“Americanah” is a racy romp through race structures in modern day America

Harper Collins (2013)
Harper Collins (2013)

Adichie is a brilliant entertainer, and I think she will take that as a compliment from her readers. True to her TED Talk, she does not stick with a single story for a certain person, or in other words, does not serve you down the stereotypes; although this does not mean you don’t relate with her characters, because, that you certainly do; it is just that the protagonist Ifemelu (by virtue of her creator) enjoys this sense of propriety, this Olympian outlook of having lived better, with so many other lives firmly kneaded into a strong fabric that weathers the uneven forces of nature and nurture, you emerge a richer reader.  The age old questions are tackled in Ifemelu’s story. Do you grow up as you intend to? Do you marry the one you love? What is your dream job, or thriving passion?

Independent young Ifemelu, who actually is quite an ordinary upper middle class Nigerian Igbo girl, is the apple of our eye, and we never forget that. After completing high school and attending college, interrupted frequently by university strikes in Nsukka, she is urged by her boyfriend Obinze and his lovely mother (who insists that Ifem inform her as soon as O and she become sexually active,  sowing the seeds of a special relationship between them), to take the SATs and apply for a foreign degree on scholarship, which she does and succeeds. Why Obinze does not follow her to America soon enough, is something we discover slowly along the way, without losing sight of the central character or plot.

Ifemelu’s arrival in America, is marked by the slew of familiar encounters: terrifying roommates, skepticism, the mantle of a new ‘black identity’ thrust on her, thanks to the fighting perceptions of race, and newly emergent discourses on ‘race relations’ in post civil-rights America. Race matters, she finds out hard enough. She is by turns exoticised, stereotyped, subtly and not so subtly discriminated against, embraced, accepted, but almost always challenged, by every rung of society in modern day America. And this is what makes the story so climactic! We follow her titillating journey (because yes, it’s racy as hell – including the nailbiting coverage of the countdown to Obama’s electoral win and milestone presidency) through her American citizenship, meeting other immigrants in her boat (legal and illegal), dealing with very real dilemmas of teenage suicide (affecting her nephew) and the Great American Depression hitting her in the peak and trough of every relationship. Ifemelu’s story seethes with hunger, quest and a love that is constantly learning, expanding itself as she learns and lives in America (this, especially when offset against Obinze’s own failing struggles with immigration in the UK draws quite a stark parallel, as it also reflects on differing political attitudes towards immigration and the cultural legacy of race and immigration in both continents). America for Ifemelu comes to signify want, desire, greed, the freedom to live with whom you want, the freedom to divorce (and maybe now, the freedom to even marry).

If this novel is satire, this satire is not what Americans normally seek through irony, but rather a delightful conjugation of simple and complex realities as reflected through Ifemelu’s deeply personal experiences. Here is a beautifully woven tale that not only pokes fun at Africanness, turning ‘Americanah’ or of the dilemmas of being a black immigrant in America and returning to one’s roots while making a fair share of references to the the late Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and (poking fun at) VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, but refuses to constrict a relationship (sexual or otherwise) or label it as one thing, treading along with an athlete’s patience and endeavour for the real thing. This story seethes with love, longing and a cultural desperation to understand and behold the other. 

Americanah should be deigned prescriptive reading to all college freshmen classes in all American colleges. Immediately, before we are superceded by the next technology wave. This novel could easily fit a course in cross-cultural communication, contemporary literature, or generic compulsory reading. Especially in an educational climate where on-campus diversity is something most colleges hope to gain mileage from.

I love how savvy this book is, and compared with her earliest novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ I would definitely say, this book is more commercially aware, and does a tidy weave of brain and brawn candy drawing on the familiar habits of an American readership and a Nigerian and more global readership within a technologically relevant setting (without being intrusive at all her characters communicate through Facebook, Blogging, Blackberry, text messaging). Of course, what takes the cake, is Ifemulu’s entrepreneurial venture, her running blog on what she calls Raceteenth Century America, a wild romp through the everyday tussles of being a Non-American Black in  Post civil rights America.

Every blog post is a gentle and often fierce parody of inter-racial love, sex, advertising and lifestyle, as experienced by her. Hair is a hot button topic she returns to with liberal detail, something you don’t find in ‘regular’ consumer media.  Her blog becomes a popular forum for many distressed and  fashionably marginalised voices in pop culture. There is a soul searing scene where she takes down about twenty fashion magazines to prove that barely two or three even reference black skin, black hair, or black bodies for their consumership! Ifemelu’s cathartic blogging  not only reduces racial conversation to its roots, but becomes a basis for others to share their formal experiences, quickly bracketing her in the league of lifestyle entrepreneurs, leaving her a soaring (and this could be relative) commercial success!

A character in one of her several conversations about blackness in America says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” Which is true. How do you write about a painful past without being specific, without being political! This book tries well, cutting across deep boundaries. Is Americanah that honest novel today? It certainly does feel spontaneous, raw and a book I wish I had read before enrolling at college.  The minefield of talk about race and relationships in this book, and unflagging idealism could well be fodder for endless college-level debates. Finally, this entire story was hard earned, including the gratifying end. And yes, Ms. Adichie, treats all her characters very very well.

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