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 as 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 Nigeria 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. Instead, 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!