Let’s Talk Books: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Susana Olague Trapani
- Josh Trapani
- August 13, 2013
Susana and Josh hold an instant messenger discussion of this provocative new book by the author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Note: There’s no way we wanted this book, released in May, to go without mention by the Independent. Both of us, having read it and found it thought-provoking, decided a “discussion” was in order. To do that, we used an instant message program to produce the dialogue below (which has been edited and condensed). Have you read Americanah? Join the discussion in the comments below.
Josh: Let me start with a prediction: Americanah is going to be one of the big books from 2013. When awards season comes, look out.
Susana: I think you’re right. Besides being extremely well-written, it’s got some big themes and ideas that are going to hit hard and make an impact. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the book walk away with a couple of honors.
Josh: Themes like race in America, globalization, the immigrant experience ... it’s a very ambitious and expansive book that covers a lot of ground. For that alone it should garner major attention.
Susana: Let’s start with Ifemelu, the main character. Her experiences in Nigeria, America, and then back again—she’s our way to experience it all. Does her viewpoint work? Her acclimation to the U.S. is a study in understanding race through a very different lens than we’re accustomed to.
Josh: Her viewpoint works because her lived experiences seem genuine, if sometimes contrived to be more diverse than most immigrants—most people in this country of any variety, really—would have. For instance, the rich white boyfriend, the successful black academic boyfriend, give her different experiences. That being said, I didn’t always like her much.
Susana: Agreed. There were times when I wasn’t able to see where she was coming from, or where her reactions and expectations were stilted and/or extreme. One thing that sticks out to me (and it’s because I’ve done this myself) was her standoffish behavior with the African immigrant employees in the salon where we first see her. She wants to keep them at arm’s length even though she’s already made the decision to return to Nigeria after what? 9 years in the U.S.? Her experiences are very different from the salon employees, and she’s too eager to make that clear. I’ve been there, but it doesn’t make for a very sympathetic character, especially since that’s where we’re introduced to her.
Josh: By that point she considers herself acclimated to America and so she sees herself as separate from them. It’s interesting how much she immerses herself in “America” during her years here. I’ve been to Africa a couple of times, Ethiopia specifically, and speaking with people from there who’ve come to the U.S., one of the things that shocks them is getting here and finding nobody cares they’re African: they’re black and that’s all people see. All you have to do is take a walk in downtown Silver Spring to see that many Ethiopian immigrants in D.C. stick together. Some still wear traditional garb. They speak Amharic to one another. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have much of a community in the U.S., but Ifemelu seems more to embrace the American definition of her as black as part of her new identity.
Susana: True, especially given her decision to begin the blog. Which, by the way, didn’t seem to mirror her experiences, or was more anecdotal and generalizing than the subtlety of her every day. I know that blogs are like this, and in that the author succeeds.
Josh: Her blog annoyed me. On one hand there’s the subtlety of her experience in the U.S. and on the other the blog where every conversation or interaction has profound implications for our conception of race. Her blog is like the personification of the aphorism “the plural of anecdote is data” except she goes right from one to the another without bothering even to get to the plural. I agree that the author showed how much online discourse goes—the blog rang all too true—but what did it add? There was a strange disconnect not only between Ifemelu’s experiences and her blog, but also between her real-life personality and that on the blog. I know people adopt online personas, but in the context of the novel this was perplexing.
Susana: The blog gave Ifemelu a way to make a living once she left her job in Baltimore. And it raised the specter of controversy (that we never really saw) as an outsider who was viewing race through a specific angle. I wondered what her black American readers thought of the blog, but we never saw that.
Josh: We saw it a bit through Blaine, her African American boyfriend who was also an Ivy League professor.
Susana: You saw all of what was going in in her life, and how she felt, so much more clearly in her relationships, particularly with Curt and Blaine romantically, and Dike, her cousin who was raised in America.
Josh: Blaine accuses Ifemelu of being lazy on her blog, and I agree with him. Throughout the book, she was lazy and a bit self-centered, which we see best I think at the end of the book when she goes back to Nigeria. I’m not sure what kind of narrative arc she has.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
blog gave her a platform and a purpose, since she used her comfort with blogs
to rebound later on in the book. To a degree, I feel like most popular blog
posts are lazy: they’re written in a short, digestible form to inspire interaction
Josh: What are you saying about “An Independent Voice?”
Susana: I’m not touching that one. But you’re right that her narrative arc is somewhat confusing—her
relationship with Obinze, her Nigerian boyfriend from childhood and arguably
her true love—is her grounding focus, even though she lets him go early on
during her stay in America. Really, the book is her Odyssey: getting back to
him and the temptations and challenges she encounters along the way.
Josh: When you say “lets him go. …” The biggest challenge Ifemelu encounters in her time in the U.S. is her difficulty finding employment early on, and we see the subtle racism behind it. This leads her to drastic steps, which in turn (I’m trying not to give spoilers) causes her to cut off contact with Obinze. I struggled with this on a number of fronts. Part of me had trouble with its believability. What did you think?
Susana: It somewhat strained credibility, though I can see, in some instances, her feeling like she needed to distance herself, at least for a time. But in the end, since she knew Obinze so well, she should have found him a comfort to her. But then, if they didn’t sever contact, we wouldn’t have a novel.
Josh: Exactly. But then one of the main sources of tension in this novel strains believability - I’m afraid that weakens it.
