Saturday, September 6, 2014

#43 [2014/CBR6] "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"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." [359]

The summer before beginning college, I received a package from my new school. It was a paperback copy of The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje. This was the summer reading for all incoming first year students, and the enclosed letter explained that we would have a book discussion during orientation. I was thrilled! I love books, and even though my tuition certainly covered the cost of one paperback novel, receiving one unexpectedly in the mail was fantastic.

Fast forward to present day when I was procrastinating by browsing my alma mater's website, and I discovered that Americanah (2014) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was this year's summer reading for  incoming first year students. I'd already heard of Americanah from Cannonball, and it was on my list, but this second reminder moved it up to the top. And it was a great book, and a great selection for incoming freshman. Having grown up in a very white, very politically correct, and very liberal environment, I would have found this book challenging and enlightening as a rather naive teenager. Now that I've grown up a bit, seen more things, been exposed to more ideas, and read books similar in nature [books regarding the Black experience in America as well as books written by Africans], I was not particularly surprised by any of the content but impressed by Adichie's novel.

Ifemalu was a middle-class Nigerian, but when constant strikes and government corruption interrupt her University education, she obtains a student Visa and moves to the United States. With over six hundred pages, Adichie goes into detail about her adolescence in Nigeria, her struggles upon first coming to America, her relationships and experiences in the United States, and what finally brought her back to Nigeria. Most of the story feels centered around relationships. The relationship between Ifemalu and her Nigerian aunt and nephew when she first arrives, the relationship between races in America, the relationship between black Africans and black Americans, and the relationship between different nationalities of Africans in America. In addition, Ifemalu's story is often framed by whom she is dating: a rich, white man; an African-American professor at Yale; and her high school sweetheart from Nigeria. Between these relationships and Ifemalu's blog about racial issues, Adichie furrows into what feels like every racial issue in the United States from a variety of perspectives.

This story is so detailed, so exacting, and so perceptive, that I felt like I was reading a personal autobiography. Looking up Adichie after finishing this novel, I discovered that she was also born in Nigeria and went to school in the United States, so I can only guess that much of this novel is informed by personal experience. Ifemalu is smart and outspoken and I enjoyed reading about her.

If I may go off on a quick tangent, there were instances when I did not understand Ifemalu. When dealing with a boyfriend, Ifemalu would occasionally lie or cheat--usually when the relationship wasn't going well. I could perhaps understand what drove her to these actions but then she'd seem surprised that the men in her life were hurt and angry. I don't know if she couldn't admit to herself that what she'd done was wrong or if she really didn't think what she'd done was wrong. I also wasn't sure if this was some kind of cultural thing I wasn't understanding or some weird aspect of her personality. This stuck out only because I understood Ifemalu's attitude throughout the rest of the book, and these small pieces were the only sections where I couldn't see where Ifemalu was coming from.

Anyway, I'm afraid this rambling review is not doing this book justice. Whenever I try to find the words to sum up my experience I am paralyzed because whatever descriptors I come up with feel inadequate. There's a lot going on in this one and it's worth reading.

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