In awarding the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah," we recognize a novel that engages with important ideas about race, and does so with style, wit and insight. Adichie has updated the traditional immigration novel about the scars of assimilation, infused it with questions about race, and made it hip and highly perceptive.
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Both a star-crossed transcontinental love story and piercing social satire, "Americanah" follows Ifemelu, a young woman who has lived in America for 13 years and has decided to give up Princeton, her Yale professor boyfriend and her popular blog to return to Nigeria, where she was born and raised — and where she found her first love, Obinze.
Ifemelu and Obinze, educated and middle class, had become restless with the paucity of options in their home country and had left. While she went to America, he became caught in post-9/11 immigration issues and ended up in London. The two had lost touch.
In America, Ifemelu had found success with her anonymous blog: "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." In the blog posts, Ifemelu took on taboo subjects, writing about "Professor Hunk" and dropping offhand remarks about "white privilege."
As the novel opens, Ifemelu leaves the leafy Princeton paradise for a rundown African salon in Trenton, N.J., where women from Senegal and Mali braid hair. As her hair is braided, Ifemelu bristles over the women's expectation of Pan-African kinship, bringing questions of racial distinction and identity into high profile.
Adichie lived in the United States for four years and now divides her time between here and Nigeria. Her observations about race — particularly blackness, the identity with which she was tagged in America — are keen, and she brilliantly exposes the coded language used to talk about race. Neither pretentious nor polemical, "Americanah" is witty, informed by Adichie's playful mind and adroit use of language. The novel exposes the distinctions among African, American-African and African-American.
The title "Americanah" is a Nigerian word; with the addition of just two letters, American becomes a playful word used to describe those who return to Nigeria with an American pretentiousness.
That sort of affectation is mercifully absent from this wonderful novel. It speaks to the fault lines of race and exposes them with insight and imagination.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Knopf, 479 pages, $26.95
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will discuss "Americanah," winner of the Heartland Prize for fiction, with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.
Thomas Dyja will discuss "The Third Coast," winner of the Heartland Prize for nonfiction, with Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, at the library center.
Both events are sold out.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun