Annotation by Roz Weisberg
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has an interesting quality in the way the story and the writing expand and contract within the narrative. This element in the narrative is reflected in Ifemelu’s character, who I think comes across at times detached, even passive as events and attitudes unfold around her.
Although there is a steady voice and style to the piece, the scope of the story at times has a grand sweeping scale, no doubt due to the location of Nigeria (for a western reader) and the entry point in which Adichie discusses race married to small specific story elements that are as simple and as traditional a framework as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, primarily through the female point of view in the vein of Jane Austen. The story lays its bricks and mortar in an inverted way to me by starting with the relationship, small and specific and build out the wider themes and ideas that Adichie wants to comment on.
Her writing builds out the same way structurally, like an upside sieve. I often found myself underlining the last lines of paragraphs and chapters more often than first lines or middles because I found the last lines had a greater punch and evoked the emotional idea to the scene where the first lines of paragraphs were tight, specific or just expository. Often times, in other books I find the first sentences as the key to hold onto and the rest of the paragraph supports it, but here I felt it was often the reverse.
It felt to me that this was just true of the writing stylistically, but then I found it reflected in the character’s development. For example, when the story is in Nigeria, there is an intimate and familiar feel, the characters are most themselves (even when chaos breaks out) and they are in the process of discovering who they are. This quality is mirrored in the writing. The writing felt most alive and most connected emotionally when the story was in Nigeria or connected to Nigeria (such as when Ifemelu is with her aunt and nephew in America). Nigeria itself becomes a character with an undeniable presence when Ifemelu is in America. This brings with it an emotional resonance and, as she makes her way through America, its physical absence is felt as her platform and experiences expand. In some ways, once Ifemelu is in America, the story feels a bit like The Wizard of Oz and Nigeria is Kansas.
However, I felt a distance from the characters when the Ifemelu or Obinze or Aunt Uju or Dike as the only representation of Nigeria in America and the UK respectively. The ancillary (white) characters felt like cyphers and the incidents felt episodic and in support of the larger themes and at times lacked surprise. The incidents in America became more of platform to show and comment on the issues of race in looking at situations through Ifemelu’s lens and eventual blog posts (the only place-private place-she can truly express herself, even when she has readers and followers (she doesn’t really express those points of views in a public venue). It is in these instances when events and relationships felt broader and Adichie’s writing expansive. In covering the things she wanted to say about race, there is an emptiness to relationships Ifemelu has with the men and America itself. One that feels detached. Perhaps that is the point Adichie is making; that the otherness does ultimately keep people disconnected and that home is home; Dorothy leaving Oz behind to return to Kansas.
There is something about Ifemelu’s character and the detachment she has that makes me curious what I can glean from her for my own protagonist. Although there isn’t a shift in voice in the writing, there is a difference in the writing once Ifemelu is in America. nice The incidents may be specific, but Ifemelu is primarily reacting to her circumstances, observing and digesting oftentimes not reacting until she sits down and writes her blog.
There’s a balance between the time we spend in Ifemelu’s head and how emotions to her circumstances are expressed because often in the moment, she finds she can’t react (in America). Ifemelu doesn’t feel passive and yet she is constantly reacting to what she has set motion or reacting to how other characters move through life. (This feels very Jane Austen to me). This balance I think is where my main character needs to live or at least somewhere in this space, I suppose it’s making more active decisions at the fork in the road. The question is when the character is in a position where they are reacting how to maintain their presence so they don’t feel like observers in their own story? I’m not sure if that is always accomplished here, but there is the veil that Ifemelu is driving things forward. Maybe it’s about the critical turns where oftentimes she just shows up and the choice to show up is enough.