Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

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“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. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters.”

I am so glad I finally read this book. It is exceptional and definitely has the power to change your vision and perception of the world. It is a powerful novel on social and racial inequalities, on identity, and about love. If the issues the novel tackles are known to be hard, complex and controversial, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes of Americanah a gentle mockery of American society – or let’s even say a social satire – depicting the absurdity of American way of life in the most minor details, the slightly annoying American accent and the ridiculous distortion of the English speaking language.

Americanah is about two young Nigerians in love with each other, Ifemelu and Obinze, who drift apart in college as Ifemelu goes to America, and Obinze leaves for England. In high school and college, young Nigerians such as Ifemelu and Obinze dream of living abroad. But when they first step on the foreign soil, the dream quickly becomes a nightmare. The delusion is heartbreaking. We follow their paths, both struggling and finally thriving through life. Ifemelu encounters the issue of race in America, and soon realizes what it means to be black in America. With Obinze’s story, we follow the harsh reality of struggling to live illegally in England, and to do whatever it takes to avoid deportation while the newspapers are spreading facts of “too many” immigrants in the country, overtaking schools and jobs. When they go back to Nigeria and meet again years later, a lot has changed, except for their strong bond and love.

The novel mostly focuses on Ifemelu’s story in the United States. Ifemelu goes to America as she got a scholarship for a university in Philadelphia. Her first few months in America are terrible, struggling with financial problems, depression, and shutting Obinze out of her life. Fortunately, a friend from Nigeria who moved to the States years before helps her find a job babysitting for a family. This will save her life, and from this point, she makes many encounters who will help her in many ways to have a better life (boyfriends, job in a nice company, green card, graduate school in Princeton,…). But most importantly, Ifemelu opens a blog in which she discusses the issue of race in America, for what it means to be black in America, whether you are a “Non-American black” or “African American black”. Her blog is such a success that she can live off her writings; she becomes a famous blogger, the number one blogger about race, and is invited to many events, readings, and conferences. Posts of her blog are inserted into the narrative, making the novel truly modern and emphasizing the blogosphere dimension of the novel. The blog posts enable the novel to reach a more social and political dimension, and enhances the external point of view on race – which is to say, the point of view of an outsider, as Ifemelu cannot truly grasp the core of it for being Nigerian and not “black”, as in African American. It is through these blog posts that the difference between African Americans and what Ifemelu calls “Non-American Blacks” (ie. Africans, Caribbean,…) is explained, and it is while reading these posts that the reader understands the complexity of the racial issue, an issue particular to American society.

The blog adds a metatextual dimension to the novel, as the narrative consistently refers to blog posts, previously or to-be written, and some posts often illustrate a whole chapter. And indeed, the novel as a whole denunciates many Western social issues, whether it is race, wealth, gender issues or consumer society. Ifemelu and Obinze both suffer from racial discrimination by the society, surroundings, friends, etc. For instance, Ifemelu is struck by the way white people always feel like they have to insist on saying, or proving they are not racist, that they genuinely like “black people”. But if one feels the necessity to acknowledge it, doesn’t it show one’s uneasiness, and therefore makes an issue out of it ? Ifemelu, of straightforward character, slightly takes pleasure in pointing out these situations to the concerned characters, sharply and proudly telling them their remarks or observations are too simplistic or lack perspective. For Obinze, as he is invited to dinner, among other white people, to one of his friends from Nigeria now in England, the issue of race is discussed at the table. As they argue the difference of racism between America and England, Obinze takes part in the debate and some of the guests around the table surprisingly stare at him, wondering how he could have an opinion.

In addition to denouncing racism in America or England, what I particularly liked was the criticism towards the American English language. At one point, Ifemelu says that Americans cannot speak English, and underlines a few expressions that, in fact when you actually think about it, are absurd and lack consistency. Here’s a few quotes I thought were quite hilarious:

They never said “I don’t know”. They said, instead, “I’m not sure”, which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge. […] They avoided giving direct instructions: they did not say “Ask somebody upstairs”; they said “You might want to ask somebody upstairs.” When you tripped and fell, when you chocked, when misfortune befell you, they did not say “Sorry”. They said “Are you okay ?” when it was obvious that you were not. And when you said “Sorry” to them when they chocked or tripped or encountered misfortune, they replied, eyes wide with surprise, “Oh, it’s not your fault”. And they overused the word “excited”, a professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement. Some of the expressions she heard every day astonished her, jarred her.”

The narrator points out the americanism (americanah) in some expressions or words the characters use. For instance, talking to Obinze on the phone during her first few weeks in school, he makes fun of her for using the word “excited”. But I think the best example is of Doris, the editor of the Zoe magazine Ifemelu works for in Lagos, who “spoke with an American teenage accent that made her sentences sound like questions”, therefore whenever Doris speaks the dialogues become inevitably comical, because you can just imagine what she sounds like.

“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

Apart from the comical sides of this novel, the issue of race is seriously put into question. There is a passage in the novel which I particular paid attention to – but everything in the novel requires focus and attention –, it is when Ifemelu pulls out a pile of magazines in a bookstore and displays them on the table to her white boyfriend. Among all the magazines she has picked up, there are only three black women represented. What Ifemelu is trying to explain to her boyfriend, and therefore what the narrator is telling the reader, is that racial discrimination is everywhere, even in the most subtle fashion and beauty magazines, in which what is called “a universal pink lipstick” actually means it is a universal pink lipstick for white women. But this it is not just a matter of representation, it is a matter of including and welcoming every woman in one society, it is as a matter of fact acknowledging every woman’s identity.

The novel goes further than just depicting racial issues, and invites the reader to think. At a dinner party in Manhattan, “a day after Barack Obama became the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States”, when someone says that Obama will end racism in “this country”, Ifemelu does not agree and gives a speech about race (see first quote), and says the only way to fight race in America is through romantic love:

“The simplest solution to the problem of race in America ? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race will never be solved.”

Therefore, the love stories, which at first seem to set the background of the novel, can actually be read as the core of the novel. But perhaps it’s not simply about “romantic love”, as Ifemelu puts it, but merely engages Love as a general feeling: love for your partner, love for your friends, love for your family, love for your home, love for your country, love for your identity, love for yourself,…

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I really enjoyed reading this book, so much that I took my time reading it, willing myself to take ages to finish the last few pages. It has undoubtedly opened my mind on some aspects of the issues I could not or rather did not see. I sincerely hope that all kinds of inequality will one day disappear. Nonetheless, this book is punctuated with humor, and even if you don’t think some of it is “funny”, you will at least smile… I definitely recommend it to everyone – even though I know I’m late and most people have already read it.

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Americanah was published in 2013 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has published many other books, such as Purple Hibiscus (2003; Commonwealth Prize), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006; Orange Prize), a story collection entitled The Thing Around Your Neck (2009). Her talk on feminism in 2012 was published as a book in 2014, We Should All Be Feminists, and she has recently published (2017) Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.

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