Alright. I admit it. I’ve been a slacker. Here we are in mid-January 2018, and I have not posted a review in months. I’m horribly behind, and the following review is of a book that I read in August 2017. However, I’m glad I have the opportunity to review it now. This is a glorious book, a book for learning about experience and empathy, the kind of book that is increasingly necessary in our world. And so I give you Americanah.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is one of those books that has been floating around my periphery for a few years now. Every few months or so, someone says, “Oh, you HAVE to read Americanah!” and I will say, “Sounds great!” but I never got around to doing it until this summer. A friend at work had it on her desk and offered to let me borrow it when I commented on it. Deciding there was no time like the present, I took her up on her offer. I’m so glad I did.
Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians in love who leave Nigeria for the US and London respectively, dreaming of higher education and professional success. In the US, Ifemelu, finding success in academia, discovers the complexities of living in a racialized country and grapples with what it means to be black (but not African American) for the first time in her life. Obinze heads to London with plans to join her soon, but immigration challenges in a post-9/11 world leads to life as an undocumented worker stuck in the UK instead. They reunite 15 years later in Nigeria, navigating the gulf their lives have created between them as they explore a new relationship.
I loved this book. Loved it. Adichie’s language is like music, rhythmical and cadential, and I just slid into the story, immediately immersed in the beauty of Adichie’s storytelling. The book begins with Ifemelu, present-day in America, then alternates chapters and later full sections between Ifem and Obinze both past and present, all punctuated with some of Ifem’s blog posts on what it is to be a non-African American black woman in America. The structure and non-linear timeline really emphasize the unexpected nature of life lived as opposed to life planned. We learn all of the in-and-outs of Ifem and Obinze’s journeys, successes, and tragedies, but it was really Ifem who I wanted to know more about. As much as it is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, it is really Ifem’s story: a story of her identity, her independence, her self-realization, her establishment of presence in a place that is both home and not. There was so much that was familiar to me and yet so much that was not of my experience, and I found that to be incredibly compelling. On the other hand, I found Obinze as hard to know as a reader as did his friends. Yet his story is important, both in the role he plays in Ifemelu’s life and as a counterpoint to her experience. His is the realization of the American Dream–leaving home for a better life only to find yourself lower than you ever thought and then rising again to success–all played out on a non-American playing field. The familiar and unfamiliar battle to create a reading experience of learning and empathy.
My one issue with the book is the end and some of the choices that Ifem and Obinze make, seemingly without thinking or caring about the impact on others. And one might argue that Obinze thinks about that impact a lot, but still the ultimate choices seem to be lacking that. However, I can’t talk much about it without giving things away, but I do wish that they had chosen a slightly different path to their final decisions. That’s just me, though, and I’m sure others will feel differently.
I’ve written before about how reading fiction teaches children empathy and to value of others’ experiences, and that is one reason why this book is so important. It is, in itself, about the diversity of experience and the value or judgment we place on experience, opinion, thought, and belief depending on how close or familiar or lived those experiences are for us. This is the point of Ifem’s blog–my experience is not your experience, and we must see and appreciate that in order to see and appreciate each other. This book is filled with experiences I will never have but are important for me to know and, if I can’t understand, acknowledge my lack of that experience. Even so, there are universal human experiences that all readers can find in this story
We live in a world where our president chooses to denigrate with foul language people and places he chooses not and probably cannot ever understand or try to know. This author and this book come from one of those countries. It is vital that we as individuals and as a country continue to strive to learn about unfamiliar experiences, to take advantage of the gorgeous literature, art, music, culture, everything being created to share those experiences, so that we can resist and rise above the cretinous model currently on display. Even without that need, this novel is worth reading, just as a master-study on story craft and the beauty of language. So I say don’t walk, run to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.