From Nigeria to New York

A new generation of African writers is embracing the themes of classic 19th-century literature and re-inventing the immigration novel for the 21st century
May 22, 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: her novel Americanah has the same shape and offers the same satisfactions as Jane Austen’s Persuasion (© Stefano De Luigi/VII/Corbis)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4th Estate, £20)

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Viking, £14.99)

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta (Granta, £12.99)

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)

Towards the end of Americanah, the rich and satisfying new novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the heroine Ifemelu returns to her native Lagos after a decade and a half in the United States. She is soon invited to join something called “The Nigerpolitan Club,” a gathering of returned emigrants who bond by listing the things they miss about America: “low fat soy milk, NPR [National Public Radio], fast internet.” Ifemelu, who has come back home to pursue both a career and a lost love, looks at these sophisticates with a cold eye. She recognises how proud they are of having spent time abroad, how condescending they can’t help being towards their own country. “This was what she hoped she had not become but feared that she had,” Adichie writes: the kind of person who will forever be known, in Nigerian parlance, as an “Americanah.”

That liminal zone between Africa and America, but not fully belonging to either, has recently become one of the most fruitful territories for contemporary fiction. Adichie, who was born in Nigeria, is probably the best known writer of this school, having won the Orange Prize for her 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun. But she is far from alone. This spring has seen the publication of Ghana Must Go, a powerful debut novel by Taiye Selasi; Happiness, Like Water, a craftsmanlike book of short sketches by Chinelo Okparanta; and We Need New Names, a work of gritty naturalism by NoViolet Bulawayo.

These writers are very different in style and achievement, yet they have enough in common to make it fascinating to read them side by side. All are women with roots in Africa, all have spent considerable time in America, and all write about the dislocations of moving between these very different cultures. In one sense, they can be seen as contributing to a venerable genre in American literature. The novel of immigration has been responsible for some of the best American writing of the last century, as writers from Alfred Kazin to Junot Díaz have come to grips with what it means, and costs, to become an American.

Yet the new African novelists are also different in important ways. For one, they are immigrants in a globalised age, when cheap air travel, cell phones, and the internet make it possible for the new American to stay in touch with her homeland in ways that the masses at Ellis Island never could. In Americanah, Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze, back home in Nigeria, keep tabs on each other through text messages and Facebook. Darling, the young and decidedly less privileged girl at the centre of We Need New Names, comes from a never-named country that is clearly Zimbabwe to a poor American neighbourhood. Yet even she is able to phone home regularly: “When I see the 011-263 on the caller ID I know it’s somebody from home and I start to get worried,” she confides.

In all of these stories, however, just because long-distance communication is technologically feasible doesn’t mean it’s humanly possible. Darling grows up in a shantytown called Paradise, scrounging for food with playmates who have nicknames like Bastard. She takes for granted the kind of horrors many westerners automatically conjure when we think of Africa today: the first half of We Need New Names features an 11-year-old girl impregnated by rape, a father turned into a living corpse by AIDS, political violence and constant hunger.

Once Darling comes to Detroit to live with an aunt, she is spared these particular threats. But Bulawayo insists, perhaps too programmatically, that she is exposed to others almost as bad. In America, children watch unlimited pornography on the internet, school hallways ring with gunfire and everyone makes themselves sick on fast food. Paradise is named with blatant irony, but America turns out to be no paradise either. No wonder that, when the phone rings bearing the foreign code, Darling dreads picking it up and finds herself tongue-tied when her old playmates start barraging her with questions: “Have you seen Victoria Beckham? Kim Kardashian? Lady Gaga? Oprah?”

On a higher rung of the socio-economic ladder, Adichie’s Ifemelu, a middle-class Nigerian who comes to the US to go to college, finds herself unable to keep in touch with Obinze, even though they are clearly soul mates. For she, too, is harshly initiated into the underside of American life, when she answers a classified ad and finds herself getting paid for sex with a stranger. Adichie writes the episode as full-scale moral melodrama: “She felt like a small ball, adrift and alone. The world was a big, big place and she was so tiny, so insignificant, rattling around emptily. Back in her apartment, she washed her hands with water so hot that it scalded her fingers, and a small soft welt flowered on her thumb.” This is a loss of virtue that is also a shattering of Ifemelu’s sense of self, and like the heroine of a Victorian novel, she must expiate it by losing Obinze, at least for a time.

