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Tales of Migration: Zukiswa Wanner Reviews Americanah and We Need New Names

AmericanahWe Need New NamesAmericana
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Harper Collins, R215)
**** (4/5 stars)

We Need New Names
NoViolet Bulawayo
(Chatto & Windus, R250)
*** (3/5 stars)

Two new novels by international prize-winning African women writers tell tales of migration, a theme increasingly prevalent in the literature of our continent.

In Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian, Ifemelu, arrives in the US during a heat wave. “All her life she had thought of ‘overseas’ as a cold place of wool coats and snow… as she left the airport building the sweltering heat alarmed her.”

Darling, the main character in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, on the other hand, meets winter in Destroyed Michygen (Detroit, Michigan). “[I]t’s not the normal cold that you could just complain about and move on to other things. No. This cold is not like that. It’s the cold to stop life, to cut you open and blaze your bones.”

The two new immigrants start trying to fit in. Darling works on her accent by watching TV; Ifem practises in front of the mirror. They learn that life overseas is not The Cosby Show. Visas expire and fixers demand ever-higher percentages of wages. The race question rears up. Stereotypes — born aloft by 419 scams — run amok.

Adichie’s book goes more in-depth. In one scene a white American observes that her Ugandan friend does not have a chip on her shoulder like black Americans do. Ifem retorts this is perhaps because while the father of the Ugandan was studying at Oxford, the father of the black American was still not permitted to vote. Ifem’s l ove affairs, one with a white American and one with a black American, tease out African perceptions on Americans and vice versa.

I had a few problems with Bulawayo’s book. Her Zimbabwe appears to be a caricature of what she believes her Western readers want to hear about the country. Flyers for witchdoctors are absurd enough without exaggeration, but Bulawayo posts one that reads: “Bestest Healer… Will Proper Fix Your Problemsome Things That You May Encounter in Your Life: Bewitchedness … Childrenlessness”.

Childrenlessness, problemsome, bewitchedness? Even my Zimbabwean grandmother with her minimal English would never write such words.

On a more positive note, Bulawayo’s Darling grows as a character when she moves to the US. The author writes well; perhaps future work will get a better edit. Adichie’s Americanah, while more skilfully written, is not without its problems. As the novel develops, Ifem becomes annoying. Her cynicism and caustic responses hide an inferiority complex. I kept hoping she would come into self-actualisation and grow up, but it doesn’t happen. She is smug and selfish and has no qualms using or hurting people. The reunion that occurs at the end is also too neat and expected.

That said, henceforth it will be difficult to talk about the African Diaspora without mentioning these two books. They bring understanding, or dialogue at least, between those who stay, those who went, and those who return.

— Zukiswa Wanner

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