Tag Archives: Americanah

Transnational Boundary Crossing in Fictional Lagos

 In 2018, the website Ozy famously crowned Nigerian Americans as the most successful ethnic group in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of Nigerian Americans over the age of 25 held graduate degrees—almost three times the overall average within the general U.S. population. “Among Nigerian-American professionals, 45 percent work in education services … many are professors at top universities,” the online publication asserted. Admittedly, some questioned these numbers and how Ozy attributed success, but the larger point remains true: the Nigerian diaspora reaches far and wide and while many have struggled, many members of this group have excelled. Moreover, not all have chosen to remain abroad. Some have returned from brief sojourns for college or graduate school in the U.S., Europe, and U.K. to start careers in Nigeria. Others have established themselves in America or elsewhere and make the occasional pilgrimage home, and finally another segment, living as ex-pats for years, have discovered a desire to resettle permanently in their homeland.

Such are the transnational stories at the heart of three novels by Nigerian authors: No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Each novel features a protagonist returning to Nigeria with Lagos as his or her port of call. Each of these characters witnesses the city’s transformation while undergoing their own self-realization and navigating Lagos in ways that had previously been foreign—transnational lives crossing national, societal, and personal boundaries in a metropolis that abounds with new frontiers hemmed in by old, traditional borders.

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Sunset at the beach in Lagos, February 3, 2019, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Returns, 1960 – 2000s

In 1960, Chinua Achebe published No Longer at Ease, in which the author follows the travails of Obi Okonkwo, a rural Nigerian returning from London after completing four years of study to take a position in the Nigerian government. Published on the cusp of independence, the novel reflects a nation attempting to modernize as it sheds its colonial traditions and European prejudices.

Stationed in Lagos, Okonkwo admits that even in his four years abroad, the city had changed: “There were many things he could no longer recognize, and others – like the slums of Lagos – which he was seeing for the first time.”[1] Though less renowned than his towering work, Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease carries with it a similar simmering discomfort that critiques both European imperialism and the customs and traditions of Nigeria.

NoLongerAtEase.jpgNever one for simplistic truths or platitudes, Achebe presents the reader with a Lagos filled with opportunity, but also wretched poverty. “His car was parked close to a wide open storm drain from which came a very strong smell of rotting flesh,” Okonkwo observes. “It was the remains of a dog which had no doubt been run over by a taxi.” Even small tragedies such as this have been transformed into a talisman of greater things as one driver tells him to that to strike a dog with a newly purchased car brought good luck; a duck, however, brought darker realities. “If you kill duck, you go get accident or kill man,” he confides.[2]

As in many a metropolis, Lagos streets on a Saturday night “were … quite noisy and crowded.” Walking its avenues, one encountered “bands of dancers” every few steps. “Gay temporary sheds were erected in front of derelict houses and lit with brilliant fluorescent tubes for celebration,” be it for engagement, marriage, birth, promotion, business success or death of an elderly relative.[3] The “hustle” frequently attributed to and exhibited by Lagosians was clearly a long-term character trait of the city. Yet whatever its collective resiliency, Achebe refused to soft pedal Lagos, and by extension the city’s complexities. Okonkwo eventually discovers his youthful potential quickly fades as, between his living expenses, debts, and family obligations, getting by on an honest paycheck alone remains a difficult path to navigate: “If one did not laugh, one would have to cry. It seemed that was the way Nigeria was built.”[4]

81fZ4WCGt7LOver 50 years later, Lagos’ tumultuous energy persisted. “Combined with traffic congestion … and considering the thousand natural shocks to which the average Nigerian is subject – the police, armed robbers, the public officials, the government, the total absence of social services, the poor distribution of amenities – the environment is anything but tranquil,” Teju Cole’s nameless Nigerian ex-pat narrates in his vaguely existentialist novel Everyday is for the Thief, in which he documents his return to Lagos after a decade in America.[5]

