This book was fascinating.
I had Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on my list to read after seeing it recommended by a blogger I follow. It was insightful and eye-opening and poignant. It was also educational, but not in a condescending way.
This book follows the life of Ifemelu, who is from Nigeria. In the beginning of the book, and at various moments throughout, we get a peek into her present life: she is getting her hair braided at a new salon (in the U.S.) before she moves back to Nigeria. We don’t know much more than that at first, but the book slowly unravels her life, starting with the family and home where she grew up. In high school, in Nigeria, she fell in love with a boy, Obinze. They had a beautiful and frantic relationship, as most teenagers do, and then Ifemelu moves to America.
In America, she struggles to find her place. She struggles to find a job, to make friends, to meet good people. She never feels like she truly fits in to any group, but when she speaks to her parents, she no longer feels that she is a part of their Nigerian world either.
She is becomes depressed, as her struggles to find work continue, and she stops communicating with Obinze. This is heartbreaking. I wanted so much for her to snap out of it and to keep talking to him, to let him help her in whatever way he could. But she is stubborn and proud and feels too vulnerable in America.
Eventually, she does find her feet. She starts babysitting and becomes friends with the mother. She goes back to school. She meets a good man. She settles in to the American culture, more or less. She starts a blog about race, from the non-American black perspective. Her blog becomes very successful. She finds a new boyfriend. She begins to make money from her blog and gets requests for speaking engagements. By all accounts, she is making it in America.
Meanwhile, we also get a glimpse into Obinze’s life occasionally. He had always wanted to go to America, but struggled to get a visa. He was able to make it to England for a little while, but was there without papers and was eventually caught and deported, just before he married a woman who would help him legalize his status. He gets married in Nigeria and has a child. He becomes a wealthy, respected man. By all accounts, he is doing well in Nigeria.
But we keep getting that nagging feeling that there is supposed to be something bigger between the two of them. There is a love story that was not written. We’re reminded that in “real time” of the story, Ifemelu is sitting in a hair salon, about to go back to Nigeria, and we have to wonder why.
At that point, I don’t think even Ifemelu knew why she was going back. Or at least, she wouldn’t admit to herself that she was still in love with Obinze.
I’ll let you read the ending and the details on your own.
What I found most fascinating about this book was the perspective on American culture from the Nigerian author’s point of view. Things that Americans do or say were pointed out in a non-ironic way. Such a way that it made me question those very things – why do we say or do things the way we do?
This book also put the modern American culture right up against modern Nigerian culture, side by side, and blew away stereotypes. It was honest and revelatory.
I think most Americans have a very negative perception when they hear “African” or “Nigerian” culture. They think primitive, dirty, poor, hungry. Third world countries do not conjure up images of large houses, cable television, cell phones, coffee shops, or any other luxuries that we might think of if we were to say “American” instead. I am not excluded from thinking these things.
However, the author paints a picture of a beautiful African country, where people may have less money, but they work hard, they go to school, they have universities, they have social groups, they get married and have weddings, they own businesses, they have big dreams, they read books and listen to music, both American and Nigerian. Nigeria is a place where people dream of bigger things in America, but they also can stay and be successful. Or they return someday, as Ifemelu does. Nigeria is not a place to escape from, it’s a place to launch from.
Another fascinating thing about this book, to me, as a young white woman, was the dive into African and African American culture in general. The emphasis on hair and hair products and hair styles – things that white people will never truly understand. The situations that black people are in, with white people who make comments that they don’t even realize are rude or ignorant of the black person in the room. All the times that Ifemelu had to accept being the only black person in the room or in the group. The way she was made to be the representative of black people. The way she had to become so aware of her blackness through everyday encounters.
But this book writes about these situations and experiences in such a way that she is not shaming the white person or the reader for not understanding. Both the author and Ifemelu are not hardened and angry about their experiences. It seems they stand up taller. They make us aware. They are educating everyone, urging us not to skim past this this time. Take a moment, open your eyes, be empathetic, choose to listen and understand. There is always another point of view.