Excitement over the extraterritorial birthplace of authors on Granta’s recent list of Britain’s best young novelists must have been old news in the United States, where the New Yorker’s equivalent exercise four years ago turned up Americans from China, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Latvia, Nigeria, Peru, Russia and Serbia.
Roughly speaking, this immigrant fiction makes a threefold appeal: it’s exotic, yet familiar (‘our’ culture measured by the standards of another), with a hairshirt’s prickle, too (by showing how short we fall). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel briefly features an eight-year-old Pennsylvanian boy who, before his nanny arrived from Nigeria, never knew that oranges contained pips. Americans in Americanah are inauthentic, or else have a fetish for authenticity; ‘liberal white folks … looking for black friends’, as someone says.
Adichie (who’s Nigerian) tells the story of two lovers parted by a search for economic and intellectual gain in separate corners of the globe. Ifemelu leaves Lagos for the US, where, after a sequence of unpleasant cash-in-hand jobs that acquaint her with the sleaziness, ignorance and dishonesty of the natives, she enrols at Princeton and becomes a celebrated blogger on race. Meanwhile, Obinze seeks his fortune in London, initially as a two-pounds-an-hour cleaner, then in a warehouse where the talk is of birds, knockers and shagging. He’s in the country illegally, and it’s not long before he’s caught; the experience gives him cause to promote the virtues of Virgin Atlantic over British Airways once he eventually makes it as a palm-greasing bigwig in the construction industry back home.
Obinze’s fitfully brilliant story stands out partly because he’s so lonely much of the time. Ifemelu’s more disputatious thread shows that dialogue isn’t Adichie’s strongest suit; it serves here mainly as a vessel for observations on the assumptions black people have to put up with (‘ “Isn’t it funny how they say ‘blacks want Obama’ and ‘women want Hillary,’ but what about black women?” Paula said’). One minor character — an African-American novelist — more or less confirms that Adichie isn’t going for subtlety when he launches into a speech about an editor who asked him to soften his treatment of racism for the sake of nuance. The loud implication is that subtlety’s for middle-class white dudes who don’t know they’re born.
This is the first novel I’ve read in which the heroine is a blogger drawn into online arguments about ‘privilege’, but Adichie’s earnestness makes it hard to determine her vantage point on the largely pre-Twitter decade in which it’s set; is it supposed to feel dated, or fresh? Ditto Ifemelu’s zeal for pre-presidency Obama; how far subsequent liberal disaffection should lay a gauze of irony, it’s hard to say. Perhaps not at all, to judge from a passage about the ebbing sex life of Ifemelu and her lover, another student:
Their union was leached of passion, but there was a new passion, outside of themselves, that united them in an intimacy they had never had before, an unfixed, unspoken intuitive intimacy: Barack Obama.
Ghana Must Go, the debut from Taiye Selasi, is just as earnest, but like Americanah it rides out a few cringeworthy moments with total confidence. Its acknowledgements name God and a couple of hundred others, and a line of biography on Selasi’s website reads, ‘born in london raised in boston lives in new york new delhi rome’. She’s also on that Granta list for ‘the mindfulness with which she re-envisions how an “African novel” can sound’. On Selasi’s mind, perhaps, were the sculpted cadences of the modern American novel: her hyper-punctuated clause-clots aren’t easy on the eye but prove melodious on the tongue. Although she does like a line break.
And a full stop. For drama.
It begins with the death of middle-aged Kweku, who had returned to Ghana from Boston, abandoning his wife and four small children, after he was sacked (ridiculously unfairly) from his job as a surgeon. Those are the earliest revelations of a narrative that criss-crosses continents, fleshing out background; the ugliest involve a wicked uncle, and explain why Kweku’s son Kehinde once tried suicidally to slice the letter T into his wrists. On the margins of an uplifting family saga is Kweku’s youngest child, Sadie, a misfit with bulimia, who, in one episode, hides in a toilet during her 20th birthday party, and in another, dancing to drums in her father’s village, discovers an improbably natural sense of rhythm — a warm and fuzzy pay-off that surely few writers without roots in Africa would brave.