Ifemelu, the protagonist propelling Americanah forward, admits a similar shock upon return: “At first Lagos assaulted her; the sun-dazed haste, the yellow buses full of squashed limbs, the sweating hawkers racing after cars, the advertisements on hulking billboards … and the heaps of rubbish that rose on the roadsides like a taunt.” Lagos proved predictable in its unpredictability. “One morning a man’s body lay on Awolowo Road. Another morning, The Island flooded and cars became gaping boats,” she observes. “Here, she felt, anything could happen, a ripe tomato could burst out of solid stone.”[6] Planning to re-establish roots in the city she left many years earlier, Ifemelu views the city with greater aplomb and joy than Cole’s narrator, who remains fairly sullen throughout, announcing, “I have returned a stranger.”[7]

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Street in Lagos, photograph by Harry Porwanto, December 10, 2018

Trying to Tell Tales of the City

Conflict and disorder make for great stories. Lagos exists as a cauldron of drama, an entrepot of narrative. Yet while the city might contain a million stories, for writers wanting to document them, Cole’s nameless protagonist comments that in the metropolis there is a “rarity of creative refuge.”[8] Though filled with tales, Lagos contains a dearth of solitude in which to spin them. “Lagos is not regarded as a writer-friendly city. Let me concede this point straight away: that Lagos is not a city where you may read a book in the comfort of a bus or train or recollect emotion in Wordsworthian tranquility,” writes Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun.[9]

The solution to such an unabated lived reality of sensory overload? More overload: “I have no right to Coltrane here, not with everything else going on,” Cole’s narrator reflects. “This is Lagos. I disagree, turn the volume up, listening to both the music and the noise. Neither gives way.” In his own way, Cole’s unnamed narrator gives literary flesh to one of Ofeimun’s observations of Lagos: that it exists as “a city of blocked wills.”[10]

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Boys fishing in Lagos Lagoon, March 17, 2018, photograph by CE Blueclouds

Despite these convergences and oppositions, Lagos, and Nigeria more broadly, has not lacked for novelistic attentions. “The truth of the matter is that this city by the lagoon fascinates, if for nothing else, because it offers the closest Nigerian parallel to a melting pot,” asserts Ofeimun. “This, as I see it, is our prime city of crossed boundaries.” Crossed boundaries, be it nationalities, classes, mores, and so forth, make for compelling characters and riveting stories with the city serving as thefinest of Archimedian points from which dreams may be regenerated and a new way found of gaining access to the future.”[11]

Indeed, not all retuning ex-pats view the city as critically as Cole’s narrator or Achebe’s Obi. Despite her rough introduction to Lagos, Ifemelu finds opportunity in her return to the city when she first takes a job as an editor at a women’s journal, Zoe Magazine, under the supervision of Aunty Onenu. An expression of the new Lagos, the magazine’s offices are located in “Onikan … the old Lagos, a slice of the past, a temple to the faded splendor of the colonial years….” The energy of a revitalizing metropolis spills outward. Many of the buildings had sagged and rusted over the years, but enterprises like Zoe Magazine (along with real estate development) gradually refurbished the area around the publication’s offices, which welcomed visitors with “heavy glass doors [that] opened into a reception area painted a terra cotta orange….”[12]

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Frank Edward at Victorious Army Ministries International 2016 Convention in Lagos Photo: Hodimages|Kunle Ogunfuyi

The Ties that Bind: Religion and Culture

 Though she eventually leaves the magazine to work on her blog, The Small Redemption of Lagos, Ifemelu’s experiences at work illustrate the Nigerian city’s broader culture. The receptionist Esther embraces evangelicalism. “’Will you come this Sunday, ma? My pastor is a powerful man of God. So many people have testimonies of miracles that have happened in their lives because of him,’” she tells Ifemelu. The women profiled in the magazine do much the same. “All of them, the madams she interviewed, boasted about what they owned and where they or their children had been and what they had done, and then they capped their boasts with God. We thank God. It is God that did it. God is faithful.[13] Her mother also practices Christianity with fervor.

