Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Solid Personal Achievements

“The man who had contradicted him had no titles. That was why he had called him a woman. Okonkwo knew how to kill a man’s spirit.” —Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

I enjoyed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. You might say that there’s a graceful economy of motion in Adichie’s prose, if the book were a dancer. If it were a drink, I might describe its crisp taste and clean finish. If it were a person, I might describe the clothes being worn, how the ensemble is carried off, and so forth.

On the other hand, if the thing I enjoyed was a review copy of a novel that I received in the mail, late last year, I could describe it as a dull, thick, red paperback, a bit worn and thumbed-over, and with a phone number scrawled in pen on the cover. I wrote that phone number in permanent marker, because the marker and the book were the closest things to hand when I was on the spot and needed to write it down. The book does not look very nice, to be perfectly honest, which is why I used it as a scratch-pad. The red is too dark, and even before I started scrawling random numbers on it, the black print was hard to read against that dark red. To be blunt—and let’s be blunt—the cover is basically a piece of construction paper. It doesn’t look like it was meant to be looked at, because it wasn’t. It was meant to be read.

A book is not a dancer, a drink, or a woman, though so many reviewers make it sound like Adichie’s third novel is a refraction of its author’s glamor, an aesthetic commodity to be consumed. Yemisi Ogbe wrote a long review in Chimurenga, for example, and she places this extended meditation on Adichie’s beauty in the second paragraph:

[Adichie] is near sacrosanct for well-grounded reasons – a beautiful Igbo woman, brought up by middle-class academics and, as often mentioned, on a university campus in Southeastern Nigeria. I reiterate her beauty because it is relevant. She straddles two continents with a luminosity that can’t be described by simple words, such as “confidence”, because a great deal of that has to do with her beauty. There is a concrete magnetism in her even row of white teeth, with that winsome gap in the upper row. Her skin glows, her eyes move like feathers in soft wind.

Can magnetism be “concrete”? Can her indescribable luminosity be “well-grounded”? Is her beauty relevant, simply because the reviewer says so? More to the point, can Adichie be “sacrosanct” when so many people seem to enjoy tearing her down? This review seethes with a muted but distinct antipathy; “It appears that Adichie wants to be associated with clever themes that go bang,” we are told, a phrasing that would never be used to describe a writer who truly deserved lofty associations. And yet Adichie is not simply an ambitious writer; she is a writer who wants to be associated with the fashionable trends of the moment, who chooses her subject based on how it places her. Her fame does not rest on solid personal achievements; like her beauty, which she shamelessly flaunts, the fact of being famous betrays her desire to be famous, and damns her for it.

Not all of Adichie’s reviews are like this, but enough of them are. And it’s not even that Ogbe wrote a superficial review. Though she tells us that “Adichie must have her say on everything,” and gripes about expectations raised and left unfulfilled, I agree with much of what she has to say about the novel:

Yemisi Ogbe: “Her promise to John Snow on BBC that Americanah is about hair is only seriously addressed 200-odd pages into the book and she again tows the familiar. There is nothing new: black hair angst, the choice between having ‘ethnic hair’ and being taken seriously in corporate America; the irresoluteness of the eventual decision to own natural hair. There is an expectation that all the mention and discussions of black hair will lead to a powerful statement. It does not.”
it’s a big, brick of a book, but one wouldn’t call it The Great Africa Novel. Especially compared to Adichie’s tightly plotted short stories—which I personally prefer—Americanah is sprawling and unfocused, ambling through an overdetermined love story whose inevitability can make the plot, itself, feel kind of superfluous. One has the feeling that we’re just killing time, telling stories, waiting for the moment when the two lovers find their way to each other, a bourgeois story about a bourgeois romance between two bourgeois Nigerians who suffer from the kind of petty problems from which the bourgeois suffer. Hair. Status. Love. At least the various star-crossed lovers in Half a Yellow Sun had a civil war break out around them, to give the book some real dramatic heft. But while Americanah’s protagonists suffer various trials and tribulations—the course of true love never runs smooth when the Immigration and Naturalization Service is involved—there is no war here to give their love story its gravity, or to make their experience a microcosm of a nation’s. A middle class love story turns out to be, in the end, a middle class love story.

