On race, immigration and love: Americanah

Introducing a book that depicts life pretty accurately on three continents and unpacks the sensitive subject of race in a relatively non-judgmental fashion. It’s a book that also humanizes the plight of illegal immigration and gives voice to tensions related to being a Third Culture Kid (TCK), all in captivating the reader in the twists and turns of a complicated love story.

Introducing Americanah (2013), a charming novel with a huge agenda, written by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

While I don’t like to fill this blog with reviews of the books I’ve read, I feel that Americanah might particularly appeal to those who are on a similar journey of global transition, of stewarding cross-cultural relationships and actually willing to question their own social prejudices.

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

On a most simple level, Americanah is a love story set in Africa, the US and Europe. As you turn the pages, you quickly realize that Adichie uses the novel format as a social commentary about race. Protagonist Ifemelu ironically discovers that she is black as she leaves a politically tormented Nigeria for the United States, while her lover Obinze uncovers his own slew of racial encounters in England.

AmericanahI won’t give any spoilers in case you would like to pick this book up, and I don’t want to rehash the scores of brilliant reviews of this blockbuster novel available online. Instead, I want to focus on what most reviews gloss over and that is the real Third Culture Kid story unfolding between Ifemelu, (an Adult Third Culture Kid, as she is leaving her homeland as a young adult) and Dike, the child of Ifemelu’s aunt, who grows up as a Third Culture Kid in the United States, with all the pressures of needing to belong to Nigeria, of which he knows very little.

“I realized that if I ever have children, I don’t want them to have American childhoods. I don’t want them to say ‘Hi’ to adults I want them to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon’. I don’t want them to mumble ‘Good’ when someone says ‘How are you?’ to them. Or to raise five fingers when asked how old they are. I want them to say ‘I’m fine thank you’ and ‘I’m five years old’. I don’t want a child who feeds on praise and expects a star for effort and talks back to adults in the name of self-expression.”

These characters’ impressions about integration and the agony they each face in order to belong are intertwined with shrewd observations about repatriation, sizing up and distancing between African blacks and African Americans, the value of dark skin in Caucasian societies, the arrogance of white savior mentality and the fascinating world of African hair.

“Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You’re caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn’t go running with Curt today because you don’t want to sweat out this straightness. You’re always battling to make your hair do what it wasn’t meant to do.”

“If I had not grown up in Nigeria- and if all I knew of Africa were of popular images- I too would think that africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people fighting sensless wars, dying of poverty and aids- unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner.”

Generally, I am not a huge fan of fiction but I decided I wanted to read more of this genre this year to rediscover the intrigue of human story. What I realize is that an essay with this content would definitely have been labeled “angry” or “over-sensitive”. The novel format, littered with insightful blog posts by Ifemelu as she experiences America, lets your guard down just enough to allow for introspection.

I do tend to agree with some of the commentaries that think the actual story could have been stronger. However, I loved how Adichie used rich character and scene descriptions like Balzac or Zola are known for (which bored me to death when I was a young adult, let’s be honest!). But here, copious details of description foster an astonishing kinship between reader and characters. What I was less fond of was how explicit and morally destitute the novel was in places and ended where it really didn’t need to be. In the same breath, I don’t deny that debauchery is often a temporary band-aid of pain of not belonging. It must be a hard call as an acclaimed writer, to describe the desperation of the protagonists and draw readers into the love story without some gratuitous and cheap sex.

All in all, I thought that Americanah was a magnificent, ambitious and generous literary piece. For me, it did take three rounds (3 x 3 weeks) of being on a massive library hold queue, because as I said in a recent post, it is pretty darn hard to read a book with 477 pages in this life-season. As part of my birthday present, the hubs took time off work to let me finish it up at a café one afternoon all by my lonesome. If that’s not love…

Americanah Review

“As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, “I was waiting for her to ask ‘Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?’ Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?’”
Ginika laughed. “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.”

Feature image of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Tafawa Balewa Sqaure in Lagos, courtesy of  The Telegraph

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