Paperback, 608 pages
Published March 4th 2014 by Vintage Canada
A searing new novel, at once sweeping and intimate, by the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun: a story of love and race centred around a man and woman from Nigeria who seemed destined to be together–until the choices they are forced to make tear them apart.
Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in.
Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.
I first came across Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Beyonce’s song, the name of which I cannot remember. I do remember, however, looking up Adichie’s Ted Talk, the one that was featured in the song, I remember listening raptly to all that she was saying and nodding my head, once, twice, and over and over again at all the points she made. Her words resonated with me so much that I became determined to read a book by her. Looking at her backlist though, I felt a bit wary because she seems to primarily write sad novels and I experience enough sadness in my own life without wanting to seek out the emotion in fiction. Then I got the chance to review her latest novel and I pounced at it because, gee, it’s talking about race and after a recent incident, I have become more interested in matters of race and colour than I used to be.
About two weeks ago, I was, I hate to call myself a victim because that implies a lack of agency and helplessness but at that point, I did honestly feel helpless. Anyway, a white person blew up at me and called me a lot of names because of my colour, my religion amongst other things. I have never been particularly conscious of my colour. I live in Vancouver, we are hardly homogenous over here. But this woman’s assertion of her dominance made me aware, on a deeper level, of my own “Otherness.”
And that is primarily what Americanah is all about. I read an interesting review about it on Goodreads where the reviewer made a lot of valid points about the categorization of the novel as fiction because according to her, Adichie used fiction as a pretext to air her own views about race and the West and to an extent, I do agree with her. Ifemelu is not a character that I liked or was able to sympathize with. Her actions alienated me but at the same, I read with the knowledge that Adichie did not promise to give us a heroine. Instead, in her protagonist, she gives us someone who observes, who occupies that liminal space between two cultures, someone who is unapologetically real. Now, people who also occupy that liminal space where one has to navigate between two often contradictory ways of living, will find that this novel speaks to them. Issues of race are a forefront as blackness is discussed with a candour and a frankness that is often missing in books written in and produced by North American authors and publishers.
I felt Obinze to be a more fascinating character though the novel is not focalized on him. I find his growth and his experiences as in England extremely fascinating. I didn’t understand why Ifemelu broke up with Obinze, I mean, I realize that she experienced something traumatic but I don’t think the experience justified the way she hurt Obinze and then continued to hurt all the men in her life. I found her strangely lacking strong opinions even though her blog entries were obviously meant to show the readers her opinions. As a person of colour, I related to what the novel was talking about, especially with regards to all the nonsense of “we are all human” and “colour doesn’t matter.” Colour does matter and I’m going to be insulted if you tell me that it doesn’t.
As a novel, as a story about two deeply flawed people, I found this book lacking. While the settings are amazing, the characters needed something a bit more for me. However, I read this book for more than the story it had to offer. I read it for the opinions it offered, for the anecdotes it is so liberally sprinkled with, about being different, about being the same and about simply being, about colour and race and changing. About burning bridges and evoking awareness, about shouting until you are heard, about changing perspectives and ideas about what it means to be a POC in a white world. In that regard, I was wholly satisfied with what I read.