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  • On the Familiar and the Unfamiliar in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah
  • Kyle Woodend (bio)

For many expatriates, one of the great contemporary favorites is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah—a novel that follows two former lovers Ifemelu and Obinze as they separately move abroad and then both return changed and unchanged to Nigeria.1 While abroad, the characters navigate projective and pejorative views on Africa and Africans in the West while also engaging a cosmopolitan desire for dialogue, participation, and production in the increasingly interconnected world in which their stories take place. In view of the characters' cosmopolitan trajectories, Adichie's comedic insight, and the novel's rather rosy ending, Americanah is not only a critical examination of migrant identity in American (and British) culture but is also something of a comfort read for those who live on cultural borders, in the liminal spaces both inside and outside of various societies. With this in mind, we might ask what a comfort read might be when the subject matter involves what Bharati Mukherjee calls, regarding transnational and migrant fiction, "the trauma of self-transformation."2 Is a comfort read still a retreat from the uncertainties and anxieties of the world into the easy space of the already-known? In transnational fiction, is the familiar a comfort zone, the ultimate aim of the protagonist, a curtain to be pulled back by the narrative, or something else altogether?

We might be tempted to view the act of reading a favorite novel as akin to eating a comfort food. In this case, it would be reasonable to think of a comfort read as emotionally undemanding and lisible,3 perhaps embodied by the image of Raymond Chandler's detective fiction, the Hogwarts world of J. K. Rowling, or the erotic romance of E. L. James. To be sure, any novel could be read for comfort, as it would depend as much on the sensibility of a reader as the genre of fiction, but the common notion of the comfort x (comfort food, show, novel) tends to indicate the easygoing and the conventional. In this view, the objective would be a retreat from the chaos of the world into the cozy space of the familiar, whether this is familiarity with a genre or a particular novel. Therefore, the fiction would enable a temporary withdrawal from the outside world into the space of the known to generate a sense of pleasure and perhaps safety. [End Page 166]

Of course, such a view can become complicated when the comfort read of choice falls into the realm of the political or the weird, where the fiction aims to "escape from the prison-house of the known";4 still, one could just as well argue that the unfamiliar has become familiar by the third or fourth reading of a story. This is the first and perhaps the most obvious challenge to the notion of the familiar as a retreat from the world: For a subject, a situation or act can progress from the unknown to the familiar through repetition; for instance, a beginner pilot might be anxious, but flying might later become a source of relaxation. Second, to problematize further the common conception of the familiar, Sigmund Freud's concept of the unheimlich interrogates this idea of the familiar as the safe and secure; he defines the unheimlich as "that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar."5 This notion places the familiar at the heart of the unknown where it becomes a source of the utmost anxiety. Still, because the goal of psychoanalysis is to bring to light the (un)familiar lodged within the subject's sense of self and perception of the other, the trajectory remains that of familiarization. Here, the familiar lies at the end of a progressive trajectory from obscurity to enlightenment, for when the symptom becomes familiar, the process is completed.6 Last, the (un)familiar can also move in the inverse direction. In an article on Adichie's Americanah, Caroline Levine discusses the unfamiliar beneath the familiar, arguing that Adichie's narrative strategy of defamiliarization highlights the inconsistencies inherent in the...