A Study in African Realism

Ian Baucom

We are pleased to accompany Ian Baucom’s review of Americanah with video of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with Professor Baucom and PhD student Ainehi Edoro at a public event hosted by Duke University’s Africa Initiative and Center for African and African American Research earlier this year.



As its hybrid title suggests, Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, which begins in Princeton and ends in Lagos, is both an American novel and an African one. But Americanah also unites two very different versions of the realist novel: the sweeping historical vision Lukács attributed to the genre in Studies in European Realism and the painstaking attention to the details of everyday life described by Ruth Yeazell in her superb 2008 study Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel. Tracing the origins of literary realism to the history of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish genre painting, Yeazall notes, “The detailed rendering of material particulars, the representation of ‘ordinary’ people and events rather than heroic and mythical ones, the close attention to the rituals and habits of daily life, especially the domestic life of the middle classes: all these familiar characteristics of novelistic realism had their visual analogues in the so-called Golden Age of Dutch Painting.”

In making this argument, Yeazell had in mind both a general realist tradition and a particular body of writers. Balzac, Eliot, Hardy, and Proust were, she suggests, instrumental in fashioning a 19th- and early 20th-century literary practice that put into words what the earlier genre painters had touched onto canvas: finely observed, psychologically arresting scenes of the everyday, such as a maid at the scullery, a woman reading a letter, a village choir, drinkers in a tavern.

Had Yeazell extended her analysis to the contemporary novel, she might have added Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to her list, for Adichie is one of this past decade’s subtlest inheritors and refashioners of the realist tradition. That, of course, is but one way to mark the place Adichie has been shaping for herself over the past decade, beginning with the publication of Purple Hibiscus in 2003, and then, in rapid succession, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), and, most recently, Americanah. Another, more common, starting point is to recognize Adichie as an inheritor of Chinua Achebe and the African novelistic tradition he helped to launch with the 1958 publication of Things Fall Apart.

The link between Achebe and Adichie is indeed vital, and not only because Adichie, the daughter of academics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, spent part of her childhood living in a house previously occupied by Achebe. Nor is it simply because the first sentence of her debut novel (“Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère”) alludes to Achebe’s most famous work. The deeper link lies in Adichie’s commitment to tracing the hopes and perils—particularly the perils—of life in the Nigerian postcolony.

One of the characters in Half of A Yellow Sun comments, “The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.” Like Achebe before her, Adichie has taken this observation doubly to heart: her fictions render this new world visible, and offer themselves as instruments for its negotiation, adopting a realism invested in the quiet everyday details as in the social and political life of postindependence Nigeria.

Take, for example, the second, third, and fourth sentences of Purple Hibiscus, which immediately follow the nod to Achebe:

 

We had just returned from church. Mama placed the fresh palm fronds, which were wet with holy water, on the dining table and then went upstairs to change. Later, she would knot the palm fronds into sagging cross shapes and hang them on the wall beside our gold-framed family photo. They would stay there until next Ash Wednesday, when we would take the fronds to church, to have them burned for ash.

 

Nor do only quotidian interiors receive this realist care. Adichie also cultivates the portraiture of psychic life, the daily cinema of intimacy. Here is another passage, from Half of a Yellow Sun, describing a glancing moment in which a physical touch is avoided and something devastating becomes evident because of that failed contact. Olanna, one of the novel's protagonists, has returned home to find her husband, Odenigbo, alone with their young maid, Amala:

 

Odenigbo moved toward Amala, but stopped a little way away so that he had to stretch out and lengthen his arm to give her the key. She took it carefully from his fingers; they did not touch each other. It was a tiny moment, brief and fleeting, but Olanna noticed how scrupulously they avoided any contact, any touch of skin, as if they were united by a common knowledge so monumental that they were determined not to be united by anything else. … And, slowly, shock spread over Olanna. She knew. She knew from the jerky movements he made, from the panic on his face, from the hasty way he was trying to look normal again, that something that should not have happened had happened.

 

What has happened, of course, is sex. Amala will become pregnant and give birth to a daughter who Olanna will eventually raise. But something else has also happened. In this, as in many other such scenes of domestic life, Adichie has reminded us that one of the great post-19th-century futures of realism has been in the African novel.

If one strand of African realism owes something to the protocols of genre painting, such realism has also been attuned to that style’s putative opposite and competitor, history painting. Or, in Georg Lukács’s terms, African realism has been committed to mapping a “social totality,” to discerning the historical, economic, and political “moving centers” of everyday life in the postcolony. Certainly this commitment held true for Adichie’s first two novels, most dramatically in Half of a Yellow Sun’s plotting of the Biafran war, the failed 1967–70 secession struggle by Nigeria’s southeastern provinces into whose maelstrom of hope, tragedy, and violence all the novel’s characters are thrown.




