Monday, May 27, 2013

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

You guys are going to get sick of me telling you I love everything I read.

It's just that I have a strict reading policy! Since there are too many amazing books for me to read in my lifetime, I don't waste time on the ones that aren't doing it for me. This doesn't mean abandoning challenging books, just boring or badly-written ones.

Here endeth my reading habit PSA. Moving on.

I'll say this up front: I need to read more diversely. I read in all the genres, sure, and I lean more towards books by women these days, and that's great, but I need to put the effort into finding more books by women (and men) of color. Americanah deals heavily with questions of race, and it is fascinating.

The book follows Ifemelo and Obinze, two Nigerians who elect to immigrate to the US and the UK, respectively. We see them through their childhood, their teenaged romance, their painful estrangement, and their reconnection years later. Through Ifemelo, we get to see an experience I'm ashamed to say I never really thought about before: that of a non-American Black in America.

For Ifemelo, race doesn't exist before she arrives in America. The color of her skin just isn't an issue in Nigeria. In the US, she has a whole new set of rules and social norms to adjust to.To help her keep track, and to observe her new situation, she starts a blog, which becomes a great success. Excerpts of her blog are peppered throughout her chapters, with titles like To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby, and Thoughts on the Special White Friend. 

I've been purposely avoiding reviews until I sort out my own thoughts, but I'll be curious to hear what others thought of the blog entries. Did people find them jarring? Soap box-y? Just a platform for Adichie to express her own opinions without the mask of story? One of the characters tells Ifemelu that her blog posts don't sound like her--a statement I agree with.* But then again, outside of casual emails, I don't write like I talk, either. (Although I'd like to get a bit closer. Finding my writing voice and all that--but that's a post for another day.) I enjoyed the blog portions of the book, if for no other reason than I enjoy blogs and she had a lot of interesting things to say.

This is a very talky book. There's a lot of dialogue, lots of philosophical conversation, thinking, and writing. There are so many bits I'd like to paste in here. Adichie is brilliant at using small details and observations to reveal great truth. While reading this book, I had so many of those moments of recognition you get when something mirrors real life in a new but unmistakeably honest way. There are also many moments of insight into this world that, as a white woman, I'm not generally privy to. Some of them are funny, like when Ifemelu is getting her hair braided by a more recent immigrant from Africa. The braiding will take hours, so Ifemelu pulls out a granola bar.
"That not food!" Halima scoffed, looking away from the television.
"She here fifteen years, Halima," Aisha said, as if the length of the years in America explained Ifemelu's eating of a granola bar.
Often, the observations are much darker, like pretty much any chapter about Ifem and Obinze's attempts to find work and obtain visas in their new homes.  Adichie writes about immigrants who are educated and choose to immigrate, rather than extremely impoverished refugees with no other choice. They nevertheless face indiginities from US and UK citizens who assume that, because they have Nigerian accents, they must not understand English/have informed opinions/be educated/aaaaand so on.

I want to put in a ton of excerpts, but I'm intimidated because this isn't a short book and I haven't learned yet to mark the pages I want to return to. So I'm going to be kind of lazy and just encourage you to read the book for yourself. It's a great story and it's as much about the characters as it is about the "issues" surrounding them. You'll laugh, you'll think, maybe you'll cry, I can't say for sure because your mileage may vary.

*Oh god, I kind of hate scrolling down to read footnotes in blog posts, and here I am, using them anyway. Blarggh. But okay, so when I originally started this review almost a week ago, I was thinking the blog posts didn't sound like Ifemelo. The tone is so different. But looking back, I think I was wrong. We see several instances of Ifem directly addressing prejudice, like when she exasperatedly tells her boss that it's not necessary to pretend to think all black women are beautiful. She's constantly observing people's prejudices and biases in intelligent, funny ways, which is what her blog posts are (mostly) all about. So I revise that statement--they do sound like her. She just polished them up.

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