Race, love, and identity.
There are no more words left from Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Novel, Americanah (2013). No more chapters to read over languorous afternoons as palm trees sway under the rain or as the sun falls devilishly outside while I hide indoors.
Americanah is the kind of novel you read incrementally, so as to delay the inevitable end. But the subtle suspense of what’s to become of Ifemelu in America or what will happen to her abandoned love in Nigeria makes it impossible to ignore.
Adiche’s style and tone of writing is inviting and fresh, giving the novel space and depth to explore. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun, has an honest way of describing her characters, adding lucid dialogue that paints a clear portrait of who they are. There’s a sense of pride hovering above Ifemelu, as she listens to conversations from her circle of friends, not talking much, but trying to internalize more so than babble.
After Ifemelu’s studies are compromised by a government protest in Nigeria, she moves to the U.S. to find work and go back to school. She lives with her aunt and son then on her own, finding odd jobs and help from an American employer and Curt, a wealthy boyfriend who helps her acquire a green card.
Ifemelu has always been observant and curious; even as a young girl she was actively questioning the motives of her peers, sometimes being silent, other times bluntly asking questions that made people sit in their thoughts, and understand themselves a little bit more. Living in the U.S., she notices the racial and cultural divides that don’t exist in Nigeria. These reflections she later shares in her blog:
Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks by a Non-American Black, which adds to the complexity of the novel’s themes: race, love, and identify.
She writes: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the decision to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in you country?”Immigrants face many contradictions when assimilating into an American culture that actively defines them. Ifemulu’s wants to explore how Africans identify themselves among black Americans in a country divided by race.
Though Curt provides her with many comforts, she doesn’t “believe herself” when she’s with him. Ifemulu goes on to sabotage the relationship, perhaps accidently, but as a way to keep her intellectual integrity that Curt, as a white-American male isn’t always able to understand. Seeing that Curt’s mom is unhappy and the looks she receives from white women, allow Ifemelu to witness the many ways racism touches everyday life.
On a personal level, I identify with the feeling of alienation as an immigrant, as an outsider, an observer more so than someone attached to the collective thought of a nation. Ifemelu brings a refreshing voice to depict American culture with its obsession for dividing people by political ideology, race and class. Her romantic relationships are vivid and remind me of my own, and how invested one can become when sharing your likeness with another person, eventually invading their space, adopting their habits or mannerisms.
Most of Americanah is set against the backdrop of a post 9/11 world, where cellphones are ubiquitous. Characters communicate through emails or by posting messages on blogs. In the course of the novel, we are treated to some emails between her and Obinze, a Nigerian man she loves but can never reunite with. Obinze also leaves his homeland for London, which is short-lived since he’s deported. When he returns to Nigeria he is forced to grow up and forget Ifemelu. Eventually he has to find the courage to claim what he wants and leave a life that betrays him profoundly. The novel delves into Obinze’s thoughts, and readers will undoubtedly feel closer to his character, than Ifemulu’s other romantic interests. A scene from the day Ifemelu and Obinze met:
The trust so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her. They had known nothing of each other only hours ago, and yet, there had been a knowledge shared between them in those moments before they danced, and now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.
As an adult, Ifemulu is confident and often times thinks highly of herself. After she returns to Lagos, Nigeria from studying in Princeton, she looks down at those working meaningless jobs. But she does acknowledges how judgmental she has become, criticizing everything about Nigeria like some of her friends who returned to mock what doesn’t meet their new American standards. She notices her faults and how unfair she has become with the Nigerian friends that never left.
In The Danger of a Single Narrative, a TED Talk video, Adiche mentioned the many ways storytellers are amplifying the African narrative. While the media may only concentrate on sensational narratives recounting tales of poverty, crime and war, there are also stories of progress, middle-class Africans, and young people with their own complexities. In the video, she asks readers to search for the stories that change the narrative. This bring to mind the question of who can define you? The community of your childhood, the one you’ve adopted or the cultural and racial divisions created by society? Ideally it should fall on the individual to discover who they are through a conscientious search for truth and genuine understanding.