If there has been a signature feature of Adichie’s work to date it has been her remarkable ability to balance the competing demands of genre and history, to hold in realist equipoise the domestic and the national, scenes of infidelity and scenes of war. In Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, maintaining that balance meant holding her characters’ individual fates in tension with national history. With the release of The Thing Around Your Neck, and even more emphatically with her new novel Americanah, Adichie’s historical perimeter has widened, stretching from Nigeria across the Atlantic to the United States, where she took undergraduate and graduate degrees and now lives half time. As her fiction’s geography has expanded, Adichie’s attention to the details of the everyday and to the nuance of her characters’ psychic lives and intimate attachments has nevertheless remained constant.

Adichie’s talent for fine-bored observation is spectacularly on display in the patiently unfolded narrative of Americanah’s two central characters. The first is Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States in the early 2000s to complete her university education, struggles through the indignities and exclusions of immigrant life, suffers a sexual assault, and then gradually constructs a new life for herself as the author of a highly regarded, alternatingly searing and satirical blog on race in America before deciding to return home to Lagos. The second central character is Obinze, her earnest, serious-minded boyfriend from high school, who also leaves Nigeria as a young adult, in his case for England, where he lives the exposed life of an undocumented laborer, until, having been forcibly deported from the UK, he too returns to Lagos. There he becomes a successful but emotionally and intellectually enervated businessman. Across its long arc, the novel recounts the story of their youthful love, separation, and eventual reunion.

Throughout the narrative, Adichie paints Ifemelu and Obinze’s lives (and those of a host of Nigerian, British, and American characters) with a miniaturist’s care. There is the scene, capturing a disturbingly ordinary moment of American race panic, in which Ifemelu, having graduated from a Philadelphia college, responds to a ring at the front door of the wealthy suburban home where she has taken employment as a nanny to find a white carpet cleaner studying her in incomprehension:

 

He stiffened when he saw her. First surprise flitted over his features, then it ossified to hostility. “You need a carpet cleaned?” he asked, as if he did not care, as if she could change her mind, as if he wanted her to change her mind. She looked at him, a taunt in her eyes, prolonging a moment loaded with assumptions. … “Yes,” she said finally, suddenly tired. “Mrs. Turner told me you were coming.” It was like a conjurer’s trick, the swift disappearance of his hostility. His face sank into a grin.

 

There is the moment, in London, when Obinze meets with two Angolans, more expert than he in negotiating the anxious corners of undocumented life, who offer, for a fee, to arrange him a visa-granting marriage to an English woman. Obinze is too weary and too punished from living an invisible life to exercise the caution he knows he should. Instead, his attention is fixed on the interior of the secondhand Mercedes one of the two Angolans is driving—the material sign of their precarious arrival at the place he wants to be: “Their old model black Mercedes was fussily maintained, the floor mats wavy from vacuuming, the leather seats shiny with polish.” And there is the moment, late in the novel, when Ifemelu and Obinze have found each other again in Lagos, and she lightly and wryly attempts to explain how, coming home, she has found herself changed by America and, through this change, discovers what remains unchanged between them: “‘… I’m now a person who has learned to admire exposed wooden rafters.’ She rolled her eyes and he smiled at her self-mockery, a smile that seemed to her like a prize that she wanted to win over and over again.”

If moments like these extend and refine Adichie’s mastery of the realism of the everyday, this new work also effects a pronounced change in her writing by adding 21st-century England and America to her historical canvas. Most simply put, this change has to do with what readers should expect from an “African” novel’s encounters with history. In Half of a Yellow Sun what counts as history is the unfinished business of empire, the crisis of the postcolonial state, war. But in Americanah the agonies of the post-independence nation, the mass-historical violence of war, are no longer the “moving centers” of African lives—much to the puzzlement of the right-minded guests at the English dinner party where Obinze finds himself shortly before he is deported. They do not understand, Obinze thinks, “why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

As Obinze’s frustrated reflections suggest, Americanah does not disregard the social and political forces shaping life in contemporary Nigeria; rather, it suggests that these forces are those of choicelessness. To Obinze, Nigeria’s dilemma in the new millennium is not that it possesses too much history but that it does not have enough, that history has moved on, has relocated elsewhere. Back to England, perhaps. But, above all, to America.

So it also seems at first to Ifemelu, for whom America is both a place of exclusion and something for which she yearns and from the moment of her arrival wishes to make her own: “She hungered to understand everything about America, to wear a new, knowing skin right away.” Understanding America, knowing America, becomes akin, in this sense, to understanding history, to knowing where history has gone, to discovering its new moving center. As Ifemelu quickly learns, to understand America it is necessary, above all, to understand race: its codes, its restrictions, its hypocrisies, its violence. Hence the blog she begins to write.

