Americanah

My big fat summer read and it was just what I like, to get lost within pages that will attempt to navigate the slightly messy lives of flawed characters that feel like they could be real. And most of them here come close to attaining that reality.

Americanah (2)Ifemula and Obinze are university sweethearts who slip into a relationship that seems to have it all, though they have yet to conquer the career survival path of their simple lives thus they are separated in Nigeria during their studies and then by the continents of  North America and Europe as they try to establish their careers. Hardship is the one thing they seem not able to share and it drives them apart like the distance of the ocean that separates them, spanning a distance they seem unable to traverse.

Just as many young people have been doing so and continue to today, they eventually return to their home country and their roots and will re encounter each other.  Although they find their way home, will  they be able to ignore those untravelled waters they did not share? This is one of the themes the book explores.

“Somewhere in a faraway part of her mind, she wanted to lose weight before she saw Obinze again. She had not called him; she would wait until she was back to her slender self.”

I loved the book for many reasons, firstly because I remember reading and enjoying her first book Purple Hibiscus, enhanced by seeing her speak in person at a Readers Festival in Auckland where she talked about the next book she was planning to write, about a subject few at the time seemed to want to talk about – the Biafran War – that research and effort to understand a chapter in Nigerian history manifested in her Orange prize-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which has since been made into a film (not yet released). Since then I have looked forward to reading her other work and interviews, as she is more than just a writer of stories.

Secondly, having a good friend from Nigeria, who made the move back after a similar number of years living abroad, who did so successfully and visiting there, participating in her marriage ceremony makes me even more curious to read the work of those who have attempted the same. There is something universal about the experience and yet unique at the same time.

Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie easily engages an audience with her observations, insights and view of the world and with Americanah it is as if she sends out another version of herself, Ifemulu, a young woman who grows up in urban Nigeria and through her studies has an opportunity to live, work and study in America.

Ifemulu’s disappointments distance her from her closest relationship because she doesn’t share them. In an effort to be heard she writes an anonymous blog and shares her experiences and observations both in America and again on her initial return to Nigeria. She tries to remain an impartial observer, though those who know she is the author challenge her and she discovers that life often finds a way to throw at us, that which we condemn in others. But therein the greatest lessons lie and Ifemulu will do much soul-searching on her journey to fulfillment. The blog posts are interesting to read and provocative and it is great to see the form being represented in a novel, and a WordPress blog at that.

In a Lagos cafe

In a Lagos cafe

For me, books whose characters cross cultures are always interesting, just as travelling in another country and witnessing the different ways people live and interact and perceive is interesting. Whilst I could never begin to know what it would be like for a young Nigerian woman to move to live in America, I enjoyed the experience of inhabiting Adichie’s imagination, viewing Ifemulu’s life and how she tries to interpret the foreign culture she and many others have long dreamed of. My own visit to Nigeria was too short to gain any real perspective about what it might be like to live there, but the challenges are undoubtedly equally great, though completely different in nature.

It doesn’t matter which country we grow up in to think of as our own, almost any other country we immigrate to or spend time living in will invoke a feeling of strangeness, of being an outsider.

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

Twice whilst reading this novel, I felt tears well up, surprising myself at how deeply this character got under my skin, some of the burdens she carries, only gaining full recognition in the moment they are healed and those moments are powerful when they come off the page. Surprising and brilliant.

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35 thoughts on “Americanah

  1. I like Half the Yellow Sun and love “The Thing around my neck” even more. I am not surprise this will be good and I look forward to read this too!

    p/s: You have been to Lagos? Awesome!

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    • I haven’t read the short stories yet, I will do so though, it’s always good to have one book still on the shelf with a favourite writer.

      Yes, I went to Lagos and was a bridesmaid in a traditional African wedding, that’s me and the other bridesmaid in the photo. 🙂 A really fun time!

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    • Thank you, I think you will enjoy this one, it was one that I didn’t mind it being such a big book. There are so many different experiences out there and though this is a novel, I read it as though I were reading about the lives of so many people who exist in reality.

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  2. “I did not think of myself as black and only became black when I came to America”. Now that is a powerful statement. Wow.

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    • Isn’t it. I remember when I first came to England and became aware that it was acceptable to actually use the word black to describe someone, because where I came from, to describe colour was considered racist. I really struggled with that.

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      • I do as well. It is racist. I’m not referred to as being white. Why should we identify non-whites by the colour of their skin?

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      • In New Zealand European settlers and their progeny are referred to as Pakeha, while the indigenous population are Maori. Pakeha is in fact a Maori word that means of white or pale appearance, though it has been variously translated as “white pig” “white ghost” etc. It is the language we inherit that often dictates what is used, then as we learn our own history, in particular from another point of view (the outside view) we can then “unlearn” it by choice.

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      • True enough. “By choice” and “by desire”; or not as the case may be. The sad truth is, from the time we are wee children we are conditioned to look for differences, not similarities.

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  3. And the tower grows taller …

    Over a glass of wine or two in Sept/Oct, you must tell me about this trip. I cannot wait for the moment!

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  4. Wonderful review, Claire! This looks like a wonderful book. I wish it was longlisted for the Booker prize. The passage you have quoted is very powerful. Wonderful to know that you have been to Nigeria to visit a friend. Thanks for sharing that Lagos cafe picture. I got Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ recently. I am hoping to read that soon.

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    • I had this down as a contender for the Booker along with McCann’s TransAtlantic and I still think it merits recognition. I hope it becomes as well read anyway.

      Good to hear you have Half of a Yellow Sun on the TBR to read, I haven’t read her short stories, but would like to read those soon too.

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  5. What a wonderfully written review; I will definitely pick this one up. I, too, love reading books about living in a different culture or country. In my experience, you can be surprised by how familiar a new country feels to you just as much as by how alienated you feel. I always like to read about this push and pull dynamic as well. You always get me thinking, Claire!

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    • I seem to have read a few books about crossing cultures recently and although they all have different experiences, that push/pull dynamic is a common thread and/or dilemma.

      That’s an interesting observation, the feeling of familiarity you mention. Do you think it was because of family connections or education or landscape or something else? I remember my mother saying that visiting England for the first time in her 40’s felt like home, and it was attributable to the school curriculum in her school days, her knowledge of history and monuments and places where historical events had occurred, something that had changed by the time I was studying history. For me England felt like home when I returned to it having lived there for 8 years and then left for 3. It surprised me to encounter such a feeling of nostalgia, like meeting one’s former self. Ironically, returning to my country of birth no longer feels like returning home.

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      • Meeting your former self – yes, I understand that. I had that when I moved to Paris years ago as it had been a long time since I lived in a Francophile country (my native language) so I felt immediately at home. I was so used to French being spoken only in my family that hearing it in the streets made everyone feel like a member of my family.

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  6. Wow, what a brilliant review!
    “It doesn’t matter which country we grow up in to think of as our own, almost any other country we immigrate to or spend time living in will invoke a feeling of strangeness, of being an outsider.” <— This is the story of my life. I feel I'll enjoy reading Americanah.

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