If you are the most famous African novelist currently writing novels—and if your last novel was about a national trauma that scarred a generation, and if that novel is currently being adapted into a feature film—the one thing you should probably not do is write a novel about a middle-class love story. Especially not if you’re a woman writer. Especially not if you’re beautiful. And especially not if you’re the kind of beautiful woman writer who has a hint of a mischievous mean streak, a tendency towards speaking your mind, and the temerity to think that you’ve earned your fame by being a damn good writer. When a person like that writes a romance novel, there will be a backlash. And this is what it has looked like: Adichie is not a bad writer, but she’s not as good as she thinks she is. Who does she think she is, Chinua Achebe?

I think she’s pretty tired of that stuff, and a distinct and calculated abrasiveness is creeping into her public persona in response. To be clear, I mean no disrespect in saying so; the “abrasiveness” I’m describing is the sort of thing that would be unremarkable in a man, but which gets quickly labeled “bitchy” in a woman. Maybe I shouldn’t even call it abrasiveness, because maybe there’s nothing remarkable about it. After all, it’s only when you expect deference, politeness, and emphatic social grace that the absence of it stands out, becomes a thing. But because we do expect her to behave a particular way, it stands out when she doesn’t.

A few weeks ago, for example, a Nigerian interviewer barely got the interview off the ground before being triple corrected on the word “Mrs.” It was kind of awesome:

Interviewer: Mrs Chimamanda Adichie, welcome back to Nigeria…

CA: Before we start, please, I just want to say that my name is Chimamanda Adichie. That’s how I want it; that’s how I’m addressed, and it is not Mrs but Miss.  Ms: that’s how I want it. I am saying this, because I just got a mail from my manager this morning. It seems that there are people who attended the church service, and they wrote about it, addressing me as Mrs. Chimamanda (Esega). I didn’t like that at all. So my name is Chimamanda Adichie, full stop.

You mean?

This is because it is also responsible that people be called what they want to be called.

You started by telling me that you’re not “Mrs.”

(cuts in) My name is Chimamada Adichie. If you want to put label for me, put Ms.

But people know that you’re married. As an Igbo girl, you know our culture

(Cuts in again) What does our culture do? Let me tell you about our culture. This thing that you are calling our culture –that when you marry somebody, you’ll start calling her Mrs. Somebody –is not our culture; it is Western culture. If you want to talk about our culture, you need to go to people in real Igbo land. But it is true. My grandfather’s name is David. His name is also Nwoye. They call him Nwoye Omeni. Omeni was his mother. You know why? It is to help distinguish him, because there are often many wives. So, it was his mother that they used to identify him. They know that all of these people came from the same compound, but whose child is this one. You may go and ask people who is Nwoye Omeni, and they’ll tell you it is my grandfather. So, conversation about culture is a long one. I don’t even want to have it.

What do you even do with a phrase like that, “As an Igbo girl, you know our culture”? No wonder Adichie cut the interviewer off, repeatedly. The demand that she be named by reference to her marital status (even while being named a “girl”), the subordination of individual choice to cultural necessity—and then the link between “girl” and “Ibo” as the structure that prescribes its limitations—I mean, so much was being said without quite being actually said.

Maybe this is why a certain kind of rudeness becomes useful, precisely as such. Indeed, as she describes in this interview, the protagonist of Americanah is “difficult to like” because she’s actually kind of a not-great person in some important ways. It’s okay not to like her, because she’s a little unlikeable; she’s human, just human, and sometimes humans are jerks.

Last year, I had the good fortune to interview Adichie herself, in the bar of her hotel in San Francisco where she had come on her book tour. She was tired when she got off the elevator, she had a hard expression on her face, and there was hint of irritability rumbling beneath a smooth facade. I was nervous as hell, and she didn’t make me feel at all welcomed to her attention or her time. She was brisk, efficient, and as she told me how exhausted she was from the book tour, there was very little warmth in her voice.

Of course: she was also really generous with her time–she talked to me a full half-hour after she was supposed to–and paid me the respect of giving me serious and challenging answers to questions that could easily have been deflected or bypassed, all the more so when she explained that she didn’t think much of the questions I was asking.

She was also less young than I expected her to be, a decade older than she was in the book jacket photo for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. Then, she was in her twenties; now she is in her thirties. If it’s unremarkable, I also reiterate her age because it is relevant: when Chinua Achebe was alive, and when Chimamanda Adichie was a kind of heir apparent, all was still well for the literary patriarchy: the Great African Writer was a Great African Man, and Adichie’s books were filed just after his on the shelf, metaphorically as well as alphabetically. When she burst on the scene in 2003, she was young, a phenomenal talent with tremendous potential, but because was still just at the beginning of her career, she wasn’t threatening. He was the big man; she was the next generation.

