Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read and enjoyed Adichie’s first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, back before I had a blog, and since then her star has been rising, as Beyoncé quoted her on feminism in her album. I liked Half of a Yellow Sun, but I loved Americanah. I wonder if the difference is that this book is that much better, or if I am the difference. Half of a Yellow Sun is set entirely in Nigeria, but Americanah begins in the US and the narrative travels between the East Coast, Lagos, and London. For some reason the familiarity of the setting allowed me to connect immediately to Ifemelu, the protagonist. I loved learning what she thought about places and situations that are familiar to me, because it taught me to see old things in a new way. Meanwhile, the Nigerian setting of Adichie’s first novel meant that I had to learn about an unfamiliar place and characters both, which might have prevented me from forming such a strong connection. But the question is, why should it? I don’t like the thought of being a reader who can be so disoriented by strange settings that my human ability to relate to a character gets disabled. I don’t want to be limited in that way. I don’t know what to do about this idea except just note it and maybe be extra aware of it in the future.
Americanah is a love story about two young people in Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers and are separated when they each seek their fortune in the US and the UK. Their long distance relationship ends abruptly, and they are reunited again in Nigeria years later. Most of the action of the book is about the adventures of these two as they try to make a living in the first world, dealing with poverty, immigration issues, fraught friendships and relationships with other Nigerians, African-Americans, white Americans and Brits, and their constant longing for each other.
I read Americanah while the news reports were full of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the contrast between reality and the hopes expressed by the book’s characters made me wish I could make every cop, judge, and legislator read this book. I feel like this book does a better job of explaining white privilege than anything else I’ve ever read. The subtleties of the way the white people Ifemelu and Obinze encounter don’t understand what their lives are like, sometimes despite good intentions and efforts, are the perfect thing to educate those who are well-meaning but ignorant. The many, many microaggressions endured by Ifemelu and Obinze are startling, and seeing the world from their perspectives makes the reader understand how wrong the assumptions people make about each other can be. The point is often as simple as this: When people whose experiences are different from yours tells you what their lives are like, listen and believe them. In this way, this book does exactly what fiction should do: it enlarges the sympathies of readers by exposing them to the inner lives of people who aren’t like them.
My one gripe is that this book makes it seem like money just drops in your lap when you write a blog. Ifemelu is able to make a decent living from a blog, without even seeking out sponsors. (Her blog is so amazing, they seek her out.) Overnight, she receives a vast audience of both popular and scholarly readers. She even leverages it into a fellowship at Princeton. Then she shutters her blog and moves, and is able to open a new, equally successful one almost instantly. If monetizing a blog were that simple, I’d have a much larger house.
Best of all, there’s going to be a movie starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo!