USA vs. Nigeria [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Sal Robinson, a graduate student in library science and co-founder of the Bridge Series.
It seems hardly fair to have to face off against a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, as relative newcomer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does in this round of the WWCOL, with Adichie’s Americanah, her fourth novel, up against Toni Morrison’s Home, her second most recent novel of a long and glorious career. But the world isn’t fair, and even Nobel Prize winners get old and tired, and Americanah is a better novel than Home. Americanah bristles confidently all over with commentary on race relations, on America, on Nigeria, on sex and writing and immigration, whereas Home feels like Morrison picked up the ball and ran down the field with it and threw it in the goal, yelling “You know I can fucking do this, why do I have to do this again?” That isn’t—in case you weren’t aware of this, fellow Americans—the way you play soccer, though.
Both books are about journeys away from and then back towards home, or someplace that once was home. Home is the story of Frank Money, a Korean War vet who has returned to the US and is drifting around the West until he gets a telegram about his sister Cee that reads merely “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.” After a failed teenage marriage, Cee, it turns out, has gone to work for a doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It’s never quite clear what the doctor does, though part of it involves abortions, but he’s got a creepy library full of books on eugenics and he’s been experimenting on Cee. Frank has to swoop in and carry Cee off to their hometown of Lotus, Georgia, which he hated and got out of as fast as he could; it’s place where—as Morrison nails it—there’s “nothing to do but mindless work in fields you didn’t own, couldn’t own, and wouldn’t own if you had any other choice.” Frank, meanwhile, is carrying his own burdens, of returning to a still-segregated country after serving in an integrated army, the guilt and pain of seeing his two best friends die in the war, creeping alcoholism, and crucially, the recurring memory of an American soldier shooting a Korean child. Underlying this all, and kicking off the book, is a scene that Frank and Cee witnessed when they were children: a group of white men burying the body of a black man in a remote field, a body not quite dead, one of its feet still jerking. Frank eventually finds out the truth behind this scene, a truth which is about five times more horrifying than you might have even anticipated.
In other words, at every turn, this book is full of Heavy Material. A longer book might have been able to carry it. But this one doesn’t even crack 150 pages, and suffers from a sense of cutting corners, which is sometimes reflected in flat, explanatory prose, like “Lily displaced his disorder, his rage and his shame. The displacements had convinced him the emotional wreckage no longer existed.” I also felt at times that I was being led on a tour of indignities, each stop on Frank’s trip an opportunity to show how shittily African-Americans have been treated on an institutional and individual basis. And when Frank and Cee make it back to Lotus, it somewhat mysteriously transforms from the ass-end of nowhere into a paradise (there might be a Land of the Lotus-Eaters reference buried in the town’s name) of tough, nurturing women and sweet bay trees with metaphorically heavy, blasted-but-not-broken limbs. Morrison adds nuance to all these U-turns and comparisons but the book still feels rushed, more a collection of portraits and vignettes than a novel taking the time it needs to support its plot properly.
Americanah, on other hand, weighs in at a generous 588 pages, and it feels like Adichie could have gone on for much longer. Like Home, it also has two protagonists, a woman and a man: in this case, Ifemulu and her first love Odinze, who live out two different stories of immigration and return, with Lagos as their center. Ifemulu comes to the United States to go to college in the early 2000s and stays for thirteen years, eventually achieving success and making her living by writing a blog about race titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Odinze, on the other hand, who has always idolized the United States, sees his dream quashed by strict post-9/11 immigration policies and eventually ends up in the United Kingdom, from which he is finally, humiliatingly, deported, after his visa expires. Both Ifemulu and Odinze are surprised and overwhelmed by the challenges of immigration, and Adichie’s depiction of their parallel experiences makes it painfully clear how lonely and difficult it is to be an immigrant. And how strange too, if you’re a well-educated middle-class kid as Ifemulu and Odinze are, to find yourself using a false name so that you can work, setting up a false marriage to stay in the country, slipping over into a vaguely criminal life.
And then, of course, there’s race, specifically the experience of being black in America, the book’s and Ifemulu’s great subject. Adichie has a lot to say about it, and she is particularly scathing on the embarrassing ineptitude of liberal white Americans in their attempts to “relate” to black people. In the sections of the book that describe Ifemulu’s life in America, where race and its complications are often the focus, Adichie’s talent lies more in making observations than creating fully believable characters wrestling with the issues. The people with whom Ifemulu interacts in the States—her bosses, her boyfriends, her friends—seem broadly drawn to demonstrate various facets of the dysfunctional American relationship to race: the cloyingly empathetic white boss, who calls all black women “beautiful”; the blond and blue-eyed boyfriend, who, immediately after Ifemulu tells him that she has cheated on him, asks whether the guy was white. In fact, in a lot of ways, the novel feels like Ifemulu’s blog, which Adichie includes excerpts from here and there. And yet, as cartoonish as Adichie’s Americans might seem, the way that people, especially white Americans, talk about and behave in relation to race in the real world is actually outlandish, disproportionate, and awkward. The line between satire and realism runs thin in this novel.
I think, though, what finally swung me around to the book is that there’s no situation to which Adichie doesn’t seem prepared to bring her tremendous narrative gifts. For instance, Americanah is also the story of Ifemulu and Odinze’s sweet and powerful adolescent love, which is tested by their different journeys—and I’m not going to baby you on this, they get back together in the end—but just before they’re reunited, when Adichie has ratcheted up the emotional suspense to its highest hanky-grabbing peak and you don’t know if it’s all going to work out or not—she suddenly switches away and writes a long party scene where a group of Nigerian businessman (Odinze, after his return home, has gone into real estate and gotten rich) talk over the dirty secrets of the Nigerian economy. Each character, most of them new to the book, is adeptly, perfectly sketched in description and dialogue, and one of them actually says “The problem is not that public officials steal, the problem is that they steal too much.” I wanted a whole new book to grow out of that scene alone.
And if Adichie’s energy and intelligence aren’t enough for you, the Nigerian women’s soccer team has a player named Perpetua Nkwocha (according to Deadspin, she’s “considered the best African player to ever live”), so they get literature points for having a player with the same name as a font. Plus, the team’s nickname is the “Super Falcons.” Not just the Falcons, but the Super Falcons! That really can’t be improved upon. Nigeria for the win!
Next up, Nigeria’s Americanah will face off against Australia’s Burial Rites on Thursday, June 25th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Mythili Rao, and features South Korea’s Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah up against Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro.