Finding home and maybe cookies – “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

February 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

chimamanda-bio“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Published in 2013. 

I first read Adichie’s “Half of the Yellow Sun” a couple of years ago and fell fully in love with her writing.  Her story telling is intricate but her opinions and voice are sonorous – she is telling you something important and you need to listen.  There is no question that Adichie is not a woman or writer to take lightly (I am predicting here that in the next ten years Adichie will win a pulitzer).

The story is a fairly simple one overall.  Ifemelu is a beautiful, intelligent Nigerian girl who grows up in love with her classmate, Obinze.  He is obsessed with America and dreams of getting there someday.  But it is Ifemelu who finally gets a scholarship to attend college at Princeton.  She leaves Obinze, with promises that he will follow her to America soon.  But the land of opportunity is not quite what Obinze dreamed of, and not what Ifemelu expected.  She can’t find a job to make ends meet and finally ends up taking a job that ruins her self-worth and she finds herself unable to return Obinze’s telephone calls.  How can she face him after what she has done? And so years pass. Obinze, unable to understand why Ifemelu shut him out, must carry on. He moves to England for a couple of years but then moves back to Nigeria.  He marries, amasses wealth – his life is a successful one, even if it is not a happy or full one.

Ifemelu begins to blog and finds her voice, focusing on her experience as an American-African (an African who has immigrated to the states) vs. her observations of African-Americans.   Ifemelu meets men, dates, and almost marries one of them but none of them are Obinze.  Eventually, she surprises everyone, terminates her blog which has national and international recognition, and decides to move back home to Nigeria.  Ifemelu’s rentry to her homeland is difficult and it takes her awhile to finally decide to find Obinze.  When she does they both realize that while they had both dreamed of lives elsewhere, that really the life they both wanted was more about being together than about the Western world promises and measures of success.

So it is a love story really. But Adichie takes this fairly recognizable story and turns it on its head in so many ways.  Ifemelu’s blog becomes a way for Adichie to slip in amazing, tough and uncomfortably true struggles in our racist and xenophobic society.  Ifemelu’s blog in parts made me cringe, shift a little in my seat, but then nod because she is spot on.  Americans don’t know what countries are in Africa – so instead of saying “I am from Nigeria” the Nigerian immigrant says “I am from Africa”  rather than hear “And where is Nigeria- is that in the Bahamas?” White Americans don’t understand that there is no expectation that we be color-blind. If the woman who helped you in a store is black then going through a litany of other attributes (she had brown eyes, a pink shirt) is just silly if the problem is easily solved by the fact that she is the only African-American working in the store.

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

There is an animosity between African-Americans and American-Africans that Adichie’s approaches though a bit more tenuously.  American-Africans immigrant here for the education, to make money to support their families back home, to escape ethnic cleansing.  These immigrants can often be highly intelligent and influential in their home country only to come to America to find employers suspicious, the education system non-welcoming and African-Americans highly judgmental.  In Nigeria, you are not black you are just Nigerian.  But in America you are a black immigrant, which carries all kinds of stereotypes and hurtles. While African-Americans have always been “black” and have spent hundreds of years either traded like commodities or treated like second class citizens.  Adichie compares the end of slavery to the act of releasing a prisoner of war, opening the gates and saying “good luck” while they stand there without money, clothes, transportation, or any way to move forward.

Somehow, though I am still amazed by this, Adichie does not make her characters sound like they are whining – I think even the most conservative, anti-immigrant American would find it hard to scoff and say “if you don’t like it, go home.”  Adichie’s writing is more along the lines of “this is life as a Nigerian immigrant in American and this is just how it goes.”   If the American-African returns home then they are considered uppity and Americanah.  The definition of home becomes more fluid for the immigrant because they really have no choice. Adichie’s tone does not make the story any easier to read, it has heart-wrenching moments that made this American ashamed.   But my discomfort was a small price to pay, after all as Ifemelu writes in her blog “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”  So I am cookieless but pretty happy I got the opportunity to spend some time with Ms. Adichie.

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Entry filed under: February 2014 reads. Tags: , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hastanton  |  February 24, 2014 at 8:17 am

    This was one of my favourite reads of last year…..yes, it is very thought provoking ….Obinze’s stay in the UK made me think very hard about how immigrants are perceived here. Her writing is clear, sharp and no nonsense …..but it is also a great love story too .

    Reply
    • 2. Emily C  |  February 24, 2014 at 9:44 am

      I agree. I couldn’t even get into the UK aspect of the book because my review was already ridiculously long. But it was a very important part.
      I will say I was in a cab in the states last week and asked the driver where he was from and he said Ethiopia. When I asked “where in Ethiopia” he said “Africa, it is in Africa.” Which made me sad, because Ethiopia is a big country and I was just curious what part he was from – but I didn’t want to rudely say I know it is in Africa.

      Reply

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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