As Kaye Whitman notes in his cultural history of Lagos, “The best ways to make money in Nigeria, I was told in 2001, were ‘currency speculation and religion.’” Evangelical churches began to blossom during the economically challenging 1980s, but continued flourishing in the decades that followed.[14] The New Yorker’s George Packer adds that religion often comes packed with a message of personal advancement. “Abandoned warehouses and factories on the Apapa – Oshadi Expressway have been converted into huge churches with signs that promise, ‘The Lord Shall Add,’ and on Sundays they fill up with adherents of what is known as ‘the gospel of prosperity.’” Ifemelu imagines Esther this way, describing her as a women of “small ambitions” who dressed neatly, wore slightly “scuffed but carefully polished high heels, read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity, and was superior with the drivers and ingratiating with the editors.”

0f3ee814b97ec2848a8221690616c4697149752dA sense of salvation for those Lagosians invested in religion pervades the broader society. Upon visiting the diminishing National Museum (also located in Onikan), Cole’s narrator encounters a female staff member singing hymnals “as if for all the world, she were not at a place of work.” After admonishing him not to take photos, she “resumes sweetly singing the glories of her Lord. Her disconnection from the environment is absolute. A victorious Christian among the idols.”[15]

Of course, not every Lagosian buys into this religiosity. As one cynical observer tells Packer, he doesn’t believe God has much to do with any of it. “They pray to be rich . . . Whether they go to Heaven or to Hell, they could care less.”[16] One should note, this is hardly unique to Lagos; one could make remarkably similar arguments about the Joel Osteens of the world and those that follow his path. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that this explosive growth in evangelicalism in Nigeria has been offset by the steadier and equally persistent popularity of Islam.

Other residents of the city find connection not in religion but in their transnational existence. The Lagosian diaspora – epitomized by Okonkwo, Cole’s protagonist, and Ifemelu – cuts across decades and opinions; those returning from the West bring with them their own ideas that sometimes conflict with Lagosian tradition and each other. In regard to the former, Okonkwo chaffs at Nigerian traditions that prevent him from marrying his beloved Clara, who, being a descendent of the untouchable Osu caste in Nigeria, would bring shame onto his Christian family. No amount of accumulated culture or education abroad can overcome it. Ofeimun’s point about crossed boundaries was no less true in 1960 than today. After all, the heartrending tragedy of Clara and Obi’s relationship is compelling.

Ifemelu’s experiences with the Nigerpolitan Club, which she describes as “a small cluster of … chic people, all dripping with savoir faire, each nursing a self-styled quirkiness – a ginger colored Afro, a t-shirt with a graphic of Thomas Sankara, oversize handmade earrings that hung like pieces of modern art,” best embodies this the awkward transnational dynamic facing returnees from the West. They decry their inability to find good smoothies in Lagos and lobby for a more robust Nigerian civil society. At one meeting, Ifemelu, worried about her own Western proclivities, defends Nollywood after one fellow Nigerpolitan attendee critiqued it for its over-the-top theatricality, poor technical standards, and misogyny. “‘Nollywood may be melodramatic, but life in Nigeria is very melodramatic,” she responds. “Hollywood makes equally bad movies. They just make them with better lighting.’”[17]

Whether pretentious in their Western affectations or not, returning ex-pats like those represented in the fictional Nigerpolitan Club have helped to reshape the city and inject it with an obvious edginess. The current uptick in the city’s art “eco-system” results from a mix of homegrown talent, African immigrants, and those returning from abroad. “Generational renewal and art-world globalization are shaking up habits in the Lagos gallery scene,” a recent New York Times article noted. The music scene has also traversed cultural borders in its melding of traditional Nigerian music and sounds from the West. Bianca Adanna Okorocha, a musician described as “magnetic,” able to coax “bodies in her thrall to give in to their baser selves,” represents this trend. Okoroacha has gained fame for “her ability to fuse rock music with Afropop, the predominant contemporary sound in Lagos.”

