“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious.”
Embracing an obvious fashion, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a book about race in America. But Americanah is also about culture and politics and society spread across three continents. I had it on hold at the library before even conceiving this project, mostly because I’d heard Adichie on The Arcade, a podcast by Hazlitt. And even though she discussed her dislike of baseball (Blue Jays, 2014!), her book piqued my interest.
The story revolves around Ifemelu, a Nigerian who moves to the U.S. for university. She’s not “African American” – she’s an African living in America, and even once she gets her citizenship she notes there’s still a sort of pressure to prove she’s earned her place. Upon arrival she struggles with economic issues, ultimately leading to an incident that destroys her relationship and spirals her into depression, but once she’s found her footing she leads a relatively privileged life.
But the book (or Adichie) is self aware – Ifemelu writes a blog, “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” many of which are published through the book. She spells out the racial hierarchy in the country, including the difference between American blacks and non-American blacks, and that’s a distinction that to be honest, I’d never fully realized. I know that the experience of someone who is born in the U.S. (or Canada) and someone who immigrates later in life is not entirely the same but it was eye-opening to read some thoughts on what those differences entail.
One other distinct feature of the book is the role of Obama and his rise to the presidency over the course of the story. It’s strange reading fiction that draws heavily on events I can recall and it was even more strange reading about the reaction Obama elicited from the characters in the story. I was 20 when he was elected and I remember the excitement, even as a Canadian. How crazy it is to think that the American civil rights movement was barely half a century ago, and here’s a black man running the country. But my excitement and awe, as an outsider on two levels, can’t compare to Ifemelu and her friends. The bond formed over a shared support of Obama even reconciled her and her boyfriend: “On the day Barack Obama became the nominee of the Democratic Party, Ifemelu and Blaine made love, for the first time in weeks, and Obama was there with them, like an unspoken prayer, a third emotional presence.”
Ifemelu’s experience in the U.S. allowed me to see my own North American society through a fresh perspective, and recognize some of its absurdities (a few pages into the book after someone comments “I know” the narration follows with “that peculiar American phrase that expressed agreement rather than knowledge” and I laughed out loud on the subway). But while much of the narrative is set in the U.S., Americanah also offered a look into Nigerian life, particularly that of the elite, and I love the sense of getting to know somewhere new through a novel.
I haven’t even mentioned Obinze – he’s not what I think of when I reflect on the story although he’s a main feature, and at the heart of the conclusion. I don’t want to say exactly how it turns out, but the ending is kind of uncertain which I liked. The whole book felt real for that reason – everyone was grey and even the characters you like or admire made (often big) mistakes. Americanah left me feeling that no one is a saint, but made me feel better for that.