Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book 117: Americanah

"Ifemulu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was."

Dates read: January 10-14, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Every so often, a thread pops up on Reddit asking people who've come to the United States from elsewhere what surprised them most about this country when they got here. The answers are usually fairly similar: our obsession with germs and our "personal space", our loudness, how big the country really actually is, tipping. I always enjoy reading these kinds of things because I'm always curious about how what seems very natural to us can seem bizarre to people who grew up elsewhere and I try to keep it in mind when I myself travel elsewhere: what seems odd to me probably seems perfectly normal to them. Just because I think of something as "the way things are" doesn't mean it's the way things are everywhere.

Ifemelu, the Nigerian-born-and-raised protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, experiences this kind of cultural whiplash twice: once, when she transfers from her university in Nigeria to a small college in Pennsylvania and then the second time, fifteen years later when she decides to return to Lagos. That Ifemelu is black and only really experiences what it's like to be black in a predominantly white world once she gets to the United States, as well as the gap between African-Americans and Africans in America inspires her to start a blog about race, which becomes a major source of income for her and helps earn her a fellowship at Princeton. Once the fellowship is over, she shuts down her blog, leaves her longtime boyfriend, and prepares to go back to Nigeria.

She's nervous about going back, not so much because she doesn't have anything lined up there but because it means she'll be back in the same place as Obinze, the man she loved in high school and college but is no longer in touch with. Adichie uses one of my favorite framing devices to structure her novel: she begins with Ifemelu just before she leaves the US, shows us how she got there through flashbacks, and then proceeds forward. I love getting some information but not all of it right up front: it makes me intensely curious to find out how the situation we first encountered came to be. I hate mystery-style books where all the "answers" are makes the rest of the book feel like it's treading water before the payoff at the end. Those just leave me annoyed by the time I get to the end, but unwrapping the narrative layers one by one keeps me hooked. And Americanah had me like a fish on a hook.

Not only is her story structure one that I personally respond well to, but Adichie's writing is absolutely magnificent. I marked what feels like half of the book because she has a such a knack for taking feelings that you have or you recognize and phrasing it in a way that hits you right in the gut because it's so dead on and perfect and you never thought about it like that before. And I loved the way she wrote Ifemelu and Obinze's relationship, from their charmed young love to the reason for their separation and that Adichie isn't afraid to give them new partners, partners they experience happiness with even. There's context and nuance, not just to their relationship, but to their lives. The whole book explores shades of gray, no one is either a saint or a villain. They're people, trying hard and messing up and trying again. I think one of the most important things about reading is its potential to increase empathy, to see people outside of the ones like you as having the same kinds of hopes and dreams and fears as you even if their experiences don't look exactly the same. This book is a beautifully written examplar of that exact principle. It's completely fantastic and I totally loved every second of reading it and I recommend it highly.

One year ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Two years ago, I was reading: The Twentieth Wife


  1. What a wonderful, and thoughtful book this sounds like. The commentary on race from different POVs (in a sense) would be a powerful read, I think. Great review!~