Wednesday, May 15, 2013

#BookReview: Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I began stalking her publisher back in October when I learned that a new book by Adichie was coming out in May.  Seriously, I checked her publisher's list of available ARCs daily.  Then came the day in February that it was finally available.  I downloaded quickly, started reading it and stopped.  It was good, really good, but I was afraid to read it too quickly because once I was done with it, I knew it would be another three years or so before I got another book from her.  So I read it slowly over three months and savored every word in it.

Adichie's books are long, not in an agonizing, I can't wait for this book to be over way, but in such a way that you almost feel as if you're getting two books for the price of one.  She has a lot to say and a lot to cover and Americanah is no exception.

First there's the complicated relationship with Obinze, the love of her life, who she calls Ceiling because when she was with him, "My eyes were open, but I didn't not see the ceiling."  With him, Ifemelu feels natural, more like herself than when she's with anyone else.  And I feel like Obinze feels the same way about her.  At one point he notes that while his wife takes pleasure in being mistaken for being biracial, Ifemelu takes pleasure in her natural hair. As we follow the course of Obinze and Ifemelu's relationship from Nigeria to England and the U.S., you want to root for them, but at the same time, it's interesting to watch how poorly they fare when separated in comparison to how well they do together.

Adichie also explores how the stress of immigrating to another country can take a toll on a person.  We see it in Ifemelu's Aunt Uju, her cousin Dike, Obinze and in Ifemelu, herself.  Bit by bit, each of them loses a little bit of their soul as they attempt to fit in and find their place in their new countries.  Even Dike, who immigrated as a small child and is more Americanized than Uju and Ifemelu, has difficulty adjusting in the long run.

To me, the most fascinating parts of the book reflect on race in America.  Adichie makes a point that I never really gave any thought.  She talks about how in Nigeria, people don't seem themselves as black because everyone is black.  There is no room for otherization when everyone looks like you.  It wasn't until arriving in America that she became black.

Approaching the discussion of race as a non-American black is eye opening because the history of race in the U.S. and the baggage it brings does not belong to them.  On the flip side, because they do not have that baggage, Ifemelu notes the things they should be offended by, but aren't, because they have no idea why they should be (e.g., watermelon/fried chicken comments, tar baby, strong black woman, etc.). Through Ifemelu's blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes), and her interactions with classmates, friends and acquaintances, Adichie hits on some aha moments and quite a few ouch points.  Highlights include those that are quick to claim Indian heritage and the preference of some men for "exotic" women. Non-American blacks aren't let off the hook either as Ifemelu points out in a blog post about how they sometimes are quick to point out that they're not black, claiming instead their country or island, as in "I'm not black, I'm Jamaican."  Ifemelu notes that they say this because they know black is at the bottom of America's race ladder and they want no parts of it.  If there was a racial draft, blacks would be the Charlie Brown of the bunch.

Adichie places Ifemelu in three relationships (with fellow Nigerian, Obinze; white American, Curt; and black American, Blaine), highlighting the difficulties in intercultural, interracial, interclass relationships.  It would seem that the intercultural differences were the biggest factor to overcome and that plays out in her relationship with Blaine that takes place leading up the election of President Obama.  Again, Ifemelu doesn't have the history and baggage of being black in America. And though she can understand and is excited about the possibility of Obama being elected, and it temporarily reignites their relationship, there's a wedge driven between her and Blaine when she fails to participate in campus rallies leading up to the election; instead seeking out other non-American blacks.  Does Adichie point out these differences to say people of different cultures, races or classes shouldn't mix?  No, but I think she's far most realistic about how difficult it can be to overcome the challenges that come with it.

So, long book, a lot of ground to cover, but it's so worth it.  For those that have read Purple Hibiscus or Half of A Yellow Sun, this is not that.  This is something a little different, but just as eye opening as anything else Adichie has written or spoken about.  Take your time and savor it.

Published: May 2013
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: Yori Yori by Bracket

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