In March 2014 Zadie Smith sat down with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to discuss Adichie’s award-winning novel, Americanah. The conversation, (held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), was just as fascinating and provocative as you might wish.
Beyoncé’s new self-titled album has succeeded in surprising the world not only in its unexpected appearance, but also in the choice of collaborators. Specifically the inclusion of excerpts from the speech, We Should All Be Feminists, by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
When you look at the two artists there are certain similarities: they’re both female, black, and outstripping the competition in their respective fields. It’s not surprising that one would choose to reference the other in a creative piece.
And yet I was surprised. Not only that Beyoncé had heard of my favourite author – I imagined that between the stage shows, studio sessions, video shoots, press interviews, film sets, product endorsements, high-end shopping and mothering a toddler, Queen Bey wouldn’t have time to read literature – but more that she’d chosen to include a feminist speech from Chimamanda.
Chimamanda Adichie wears her feminism plainly on her sleeve and is always waving the flag for equality of the sexes.
Beyoncé’s stance on feminism has been less clear, even to herself. When asked if she considered herself a feminist, she said: “That word can be very extreme… But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are?”
There’s no better way to ignite a debate among feminists than to mention Beyoncé’s name. Do her daring costumes mean she’s owning her sexuality or that she’s commodified and sold it for success in a sexist industry? Are the feminist nay-sayers prudish and sex-negative? Or does she look like a Hooters girl who’s well recompensed? Should we all stop criticizing Hooters girls? Furthermore, should we stop being so academic and reflective and simply yell GURL POWERRRR like we did in the 90s?
There are no obvious answers. But by allying herself with Chimamanda, Beyoncé does seem to be nailing her feminist colours to the mast. Meanwhile, the comments section under the Chimamanda TEDx video looks increasingly like a BeyHive message board as a slew of young people discover the author for the first time. I think this counts as a win for all sides.
Americanah opens with a hair salon and a major turning point. Ifemelu has decided to close her hugely successful blog, break up with her Black American boyfriend, sell her apartment and (after 13 years away) return to Nigeria.
She tells herself there’s no specific cause for the move, just “layer after layer of discontent that settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her”. But while she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided for this monumental trip home, she thinks of the Obinze, “her first love, her first lover, the only person with whom she had never felt the need to explain herself”, and it’s clear part of her homesickness is the longing to see her former flame. Impulsively she fires off an email to Obinze informing him of her return.
Cut to Obinze who receives her email as he sits in Lagos traffic. From his reaction we know the feelings are mutual, which is complicated since he is now a husband and father.
Amidst the turmoil Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love and are then forced apart, Ife to America, Obinze to England.
The story then leaps back to their youth plunging us into 80s Nigeria where the economy is faltering, the education system disintegrating and the only way to get ahead is to be rich and connected or to leave. Amidst the turmoil Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love and are then forced apart, Ife to America, Obinze to England. The tale then zips back and forth in geography and time until wending its way back to Nigeria for the dénouement.
There are no perfectly moral characters in Americanah (though Obinze comes pretty darn close), but the cast are fully-formed, sympathetic and fascinating people. Particularly Ifemelu. She’s a bright, bold and inquisitive woman whose experiences form a natural vehicle for exploring BIG ISSUES without lecturing. “When you make the choice to come to America, you become Black,” she opines in her blog Raceteenth, “Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” Much of her musings are on the issue of race, it’s a revelation for someone who’s never experienced it as an obstacle before. Placing her in the US during Obama’s first campaign for presidency is very cleverly timed considering all the soul-searching the election prompted.
Chimamanda’s writing is as insightful as ever. She ploughs exuberantly into some heavy themes (class, cultural identity, African/American/West Indian discord) and though this adds a density to the book, for the most part the strong narrative and compelling characters keep the train firmly on the tracks.
Ultimately Americanah is a love story, an epic tale of boy-meets-girl and then…