Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie. Knopf (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 496 pages
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A delightful and insightful novel by a leading Nigerian woman writer about life and love in the U.S. and in Nigeria
Like many other bloggers, I absolutely loved Chimamanda Adichie’s new novel. In it she writes with gentle humor about her home culture and about what America looks like from the perspective of a Nigerian. She is also sensitive and observant of the human quirks that reach across cultural lines. Her book is actually many things at once: social commentary about different nations, a persuasive assessment of race in United States, and a poignant love story. Only Adichie’s excellent writing makes it read like a simple straight forward narrative.
The main character in Americanah is Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who goes to the United States to attend college, leaving her high school sweetheart Obinze behind. When she is caught in a deep depression, she cuts off contact with him. Then she becomes involved with one American man and then another, the first white and the second African American. She starts a blog. After 13 years she returns to Nigeria, excited and afraid of connecting with the man she had earlier loved. Ifemelu is a strong sassy woman, sensitive and intelligent and with her own share of flaws. I found it easy to empathize with her.
Adichie writes about many social and cultural issues, but race is the topic that she addresses most. Ifemelu states that she never thought of herself as black before she came to the United States. The blog she writes is titled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Blog posts included in the novel allow Adichie to state her views directly. In them she explains that we all have our likes and dislikes, but racism is way in which a dominant group has the power to determine the lives and options of another group. She adapts questions first made by Peggy McIntosh, a feminist and anti-racist scholar, to help others see what privilege entails. Here are a few examples. If you answer no to them, you are privileged.
Do you worry that your children do not have books and school materials that are about people of their own race?
When you apply for a bank loan do you worry that because of your race you may be seen as financially insecure?
If a traffic cop pulls you over, do you wonder if it is because of your race?
When you use the “nude” color of underwear or bandaids, do you already know that it won’t match your skin?
The men with whom Ifemelu is involved also provide a chance for Adichie to comment on the meaning of race and other social values. First there is Curt, white, rich, and in love with her. He appreciates her Africaness and has the power to make her happy. Yet she was never totally in tune with him.
She could not entirely believe herself while with him—happy, handsome Curt, with his ability to twist life into the shapes he wanted. She loved him, and the spirited easy life he gave her, and yet she often fought the urge to create rough edges, to squash his sunniness, even if just a little.
When they were in public together, she observed young, attractive white women observing them with surprise and envy.
It wasn’t merely because Curt was white, it was the kind of white he was, the untanned golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm, and the smell, around him, of money.
After she broke up with him, she understood why race had affected their relationship. Curt could often grasp her feelings and reactions about race, but not always. And she couldn’t explain how she felt because of her fear of being told she was being overly sensitive. “It wasn’t that they avoided talking about race, she and Curt. They talked about it in that slippery way that admitted nothing.”
Ifemelu’s next lover was Blaine, an African American man who taught at Yale, a good, knowledgeable man with whom she was again happy for a time. He was a careful man, deliberate in the details of his life. Yet his past and his friends were alien to her as Curt’s had been. Although Obama’s campaign brought them together, she was never intense enough about every existing racial slight.
She recognized, in his tone, a subtle accusation, not merely about her laziness, her lack of zeal and conviction, but also about her Africanness; she was not sufficiently furious because she was African, not African American.
Elizabeth Nunez also makes similar points in her novels about the tension between African Americans and Caribbean Africans. (See my reviews.)
While I enjoyed Adichie’s social commentary, that is far from the only element in this book. Adichie often touches on how we can connect with each other. Her characters are not cultural stereotypes, but human beings with traits we all know and share. For example, the woman in whose home Ifemelu worked had an eerie resemblance to my own mother as she proclaimed everything was fine while trying to “smooth the scallops of the world.”
The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze is probably the best romance I have read recently. It is a multi-dimensional relationship that has its share of suspense and tension, sexual but not only sexual. Obinze is a calm good person with whom Ifemelu has shared a loving past that is both personal and cultural. More that, Ifemelu feels a closeness that she had not had with her American lovers. “He made her like herself. With him, she felt as though her skin was the right size.” Seeing him again in Nigeria, she understood what was unusual about him.
She marveled at what an intense, careful listener he was. He remembered everything she told him. She had never had this before, to be truly heard, and so he became newly precious.
Yet remarkably, as much as she longs for his presence, she manages to find herself without him. “Still, she was at peace: to be home, writing her blog, to have discovered Lagos again. She had finally, spun herself fully into being.”
Americanah represents a new kind of postcolonial novel; an international book written for international readers. Adichie herself goes back and forth from the United States to Nigeria, just as the characters in her book do. Unlike many earlier stories of immigrants coming to America to escape horrible conditions, Ifemelu arrives ready to explore expanded options but never totally divorcing herself from Nigeria. She is seldom angered by what she finds here, but can afford to be a mildly amused observer. And in the end she can go back to the country she regards as home.
This is a book that I recommend to everyone. It is a “must read” for all Americans and all interested in race.