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Book Talk:Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”

americanah-jpgThis weekend I finished reading Americanah – a book that has catapulted itself into my Top 10 books of all time. Likely many folks are familiar with Adichie from her world famous TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story and her discussions about Feminism, which appeared in the background of Beyonce’s song Flawless. Beyond this, Adichie is an accomplished author and beautiful storyteller.

This is a beautiful novel, taking up complicated discussions about race, immigration, globalization, religion, and love. If you have not read this novel, I highly recommend it. Here is a review from the New York Times, and an excellent interview Adichie did on NPR’s Fresh Air and another she did with The Aspen Institute.

Here are some of my thoughts on parts of the novel I found particularly important.

Very Brief Synopsis

The novel centers on two characters – Ifemelu and Obinze. Both are born and raised in Nigeria. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria and immigrates to the United States, where she lives for 13 years. Obinze attempts to leave Nigeria, and after being denied a visa to come to the United States, spends several years working illegally in Britain. There is a love story here – and the novel is filled with the tensions of how distance challenges love – but also how love always prevails. Much of the novel is built around the experiences of Ifemelu and Obinze during their time away from Nigeria.

 Thoughts on Academics~Intellectuals

Ifemelu has a series of relationships throughout the book, but perhaps my second favorite is one with a Yale college professor named Blaine. Ifemelu never quite fits in with Blaine’s friends – a group of academics who she feels talks in language and abstract thought that feels disconnected from the real world. Even Blaine’s sister is a high maintenance academic, struggling with the release of her book, the publishing industry, and lack of engagement from people who she feels should take her scholarly work more seriously. The relationship with Blaine is one that resonated with me in many ways, for the parallels and juxtapositions to my own (present and imagined) life.

In a particularly poignant moment of the text, Ifemelu observes that “academics [are] not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them” (p. 401). I appreciated this commentary on the difference between academics and intellectuals. One of the challenges of shifting into the role of a professional ‘academic’ over the past two years has been remaining intellectually curious, avoiding the gravitational pull of becoming a ‘specialist.’ In general, I personally have always (and will continue to work hard at) avoiding falling too much into the trap of ‘expert.’ I do this by reading widely; working on numerous projects that touch on different areas of personal and professional interest; and also continuing to pursue other intellectual interests outside my academic disciplinary arena. I fashion myself an intellectual, not an academic.

Ifemelu’s true love in the novel, her high school sweetheart Obinze, is also fashioned as an intellectual. He is a lover of books – and there are scenes throughout the novel where bookstores and intellectual engagement over books play a central role. These are some of my favorite moments in the text, the fleeting commentary on the importance of reading to one’s life and happiness. While I was drawn to all the characters in the text, I feel a special affinity for Obinze. His quiet, bookish nature, the way he loves people behind the scenes, even his flaws, mistakes, and realizations about what he wants in life – which becomes evident by the end of the novel.

Blogging (and Talking) About Race

After spending several years in the United States, struggling to find employment, Ifemelu morphs into a professional blogger, commenting first on her observations about race in the United States as a Non-American Black (what she refers to as American African), and by the end of the book on the cultural and political backdrop of Nigeria.

The blog posts themselves could be pulled out from the text and read as particularly poignant, sometimes scathing, unpacking of U.S. race relations; perhaps, race confusions. For example, early in the novel, Ifemelu observes the complicated nature of how people in the United States define Hispanic, “an American category that was, confusingly, both an ethnicity and a race” (p. 129):

Hispanic means the frequent companions of American blacks in poverty rankings, Hispanic means a slight step above American blacks in the American race ladder. . .All you need to be is Spanish-speaking but not from Spain and voila, you’re a race called Hispanic. (p. 129).

Her blogs comment on many topics: the racial dynamics of colorism; the role of race in inter-racial relationships; how race impacts people’s experiences in department stores, with the criminal justice system, with employment, and in education. As her notoriety grows, Ifemelu briefly becomes a public speaker on race, visiting college campuses and corporate America to discuss race. She quickly realizes that to talk about race in these spaces one must be nice – one must acknowledge that the United States has made progress in racial relations – even though she does not see this in her lived experience. Thus, she understands the double bind of the racial problem in the United States: we don’t want racial problems, but we are not willing to talk openly and honestly about race.

