droves to the country as it embraces an uneasy democracy after years of military rule. While oil and gas money continues to flow and other business opportunities abound, the nation's universities sit in shambles, graduating more unqualified students than can be offered jobs.
That intellectual dulling has been challenged by a host of new writers, many of whom, like Adichie, live almost double lives abroad.
“She is part of the pack of novelists who have, after what you might call the two decades of silence, helped to tell Nigerian stories to the whole world again,” writer Tolu Ogunlesi said. “It was the dictatorships and all that's associated with them. ... The '80s and '90s were dark ages of sorts for Nigeria.”
It's that period where “Americanah” finds its beginning. Though dismissing the idea of being a “dutiful daughter of literary conventions,” Adichie's new novel takes root in the vagaries and murmured promises of a love story like much of her other work. It also focuses largely on the slim percentage of Nigerians able to afford diesel generators in a country largely without electricity and who look at the poor through the chilled air and tinted-glass windows of luxury SUVs.
Despite that, her writing hits a nerve with Nigerian readers who identify with the descriptions of church worship services focused on getting foreign visas and the nervous wives of rich men in a nation notorious for philandering. Adichie describes herself as looking “at the world through Nigerian eyes,” but she doesn't hold back on criticizing its culture that fosters widespread government corruption. Or what she perceives as the excessive, neutered politeness of “political-correct language” in the United States.
“Nigeria wasn't set up to succeed, but the extent of its failure is ours. It's our responsibility,” she said. “This country is full of so many intelligent people, so much energy, so much potential, so why are we here?”
That kind of truth telling isn't exactly welcome, even in a democratic Nigeria. Speaking at a book signing, Adichie drew laughter and a few nervous looks from organizers by describing President Goodluck Jonathan as “not a bad guy, he just seems like he's floundering and has no clue.”
It also leads to comparisons some make between Adichie and late author Chinua Achebe, who died in March at age 82. Both come from the Igbo people of Nigeria's southeast and Achebe's own praise of Adichie graces the cover of her new novel in Nigeria. Adichie said the rise of new writers served as a testament to the power of Achebe's writings and the works of others.
“I think there's just this wonderful flowering that's happening,” she said.
Even more controversial, it seems, have been Adichie's comments on natural hair in Nigeria, where many spend huge sums of money on straight-banged wigs and weaves known as Indian hair. An online commenter on Twitter asserted that Adichie, whose natural hair sits in buns atop her head, said that those wearing weaves were insecure, sparking controversy. Adichie herself ended up responding to the criticism and gave a recent audience advice on finding hair conditioners with no sulfates.
“It's only black women for whom an entire industry exists which is geared toward specifically making sure that the hair that grows on their head looks different,” she said. “I want natural black hair to be an equally valid option, not something interesting, not something you do when you're a jazz musician, but something you can do when you're a lawyer in a fancy firm in New York City or if you're a politician in Abuja,” Nigeria's capital.
That, however, still remains a challenge. Adichie acknowledged it herself by pausing, and then adding: “My mother doesn't like my hair like that. She is still praying.”
Jon Gambrell is a staff writer for the Associated Press
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