Susana: Fair enough. Particularly given that Obinze is—and I hate to say this since I did enjoy his character—somewhat of a Mary Sue. He’s too perfect and understanding. Which is why I enjoyed Ifemelu’s relationships with Curt and Blaine a bit more. They’re messy and complicated: more real. I really enjoyed her relationship with Curt. Interracial/ethnic relationships are fascinating.
Josh: I think with Curt the author wanted us to be able to experience upper class white America through our protagonist’s eyes.
Susana: But I think in their relationship they both learned a lot about each other, what they wanted, and how they each perceived the world. I remember you telling me about the bookstore/magazine scene. It’s a heightened example, but it reminded me of some of the conversations we’ve had about race and ethnicity. Curt starts the interaction by saying a black magazine is racist. Ifemelu counters by rightly pointing out the racism in almost every mainstream American publication: the preference toward white models, the implication that “different” hair is brunette and nothing more, etc. Hence the need for a publication catering to a specific race and ethnicity.
Josh: I thought Curt was an idiot for even thinking that. Yet this is what sometimes flummoxes people when we talk about race. The conversation moves back and forth between individuals and groups, making generalizations in both directions in ways that many white people, including me, sometimes perceive as attacks on them personally just for being white. Likewise it moves back and forth between huge, historical institutional problems that need major attention from everyone, like our unfair drug laws and the terrible state of education in inner cities, to tiny trivia like the above. If the fact that Ifemelu can’t find tips on how to do her make-up in Cosmo is what racism in this country is all about, then it doesn’t sound like a big problem, does it?
Susana: I know we’ve had similar conversations. I feel like these conversations are difficult, but need to happen—and I was happy the author didn’t shy away from it, particularly in a romantic relationship. I think Ifemelu’s right when she says that love will be the thing to crumble racism. It’s who you love and how you discuss these things that’ll bring about greater understanding.
Josh: In contrast to Ifemelu’s experiences in the U.S., Obinze tries to immigrate to the UK, which also treats immigrants very shabbily, and he just can’t find his footing there and winds up willingly being deported back to Nigeria. I wonder if the author is trying to show us something there: maybe about the U.S. versus the UK, maybe about Ifemelu vs. Obinze, or maybe just the diversity of challenges immigrants face?
Susana: Obinze’s experiences in the UK were some of the most wearying parts of the book for me, and that’s not a negative. I could feel his tiredness, a half-hearted striving toward something unattainable. He felt he needed to accomplish something and also seemed unmoored. And I liked the attention drawn to race in the UK; too many people think Europe as a whole is an enlightened haven, but it’s just as brutal as the U.S. when it comes to immigration. A lot of people don’t realize this.
Josh: What did you think of the end of the book? Without giving it away, it’s about whether or not Ifemulu and Obinze get back together, and I have to admit I was not rooting for them to.
Susana: Same. I didn’t know how the author was going to resolve the dilemma, and when I saw it veering down that specific path, I felt it was a weak way to end the book. I kept hoping things would change.
Josh: I thought the character of Kosi, Obinze’s wife, was made so cookie-cutter it was near impossible for a reader to have any empathy for her, which certainly worked in Ifemelu’s favor as, at that point, “the other woman.” But Ifemelu’s behavior seemed so selfish and entitled that I thought she didn’t deserve Obinze.
Susana: Kosi was cookie-cutter, but I did have empathy for her. And what she expected of Obinze was reasonable given their vows. When we first meet Kosi, the author tries her best to make her unsympathetic, but I just saw someone striving to maintain her foothold in life. She wasn’t underhanded or selfish or entitled about it. As opposed to, as you pointed out, Ifemelu.
Josh: Let’s talk about this book in the context of a lot of contemporary —or even older—immigrant literature: Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, even back to Henry Roth and Betty Smith. While race, prejudice, and discrimination come into the experience frequently, black African immigrants’ experiences—or that of any immigrant who looks “black”—have to be unique in this regard.
Susana: I agree. Black African immigrants are getting placed within a context that’s completely foreign to them. We saw that with Ifemelu while she was a university student; she and another African student are baffled by the restrictions on language and cultural contexts behind stereotypes. Yet they’re expected to not only understand the cultural context of racism in the U.S., but to immediately fight against it (which Ifemelu ends up doing, to an extent).
Josh: As we discussed before, many immigrants now and in the past join strong U.S. communities of people from where they’re from as well, which has big implications for their experience here. But not in the case of Ifemelu. Another theme I see across a lot of this literature is the dream/image of America vs. the reality. And I wonder even how that image is changing in a world where the U.S.‘s moral stature has declined and globalization is leading to the growth of a middle class in places like Nigeria.
Susana: I found that this book, given Ifemelu’s very affluent experiences after a time, falls more in line with the Jhumpa Lahiris of the world. You don’t see this kind of affluence in Latino immigrant literature, for example. There is a struggle for identity, of course, but it lacks the connection to the lower class milieu that you see from authors such as Dagoberto Gilb and Sandra Cisneros. Yet with Obinze’s experiences, you touch that side of the coin, too.
Josh: So we’ve been discussing for a while now and yet, in a way, I feel like our conversation has only scratched the surface. There’s so much in the book we didn’t talk about, and that’s part of what I think makes it such a worthy book, despite the weaknesses.
Susana: You’re right. My mind’s going toward the dynamics of Nigerian society, cousin Dike’s experiences as a first-generation Nigerian American, Ifemelu’s conflicts about returning home—so much left to say. And that’s what I liked about it: expansive and somewhat messy, but ultimately a novel that doesn’t shy away from tough questions and situations. I would recommend it highly.