Monday, October 21, 2013

Comments on identity from a Non-American Black

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah was one of the best books I have read this year.  As usual with books like this, I have no idea how to review it in a manner that will do justice to the book.  I considered just doing a bunch of big !!!!!!!! and huge starburst graphics, but I don't know if that would make you guys go buy the book or think that it was a 1950s comic book about superheroes (WAM!!  POW!!).

So instead, I will try to tell you why you will want to read this book.  I will also refer you to Ana, as she is always far more articulate than I will ever be.

Americanah is about two young Nigerians.  Ifemelu is smart, driven and beautiful.  She has big plans for herself that include completing college, and she cannot do that in a Nigeria that is run by a military dictatorship.  So when she has the chance to go to America to study, she takes it, even though she is not quite sure how she will pay for it.  Obinze is her true love, and he's always been enthralled by America.  He, too, wants more from his life than Nigeria can offer, but when he is rejected time and again from study in the US, he goes illegally to the UK instead.  Years later, Obinze and Ifemelu are both back in Lagos, and reunite.

There were so many things to love about this book.  The writing style is at the top of my list of reasons.  Adichie is funny and irreverent.  She talks about Big Important Ideas, but does so in a way that doesn't push people away or isolate them. When she says something polarizing, she embeds it in a situation where you can quite understand where she is coming from.  I think this is very important.  You can never get inside someone else's head, and when the topic of conversation is something like race, you really can misconstrue everything, so having access to Ifemelu and Obinze's heads and the thought processes that lead to their statements is very valuable.  It helps that both of them are just genuinely good people, ones that you are happy to spend your time with.

I also appreciated just how diverse an experience of immigration and relationships Adichie gave us.  Ifemelu came to the US as a student, so she came with an almost assured place in the middle class.  But her family at home can't help her, and her struggles to put herself through school and the things that she did made clear that getting into college is just the first step.  There's also paying for college.  Contrastingly, her aunt came over as a doctor, but (as all foreign doctors must in the US) had to go through residency all over again, and while raising a son alone.

Obinze came from a well-to-do background in Lagos but just wanted more from his life.  He acknowledges that no in the UK seems to understand that; they all think he is there seeking asylum or running away from some horrible war.  He gets into the UK illegally, so even though he had a comfortable life in Lagos, he has a horribly stressful one in the UK.  His experiences are a fantastic foil to Ifemelu's.  Both of them have moments of extreme isolation and loneliness, of pure terror at how they will get through another day.  But Obinze's experiences have the additional layer of the fear of being caught out as an illegal. 

And Adichie manages to do ALL THAT while also being amazingly funny and witty and crafting a beautiful love story and making pointed comments about people's experiences of race and identity.

What hit me about Ifemelu's experience was the way showed the interplay between African-Americans and "Non-American Blacks" in the United States.  I found that absolutely fascinating.  It came vividly to life when everyone expected her to want Obama to win the election because she was Black, but she actually had more affinity at first for Hillary Clinton.  Adichie's descriptions of being Black but not understanding the full weight of that designation in America was brilliant.

Of Obinze's experience, I really appreciated the contrast he showed between those immigrants who managed to succeed in London and those that didn't.  For example, when his now very-rich childhood friend has a dinner party, he gushes about the plates he bought from poor women in India.  "Those plates, with their amateur finishing, the slight lumpiness of the edges, would never be shown in the presence of guests in Nigeria.  He still was not sure whether Emenike had become a person who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so. 

Obinze spends quite a bit of time with wealthy Britons, so we can see just how hypocritical he finds them.  For example, one woman says she donates a lot of money to a charity that is trying to stop the UK from hiring African doctors as they have a "responsibility to help their people" at home and therefore "should stay in Africa."  Another guest pointedly asks why they should have to stay at home when people in the UK do not feel any responsibility for the "blighted towns in the north of England."  I loved Adichie for this scene because it points out just how much bigotry and self-satisfaction can exist even within a group of well-meaning people.  The entire dinner party scene, which we experience through Obinze's eyes, is fantastic.  So poignant and so funny.

And of Ifemelu and Obinze together, and of Ifemelu and her relationships and Obinze and his, I really appreciated the way that Adichie brought in the additional layer of men and women and how they play off each other.  I won't go into details about this here due to lack of space, but it is SO WELL DONE. 

I've gushed about this book for much longer than I usually do, but there is so much here that is ripe for discussion!  Here are a few quotes that I found particularly note-worthy:

He sat on the stained seat of the noisy train, opposite a woman reading the evening paper.  Speak English at home, Blunkett tells immigrants... The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history:  the influx into Britain of black and brown people from the countries created by Britain.  Yet he understood.  It had to be comforting, this denial of history.  

It terrified her, to be unable to visualize tomorrow.  When her parents called and left a voice message, she saved it, unsure if that would be the last time she would hear their voices.  To be here, living abroad, not knowing when she could go home again, was to watch love become anxiety.  If she called her mother's friend Aunty Bunmi and the phone rang to the end, with no answer, she panicked, worried that perhaps her father had died and Aunty Bunmi did not know how to tell her.

You see, in American pop culture, beautiful dark women are invisible.  (The other group just as invisible is Asian men.  But at least they get to be super smart.)  In movies, dark black women get to be the fat nice mammy or the strong, sassy, sometimes scary sidekick standing by supportively.  They get to dish out wisdom and attitude while the white woman finds love.  But they never get to be the hot woman, beautiful and desired and all.  So dark black women hope Obama will change that.  Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.


  1. Bah, you are plenty articulate! This is an excellent review - I hope you convince lots of people to read Americanah!

    Also, have you read Zadie Smith's NW? The scene about Obinze at the dinner party actually reminded me of what she does in that book, so if you haven't, consider this a recommendation.

  2. You have made this sound so so so good, and even just your review has made me go 'oooh, how interesting that there's a difference between the way black Americans and black non-Americans see themselves' because OF COURSE there is, and the English bits also sound really good/depressingly realistic (not that I know any rich people haha, but just in a kind of attitudes way) so yes. Will read.

  3. Wonderful review! You are totally articulate and have highlighted a lot of the things that made Americanah such a great read for me. I am enchanted you enjoyed it so much -- it's one of my best books of the year. Adichie is so funny and so precise with her social criticism, I just found this a joy to read.

  4. I have only read one book by this author, but I loved it so much I count her as an author whose every book I must read. I just have to get my head in the right place. :-) I definitely do want to read this one and am glad it made such a big impression on you.


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