Americanah

20 May

Americanah

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book. I’d love to blame it on being a mum but truthfully, I’d just got lazy. That’s not my Tiger and Dino Baby weren’t cutting it anymore. I needed some brain food.

Step in my sister with a recommendation for Americanah.  Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it comes after the critically acclaimed Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and her collection of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck.  She published Purple Hibiscus when she was 25, has had her books translated into 30 languages and is part of growing movement of writers bringing African literature to the forefront.

Americanah is her latest offering. It’s about many things but it centres on a love story.  Ifemelu and Obinze meet in high school and fall in love but are separated by their ambitions for a better life outside of Nigeria.  Ifemelu goes to America and they decide that Obinze will join her later but after 9/11, he is refused a visa.

What follows is their individual stories and challenges away from home.  Ifemelu struggles to adapt to life in America and Obinze falls into an illegal life in England.  They meet many years later in a newly democratic Nigeria.  Ifemelu returns from her life as a famous blogger in the States and Obinze is a wealthy and married man.

The title comes from Ifemelu’s Nigerian friends when she returns to Nigeria. When she complains of the humidity or the noise of the generator, her friends teasingly call her Americanah. Race, immigration, how people’s lives can change in new countries and life in Nigeria are all part of this love story.  And it is definitely thought provoking.

Ifemelu’s blog on race runs throughout the book; Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black.  It’s a long-winded name and a powerful tool in opening up a dialogue about race.

The author

The author

Race is a different concept for everyone, depending on where you’re from, where you live and your personal experiences.  I’m Asian but born and bred in the UK.  My instinctive reaction is to say I rarely think about race but I do. Growing up being called a Paki or my colleague at Woolworths asking if anyone was going to the Paki shop, made me aware I was different.  When I visited Brighton recently with my husband thinking we might move there, we were both looking for the other brown people.  The closest we got was a waiter in a fushia sarong in a local Indian restaurant.  We’re so used to seeing Asians everywhere, even in my relatively suburban home town in Kent, that it’s only when there’s no Asians around we notice it.  A bit like Ifemelu, who doesn’t identify herself as black until she’s in America.

It’s not just non-blacks who Ifemelu has issues with.  She faces challenges from African Americans.  Her handsome, straight-laced boyfriend Blaine has a sister who takes a dislike to Ifemelu and loudly announces that Ifemelu’s blog has only done well because she is African.  If she were African American she’d be labelled as angry.

There is an African American culture here which there isn’t in England and from my British point of view, I missed a lot of cultural references.  One which I did understand was the response to Obama winning the election.  Of course we all knew it was a historical milestone that a black man was voted in as President, but seeing it from the perspective of black people in America is something else.

I like to think I have some understanding of racial differences and racial identity. Yet, I found some of Ifemelu’s critiques of non-black people’s behaviour towards her a little severe.  As humans, we strive to find common ground with each other and she can be cutting of non-black people who bring up their experiences of Africa as if to prove how much they like her home continent.

I get it.  It’s like when people talk to me about India thinking that it’s all the same thing, even though I’ve just told them my mum is from Afghanistan/Kashmir, my dad is from Pakistan and I’ve never been to India. But it struck me as too harsh.

Then again I’m not African or African American so perhaps my perspective is different.  And maybe the sad thing is that this attempt to find common ground can often be where people perceive there to be the greatest difference between them; in this case, race.

Americanah takes you backwards and forwards in time between Nigeria, London and the US.  Adichie’s writing brings the most mundane, everyday events to life and I enjoyed the journey of the characters more than the ending.  It’s a book for you if you enjoy stories which give you an insight into new cultures and countries.  As someone who’s only visited Egypt on the African continent, reading about life in Nigeria completely captured my imagination.

Would I recommend Americanah?  I think you know the answer to that. Yes.

It’s the kind of book that makes me want to join a book club and I’ll definitely be reading her other books.

 

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