Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Again, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a powerful and riveting story.

Americanah traces the journey - both literal and figurative - of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu to America and eventually, years later, back to Nigeria.  She struggles with the American concept of race and what it means to her as an African, processing it via a blog she called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  She gains a bit of fame and a decent income from her blogging efforts, but they only come after the significant financial, emotional, and even physical trials of settling into a new country.

One of the most stunning aspects of Adichie's writing for me is how she draws characters so deftly and efficiently.  For example, Ifemelu's boyfriend, Blaine, is a professor at Yale, and at a gathering of his friends and co-workers, one is described:
It was Stirling, the wealthy one, who Blaine told her came from Boston old money; he and his father had been legacy students at Harvard.  He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgement of his own many privileges.  He never allowed himself to have an opinion.  "Yes, I see what you mean," he said often.
Can't you just see Stirling?  Even without a physical description, I feel like I could pick him out of a crowd at a party.  And he's a very minor character.  The effort put in to drawing each character with such precision and humanity yields incredibly rich mental pictures of the individuals and their relationships to each other.

Adichie is a master of language and she skillfully points out the power of language: the difference between African-American and American-African, the shift to using the phrase "racially charged" as a substitute for the harsher - but often more accurate - adjective "racist".  Ifemelu's blog becomes a useful device for parsing out the cultural differences between Nigeria and the United States and making pointed, sometimes scathing, observations on Americans' discomfort and lack of ability to deal with racial issues with humility and self-awareness.

Race is not the only difficult subject Adichie approaches in Americanah.  The experience of immigration, while tied to race, is also explored on its own merits.  Here it's interesting to compare Ifemelu's experiences coming to the United States to pursue higher education with her one-time boyfriend's time in England working illegally on an acquaintance's National Insurance number after overstaying his visa.  Adichie presents enormously complicated issues in a real, honest, human context without minimizing the struggle, whitewashing the difficult and questionable choices, or simplifying the complexities.

After reading a novel by Adichie, I feel more educated and more aware of the fact that my way of viewing the world is incomplete and not necessarily reflective of everyone's experiences.  And that's good.  Her writing makes me more humble and open to empathy.  I trust her depictions of life in Nigeria and as a Nigerian here in the United States, and her observations of the human condition.  Her fiction reads as true to me.

Also, Americanah introduced me to Nigerian pop music like "Yori Yori":

And "Obi Mu O":

...which has kind of become a minor addiction.  So there's that too...

** Be aware: there are some f-bombs sprinkled throughout the book, sporadic mention of possibly triggering topics like spousal abuse, and a few disturbing scenes, including one with non-consensual sexual contact.  If you find any of that triggering, this may not be the book for you.

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
ISBN: 9780307455925
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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