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Lagos Carnival – Ikoyi Lagos State Nigeria, photograph by Juju Films, April 30, 2011

Some boundary crossings, though inspirational, demonstrate risk as well. The Lagos fashion scene, like those in art and music, also challenges traditions, particularly in a city still dominated by conservative viewpoints on gender and sexuality. In 2014, laws were passed that banned same sex marriage and civil unions, but the legislation is sometimes is deployed more broadly by law enforcement to intimidate the city’s LGBTQ community. For example, the fashion designer Ezra Olubi’s use of make up, lipstick and nail polish has lead to conflict with the police, who harassed him by claiming that “painting his nails and wearing makeup is illegal” even though they are not. Civil society can be less than civil as well. Denola Grey, a television host, received death threats for posting an image of himself on social media dressed in a suit with a belt worn not through the loops of his trousers but over the jacket at his natural waist. “That belt you used to tie your waist, we will tie it around your neck,” wrote one ungenerous, homophobic commentator.

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Construction for future part of Eko City, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, photograph by Harry Powanto, May 4, 2017.

Where It All Leads

Traversing new frontiers and challenging boundaries can have any number of outcomes: some undoubtedly positive, some undoubtedly negative, and others more ambivalent. Without giving away too much, each of these novels ends on a tonally different note. Achebe’s conclusion is largely revealed at the book’s outset; it’s somewhat desultory ending comes as no surprise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ifemelu settles well into her new life. She reconciles with her exes in America, blogs about the city, and makes strides toward rekindling an old relationship from her youth in Lagos. “Still, she was at peace: to be home, to be writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again,” she reflects. “She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.”[18]

Teju Cole’s narrator arrives in Lagos with no small amount of ambivalence and departs irresolutely with a case of malaria. Having arrived back in New York, he remembers one particular Lagos street scene, a hive of activity, with carpenters working “rapt in their meditative task” as they constructed caskets for the deceased. Despite the avenue’s “open sewers and rusted roofs,” he recalls that it maintained a certain “dignity”: “Nothing is preached here. Its inhabitants simply serve life by securing good passage for the dead, their intricate work seen for a moment and then hidden for a lifetime.”[19]

As he made his way out of this labyrinth of back streets he merged onto another, one reminiscent of Obi’s Lagos, where death in old age is celebrated “with great fanfare”: the most expensive casket ordered, a secondary school’s football field rented, and a “large party with canopies and live music and colorful outfits” thrown. However, if the dead is young, fallen “before the full fruition of life, the rites are performed under grief’s discreet shadow, a simple box, no frills, a small afternoon burial on a weekday, marked by bitter and unshowy tears, and attended by neither the parents nor by the parents’ friends, for the old should not see the young buried.” Marked by these two poles, the people of Lagos reside between them, an ocean of experience, the borders and frontiers of life and death sloshing across one another in wave after wave of human existence. One need not be a writer to know this. “The carpenters, I am sure, have borne witness to all of this.”[20]

Featured image (at top): Lagos, April 17, 2017, photograph by CE Blueclouds.

[1] Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, (bnpublishing.net, 1960), 14.

[2] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 17-18.

[3] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 19

[4] Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 112.

[5] Teju Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, (New York: Random House, 2008), 67.

[6] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), 475.

[7] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 17.

[8] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 68.

[9] Odia Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City.” African Quarterly on the Arts Vol. 3, no. 2 (2001): 138.

[10] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 69; Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 137.

[11] Ofeimun, “Imagination & the City,” 138.

[12] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[13] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494, 507.

[14] Kaye Whiteman, Lagos: A Cultural History (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2004), 87.

[15] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 72-73.

[16] Kaye Whitman, Lagos: A Cultural History, 87; George Packer, “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos,” The New Yorker, 2008; Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 73; Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 494.

[17] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 501, 503-504

[18] Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, 586.

[19] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 160-161.

[20] Cole, Everyday is for the Thief, 162