Book Review: Americanah
Posted September 30, 2015on:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 477 pp.
This book defies category. It is an epic novel, across continents and decades. It is a political commentary, full of astute observations and cultural critique, especially around issues of race and immigration. It is a good story, beautifully written, compelling and challenging. The quality of the writing and fiction are not diminished by the insertion of straight cultural commentary, nor does the narrative serve to lighten the impact of the author’s searing observations. It is masterful, and an important read both as a novel and cultural critique. All the better: it’s a great story, a love story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a book that shows us all the power of the novel as a genre, the way an extended perspective and intimate connection with a character can create new forms of empathy, understanding and a window on the human condition.
The two at the center of the story are Ifemelu and Obinze. They seem destined for one another, made perfectly suited to match one another’s wits and habits, and they fall in love while in secondary school in Nigeria. Adichie tells the story of their individual upbringings and their school years against the backdrop of military uprisings in Nigeria. After graduation, Ifemelu departs to study in the United States. Her experience of immigration changes her, and she separates from Obinze, a heartbreak to them both. The novel explores how, and if, their relationship can be recovered. Obinze may have stayed in Nigeria, but he has changed as well. Will their love persist? Can it? Should it? This is no starry-eyed romance. This is a real and deep exploration about what it means to love, to grow with another imperfect human being, and the power of conflicting commitments.
One of the central themes is the question of home and exile. To be an “Americanah” is to be a Nigerian that has spent so much time abroad that they no longer fit well in Nigeria. The novel is set after Ifemelu has spent 15 years in the U.S. before deciding to move back, and she wonders if she will be able to readjust.
One of the key experiences is Ifemelu’s introduction to the American concept of race, and the necessity for her to learn how to navigate the unspoken, subtle and not-so-subtle privilege and discrimination that attend it. She eventually begins to write a blog about it, entitled, “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” The novel contains several complete blog entries, but those are not the only sources of cultural critique. The story itself navigates Ifemelu’s difficult relationships with American men, both black and white, as she learns the social cues and racial dynamics. The novel is peppered with these observations, and they are powerful.
For example, after her blog becomes popular, Ifemelu is hired to lead diversity training workshops. After one workshop in which she is honest about the reality of racism and its unshakable hold, she receives an angry e-mail and observes:
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas; they merely wanted to gesture of her presence. … During her talks, she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
The italics are original, but I love that line.
There is a self-referential playfulness in the novel’s conversations about race. For example, Ifemelu is engaged in a conversation with a group of academics from Princeton, and the conversation goes like this:
“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t eve know it’s about race.” …
“Or just find a white writer. White writers can be blunt about race and get all activist because their anger isn’t threatening.” (337)
Of course, Americanah is just that kind of work of literary fiction. I hope people pay attention.