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September 23, 2016

Reading : Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Somehow, in reading like in life, things come in packages and themes.  Over the summer, without meaning to, I read a slew of fiction set during World War II.  Now in the transition between seasons, I've been reading a lot of books about what it means to live in America.  That sounds really general, like all books could be about that, but as examples: Hillbilly Elegy (the autobiographical narrative of growing up as part of the poor white working class of Appalachian Ohio), The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin's famous portrait of racial injustice, in his experience and of all black Americans), and Americanah (the story of a Nigerian woman who makes her way to America and back).  These books came to me from different sources: the first from rampant media coverage, the second from reading Between the World and Me, and the third as a recommendation and borrowed book from a friend.

I loved this collection of books for their widely different perspectives of our country, that comment on the complexities, contradictions, beauties and ugliness of our place.  It's interesting to see how people from disparate backgrounds converge on similar impressions of what it's like to live in a country simultaneously so open and closed.  I'd like to reflect more on that as I share what it was like to read each one.  For now--Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Since I've been reading and listening to library books from Overdrive for the past few years, Americanah was the first physical book I'd read in awhile. I haven't turned pages and used a postcard as a bookmark for months. It really deserved this concrete mark of something different, because I haven't enjoyed a book like this in a long time.  I know I'm late on the bandwagon, but for anyone who hasn't already read it, I highly, highly recommend it.

Plot-wise, Americanah is about two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up and fall in love in Nigeria. It details their separate paths to the Western world (Ifemelu to America and Obinze to England). Ifemelu fluctuates between the desire to assimilate and to retain her roots.  She struggles to find work, she has a relationship with a white man, she condescends and is condescended to.  It seems like a common story, but for me two things set Americanah apart: the language, and the detail.

As much as I advocate letting books grow on you and not judging a book by its beginning, there's something to be said about a book that gathers you in with its words from the first page.  I have a certain soft spot for describing scents to evoke a feeling or atmosphere, and I love the first line: "Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing."

The writing intertwines with the writing of Ifemelu.  She starts a blog called "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black."  While her posts speak smartly about the culture of race in America, they also flesh out her individual character.  There's insight into the writer as a figure and the writer as a person, and how disconnected these can be: "The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false."  Throughout the book, Ifemelu in turn builds and loses her self-identity. She presents at first as a strong, outspoken teenager who likes to feign fearlessness, and when she arrives in America, fear is defining: "It terrifed her, not to be able to visualize tomorrow." As she's turned away from job after job and she becomes increasingly unsure of her path, her values morph into lesser, harder things: "To be here, living abroad, not knowing when she could go home again, was to watch love become anxiety."

Then she finds success in different realms, love in different men, and in these perceived achievements, just as in her perceived losses, she mixes pieces of herself.  So much of building a life in America is framed by actions: "He was always thinking of what else to do and she told him that it was rare for her, because she had grown up not doing, but being."

Each dip sinks you deeper into how whole she is.  Adichie details everything in Ifemelu's experience: relinquishing her hair to chemicals and the ruthless hands of hairdressers, her mutual disdain and respect for eating kale and quinoa, the admiration and prejudice she incurs among whites, American blacks, and her fellow non-American blacks.

In comparison, Obinze is less fully developed, but only because Ifemelu is so vibrant.  A really valuable chunk of the book focuses on Obinze's struggles in London. This, and the rich nuances of life in Nigeria, make the book about not just America but the world.  You grow desperate with him through his attempts to work under a false visa and marry into citizenship.  And one of the central values of America, and inherently of all people, is the ability to control your path: "But they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty."

His experience shows how far paths can diverge, and still end in the same place, as he and Ifemelu each ultimately return to Nigeria. This return is presented from the beginning of the novel, and it's a feat of storytelling that Adichie creates such investment in all points in time, as Ifemelu and Obinze aren't confined by a linear telling of their identities.

What  Adichie does so amazingly well is to make the potraits of Ifemelu and Obinze color a vision of America, without ever losing the outline of the people themselves.  I feel really lucky to have been able to read this book, and feel its weight, physically and otherwise.






4 comments :

  1. I loved her book and your impression and digestion of her words. She really is a master storyteller. Keep on writing these blog posts! I also love following you on Goodreads to see what you have been reading. I am also in this stage of reading about what it means to live in America--race, displacement, migration, identities, etc.

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    1. I love seeing your reads too! It's like we're delving into these worlds in parallel, coast to coast.

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  2. I have 4 books on my nightstand right now but I want to run out and get these! Thanks for the insights - I'm going to add them to my list.

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    1. Ooh which four on your nightstand? I want more too!

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