Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing.
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
When you work in a library, people are always wondering aloud to you whether the book is a dying format. Do people really even read anymore? If book publishers are going out of business, what does that mean for libraries? In the future, we’ll just Google everything, right?
I’m not going to answer those questions, but I will put before you a shining example of the importance of books: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I’ll tell you why we need books. In a word? Nuance.
We lament all the time what’s missing in today’s popular films, television, news stories, even essays. That movie had no strong female characters. That miniseries never explained why he was so angry at his father. I wish that reporter had given me more background on the complex history of relations between Israel and Palestine. We know none of these mediums represent real life – they don’t match our experiences. They’re too simplistic.
Want a messy, human protagonist who loves fiercely, speaks her mind, makes mistakes, and regrets them? Who can lie, betray, ignore and lash out like all of us, and live to look back on it, searching always for meaning? Who can never be all bad, or all good, but always relatable? Allow me to present Ifemelu, the honest and intelligent heroine of Adichie’s novel. She is so real it will disarm you.
This book is set half in Nigeria, and half in an America that can often seem foreign to a native reader, because it is observed by an African woman in wry, biting commentary, with many chapters punctuated by posts from Ifemelu’s blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. This is a book that makes you make noise. I laughed, yes, I cried (that’s normal), but I gasped, too. And every time I made an involuntary noise it was because I had not recognized my own country in Adichie’s words.
I wrote this review during the height of the tension in Ferguson, MO over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. This news story, like others of its kind, reminds many of us that the American experience is not universal – that life is vastly different in this country depending on your background, your means, your neighborhood, and the color of your skin. Nowhere have I read such a fascinating, troubling, spellbinding account of this as in Americanah. Certainly it made for a particular kind of soul-searching, and one with no easy answers. How can we be curious about another’s experience without prying? How can we demonstrate compassion without presumption? How can we make friends with those we do not understand? I have been mulling questions like these over without resolve ever since I put down this book. Novels don’t always need to validate us, to make us feel good about ourselves – there is also something satisfying in complexity. Because we recognize it.
For all her outsider’s observations, Ifemelu is immediately familiar. Her struggles – desperation, ennui, longing – are ones we all know at some level. And this is not just a critical examination of our culture’s treatment of immigrants. It is also a love story!
Ifemelu and Obinze are a quiet match, growing with maturity into a love forged amid the passions of adolescence. They become family without fanfare, lovers who follow each other in turn, for whom each is an extension of the other’s being. When they met, Ifemelu “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.” It is the love we all hope for: an easy passion, a deep growth.
A quickening inside her, a dawning. She realized, quite suddenly, that she wanted to breathe the same air as Obinze.
So when the present-day narration shows us the happy couple separated, long out of touch, Ifemelu at Princeton and Obinze a rich, married man in Lagos, we ache already without knowing the cause of the split. It takes half the book to find out, and the other half to find a resolution. It’s delicious torment.
When you pick up a book set in a foreign country, you may expect to feel out of your depth, confused by the exotic and the strange. You expect to learn. And learn I did – but all the while feeling something deeply human, unerringly real, in Ifemelu’s experiences. This book is not a revolution. It is a quiet story about love, belonging and purpose.
… 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 the possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie splits her own time between Nigeria and the United States. She is the recipient of many literary prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship. Her TED talk, We Should All Be Feminists, is so excellent that Beyonce decided to remix it in her song Flawless. It’s also available as an ebook. Find out more about Adichie at chimamanda.com.
In other news, the actress Lupita Nyong’o, the star of 12 Years A Slave, will play Ifemelu in the film version of Americanah!
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Laura Horwood-Benton is PPL’s Public Programming & Community Relations Librarian. She enjoys literary and speculative fiction, vegan baking, drawing and traveling. If you have suggestions for future book reviews OR library events, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.