Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written a book that hit me with a full force of feeling. Americanah covers such foreign experiences to my own – a Nigeria under military dictatorship; discovering racism in America – but works with the crisp commonality of universal shared emotion.
We open with Ifemelu in America, an adult, catching the train to get to an African hair salon for braiding. Watching the people and the races change as she goes further out from Princeton, Ifemelu’s awareness of class and race is self-conscious, observing. She writes a successful eye-opening blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non- American Black”.
Her story, and the story about her first love Obinze, is not told the way the blurb is: chronologically, growing up, falling love, moving, moving back. Ifemelu and Obinze meet at high school in Lagos, growing and supporting each other in their tumulus Nigeria. Years later, their lives finding different, separate success, they meet again when Ifemelu decides to return home. Their lives, separate and together, are told back and forth across time, with Ifemelu in the African hair salon, reflecting on what has come so far before she moves back.
Ifemelu is smart, sharp; the narration wryly observed. She exists in almost a completely foreign world to my own, but the commonality of experience hit me like a brick. She is an intelligent character, and after explicitly observing and writing about race relations in the United States, the keen eye is now trained on her own life:
“…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”
In America Ifemelu seems to be every kind of outsider: a black, a non-American black, an scholarship student, an employee flirting on the edge of illegality, the black girlfriend of a white American, the black girlfriend of an American black, immigrant, returnee, expat. This allows a wryness to her thoughts, a sheer honesty that is completely necessary to survive as a constant Other. Some of this is recorded in her blog, some of this comes to her perception of her own life. From the blog:
“In America, racism exists but racists are gone. Racists belong in the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not.”
I haven’t had a book manipulate my time like this for a good long while. On my commute to work, I wanted to stay on the bus wherever it would take me just to keep reading. While stirring dinner with one hand, with the other I would hold this book, just away so it’s not over the seam, unable to put it down.
Reading and loving this book makes me wonder what it was about Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus that bugged me so much: there is a similar lassitude, at times, in Americanah, but it feels like Ifemelu is too smart to let that same lethargy seep into her whole life. She is zesty, and – dare I say the racially loaded word – sassy. She is smart, and Obinze is the same: thoughtful, considerate, teasing. Their narration and dialogue is joyous, and even when loaded with a heaviness of emotion, is so searing to experience.
I completely loved this book, full of amorphous longings, shapeless desires, funny and smart thoughts, the life of people in transformation. The descriptions of life in Nigeria, of trying to find your place in America, and the conflict between feelings of home:
“They themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again.”
Adichie’s writing is incredible, and while common concerns seemed to be shared across her books – about race and place, growing up in Nigeria, how politics affects the every day life – there is an honesty in how she has captured Ifemelu and Obinze that make them real, that make them bigger than the context they are in. It’s a beautiful story, funny, and so absorbing.