Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Oscar Handlin once wrote, “I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” In this tale of family, marriage, and love, Chinedu Achebe draws us into the world of Igbo-Nigerian immigrants living in America, the joy of witnessing a Black president in America, and the daily survival strategies they adopt in between fighting obsolete traditions.
The Igbo are illustrious and enterprising people. Their culture underscores marriage, community, family and respect for elders, but these sometimes clash with the western ideals, as evident in Yejide Kilanko’s A Good Name, whose character, Eziafa’s family moves to America to eke out a better future for themselves.
Immigrants in a new country face several challenges that continually keep them grounded. Despite the pressure and occasional identity crisis, they make sure to instill staunch cultural values in their children, so they never forget their origin. Achebe spotlights some of the throes of upholding this stance in a new territory like America. In his book, Obi Ifeanyi is the first male son and therefore, is obligated to marry and start a family with an Igbo girl from a respectable home. Living in the land of the free does not mean the absence of marital pressure. Obi succumbs but believes “the reality is that most people don’t marry the person they love the most. They usually end up with the person who is ready to get married when they are.” Obi uses his parents’ union as a yardstick but realizes soon enough that the perfect union does not exist and there are decades worth of secrets his parents have yet to unpack. Contrary to his sentiments on love and marriage, he loves his wife, but the idea of spending a lifetime with just one person “is so damn hard to actually practice in real life.”
With the Obama administration forming the backdrop to the story, Achebe uses dialogue to oscillate between the significance of the administration for Black people, including immigrants, the positive things the administration did, as well as its shortcomings. Obi Ifeanyi questions the illusion the American dream presents, the gentrification of black neighborhoods and its effects on low-income black folks, and the systemic racism in the country despite the Black president.
Obi also addresses the black tax, wherein an immigrant works twice as hard so as to send money to their entitled relatives back home. The South African term, widely adopted around the world, is the financial support offered by working-class individuals to their families as a financial return for their investment—the money they invested in sending them abroad. The problem is that the return often outweighs the investment. One of the characters laments, “You think that you are doing them a favor, but that notion turns into a nightmare when they are constantly calling you every month asking for money. Your family begins to believe that just because you guys share the same blood that they should profit equally from your success.”
Achebe populates his books with strong-willed women, the likes of Nkechi and Chinwe, who challenge norms and question harmful traditions. They convince Obi Ifeanyi that setting moral and cultural standards for the people in his life will only bring disappointment. While juggling motherhood, school, and her career, Nkechi manages her home. Most times she is judged by her “independence and unorthodox” views about life, but she stays true to herself. Chinwe is in awe of Nkechi’s independence and resolve. As the only girl in the family, Chinwe is pressured to find a husband to please her Igbo parents. Her mother stifles her with a constant lecture on how a woman should behave, but Chinwe doesn’t bulge. For her, to be born a woman is a tough job already because, “we are supposed to be so many things to everybody in our lives, but in the end, we are nothing to ourselves.”
Achebe, through his diverse characters, makes a case for the re-education of Obi Ifeanyi as a husband, brother, son, and friend. We see him unlearn and relearn social concepts like feminism, patriarchy, sexuality, fetishization among other things about himself, his immediate family, and his society. The story demonstrates not only the struggles of a married man but also the struggles of a married immigrant man. The plot builds up to the twists and turns that lead us to the story’s intriguing denouement. Achebe writes conversational and stimulating dialogues into this story. It is impossible not to get the clear message in them.
About the Author:
Esther Okunlola is a content writer at The Booklady NG.