Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, 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.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A few years ago, I attended a diversity workshop at my university. The workshop was designed to help faculty members address race in the classroom, focusing mostly on First Nations issues. At the beginning of the workshop, the facilitator played Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, The danger of a single story. In the lecture, Adichie discusses the role of cultural stereotypes, referring to her own experiences as a Nigerian residing in the United States.
That lecture resonated with me in a few ways. I felt guilt. I was unintentionally guilty of some of the stereotyping of African peoples mentioned in her lecture. However, I also sympathized with the talk. I myself had often had my culture reduced to a single story, and I recalled the many occasions that people had fetishized my Koreanness to my face, the anger I felt when people obsessed over the shallower aspects of Korean culture such as K-pop or the prevalence of plastic surgery, without understanding the corruptness of Korean politics, the history of the Korean War, or the hyper competitive nature of life in modern Korea. From then on, I was interested in exploring Adichie’s work, and I finally found myself picking up Americanah at the library a month ago, nearly two years after I attended the workshop.
Americanah is, in a way, an expansion of the ideas from the TED talk. Like Adichie, our protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian-born woman who attends university in the United States and finds fame as a writer. Ifemelu becomes a professional blogger who comments on race in America with brutal honesty and irreverence. The novel lacks a straightforward plot, but is mostly comprised of moments in Ifemelu’s life in America as she transitions from a student to a young professional to an academic and professional blogger, observing and blogging about her observations.
I’ve read other reviews that complain that the novel simply hits you over the head with its obsession with race, and that Ifemelu is not a likeable, fleshed out character. Personally, I found Ifemelu likeable and relatable: sardonic, intelligent, and sometimes somewhat unlikeable, as a real person is. She does seem to somewhat float around in life without making any major decisions, but I simply found that this reinforced her identity as an outsider and an observer of the world she finds herself in. I thought that her passiveness served as commentary about the immigrant experience, rather than a character flaw.
I also didn’t think that the novel was solely focused on race. In addition to race, the novel touches upon a number of other themes, including gender roles, class, and contemporary Nigerian society. Of course, those themes are also entwined with discussions on race – but how could they not be? How can you separate race from the discussion of most, if not all, social issues today?
There’s one point in the novel I found particularly humorous. The characters are discussing whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will become the Democrat candidate for president, mentioning how news sources are saying that women will vote for Clinton, while blacks will vote for Obama. “But what about black women?” asks one of the characters, and the group points out that “women” is synonymous with “white women”. While I do agree that the novel is heavy with its sometimes sarcastic observations of race such as this, I didn’t find it offensive or boring. I found it fascinating and, most of the time, hilarious.
YES OR NO?: YES. Americanah, while long, is a fantastic read. The language is beautiful. The observations are spot-on. I do think, though, that the marketing for the novel places unnecessary emphasis on Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story. Although it does provide more of a structured narrative, I didn’t find the love story to be the novel’s main focus. It serves more as a device to provide the reader with different perspectives: of the Nigerian experience in the U.S. and the U.K., for example.