Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I've been reading a lot.  All I've wanted to do in the evenings is read and read and read.  Part of this is simply due to the fact that with another semester of school looming in the distance, I am all too conscious of the books I want to finish by the end of summer.  But this is not to say that I've been forcing myself to pick up books and read them.  I am enjoying (most of) the books I've decided to read this summer, and my list was such that I could afford to squeeze in other books from the library and my Amazon wishlist (oops).  The book I want to talk about today, though, is one that I had on my summer list from the beginning – it's a novel my aunt gave me last year, and to be honest, I did not have high expectations.  In fact, prior to starting it, I decided that if I was not hooked by page 50, I would quit it.  Spoiler: I was hooked way earlier than that.  Today, I want to talk about a book that surprised me, gripped me, and moved me: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Call it what you like, but I have a thing with/against mainstream or otherwise popular "hyped" books.  I went through a time in my reading a couple years ago when I read lots of those types of books and I was disappointed by most of them.  This experience turned me off to the point of avoiding popular books altogether.  So when my aunt gave me this book, I inwardly groaned because I thought I would be disappointed again.  Alas, my derision has been appropriately chastened and tempered.

Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu.  The novel follows her move to the  United States for school and her life in the states as she navigates the distinctly foreign racially-charged society she encounters there.  The narrative flips back and forth between her present day life in the states as she prepares to return to Nigeria, and her past, eventually catching the reader up on her life until that point.  Somewhere in the later half of the novel, the perspective switches to that of the man who had been her boyfriend in Nigeria before she left for America and follows his life in the UK and then back in Nigeria.  Ifemelu's story follows each of her relationships in the states as they reveal new things about American society and Ifemelu herself.  The reader also gets relevant and witty articles from her blog on race as they apply to situations.

This book is equal parts entertaining, thought provoking, eye-opening, and just plain interesting.  I learned a lot, not only about Nigerian culture, something I knew next-to-nothing about, but about the way American culture, and particularly our race culture, appears to a non-American black.  I found this perspective fascinating, and admittedly, not one I had ever considered before.  While race wasn't the sole conversation of this book, the topic came up in Ifemelu's relationships in America, not only with the men she was with but also with her friends.  Her blog posts, which were both informative and funny, commented on the differences between race dynamics in the US and in Nigeria.  Ifemelu did not think of herself as black until she came to America.  She had to adjust to the way race is viewed in America as related to class.  The topic of race in this book fascinated me, and Adichie writes about it with wisdom and clarity.  I came away from this book with a new understanding of the racial climate both in and out of the United States and I am grateful for that.

One of the main reasons I picked this book up to begin with, when I frankly didn't want to is because of a TED Talk Adichie gives that I watched in Spanish class last semester.  In the talk, Adichie is talking about the concept of the "single story" and the danger of it.  Here's the video:

I remember being struck by this video when I watched it in class, and it was one of the reasons I decided to actually read Americanah.  In a post a couple months ago, I talked about a book called Secondhand Time, a devastating oral history of Russia post-Sovietism.  I explained that I had read this horrifying account because I believe that it is the responsibility of Christians to try and understand the suffering and grief of the world so that we can both understand God's heart more fully, and be moved to work for the redemption and salvation of our broken world.  I've come to think of this whole concept of the multiple story in the same way.  I think that as Christians, both in order to empathize and better understand the world and people God has made and loved, we have a responsibility to have as generous and accurate knowledge of these things as possible.  Through reading Americanah and thinking about this topic in general, I've decided to make a more concerted effort to learn about places I know little about, or have a single idea of, both through fiction and nonfiction.  I don't know what this looks like, really, and I still will not be reading stuff that I don't want to read just because it's set in a place I am unfamiliar with, or because it's written by a person from a different perspective.  I've simply decided to be more sensitive and open to broadening my understanding of the world in this way.

Finally, to bring it back to this particular novel, I'll quickly talk about the book itself.  I loved the narrative style of this book.  When a story about a single person switches from the past to the present, that works really well for me.  This was one of the reasons this book was so readable.  While the book was over 500 pages long, I didn't want to put it down, which is a major qualification for a summer book.  I loved the main character, Ifemelu, and while I didn't always agree with her decisions or actions, I felt like I got to know and understand her throughout the novel.  I loved the parts of the novel set in Nigeria, and the author does an excellent job of making those parts of the book actually feel different.  Another thing I really loved about the book was the way Ifemelu's blog posts were interspersed at the end of according chapters.  The posts were witty and informative, and helped me gain a better understanding of her perspective.  I can't remember anything about the novel that I didn't like, though it's been a couple weeks since I finished it.

All in all, Americanah is a great novel for the summer, or anytime.  The writing sparkled with wit and wisdom, the characters drew me in, and the narrative pulled me along in the way all good novels do.  I recommend this book if you're curious to learn about this perspective or if you're simply looking for a good summer novel.  You'll be glad you gave it twenty pages.

Reading Americanah made me want to pick up these books:
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Recommendation: Half of a Yellow Sun!
Same author, just finished today. Very gripping and eye opening.

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