Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is the first book I've read by Adichie despite the fact that I have her others on my shelves. I have heard such raves about her work that it was almost as if I was afraid to read anything she wrote in case the actual works fell short. And this one, focused as it is on so many controversial issues present in our society today, was probably the one that appealed to me the least. And yet it turned out to be such a beautiful, thoughtful, and powerful novel that I am glad that I didn't just add it to my shelf and figure I'd get to it some future day like so many others.

Centered mainly on Ifemelu, a smart and attractive Nigerian woman, this is a story of incredible depth which addresses many hot-button, polemical topics. It is a novel about race and culture, immigration, lack of opportunity, both in America and in Nigeria, exoticism and otherness, women's place and value in the world, relationship, love, and politics to name just a few. It does not shy away from presenting the reality of both the marginalized and the successful; it skewers all sides, conservatives and liberals alike, for their beliefs and their unthinking acceptance of their side's rhetoric. It changes the conversation and brings a fascinating outside perspective to many long standing arguments.

Ifemelu is raised in Nigeria. Her family is well off and she has many opportunities open to her. She meets Obinze while in high school and the two of them seem to be soul mates. When political unrest causes upheaval at the universities, Ifemelu decides that she will finish her schooling in America, where her beloved aunt has gone. Obinze plans to follow her there but he is frustrated in his efforts and instead ends up in London, illegal and struggling. Ifemelu, meanwhile, goes to America and is shocked at the reality she finds. She struggles to adjust to this new culture with its unwritten and unacknowledged rules and to the laws that restrict her ability, as a foreign student, to support herself while she attends school. She sees firsthand inequalities and insurmountable stumbling blocks every way she turns. Even when she finds work as a nanny, she witnesses casual racism and the assumption that because she is African rather than African-American that she is exotic and intriguing and somehow more. She draws attention to the differences in the ways that African blacks and African-Americans are treated and the way that even well meaning liberals just don't "get it." As she navigates life in America, having relegated Obinze to her past, dating American men, starting a wildly successful blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, getting her green card, and having the luxury of choosing the extent to which she wants to integrate into American society and how much she wants to retain her own cultural identity, she never quite lets go of hope for Nigeria. And eventually she chooses to make her way back there, to a much changed country, and one she now views with very different eyes than she once did.

Obinze's story of his time in London, always yearning for Ifemelu and America, is told in chapters interspersed with the many chapters about Ifem's life. His is a terrible, distressing story, even moreso than her early years in America. Where Ifemelu overcame much of what she faced, happy-go-lucky, popular Obinze does not and he is ultimately deported back to Nigeria. In the end he thrives in his own country where he could not succeed elsewhere. And as his country changes, he adapts with it, fulfilling and even surpassing his early promise. But he still feels as if he is treading water, not knowing what is missing from his outwardly perfect life. It is, of course, the newly returned to Nigeria Ifemelu, opinionated and determined as ever.

Adichie has written an accessible novel that encourages readers to examine their own prejudices and beliefs but she has done so in a way to mitigate the discomfort of doing so enough that people won't automatically shut down in denial. She has not whitewashed life in America for immigrants, for people of color, or for the poor. But she has also acknowledged the imperfection of other places as well. Nigeria harbors prejudices, London harbors prejudices, America harbors prejudices; there is no prejudice free place here, instead there is almost an inherency of prejudice. Her writing is straightforward even if the solutions to the social ills she addresses are not. The chapters are non-chronological but not difficult to follow. Occasionally the non-linearity of the novel leads to some repetition and Ifemelu's blog posts, some of which are included in the narrative, often exactly mirror the plot. They do draw added attention to the issues that Ifemelu, and by extension Adichie, is highlighting but astute readers (and the assumption is that readers of literary fiction such as this are in fact astute readers) don't need the lack of subtlety in order to understand the point. But that's a minor quibble about a work that is masterfully done over all. Anyone who isn't afraid to confront troubling questions and bone deep assumptions will find much to consider here and will then need others to read it too so they can have the conversations it will inspire.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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