The memory, clear as a beam of light, took Obinze back to a time when he believed the universe would bend according to his will. Once, during his final year at University, the year that people danced in the streets because General Abacha had died, his mother had said, “One day, I will look up and all the people I know will be dead or abroad.” For a moment, he felt as if he had betrayed her by having his own plan: to get a postgraduate degree in America, to work in America, to live in America. Of course, he knew how unreasonable the American Consulate could be – the Vice-Chancellor, of all people, had once been refused a visa to attend a conference – but he had never doubted his plan. He would wonder, later, why he had been so sure. Perhaps it was because he had never just wanted to go abroad, as many others did; some people were now even going to South Africa, which amused him. It had always been America, only America. A longing nurtured and nursed over many years.
In her Page-Turner interview, Adichie explains this piece is not about the generally known story of African immigration to escape war or poverty: “But this is about another kind of immigration, of people who do not come from burned villages, but are seeking that sublime thing: choice.” Obinze grew up as the son of a University professor; he himself is University-educated. He’s just always had this dream to go to America. When he’s unable to land a job in Nigeria in spite of his education and language skills, wonders “if employers could smell his America-pining on his breath.”
The title is taken from a Nigerian TV campaign from the 80s aimed at discouraging Nigerians from emigrating and encouraging them to stay and help build the country. We see that campaign through the eyes of Obinze as a child:
While Andrew was checking out, General Buhari’s soldiers were flogging adults in the streets, lecturers were striking for better pay, and Obinze’s mother decided that he could no longer have Fanta whenever he wanted but only on Sundays. America became a place where bottles of Fanta could be had without permission.
Spoiler alert (sort of): he doesn’t get there. At least, not in this “story” – which is, in fact, an excerpt from the forthcoming novel, Americanah. Though the piece covers a period of time with a distinct beginning and end, I suspected it was an excerpt by the time I’d gotten halfway through, and I was sure of it when I got to the end. I normally rail against excerpts. I feel it’s not right to serve them up unannounced. But, in spite of the sense that there was more to come, it was gripping reading; I was pulling for Obinze all along.
As I read, I recognized the name Obinze from Adichie’s BASS 2011 story, “Ceiling.” I kept wondering throughout if this was the same Obinze; some of the details fit, but there was no mention of Ifemelu, who we would have met already. To my surprise, the description of the novel indicates it is indeed the same character. There was no mention of a novel in the Contributor Notes then; I wonder what the sequence was (I see there’s also a short story, published in The Guardian, featuring Ifemelu as a child). On a side note: When I read “Ceiling” I was puzzled over a background detail that’s finally addressed in this story. Some things come to those who wait.
This excerpt takes place in London, with Obinze on a six-month work visa, hoping to somehow make it to America from there. Six months isn’t a long time. When his visa expires, he stays, entering the nether world of the undocumented worker.
The story overall has a somewhat plodding approach, full of logistical details of comings and goings, who and when, this happened then that happened, but it’s leavened with wonderful moments, keen observations, and dramatic descriptions; it soon becomes a page-turner. For example, his first job in London is decidedly not in keeping with his education:
Everyone joked about people who went abroad to clean toilets, and so Obinze approached his first job with irony: he was indeed abroad cleaning toilets…
Later, when things go wrong, he reacts with less irony. Once his visa runs out, a friend from school puts him in touch with one Vincent to obtain documents to allow him to work:
Obinze imagined Vincent’s Nigerian life: a community secondary school all of barefoot children; a Polytechnic paid for with the help of a number of uncles; a family of many children; and a crowd of dependents in his hometown who, whenever he visited, would expect large loaves of bread and pocket money carefully distributed to each of them. Obinze saw himself through Vincent’s eyes: a university staff child who grew up eating butter and now needed his help.
His use of Vincent’s documents requires that he use Vincent’s name as well: “He became Vincent.” And when the new job he obtains as Vincent doesn’t work out, it’s evident he’s still made a connection with some of his co-workers: “He left the warehouse that evening for the final time, wishing more than anything that he had told Nigel and Roy his real name.” This is a kind of profound loneliness – where one is unable to be himself at the most literal level, his name – most of us can only imagine.
Each twist and turn of Obinze’s fate entwined me with him, in a way “Ceiling” did not; I’m far more interested in Obinze than I was after my first encounter with him. Maybe that’s because I’ve grown as a reader; maybe it’s because this is a more interesting period in his life. I’m still pulling for him; excerpt or not, that’s pretty strong evidence that the piece has power. I hate to admit it, but the excerpt has served its purpose: I’d like to read the novel, just to see if he gets to America.