“I’ve loved all of Adichie’s novels,” I read in one review of Americanah, “but not this one. It has no story.”
The reviewer is wrong, in my opinion. Americanah has a wealth of story. Even the slightest of minor characters have stories they are bursting to tell. What the book does not have, is a plot.
Plot and story are different things, albeit sometimes difficult to pull apart. In fact, in a well-plotted novel it should be damn-near impossible to separate them, because good plotting intricately intertwines its underlying stories into an almost invisibly woven fabric.
In the past, Nigeria’s war-torn modern history supplied Adichie with rich themes, giving her an abundance of story that neatly hid any absence of tight plotting techniques. But Americanah is set in a more politically stable Nigeria, in England and the Princetown campus of New Jersey. The novel doesn’t deal in war, tribal hatred or violent death. It is of the perceptions and emotions of her characters which she writes primarily.
Americanah has strong, over-arching themes that moved and informed me, and Adichie defines these in a straight-forward manner, at time using blog posts to strike them home. At its foundation, the book is a well-crafted polemic – that is a contentious argument presented to establish the truth of an understanding. Through her main character, Adichie explored her argument in convincing depth.
Ifemelu is a young, educated Nigerian woman who fulfills her desire to travel, leaves her sweetheart and goes to America without a Green Card. She wants to embrace American life, ‘softening’ her hair rather than plaiting it and adopting a New York accent, but she’s struck with a difference she observes. In Nigeria, everyone is black. There is no discrimination over colour. What she experiences in the US – and then documents in her blog – is how colour prejudice survives in the enlightened, racially equal 21st century. It’s subtle, this prejudice. Understated. Sometimes, people seem embarrassed by their own racism. But Ifemelu notes it down, incident by incident. She describes herself as “the non-American-black”, commenting to Black Americans on their own naivety.
The polemic of the novel, the quality of the writing and the strength of the characters powered me through the book, even though I’m less than fond of plot-less novels. Not that there is anything wrong in the idea of a novel without a plot. Some of the best literature in the world is substantially plot-less, including Ulysses and The Life and Opinion of Tristam Shandy. Some readers hate plot-driven books and many writers prefer to present ideas and explore character rather than neatly sculpt a perfect plot; I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of those.
Students on the OCA Creative Writing courses often get confused – understandably – with the differences between story and plot. Sometimes, I ask them to consider their own lives to help the differentiation. Your life is a story. Every life you touch also has a story. Story infiltrates the way we understand our lives…it’s almost how humans think.
Plot, on the other hand, is a literary term defining the structure a piece of dramatic prose or poetry. These form a pattern or sequence of composed, causal events which are usually organized into and contained within a logical shape. They comprise six or so steps; the introduction, the conflict, the rising action, the crisis, the falling action, and the denouement and/or conclusion. Our lives occasionally take such causal paths, but mostly, like a plot-less novel, our story drifts though space and time, never really ending until we have.
Note that characters are hardly mentioned in my definition of plot above; another way of thinking about the differences between story and plot is to consider how stories are always about people (or people substitutes) while plots are the structure such a story can assume within the narrative.
I am of the mind that writers fall naturally towards one way of being or the other – either they love character and want to primarily tell story, or they love theme, complexity and construction; the use of narrative to build ideas and expound argument. There isn’t a right or wrong way, but knowing which way you are driven will only help balance your writing. Adichie gains that balance by expounding her opinions through the development of her characters.
There is, for instance, Aunty Uju is a village woman who educates herself and becomes the lover of “The General,” living in luxury in Nigeria until it all goes wrong then escaping to the US where she finally finds works as a doctor. A favourite of mine was Ifemelu’s college boyfriend, Obinze. In the UK he has to undergo the humiliations of a person without status, but when he returns to Nigeria he becomes successful in the corrupt regime which he hates and offers the poorly paid workers he met in England a slice of that success.
One interesting literary device used throughout the book is worth examining by any prospective writer. After 13 years in the US, Ifemelu is going home and she wants to braid her hair again. She travels out of Princetown to a shabby area where the hairdressers are illegal immigrants working in bad conditions. It takes over six hours for the braiding to complete, and in that time, the rest of the story, mostly in flashback, is completed too, making the braiding a great symbol for the weaving of a tale. Naturally, braiding African hair is also an important statement about blackness, but the contrast between Ifemelu and the hairdressers (she was once an illegal immigrant, like these girls, but now owns a condo in New Jersey), investigates a subtle underlying of the theme of discrimination; although the workers in the salon are black, there are bigger class differences between Ifemelu and the hairdressers than she’d wish to admit. She is the embarrassed one, thinking thoughts she wishes she wouldn’t have. She can barely force herself join in their conversations.
You can’t beat Aristotle, if you need to sum something up, and he thinks that…the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole, with its several incidents so closely connected that the transposal or withdrawal of any one of them will disjoin and dislocate the whole. For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole. (from The Rhetoric & The Poetics of Aristotle). Right on, Aristotle. That’s exactly what I was trying to say about plot.
I recommend students read Americanah, then read the reviews, especially those from ‘ordinary’ readers, which you’ll find on Goodreads, Amazon and readers’ blogs. Note how different readers see the book in various ways…as a love story, as a book about the black agenda, about isolation and immigration. Some people loved the book, some were disappointed, and this demonstrates what readers ask primarily of the authors they love. Yes, they want stories about people…brilliantly coloured stories of life in all its glory. But they also want causality – that cause and effect that encapsulates and ties together random events, making more sense of them than we could ever make of our own lives. They want plot – a structure that unites character and story together, perhaps not in too perfect a manner, but not so that the narrative is as amorphous as our personal life story.