Today, she is the most famous living African writer, and she has has a body of work that would make any writer proud (or envious). Each of her novels is a different kind of big deal. Purple Hibiscus is a kind of anti-Things Fall Apart, in some very clear and explicit ways, a feminist re-telling of a patriarchal narrative that is also—since Things Fall Apart is much more feminist than people often realize—a thoroughly dutiful and harmonious extension of Achebe’s most famous novel. Her second novel is an even bigger deal; for one thing, it was made into a big budget movie, with big names, and it looks to be really big. But it’s also a novel that carries a huge burden of Historical Significance; like Achebe’s last book, Half a Yellow Sun steps forward to narrate the primal trauma of the Igbo people, the Biafran War. It’s a big deal.

Her fans can also be a bit… overwhelming. Over at Brittle Paper, “A Super-Fan Mentions 21+ Reasons Why Adichie Is A Super-Novelist” is representative of the kind of zealous acclaim she receives; as Ainehi Edoro notes, “he passionately expresses his love for Adichie and her work,” and adds, with just a bit of a wink, “Keyword here is: passionately.”

Adichie’s “bigness” becomes a problem in this context. She has always been an ambitious writer, and it has paid big dividends; she has become a big deal. But as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.

In the Boston Review interview, I asked Adichie if she had any feelings about the Caine Prize. I was fishing for dirt, I’ll admit; she’s long been a critic of the Caine Prize, and she said more or less what I’d been expecting her to say: it’s fine, but not such a big deal, really.

AB: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize. I find it interesting that so many Nigerians are on the short list this year—that it’s four Nigerians out of five . . .

CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.

AB: Well, none of them are you!

CA: Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop. But what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.

AB: Where do you go?

CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list. Also, you do realize that Nigeria is the most populous country, and we have a crazy, chauvinistic nationalism. So when you say anything bad about Nigeria, we attack you, but when we all go back to Nigeria, we attack each other. That’s how it works. We’re very happy that there are four. Actually, we think all the people on the short list should be Nigerians, because we are born with the natural arrogance of the Nigerians.

At the time, I thought very little of this; it was an interesting answer to the question—and one of the many times when I could have written [cuts in again] in the interview—but it was not particularly surprising in any way. Her feelings about the Caine prize are well known, and while I couldn’t possibly comment on “the natural arrogance of the Nigerians,” it’s not exactly the first time a Nigerian has made such an observation. But in a year when four of the five shortlisted writers were Nigerians, it was not politic to dismiss the prize; what’s more, a few male egos in particular did not respond kindly to being described in the way that she did.

Thus, “boy-gate”:

It was all very silly, and in retrospect, pretty predictable (“when we all go back to Nigeria, we attack each other”). And a good time was had by all, I suspect, except for Adichie herself, who stayed way above the fray and did not comment. If Hell has no fury like a woman scorned, then male writers who feel disrespected by a woman are in a category all their own: Elnathan John’s response, “The Consequences of Loving Ngozi,” should be read as a very narcissistic satire of his own narcissism, I think—as much about a fragile, wounded male ego as it is the product of it—but to call it disrespectful would be an understatement. It’s vicious.

In any case, I learned as much from the aftermath of the interview as I did from the interview itself. One of the things that struck me in the interview—which I had not realized before I met her—was that what I had taken to be vicious satire in the novel might have been intended, by its author, to be rough but basically self-directed humor. As she put it:

“there’s a lot of self-mockery, a lot of poking fun at my own tribe. My American tribe is a left-leaning tribe that occupies a place of immense privilege. Most of my friends are people who care about organic food. And I care about organic food, but I’m also amused by it, and I laugh at it. Because, you know, there’s a vast, vast world out there that doesn’t care about locally-sourced chicken, right? It’s one of the things that I want to poke pins in.”

At the time, Shailja Patel pointed out that if the “vast, vast world” doesn’t care about “locally-sourced chicken,” it’s still true that clean food and water are a matter of deadly serious importance for a much larger group of people than Adichie’s privileged tribe. This is a pretty fair point, I think: “organic” does, after all, have other meanings than “stuff [privileged people who care about organic people] like.” But Adichie is not really interested in that, at least not in this novel; she’s interested in her “American tribe.” And this is the trick that “satire” plays; it allows us to pretend that in making fun of a thing, we have distanced ourself from it, when precisely the reverse is often the case. Joking about a thing allows you the license to more fully embody it, allows you to believe you are “critiquing” when what you are also doing is obsessing. This is true of Elnathan John’s blog post—which makes fun of fragile male egos by expressing the rage of a wounded and aggrieved male ego—but it’s also true, I think, of Americanah, which makes fun of privileged Nigerians in America by placing their comparatively petty trials and tribulations on a kind of pedestal. If Americanah is a novel “about hair,” as Adichie has said, it’s possible to observe that this is both true and worth doing, but that it also represents a stark diminution of her novel’s scope, making it a novel very specifically about upper-middle class Nigerians in America.

