Monday, June 24, 2019
June 24, 2019: 21st Century Lit: Americanah
[In honor of my about-to-conclude grad class on Analyzing 21st Century America, a series on great recent literary works, with the same Af Am lit through-line that I brought to the class!]
Two of the many reasons why Americanah (2013) is on the short list of most important 21st century American novels to date.
Part of me feels that the best use to which I could put this post on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah would be simply to implore you to go out and read it as soon as possible. I’m not promising that you’ll love it as much as I do—I know at least one AmericanStudier’s madre who was not particularly blown away by it, and of course as the Romans knew de gustibus non est disputandum—but I believe I can promise that you’ll find it a unique novel that’s as engaging and readable as it is important and innovative, a page-turner that’s also literary fiction of the highest order. So first and foremost, check it out, and if and when you do—or if you’ve already read it and have thoughts on it right now—please share your review and perspective in comments!
Without spoiling any specific aspects of Adichie’s novel, however (a great deal of the pleasure lies in discovering her characters, plots, and themes), I do want to make the case here for two particular elements that make the novel as important as it is. The more obvious element, and a vital part of Adichie’s novel in every sense, is its transnational, dual settings of Nigeria and America. It’s not just that Adichie’s novel offers a fresh and compelling take on the immigrant experience (although it does), or on the relationship between old and new worlds for its characters (although ditto), or on cultural and ethnic hybridity (yup), or on the fraught relationship between Africans and African Americans (definitely). It’s that she’s written a novel that is deeply reflective of, influenced by, and contributing to our understanding and conversations about both Nigeria and America, two widely distinct worlds that she treats as distinct yet also brings together in potent and convincing ways. I know few other novels that have been able to pull off those joint feats for any two cultures, feats which are so crucial to our fraught global moment, and Adichie’s success there makes her novel hugely impressive and important.
If Americanah is very much of its 21st century moment in its settings and themes, I would argue that it is perhaps even more contemporary in one of its key stylistic elements. Ifemelu, Adichie’s female protagonist, creates a popular blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” and Adichie intersperses blog entries of hers throughout and alongside the more conventionally narrated sections of the novel. These blog entries allow Adichie to create a multi-vocal and –perspectival narration and text in a way that feels fresh and engaging, and at the same time to engage specifically and compellingly with questions of digital voice, identity, community, and conversation, and how those do and don’t line up with our more private identities and relationships. It goes without saying that I’m a pretty natural audience for any novel that makes use of blogging in these layered and thoughtful ways, but I believe the questions and forms that this stylistic element allows Adichie to include would be of interest to any and all 21st century readers. A great deal has been made, rightly, of the uniquely 21st century style that Junot Díaz invented for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008), but I would say that Adichie’s version is just as unique and successful, and one more reason why I’m thankful for her must-read novel.
Next 21C text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other recent literary works you’d highlight?