A different kind of betrayal lies at the heart of Ghana Must Go, a family saga that traces the fate of Kweku Sai, a Ghanaian surgeon in America, and of his wife and four children. Kweku is a classic American immigrant striver, a brilliant doctor who journeys from a poor African childhood to bourgeois prosperity in Massachusetts. Just as classic, however, is the hollowness and anxiety that go along with such hard-won success, especially for the second generation, as Kweku’s oldest son Olu shows: “Why do we live here, he wondered, suddenly angry, in greyness, like shadows, like things made of ash, with their frail dreams of wealth overwhelmed by faint dread that the whole thing might one day just up and collapse?”

The collapse finally comes when Kweku is forced to operate, against his better judgement, on a wealthy patient who ends up dying on the table. To placate the dead woman’s family, he is scapegoated and fired. This injustice, like Ifemelu’s “fall,” is a stroke of melodrama that would not be out of place in a 19th-century novel. Humiliated, Kweku disappears without a trace, and his family is left to navigate American life alone, with varying degrees of ordeal and humiliation. The worst fate befalls the twins, Kehinde and Taiwo, who are sent back to Africa only to fall into the clutches of a sadistic drug-dealing uncle. His mincing villainy, the way he sexually abuses the vulnerable twins, makes him a figure of larger-than-life evil.

Larger than life, too, is the romance in the longest story in Chinelo Okparanta’s Happiness, Like Water, “Grace.” This tale features a pair of hesitant lovers—a professor and her student, both women—who overcome tradition and taboo in the name of love triumphant. Grace, the African immigrant student, tells her middle-aged teacher: “One day, you’ll begin to stoop, you might have to rely on a cane, and you’ll lose your sight, your hearing, and maybe you’ll even begin to lose your mind. And I will love you still. I’ll love you the whole way through.”

All of these plots and climaxes have something operatic about them, and could not be further from the low-key irony of so much contemporary English and American fiction. Ghana Must Go does not always master the forces it unleashes, dissolving by the end into a series of scenes of transcendent, cathartic weeping. Americanah, on the other hand, knows just how far the reader enjoys being manipulated, and its central plot—a woman who turns down the man who is right for her, and then must win him back—has the same shape, and offers the same satisfactions, as Persuasion.

Indeed, these writers benefit, in literary terms, from dealing with societies that still possess the kinds of hierarchies and taboos that fuelled the classic European novel. There can be no Persuasion in a modern western society where spinsterdom is no longer looked on as a fate worse than death, just as there can be no Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina now that pre- and extra-marital sex is so uncontroversial. But the glimpses these writers give us of Africa—and especially Nigeria, which Selasi, Adichie and Okparanta all write about—show a society where marriageability is still the main issue in a woman’s life.

The stories of Happiness, Like Water are mainly set in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and almost all of them deal with the plight of women in terms that would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy. In “Runs Girl,” a promising student is ruined when she agrees to become a prostitute for a night, in order to pay for her mother’s hospital treatment. In the Gothic “Story, Story!” we meet Nneoma, an unmarried woman who is so desperate for a child that she takes to poisoning pregnant women. The lesbian love affairs featured in two stories, “Grace” and “America,” are so idyllic partly because they represent an escape from the oppressive demands of men—demands for children, for status and wealth, for sexual satisfaction.

More subtle than their treatment of love and sex is the way these writers discuss race in America. Naturally, none are blind to America’s racial pathologies. In Americanah, Adichie makes Ifemelu a blogger who writes about race, allowing her to fill the book with blog-style musings on white privilege (“Yes it sucks to be poor and white but try being poor and non-white”) and the semiotics of black hairstyles (a long scene takes place at an African braiding salon). Moments of racial tension and even humiliation abound: the firing of Sai, the surgeon, for instance, has an unspoken racist element, as the white establishment chooses a black doctor to accuse of incompetence.

But it is notable that in none of these books does racism appear as a monolithic or insurmountable obstacle. On the contrary, Adichie and Selasi, in particular, are writing about highly privileged immigrants who move easily through elite institutions of American society, such as Princeton and Yale. As American-Africans they have a very different experience of race to African-Americans, and the conflict between the two offers some of the most provocative material in these books—whether it is Ifemelu arguing with her black, Ivy League-professor boyfriend Blaine, or Darling needling her black, teenage friend Kristal (“You can’t even speak English,” the African tells the African-American). Many writers in the 21st century despair of fiction’s ability to come to grips with the wider culture; even best-selling novelists like Jonathan Franzen have lamented the shrinking of fiction’s power and influence. But these four African writers suggest that, when it comes to communicating human stories, literature is still the best way to bring news that will stay news.