In some ways, I think Adichie is wrong to say her novel is all about hair; Ifemulu’s depressive period and Obinze’s period as an illegal immigrant in London are, in a very interesting way, the part of the novel that cast the bourgeois pettiness of the petite bourgeois rest of it into a kind of sharp relief. The Ifemelu that we see at the very start of the novel is dealing with a set of real, but distinctly upper-middle class concerns, and the romance novel that it ends up being is, like most romance novels, not primarily concerned with economic precarity. But this book is too big, and too sprawling—and Adichie’s mind too inventive—not to overflow the container she started out to fill.

That said, this is fundamentally a book whose ambition is not ambitious, even a book which wants, first and foremost, to be freed from the need to be ambitious. In the interview, Adichie bristled just a bit at the suggestion that the book was “just” a love story:

AB: Was it important that Americanah was a love story?

CA: You mean why I have descended to the love story?

AB: I want you to tell me why it’s not a “descent.”

CA: I don’t even accept the premise. It’s not as though I set out to destroy something that I didn’t agree with. I didn’t agree with it in the first place. I don’t much care about these distinctions between, for example, literary and genre. I also think those are quite silly. I read what I find interesting. It’s also very interesting, isn’t it, that when a woman writes a love story, it’s a love story. But when a man writes a love story… But yeah, I love the love story, I wanted to do that very much. But it’s a love story that’s very much rooted in reality. It’s the kind of love story where your inability to get a visa gets in the way of love. I loved the ending, for example, which I hoped would annoy some people. It’s always a good thing to annoy some people. But here’s the thing: the ending is me thinking, ‘you know what? I want to have this lush, ridiculous thing happen, and it’s going to happen!’

There is a politics to rejecting the premise that a novel can be only a love story, to insisting that feminized forms of intellectual labor are nnot to be disdained; there is a certain politics to a Great Writer choosing to write in a form not considered to be great (because it’s associated with women). There is a politics to hair, and shoes. There is also a politics to writing a novel about a blogger; the fact that Ifemelu is a blogger is a way of nodding towards women-writing that is not broadly respected as Writing, in part because it’s women (of color) who are talking to each other about hair and shoes. There might even be a politics to being a Great Writer who writes a novel that disdains the desire to be Great.

As she said in a more recent interview,

“This is what I like to call my “fuck you novel,” because this is the novel where I’m just completely having fun and I’m free and I’m not burdened by a sense of duty or responsibility, I was just having fun.”

Something is happening when an unburdened novelist, freed from duty or responsibility, must register as an obscenity, when “fun” equates with “fuck you.” It tells you something about how intensely policed Adichie’s affect must be, and how unhesitatingly she kicks against it, that she frames her novel in such terms. To write a novel that was just for her—not for African Literature, or Nigerian History—but specifically for and about the petty, silly, and real but relatively minor trials and tribulations of the well-off Americanah, that is an act which translates into FUCK YOU.

We should listen very carefully to that curse. But it also cuts both ways: over the course of the rest of that interview, she takes up Lupita Nyong’o and Barack Obama as Events, as markers of important progress. She refuses to be disappointed in Obama’s presidency, quite aggressively, and describes the revelation that Lupita’s body represents. She doesn’t talk about Obama’s deportation policies. She doesn’t talk about where Lupita’s privilege comes from. She talks about the meaning they have for her, and if we shouldn’t sneer at that meaning—and this is a very fine line I’m trying to walk, here—we also shouldn’t overlook the extent to which hair is not the summation of the immigrant experience, nor stiletto heels the be-all and end-all of feminism. It is a politics, certainly. But we shouldn’t mistake it for the only politics. There is an irony in the novelist who mercilessly skewers the myths of post-racial America, in her novel, but remains attached to their instantiation in real-life, unable to give them up. But it’s a very human irony, the kind of irony that is easier to forgive in human beings than in Great Novelists.