This book should come with a warning; ‘This book could change your life’, or ‘Completion of this book may trigger an instant desire to want to change the world’.
‘Americanah’ is basically a love story between a beautiful Nigerian woman called Ifemelu, and the love of her life Obinze. Preparing to travel back to Nigeria from America, Ifemelu has closed down her very successful blog about race and ended her relationship with the perfect boyfriend Blaine, an African American professor who ‘taught ideas of nuance and complexity in his classes’ at Princeton and who kissed and ‘held her tightly as though Obama’s victory was also their personal victory’. Ifemelu’s heart though lies in Nigeria and particularly with Obinze, who is a charismatic, sensitive, and now very wealthy man. However, he is married to someone else, and has children of his own. Having ended their relationship abruptly fifteen years ago, after a horrendous incident in America, Ifemelu and Obinze are now forced back into each other’s lives and feel they owe it to each other to attempt a kind of closure; a task that seems near impossible with the many experiences they have lived and the secrets they both carry.
However, as Ifemelu points out in the novel, “Why did people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” And so as a second attempt I would tell that this novel is a deep and as close to an honest account as there ever will be of the complex, and intriguing issue of race in the United States as recorded by a Non-American African whose rude awakening to the fact that her skin colour is an issue changes her life forever. Spurred on by the idiosyncrasies around her, Ifemelu writes a blog called ‘Raceteenth’ in which she airs her grievances and shares funny anecdotes regarding life in America. “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’. And in several of the posts, which are the best part of the book and the most dynamic, she writes, ‘Oppression Olympics is what smart liberal Americans say to make you feel stupid and to make you shut up. But there IS an oppression olympics going on. American racial minorities - blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews - all get shit from white folks, different kinds of shit but shit still. Each secretly believes that it gets the worst shit. So, no, there is no United League of the Oppressed. However, all the others think they're better than blacks because, well, they're not black.” And the posts go on and on and get only better and better.
‘Americanah’ is the term given to Nigerians when they return back from America. Thus another layer of the novel sheds light on the life of the privileged successful few and how they are looked upon and treated by their fellow compatriots when they return to their homeland. Those who have left are torn between longings for all that they missed while away and yet return unable to make peace with what their country has become. So they moan, grumble and complain about their beloved Nigeria but even that is conflicted when it comes to Ifemelu, ‘She was comfortable here, and she wished she were not. She wished, too, that she were not so interested in this new restaurant, did not perk up, imagining fresh green salads and steamed still-firm vegetables. She loved eating all the things she had missed while away, jollof rice cooked with a lot of oil, fried plantains, boiled yams, but she longed, also, for the other things she had become used to in America, even quinoa, Blaine's specialty, made with feta and tomatoes’.
And so the answer to what ‘Americanah’ is about is quite a complex one. It is about the concept of ‘home’ and what it has come to mean in the modern world where people will do anything to leave their birthplace, not because of war and torture, famine or starvation, but because of choicelessness. It is about raising a family in a world that is foreign and totally contrary to everything that one has been taught, governed by rules that are not only unfamiliar and border on the absurd but also come mired in injustice. It is about the naïve belief that your fellow men might offer refuge and assistance for the sole reason that you grew up on the same street or went to the same school or spoke the same language. It is about the absurdity of a society where you are seen as humble just because you refuse to exercise the right to rudeness and arrogance that comes with being affluent and powerful.
It is a look at how America regards its immigrants and how America is judged in return. The entire novel is a lesson in asking questions, being better informed and aware of things around us and how what we say and what we do contribute ultimately to the collective narrative that will define who we are and what we stand for as nations. And Ifemelu seems to suggest advice for the reformation: ‘If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more’.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be a guest speaker at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March 2015. To listen to her inspiring and mesmerising TED speech "We Should All be Feminists" click on the video below.
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