Posts tagged ‘Nigeria’

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

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.


February 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

It cannot be forgotten that war is very ugly – “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimama Adichie, Published 2006 

 “Half of a Yellow Sun” is amazing. Adichie’s novel documents the bloody and ruthless Nigerian civil war, the Nigeria-Biafra War, that lasted from 1967-1970.  It is an astonishing piece of literature.

Nigeria was named and made a British colony in the early 1900s (1901 to be exact).  Of course when Nigeria was formally “created” in 1914 it was a construct of multiple tribes and peoples not one country – it was instead drawn on a map for the convenience of colonization.  In 1960, Britain handed power back to the Nigerian people and a government was put in power, centralized in the North. The Igbo people largely occupied the South-Eastern portion of the country.

Adichie uses three characters to tell her story: Ugwu, a poor Igbo villager who has been hired to be a houseboy for a professor Odenigbo; Olanna, the Igbo woman who comes from a rich family and loves Odenigbo; and Richard, the white Englishman who has come to Nigeria to find himself as a writer.  At the beginning of this story, Ugwu serves Odenigbo and Olanna while they play tennis, have nightly philosophical drinks with friends and dream of independence from Nigeria. In 1966, the Muslim population in the North began a unilateral slaughtering of the Igbo people.  Richard finds himself in an airport as people with guns walking around asking each person if they are Igbo and then shooting them.  Finally, after a military coup on the central government, the Eastern portion of Nigeria decides to secede and names itself Biafra, with the half sun as its flag and symbol of a raising nation. Odenigbo, Olanna and Ugwu find themselves uprooted and as the story develops they face violence, starvation, and great loss. War changes them, making them both stronger and weaker.  To me the most compelling scene in the book is when Ugwu, the sweet innocent boy, is conscripted into the Biafran army and  finds himself gang raping a young barmaid.  Yes, it is tough to read but it speaks to that piece in all of us that says “I could never do something like that.” Because truthfully, in dire situations we do not know what we are capable of doing.*

What makes this story compelling is Adichie’s ability to weave her characters’ lives into the war.  It is not just story about people affected by war, it is a story about ideals that reality cannot meet, betrayal and forgiveness, tradition, and family.  It gives the reader a lot to contemplate while at the same time remaining universally human enough to keep the reader engaged with the characters.

Adichie also gently reminds the American reader that as all this was occurring a church in Alabama was blown up killing 4 little black girls and America was beginning it’s long war in Vietnam –  as if to say “just in case your superiority got the better of you…” Perhaps most importantly though, the reader will recognize the Igbo people, they are the people who the Muslims claim are too successful and will take everyone’s land if you let them, with the further charge that it is time to purify the country – this propaganda will sound eerily familiar. And again we will sit comfortably at a distance, amazed at the cruelty that is happening in another part of the world.

*American soldiers in Iraq find themselves struggling with this which author Jim Fredrick addresses in his work of nonfiction entitled “Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death.”

September 19, 2011 at 2:18 pm 4 comments


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