Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.

I picked up Americanah after watching a TED Talk Adiche gave where she spoke up about the need for multiple stories. I couldn’t agree with her more – the single narrative of the books of my childhood created a disconnect with the way I saw the world, but I couldn’t really put that experience into words until I listened to her, dragging her points through my mind and connecting them to my own experiences and such. So, I looked her up, found more TED Talks, interviews and her books, and brought it up to a friend of mine, after we both had finished The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out the window and Disappeared, and we decided to red it together and book club it, essentially, with a few other friends.

Adiche herself has described her book as something she laughed alot about as she wrote it, and I can see why – the synopsis says it’s about a girl, Ifemelu and a boy, Obinze, who fall in love, grow up, lose touch as they go about their lives and somehow reconnect, but it’s so much more.

Synopsis:

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.

We are told in the opening pages that an “Americanah” is a Nigerian that moved to America for some amount of time, only to return changed – clothes, mannerisms, a hoyty-toyty personality shift. Americanahs are treated with both disdain and respect – when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and takes a job for a rich woman, she begins by countering the woman’s understandings – and she is told by her friend that if she hadn’t been an Americanah, she would have been fired. So the novel’s title brings already an understanding of what it means to leave a home, make another one and then return to that first home – with all the experiences you retained from along the way. But it is more than that – it is specific to American immigrants. Ifemelu’s journey in America is in-depth, whereas Obinze’s time in Britain is not. This may be because Adiche has more experience in America – she herself immigrated to America for university – but also because the racial tensions and immigration story do well in America – there’s more meat.

Ifemelu is what I think of as a perfect female character in that she is so terribly imperfect. She is honest and judgmental – usually a horrible combination, but through her eyes we see the absurdity of some of what we take for granted. She walks into America thinking like a Nigerian – she does not always get the racism that is so inherent in the American system, and she quickly adapts, starting her own blog (Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black) to account for all the differences she sees in terms of race and culture. She touches on subjects like African hair – natural or kinky hair, a subject I never gave much thought to until a lady from South Africa brought it up in one of my third year Women’s Studies Seminars. Adiche has mentioned this is a book about hair – something, I think, mystifies some people, but it really is. There is an entire discourse about Ifemelu’s hair that begins on the first page, as she boards a train to take her to the African part of the city to get her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. Hair is just one of the ways in which race can be intereted by Ifemelu – and a pretty integral one.

Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.

Ifemelu is almost delightfully snarky about her observations, too. She takes in what happens, processes it with an almost delicate touch, then comes up with sharp-witted and exacting observations that strike at the heart of the situation itself. In Nigeria, she claims, race isn’t an issue – so she only becomes “black” when she steps off the plane and walks into America. I have read a great many reviews or comments about this that were negative – people that didn’t understand how that could be possible, and to her credit, I think Adiche is marvelous at breaking it down and making sense of it all, insomuch as sense van be made from racism. She takes apart the structures of racism – subtle things like how people say “blacks and poor whites” instead of “poor blacks and whites”, making the assumption that all blacks in America are poor – and makes the reader question them, reaching deep into the American psyche from a unique position as being a foreigner, and pulling out all the strangeness that we have come to accept without question.

And it doesn’t stop with race, though race is never far from her analysis – the blog posts Ifemelu writes are tacked onto certain chapters and passages boiling all of the experiences down into a snippet of carefully worded incredulity or strangely wonderful curiosity. Ifemelu is also a woman – she sees the world as a woman would see it. Obinze himself, however, never feels far from that – he was raised by a single mother, a strong opinionated intelligent women who educated her son in the best ways she knows how. Women are integral to the story – Ifemelu for obvious reasons, but also her mother – dependent on various churches and religious devotions that can frustrate and sadden us but also have a hint of amusement to them, aunty Uju – the most sharply changed of all the characters in the book, she is probably my favourite, Obinze’s mother – realistic and practical and so complicated, to women that flit in and out of the narrative depending on where the story is.

It can be almost neatly separated into two parts: Ifemelu’s American experience, where race is the juggernaut she has to process and digest, and then Ifemelu’s Nigeria, where the issue is about gender, and the experiences of women become more paramount.

There were people thrice her size on the Trenton platform and she looked admiringly at one of them, a woman in a very short skirt. She thought nothing of slender legs shown off in miniskirts–it was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved–but the fat woman’s act was about the quiet conviction that one shared only with oneself, a sense of rightness that others failed to see.

Without giving away too many spoilers (though you are warned), Aunty Uju’s story near the beginning of the book and then throughout Ifemelu’s journey to America, the change we watch as a once-confident medical doctor in Nigeria breaks apart into pieces, fleeing to America and the relative safety of the anonymity there with a young son and much heartbreak, and her never-ending struggle to claw out a place for herself that takes away that earlier lightness – it is a woman’s story. And Ifemelu recognizes it as such – in fact all the characters do. There is an understanding that women must go through certain things, must make hard decisions. Even that the world we live in is such that woman need to learn how to manipulate in order to survive.

Ifemelu doesn’t necessarily have that typical story – though it is there in the way her parents ask after her black American boyfriend and whether they will get married, and in the sacrifices she made – straightening her hair in order to find a respectable job, then enduring the burning of her scalp, the lack of wanting to do anything so that it didn’t get ruined, and the general cage of it brought out by her immersion in an ever increasing white world.

Her relationship with Obinze gets a lot of play in the blurb but it’s more nuanced than Goodreads lets on. It’s a story among race and gender issues and discourses on Nigeria’s political and economic landscape I feel too ignorant in to discuss properly, about two people who meet when they are very young, fall in love, and drift apart. They become their own people – following their own paths discovering new parts of themselves and journeying alone through their young adulthoods, until the time where they meet again. And when they meet again they are no longer the wide-eyed children they recalled of one another, but instead they are very different adult versions – with reams of experiences, opinions and thoughts that are completely foreign and yet strikingly comforting to each other.

It’s a complicated love story.

I’m chasing you. I’m going to chase you until you give this a chance.

And I think it should be. I do love romance novels, where love and the pursuit of love takes precedence over everything else in the story, but occasionally I want to cry – with sadness, frustration and relief – at the complicated relationships people develop.

It’s so easy to start at eighteen or twenty one. Start with a relationship and tell the one you love that, despite the world, you will always love them. It’s harder to be separated, to live your life happily, to know others and to be content and thrilled and wondrous at life – and then, when your life is so much more complicated, your needs and desires so much more than physical sex and holding hands – you come together again, when family and careers and the ache in your own hearts tells you to run away, to continue on your own journey, alone, and not meddle with things that should stay buried.

In terms of the love story of the book – I think it’s just beginning. And I find that the note on which the book ends is powerful enough in its realism and its hopefulness,, that it makes closing the book alright for me.

One review I read described this book as a “hot mess” – a mash up of different stories not entirely sure where one started and the other ended, and complicated in its unwillingness to remain tied down to any one theme. I think there’s a truth in that – it is a book that refuses to be stifled by one narrative, it is a book that expands to include things foreign to the one-character driven stories we’re so used to and it’s a book that reads almost as if you are Ifemelu, sitting in a chair at the hair salon, listening to the African voices around your braided head as they speak, without really sticking to one things, about topics that vary wildly and broach everything. And in that, I think, is where the magic lies.

I highly recommend this book and I encourage everyone to read it, discuss it and come back at me.

Enjoy!

AmmyB

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