Monday, November 18, 2013

Americanah: An Honest Novel About Race in America

"You can't write an honest novel about race in this country," says a character in Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel, Americanah. Adichie is winking at her readers, in some ways telling us it's her devout hope that she has done just that.

Honestly, I don't know if this book is "honest" regarding race — that's probably not for me, as a "privileged white" to judge. It's funny at times, glib at others. It seems too earnest and too generalizing at times, but deeply profound and thought-provoking most often. But what I do know is that, overall, this novel is fantastic — I absolutely loved it! It's a substantial novel (just picking up the hardcover gives it that feel), but an easily readable one you'll fly through (if you're like me). It's easily one of my favorite novels of the year. And it's one of the rare novels I wish we could just make everyone read, so that they, too, could learn as much as I did from this book.

The story is about a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who comes to America in her early twenties to attend college in Philadelphia. She struggles to understand American-ness in general (why do Americans say "excited" and "wonderful" so much, and why is everything infused with irony?!) but race in American specifically. She doesn't understand the hypersensitivity to race by some (why does a student in her class consider it offensive when another student asks Ifemelu if she likes watermelon?). It seems to her as an over-correction. But what's worse, of course, are the people who treat her differently because she's black. She's Nigerian, so she's never before thought of herself as black. Why do people speak more slowly to her when they hear her accent? Do they assume she's stupid? Why does she have such difficulty getting a job? In general, why do people treat her differently?

After graduating, Ifemelu begins a blog about race, which quickly earns her a wide following because of her unblinking, honest examination. The blog (full posts are included in the novel at the end of many chapters— and they're awesome) becomes the thematic cornerstone of the novel, and the jumping-off point for many of the conversations throughout the novel between Ifemelu, her boyfriends (one, a white rich man, another a liberal black Yale professor) and their friends. These conversations are fascinating as well, adding dimension to the questions (some much stupider than others) of race — Are we ready for a black president? Why are whites automatically on top of the American race hierarchy, and blacks on the bottom? And why are non-American blacks "different" than American blacks?

But there so much more to this novel than just discussion of race — there's a strong (and seemingly justified) condemnation of how we treat immigrants in this country, as well as how England treats immigrants. One whole section of the novel is about Ifemelu's former lover's (Obinze) experience trying to make his way as an immigrant in London. (Obinze, by the way, is an important character in the novel, as one of the underlying questions is, after Ifemelu breaks off contact with him, will he re-emerge? Is he really her soulmate?) And Adichie doesn't forget to tell us how different life is in Nigeria as well — and to me the sections that take place in Lagos are some of the most fascinating in the novel.

Adichie is a luminous, profound writer. (On the night Obama is elected, as Ifemelu celebrates with her friends, she's overcome with emotion, and Adichie writes "And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America." It's simple, but that passage gave me all the goosebumps.) You may have first heard of her from her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which was also fantastic, and may have been one of the reasons she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008.

I can't recommend Americanah more highly. (Don't just take my word — it has a 4.20 average over more than 4,200 ratings on GoodReads.) It's an important novel, but one that's still fun to read. It's the rare novel that combines profundity in subject with profound entertainment as well. 

4 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to read this one and yours is the first review I've read. Glad u enjoyed it so very much.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and, just like you, definitely put it in near the top of my reads this year.

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  3. I have this one on hold at the library. Somehow, despite having had just about every one of her books recommended to me, I have yet to read any of Adichie's novels. I'm not sure if Americanah is necessarily the best place to start from, but I would very much like to give it a shot.

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  4. Wow good to hear about this. I will put it on my TBR list. thanks

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