These dialogues on race are couched in recent historical events – particularly the 2008 candidacy and election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. In one post, titled “Obama can win only if he Remains the Magic Negro,” Ifemelu writes

What’s a Magic Negro, you ask? The black man who is eternally wise and kind. He never reacts under great suffering, never gets angry, is never threatening. He always forgives all kinds of racist shit. He teaches the white person how to break down the sad but understandable prejudice in his heart. You see this man in many films. And Obama is straight from central casting. (p. 398).

Ifemelu’s blog also offers some important perspectives for White people who continue to struggle with discussing and dialoguing about race.

Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. . .sometimes people just want to feel heard. (p. 406)

Remembering Barack Obama

Reading this novel in the current cultural moment, where we are literally one month away from inaugurating Donald Trump as President, is a somewhat mind-bending experience. Ifemelu’s blog on race relations would be just as poignantly important had the United States elected Hillary Clinton. We still have Sisyphean work to do in terms of race relations in this country. It feels that much heavier given the impending administration.

Barack Obama plays a particularly crucial role as a character in this novel. It is Barack Obama who holds Ifemelu and Blaine’s relationship together – their hope for a different United States. The novel addresses directly the many ways Obama had to avoid discussing race, both during his candidacy (and now his Presidency), as well as how different racial groups viewed Obama. For Black Americans, Obama was Black. For White Americans, he was either the “Magic Negro,” or biracial. We will be collectively unpacking Obama’s impacts on racial relations in the United States in perpetuity.

Yet, there is also a scene in the novel that is haunting in the present day. Election Day 2008. Adichie crafts through her storytelling and language the tremendous emotional fluctuations of that day (and year). The hope of electing our nation’s first Black President. The fear that he would not be elected, or that he would be assassinated. The ultimate elation at watching him win the White House. His hopeful rhetoric and always piercing belief in the hope of a more perfect, more racially just union. Given the tumultuous nature of the past few weeks, it was calming to remember Obama – and what our nation was on that day. As his presidency comes to an end, it also was a space that allows for a more complete and complex understanding of where we were then and where we are now. In remembering Barack Obama, I found the book both reflective and calming.

Honest Look at U.S. Cultural Norms

There is throughout the novel a refreshing and honest look at the cultural norms of the United States – and the disappointments many immigrants (and many U.S. citizens) feel learning that mythologies of meritocracy, money, and materialism are not what we pretend they are in the U.S. These moments are brief commentaries, observations made by Ifemelu. She learns about our complicated relationship to second language acquisition when, in addressing her nephew in Igbo, she is told by her Aunt not to teach him a second language. “ ‘What are you talking about, Aunty? We spoke two languages growing up.’” Her aunt replies “ ‘This is America. It’s different.’” (p. 134).

Quite soon after, we get a commentary on our educational system – marked by the power of the testing industry – but also on how we define learning in the United States. Ifemelu’s Aunt, having failed a college exam, comments “ ‘they weren’t testing actual knowledge, they were testing our ability to answer tricky multiple choice questions that have nothing to do with real medical knowledge’” (p. 134).

There is commentary on the media, and what exactly counts as ‘news’ in the United States:

The evening news puzzled her, a litany of fires and shootings. . .as she watched day after day, images of men being hauled off in handcuffs, distraught families in front of charred, smoldering houses, the wreckage of cars crashed in police chases, blurred videos of armed robberies in shops, her puzzlement ripened to worry. (p. 139)

A critique throughout the book also notes the obsession in the United States to turn everything into a medical malady – which can then be cured through expensive medicine. At one point, Ifemelu’s friend Ginika comments that she “didn’t even know [she] was supposed to have issues until [she] came to America” (p. 151). Many topics are taken up – including issues around identity, food, depression, and race. At one point in the novel, in one of her blogs, Ifemelu states that perhaps the next step in U.S. race relations will be not calling someone ‘racist,’ but rather saying they have “Racial Disorder Syndrome” (p. 390).

Conclusion

There are many other themes in the book worthy of exploration, but these are only a few that stuck out to me. This is a novel of extraordinary breadth and it truly is beautiful in the complexity of the storytelling and the complicated themes it explores. If you have read the novel, what were your impressions? What did you take away? Comment below.


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