Americanah

July 21, 2016
Americanah Book Cover Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fiction
Knopf
May 14th, 2013
Audiobook
477
Library

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

(via Goodreads)

 

This book was recommended by a friend back in late 2014. I started a book group with a collection of friends from work, and we eventually waned in early 2015 Americanah Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichieas people began to move away or find new jobs. That said, Americanah was always on my list as something to read. However, I never found myself picking it up. Why? I was afraid. Afraid of what I’d think of it. Afraid I wouldn’t get it. Afraid of how people would react to my opinions. Afraid I might just not have any opinions. So many of my friends have great insightful things to say about everything Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes. She is known as one of the most prominent modern authors connecting literature to Africa and the African diasporic experience. What if I didn’t connect? What if I was unmoved? What if I didn’t get it and suddenly was labeled as a racist or some such? What if I misinterpreted something and started an accidental flame war?! /panics

Then, I got over myself.

Yes, race is a hot topic in our current political swamp. It’s all over the news, and it’s embroiled in social media and the election. But I can’t be willfully ignorant. Bring it on.

What helped a lot was that I picked up the audiobook for this novel. Sitting at almost 500 pages, centered around diaspora, race, and finding one’s self, I knew it would be a book I’d never finish otherwise. I have a tendency to lean towards books that require less mental energy on my behalf when I am reading paper or digital books. I will start a deep or heavy or metaphysical book and then put it down and never finish. I just get distracted!  I knew this book would challenge me and show a view of the world I knew little about. Audiobooks force me to pay attention and keep going. And that was exactly what I did. I jumped in and committed to learning something new.

There was something wrong with her. She did not know what it was but there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself. The sense of something farther away, beyond her reach.

Ifemelu and Obinze are high school lovers in Lagos, Nigeria. Both of them have dreams of leaving Americanah Quote GraphicNigeria and building a better life for themselves. They make plans. Ifemelu has an opportunity to leave for America first, and so she does. And then nothing goes according to plan. Spanning years of their lives (a decade, maybe?), Ifemelu and Obinze find their lives and experiences completely different from the life and experiences they imagined for themselves. A heartbreaking and powerful book, Americanah challenges ideas around immigration, race, and the African diasporic experience in both the United States and England.

Adichie is a Nigerian herself. I’m certain there is an autobiographical aspect to this book, particularly when it comes to the title. Americanah is a Nigerian slang word used to describe someone who has lived in America so long they no longer understand what it means to be Nigerian. Someone who has adopted the American slang, way of life, standards, and expectations. It’s also obvious that Adichie understands her subjects and the cultures they are a part of very well. Her writing seamlessly weaves from culture to culture, while overtly touching on concepts that I can’t even imagine trying to put into words:

Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who have and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.

The parts of the book that most intrigued me were the excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Ifemelu started her blog while in America when she suddenly realizes that something is critically important in this country and she had never considered it before: Race.

We all wish race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

The brilliant thing about these blog post excerpts was that they did not distract from the narrative about Obinze or Ifemelu. Americanah CoverInstead, these moments allowed the reader to consider some very candid opinions– which, from my perspective, were quite different from my own. Adichie was able to speak to kinky hair, race, sexism, stereotyping, immigration, slavery, class, immigration and more. Race in America is an uncomfortable subject. But, I lend this to generations of societal expectations, prejudice, and intentional ignorance.

Upon reading this book, I realized that since moving to my new home state of Wisconsin, I have very few black friends. Growing up, I had quite a number of black friends, and I felt like I knew them well. Yet, we all went our separate ways as we graduated from school and found careers. As I read this, I also realized how very ignorant I was to the experience of blacks: Both Non-American Blacks and American Blacks (or NABs and Abs, as Ifemelu describes them). As #BlackLivesMatter and the police violence have escalated over the past few years, reading this book has told me I need to learn more.

It was true that race was not embroidered in the fabric of her history; it had not been etched on her soul.

I reached out to a friend, and she encouraged me to read more from black writers and about race. She gave me a number of other book recommendations to check out. And I realized at that point all my fears were unfounded. My fear was really about finding out that my prejudices might come to light. And they did. I didn’t understand a lot of what Ifemelu and Obinze were going through. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t expose myself to more and educate those prejudices away.

All in all, this is a wonderful story. There were moments where I felt like Adichie’s writing style was a bit distracting, and where the forward plot momentum seemed to lag– but I am glad I pushed through. I learned a lot and opened myself to new ideas. And new books!

(Also, check out Adichie’s TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story or We Should All Be Feminists if you are interested in learning more about what Adichie is passionate about!)

3 stars

4 Comments

  • Elliott October 14, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    I loved Americanah, but perhaps my own family’s Latin Americans immigrate to the US experience made a lot of the the African story diaspora more relateable on some level?

    That’s so funny you liked the blog post – those were the only thing I didn’t like! They seemed a bit superfluous – they were recaps of what had just happened in a chapter, with no new insight into the narrator’s feelings/thoughts.

    • Jackie B October 14, 2016 at 2:04 pm

      I think the blog posts helped me better understand what Ifemelu was experiencing. The blog posts put a societal context around the chapter content which I hadn’t seen before. My great-great grandparents immigrated to the US, so I feel like I lack the proper lens to really understand. As a person, I could relate to Ifemelu– but in the grander expanse of society as a whole, I think the blog posts helped me learn.

  • Sarah @ Reviews and Readathons November 17, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Great review!! I agree with a lot of what you said. As a white person, I try to increase my understanding, while understanding that I can’t ever truly understand. I do my best to recognize my position of privilege when reading and reviewing, but you are correct that it’s hard to confront our own prejudices. Very thoughtful review.

    • Jackie B November 18, 2016 at 2:04 pm

      Thanks, Sara! That means a lot to me. I really tried to be open and honest about my feelings on this, and I’m both ashamed and proud of how this post ended up. Since I wrote this, I have barely touched the books recommended to me in order to continue to educate myself sadly. This is part of my 2017 reading goals already, though: Push myself to read at least one book a month reflecting on a culture, race, or religion I am not an active part of.

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