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19 May 2013

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Chimamanda


Americanah. By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Knopf; 496 pages; $26.95. Fourth Estate; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
With her Fountain of irrepressible corkscrew curls, it is hardly surprising that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is preoccupied with hair. In her new novel, “Americanah”, the Nigerian novelist and former Orange prize-winner writes copiously of braiding, curling, coiling, hair attachments, relaxer—anything to tame an African mane.

Her heroine, Ifemelu, “grew up in the shadow of her mother’s hair. It was black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon…and when finally released from pink plastic rollers, sprang free and full, falling down her back like a celebration.”

Ifemelu is a young Nigerian, part of the metropolitan Igbo elite that grows up in Lagos, goes to graduate school in America and dreams of returning home. While she waits, Ifemelu writes a clever anonymous blog entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and dreams of her first love, Obinze.

Soulmates even more than sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze grew up together in Lagos, though their lives later took different paths. Ifemelu wins a scholarship to do postgraduate work at Princeton. Obinze travels to London, where he ends up cleaning toilets as an illegal before returning to Lagos. The relationship founders under the pressure of emigration and broken dreams. But Obinze’s life takes a turn for the better when he returns to Lagos, gets taken up by one of the city fixers and rides on his coat-tails to wealth of his own. So too, in time, does Ifemelu’s.

On the surface “Americanah” is a novel about first love lost and found, and is joyful to read. But this is also an important book, and its strength and originality lie with the meticulous observation about race—about how embarrassed many Americans are about racial stereotypes, even as they continue to repeat them, about how casual racism still abounds (“nude” tights or sticking-plasters are not “nude” for black people).

Ifemelu’s blog allows her to be especially prickly in her observations. As for hair as metaphor: in muggy Lagos Ifemelu is happy to let hers spring free. In America she has to take the train out to a salon in Trenton, New Jersey; African-Americans in Princeton being too light-skinned and lank-haired to wear braids.
–– Culled from The Economist

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