Monday, November 10, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"Why?" he asked. He taught ideas of nuance and complexity in his classes and yet he was asking her for a single reason, the cause

But she had not had a bold epiphany and there was no cause; it was simply that layer after layer of discontent had settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her. 

She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out. 

How was it possible to miss something you no longer needed? Blaine needed what she was unable to give and she needed what he was unable to give, and she grieved this, the loss of what could have been. 

It is here, on page 8, that Adichie has absolutely won me over again. I was first introduced to her in a 400-level grammar class that was hated by all. My professor would occasionally bring in what she considered to be perfect sentences - from newspapers or novels or wherever - and read them aloud. One sentence from Purple Hibiscus was enough to make me pick up the novel and begin a short obsession with Nigerian writers. 

I'm very pleased that Adichie's work continues to be absolutely lovely (and more popular - I have a chalkboard where I note what book I'm reading so my kids know I'm an active reader which is how I discovered that a TEDx talk by Adichie has been incorporated into a Beyonce song). This novel is so good I offered it as an outside reading option for my community college kids before I had even finished reading it. 

The novel starts in the present showing the break up of Ifemelu and Blaine as she plans on leaving America to go home to Nigeria. She is preparing to go back home (getting her hair done in twists, ending her blog "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black," reconnecting with people back home - including her exboyfriend Obinze). The novel then shows Obinze in the present in Nigeria with his wife Kosi, their child, and their role in the affluent part of Lagos. 

It then goes back in time to the start of Obinze and Ifemelu's relationship in high school and follows her as she immigrates to America. Finally we go back to Obinze and it follows him as he immigrates to England before he returns to Nigeria. The novel ends with the two characters in the present. Of course, as I've mentioned repeatedly, I love novels with shifting perspectives. This is slightly different because we finish Ifemelu's story line before we go back in time to get Obinze's story over the same period - but it is more effective that way because it shows their absolute disconnectedness as they have their respective immigrant dreams stomped on in their new countries. 

The most remarkable thing about the novel is how it is every kind of story. It is a young adult love story, but also an immigrant story (with both the American and British perspectives - America being much more focused on race while England being much more focused on legal status). It is also a story about college students protesting the government. It covers the pretentious ridiculousness of American academia and the pretentious ridiculousness of the Nigerian 1%ers. Throughout it all, Adichie has so many utterly perfect sentences. 

One of my favorite aspects of the novel are the inclusion of blog posts. Her blog is in the vein of Racialicious or Native Appropriations and includes articles such as

  • Is Obama Anything but Black? 
  • What Academics mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to  Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White
  • Understanding America for the Non-American black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend
  • Traveling While Black
  • Why Dark-Skinned Black Women - Both American and Non-American - Love Barack Obama

From "Is Obama Anything but Black?"
So lots of folks - mostly non-black - say Obama's not black, he's biracial, multiracial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white...Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black...Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that's it...In America, you don't get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? "Black Man."
If the idea of racism or sexism or privilege are boring to you (or...non-existent...I myself know people who don't believe in these things), then I wouldn't recommend this book for you. If you're intrigued by the idea of how race is perceived by someone who grew up without that particular construct* or getting to know Nigeria in a new way or just want some writing that will make you swoon - then I would definitely recommend this book.

*My next quest is to find non-Igbo Nigerian authors if anyone has any recommendations. I realized through a conversation with a student who is Nigerian that I have only read Igbo authors, but that particular ethnic group only makes up 18% of Nigerians. Igbo is only the third biggest population behind Yoruba and Hausa - so I'm looking for titles in English or translated into it if anyone has any!


Helen Andrews said...

Some good Yoruba writers would be Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, and more recently Ayo Sogunro. There's also the new novel Nigerians In Space by Deji Olukotun, which I didn't love but which would probably go over quite well with someone who doesn't hate darkly comic space thrillers.

Christopher said...

I can't read that excerpt without hearing it in her voice because of "Flawless."

billy said...

This has been on my list for awhile, but now I'll move it up higher.

Do you think people who are ignorant of privilege, etc shouldn't read this because it's too advanced? I'd think exposing someone like that to the work of someone like Adichie would be beneficial

Brittany said...

Thanks for the recommendation Helen! I have a few Wole Soyinka books, but I didn't realize he was Yoruba (he somehow has a close relationship with the University of Nevada Las Vegas community, so he speaks in town regularly), so I will definitely move that up my list.

Billy - What I meant is if a person doesn't *believe* in privilege then they would find the book incredibly aggravating. The people I was referring to are not ignorant of the ideas behind privilege, but don't believe it to be real. My facebook feed was filled with some of these people when I wrote this review which is probably why it was in my head at the time. I don't really get it (especially as they are not white men), but it's really hard to argue with anyone's core belief systems.