This is the first book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I read. Her TED talk was so inspiring to me that I found myself wanting to read a complete work written by her, and so I picked Americanah.
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu – beautiful, self-assured – departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze – the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor – had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion – for their homeland and for each other – they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
~ Synopsis from goodreads
My Thoughts on Americanah
I went into this book expecting something along the lines of a love story – about two lovers separated by geographical distance and eventually getting back together. And it is a book about that (superficially).
However, a significant part of the story is about Ifemelu (who seems a stand-in for the author), and the clash of cultures when she emigrates to America to study in Princeton. This is Ifemelu’s first brush with people other than Nigerians, and it is the first time she starts to think about race.
We all wish race was not an issue. 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.
Her various experiences with race prompt her to start what becomes a very successful blog: Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.
She also breaks her relationship with Obinze, and embarks on relationships with Americans – one white, and one African-American. This is where the story started to fall apart for me.
Ifemelu has issues that are much more than race. In her first relationship, she cheats on her boyfriend. In the second relationship, she lies to her boyfriend about something that is very important to him. But when it comes to explaining those relationships, it seems that the relationships broke down because of race issues. It was not – she cheated and she lied.
In the second part of the book, the ratio of story to lecture felt a bit too much. It seemed that Ifemelu saw everything through a race lens, and when that happened the story started to sag. Considering I’m neither American nor African, nor do I live in the US, this part of the book kind of bored me a bit. It also seemed (and I know I am not being politically correct) that Ifemelu in her own way was just as racist and judgmental as some of the people she talked about.
Once Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria, the book picks up steam. I really enjoyed her homecoming, and the clash of cultures she experienced. She also meets up with her old flame Obinze.
Most of my book review so far has dealt with Ifemelu, and that’s because she is the main protagonist. Although Obinze is her lover, there is very little space given to him. From the little bit of the book devoted to him, I actually found him the more layered character. His experiences as an illegal immigrant in England, his grief over his loving mom’s death, and his marriage with the right kind of girl and his conflicts over what he was and what he became were all so interesting and relatable.
Ifemelu, sigh, I don’t know what to think. She was just too much condescending attitude at times. For example, in Nigeria, a colleague calls out Ifemelu for trying to impose her attitude on the magazine they work for instead of towing the magazine’s line.
Ifemelu’s completely irrational response?
You need to get yourself a moisturizer and stop scaring people with that nasty red lipstick.
I mean, really? Is this something anyone would say at a work place? Especially our liberal heroine from Princeton? When the other person isn’t talking about your appearance at all?
Her love story with Obinze is also really troubling. She and Obinze fall back into a love affair ignoring his wife. To make their love affair palatable to the reader, the character of the wife is blackened a bit – too religious, too conventional, she doesn’t understand me, and so on. The usual reasons to justify an affair.
I thought the wife summed up the situation quite astutely when she asks Obinze:
Do you think you can just destroy this family because your old girlfriend came into town? Because you have had acrobatic sex that reminded you of your time in university?
Overall, this is a book I wanted to like very much. It’s probably a book I would have liked very much, only if Ifemelu had been written a bit better. I may not have liked the race lectures all that much, but some of the comments were pretty enlightening.
If you want to read about race from an African perspective, I would recommend this book. If you are looking for more of a story, then you might be disappointed with this book, like I was.
Have you read this book? What did you think about it?