Hence, also, the sense, signaled by many of Americanah’s reviewers, and by Adichie’s work itself, that this is ultimately not an African but an American novel. Which it is—but an American novel with a major ambition, which Adichie allows Obinze, a lifelong reader of American fiction, to name:

 

He read contemporary American fiction, because he hoped to find a resonance, a shaping of his longings, a sense of the America he had imagined himself a part of. He wanted to know about day-to-day life in America, what people ate and what consumed them, what shamed them and what attracted them, but he read novel after novel and was disappointed: nothing grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.

 

Day-to-day life in America. What people eat, what consumes them, shames them, attracts them. That is what Americanah offers, with the urgent and serious insight that what patterns day-to-day life in America, what consumes, shames, and attracts Americans, is race.




The novel communicates this knowledge about America not once but twice. It does so first in the direct narrative of Ifemelu’s life in the United States: her experiences at the university, with her employers, with the white tennis coach who assaults her, at the African hair salon in Trenton where she goes to have her hair braided, with her lovers (Curt, a wealthy liberal dilettante in Baltimore, and Blaine, a high-minded professor of African American literature at Yale). And the novel does so a second time through the slight remove of Ifemelu’s blog posts.

These posts are often brilliant in their insight and concision. Much of what is most striking about the novel emerges from their double vision of contemporary life as something both experienced and then almost instantaneously and incessantly facebooked, tweeted, tumblred, and instagrammed. Indeed, by folding so much of Ifemelu’s narrative around these posts, Adichie stakes a significant portion of the novel’s power on an essentially new element in her prose, one deriving not simply from the new-media form of the blog posts but from their tone. Although their subject matter is serious, their tone is frequently playful, satiric, ironic. And while this form allows for a carefully modulated play of affects, its irony sometimes dissolves the resonance the blog seems designed to convey.

There is a hint of this in one of Ifemelu’s early entries (posted under the banner “Sometimes in America, Race is Class”) that reports on her encounter with the carpet cleaner at her employer’s door: “It didn’t matter to him how much money I had. As far as he was concerned I did not fit as the owner of that stately house because of the way I looked. In America’s public discourse, ‘Blacks’ as a whole are often lumped with ‘Poor Whites.’ Not Poor Blacks and Poor Whites. But Blacks and Poor Whites. A curious thing indeed.” The insight here is precise, but the blog post lacks much of the understated force Adichie has earlier invested in the direct narrative representation of the scene, the original account’s affective energy now dissipated in an ironic recollection of the human and social tragedies of the racial everyday as “a curious thing indeed.”

Tiring of knowing America in this limited idiom, Ifemelu decides to shut the blog down at the height of its success, to leave Blaine, and to return home to Nigeria. As she does so, two last important things take place. First, having established itself as a major American novel, Americanah reminds us that it is also an African novel, or, indeed, that it is neither one nor the other but both. Contrary to Obinze’s early moment of despair, Ifemelu’s choice suggests that history has not left Africa behind. African history has, instead, expanded to encompass not only the nation and the continent but the diaspora and its circulating citizens.

That lesson has been encoded into the very first word of Adiche’s text—its title—which is not “America” but “Americanah,” Ifemelu’s girlhood name for peers who have gone to America and returned, often encumbered by pretentious postures and mannerisms. If irony does survive in the novel it is in Ifemelu’s ultimate discovery that she herself has become an Americanah. Her final challenge is to find a way to bring what she has become in America back to Africa without holding herself at an ironic distance from Africa, without adopting the bleak expatriatism of her fellow returnees (the self-styled Nigerpolitans), for whom history is exiled to an American elsewhere they have visited but been obliged to leave behind.

To accomplish this reconciliation, the second of Americanah’s two closing maneuvers must take place. Ifemelu needs to write again, without ironic distance. This does not mean that she abandons the new mode of writing she has mastered in America. She begins to blog again. But as she starts to write about the city to which she has returned under the heading “Small Redemptions of Lagos,” Ifemelu finds her prose infused with a certain lyricism—lyricism without reverence.

Like one of her real-life counterparts, Teju Cole, whose recent twitter dispatches from and about Lagos have vibrantly reinvented the 19th-century French journalistic form of the fait divers, Ifemelu now finds herself closely rendering scenes rather than finding them “curious”:

 

She wrote about the views from her bedroom window: a white egret drooped on the compound wall, exhausted from heat; the gateman helping a hawker raise her tray to her head, an act so full of grace that she stood watching long after the hawker walked away. … She wrote about the waterlogged neighborhood crammed with zinc houses, their roofs like squashed hats, and of the young women who lived there, fashionable and savvy in tight jeans, their lives speckled stubbornly with hope. … she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had finally spun herself back into being.

 

As Ifemelu finds peace in her new labor of writing, the novel’s plot resolves itself, bringing her back to Obinze, as in a sense it also brings Adichie back to what she has long held with such loving care: a realism invigorated by her transformation of the miniaturism of the “post-” into a new form of genre painting, a realism full with the reminder that one of the most promising futures of the art of the everyday lies in her hands, and in Africa.