Blurb from Goodreads
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
I am not a great writer of words.
I am not a great thinker of thoughts.
I live a quiet, small life.
But sometimes into this little life of mine a storm sets fair….
This storm…. was Americanah.
So how do I even begin to explain, to review… to tell you of the storm.
Americanah is the story of a girl and of a boy who dreamed of something bigger than this world, a girl and boy who told each other it was okay to dream. It is a story of race. It is a story of inequalities, a story of shame, of guilt, of fighting, of striving, of searching, of struggling to be whomever you want to be…. Yet at its heart Americanah is a story of love. I read an interview in The Guardian with the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that was given at the time of this book’s release. This is a quote from that piece: “Don’t we all in the end write about love? All literature is about love. When men do it, it’s a political comment on human relations. When women do it, it’s just a love story. So, although I wanted to do much more than a love story, a part of me wants to push back against the idea that love stories are not important. I wanted to use a love story to talk about other things. But really in the end, it’s just a love story.”
The story starts with a young woman named Ifemelu who wishes to return to her home country after years in America. She looks back on her life and what brought her to where she is…
Ifemelu was Nigerian. She was unable to study as she would like in her home country due to political unrest, constant striking… And Ifemelu dreamed of America… She dreamed the American Dream. She dreamed of a better life, she dreamed of the glitter and sparkle of America. She wanted to shine. When she was still a teenager she met a boy. Obinze. A boy who understood her. Theirs wasn’t some teenage love affair, it ran deeper. They were like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that perfectly fit together.
“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.”
Ifemelu and Obinze planned a future… and that future was America. Ifemelu had the opportunity to leave first and, with Obinze’s encouragement and their plan to reunite, she left for America.
But what Ifemelu did not realise is that once she stepped foot in America she became black. She became marked by her skin colour. Life became hard; she experienced poverty, shame… Her soul was irrevocably tarnished. She withdrew from Obinze and lived a half-life of sorts.
She fought back though. She started a blog… A blog to show the world what it means to be African in America. She challenged people’s ideas and she spoke up for the truth:
“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. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”
Headstrong, irritating, amazing, annoying, complicated, challenging, difficult to love Ifemelu. She was multifaceted, multi-layered, richly written…..
Ifemelu is probably the most brilliant character I have ever read about. She is fierce. She is unafraid to make you feel uncomfortable with the truth…. She was not always likeable, at times morally reprehensible even and I disagreed with her about so much regarding her relationship with Obinze…. but the way she was written….
I felt everything she felt.
Her pain was visceral.
Her joy…. the same.
Ifemelu was self-righteous at times… down right sanctimonious even. If you did not hold her beliefs then you were naive and even wrong in her eyes. Her blogs were unashamedly in your face about race issues and while I agreed with them on the most part… because how could you not???????? As I am certain of the belief that Ifemelu’s experiences are based very much on fact and reality. But what I loved was that as Ifemelu stayed longer and longer in America she began to lose herself to her blog, to those race issues, they ultimately consumed her and she at times became a caricature of herself.
“The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.”
She turned cold. This could so easily have been a novel that was lost in preaching one thing but it wasn’t. Because it showed the flaws of the central character. Her flaws made this book so gut wrenchingly real and honest. And this book showed how race issues can infiltrate a soul, how negative experiences for an adult can along the line affect an innocent child thousands of miles away.
The way race was handled in this book was refreshing.
“Why must we always talk about race anyway? Can’t we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied—that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that. Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice. The black guy on the street in New York doesn’t want to think about race, until he tries to hail a cab, and he doesn’t want to think about race when he’s driving his Mercedes under the speed limit, until a cop pulls him over.”
It was unashamedly to the forefront, not some carefully thought about overly politically correct side plot. It was full-on. Sometimes heavy handed but I think that maybe that was necessary to open people’s eyes to harsh truths about the times in which we live. I learned a lot from this book. It gave me great pause for thought. What was perfectly ingenious was how it was broken down to simplistic thoughts and ideas.
Have you ever stopped and thought about a black woman’s hair? I hadn’t. But think about it for a second. Think of a successful black woman, what does she look like? How does she have to appear? Her hair…it is relaxed isn’t it? It is made shiny and smooth… because that is what is equated with professional, with put-together……. Why is natural black hair so unacceptable to the world at large? Is there something off-putting about a kink, about a curl?????
“Her hair was hanging down rather than standing up, straight and sleek, parted at the side and curving to a slight bob at her chin. The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss. Curt looked uncertain when he saw her. “My full and cool hair would work if I were interviewing to be a backup singer in a jazz band, but I need to look professional for this interview, and professional means straight is best but if it’s going to be curly then it has to be the white kind of curly, loose curls or, at worst, spiral curls but never kinky.”
And what was truly wonderful was the humour with which race issues were handled. There were times I just laughed right out loud… This was a very funny yet truly powerful book!
“In describing black women you admire, always use the word “STRONG” because that is what black women are supposed to be in America. If you are a woman, please do not speak your mind as you are used to doing in your country. Because in America, strong-minded black women are SCARY.”
And then there were the occasions when Ifemelu was treated as less than…
“I speak English,” she said. “I bet you do,” Cristina Tomas said. “I just don’t know how well.” Ifemelu shrank. In that strained, still second when her eyes met Cristina Tomas’s before she took the forms, she shrank. She shrank like a dried leaf. She had spoken English all her life, led the debating society in secondary school, and always thought the American twang inchoate; she should not have cowered and shrunk, but she did. And in the following weeks, as autumn’s coolness descended, she began to practise an American accent.”
How experiences like that impact on a life, how they change a soul… how it impacted on a character like Ifemelu… How admirable it was that Ifemelu stood up to be counted, how she tried to make a difference with her blog, how suddenly becoming black in America just changed her… and not always for the better. I can’t even begin to express how moved I was by this whole book. How it opened my eyes, my heart… how I was left consumed by thoughts, by these characters…
Because for a woman so seemingly self-assured as Ifemelu was, she was also forever losing herself in her romantic relationships. Defining herself by the men she was with. Giving too much of herself, searching for that other half that she lost… the half to make her feel whole again. I loved her… but I wanted to wring her neck so many times. I wanted to cry out STOP Ifemelu, step back, and look what you are doing……. You are this brilliant, bright young woman. You can be a whole person on your own.
“Ifemelu stared into her glass. There was something wrong with her. She did not know what it was but there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself. The sense of something farther away, beyond her reach.”
But ultimately, this story was a story about love. About Ifemelu and Obinze, about two people so connected that Ifemelu was always going to seek out Obinze in these relationships…
Ifemelu was a fatally flawed character, so very far from perfect but she demanded your attention, demanded your love…. And she certainly got mine.
Obinze was the other main featured character in this story… Strong, caring, broken, dogged, quiet, determined, thoughtful, weak-willed, charming… Ceiling. Obinze was left behind. His story was under-played… but I thought the book was richer for it. The section that focused on Obinze had me so angry as much from what was unwritten as was written…. He was the perfect counterpoint to Ifemelu.
“They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
In the end it seems I have written this long-winded review but yet can’t seem to express how deeply this moved me. How these characters will live long in the memory, how much I cherish this book. I would urge everyone to read this book. It may not be your preferred genre, it may not be the most perfectly edited book ever, it may not have completely admirable characters and it may be a little lighter on plot than it should be… But all that does not matter. This is an important book. It says a lot about the world in which we live, some of it not so great, some of it over-blown…but all of it true.
Four and a half stars
“This was love, to be eager for tomorrow.
Add to your Goodreads TBR here
Read April 2016