LITERATURE JULY 8, 2013
The new novel Americanah has elicited a number of strong reactions, ranging from exasperation to awe. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian woman, appears to be no less divisive, at least based on the discussion about her book on Twitter and elsewhere. (I haven't read it.)
Still, we should all be able to agree that she makes an insufferable interviewee, at least as seen in a Q&A The New York Times wrote up. A taste:
Q: Do you see any differences in how your work is reviewed in the U.S. compared to in Nigeria?
A: I’m very pleased that more Americans than I thought are reading it in a way I hoped it would be read. Still, it seems it is mostly American readers who most miss the fact that “Americanah” is supposed to be funny. I laughed a lot when writing it (although it is a bit worrying to be so amused by one’s own humor). But I suppose race when bluntly dealt with does not blend well with that wonderful, famed American earnestness.
So, if you didn't think the book was funny, your innate, American characteristics are the problem. (Or perhaps the environment is to blame.)
Equally irksome is the idea, supported by some of the questions, that merely writing the book was a bold act.
Q: Another character says that when black American authors write about race, they have to “make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.” Would you say that your book is in some ways a response to this, since race is a very clear theme throughout?
A: The character was talking about African-American, rather than African or American-African writers, and this distinction is also partly what the novel is about. I think "Americanah" is a response of sorts but it is complicated by my not being African-American. I could have done “Americanah” differently, in a way that was safer. I know the tropes. I know how race is supposed to be dealt with in fiction (you can do a “novel of ideas” about baseball, but not about race, because it becomes “hectoring”), but I wanted to write the kind of novel about race that I wanted to read.
It is indeed brave of Adichie to write a book that would sell well, garner tremendous amounts of press, and get excerpted in The New Yorker. But doesn't this success render the question itself, about what is allowed, moot? (Perhaps Adichie would argue that if she had been African-American, rather than Nigerian-born, the book would have been pilloried, but in a country she otherwise regards as ignorant about racial matters, that seems unlikely.)
In a previous interview, she stated:
Writing about race should be lyrical and poetic and never quite definite. Very Proustian. And at the end the reader should feel exactly the same as they felt at the start. That’s the way to do race in literary fiction. I could have done that, written a safer book. The reviews would have been better. People wouldn’t be complaining. But I wanted it to be true.
How modest of her...
Anyway, I have no doubt that if Adichie's next book fails to sell, she will chalk it up to American stupidity and ignorance.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.