A colorful lens of the American dream
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the 2013 novel “Americanah” with an unapologetic flair for Richard Yates-like language and social and racial consciousness. Nearly five hundred pages, it’s grounded in the slice-of-life storytelling but nonetheless a page-turner. The Women’s Resource Center and M.D. Anderson Library staffs agreed, selecting it as the choice book for their annual summer book club discussion Tuesday.
An émigré from the political unrest of Lagos, Nigeria, the main character Ifemelu struggles to navigate a racially imperfect America. She channels her disgruntlement into a blog, a safe space for “The Zipped-Up Negros.” The narrative is also shared by her childhood love, Obinze, whom she separates from during her stay in America; he eventually marries an unremarkable woman after a frightening quest to gain citizenship in London.
It’s an intellectual breath that never slips into a rant, but remains a record of first-hand experiences down to its quirky tics. It doesn’t place a strict judgment on race. Adichie allows the scenarios (example: relatives and peers advise Ifemelu to straighten out her braids and abandon her accent for a job interview) to speak for themselves. Although they are moments, Adichie frames them into the larger context, proving that they are not isolated incidents.
These incidents seem insignificant, such as in a scene where a co-worker asks if Ifemelu’s hair is a “political statement,” but this question leads Ifemelu to abandon a stable job. Despite her borderline smug attitude, Ifemelu’s observations never feel too off-color.
Adichie provides diverse perspectives on race through passing characters: a wealthy white employer who’s sympathetic to Ifemelu but accidentally condescending; a black classmate offended by the censoring of the “N” word in a film class; another black classmate pleased with the censorship. While Adichie gives the most weight to Ifemelu’s perspective, she does not coddle the audience toward Ifemelu’s view — each character’s perspective is substantial.
Toward the end, the novel does veer into sentimental territory. It’s an attempt to resolve the love story between Obinze and Ifemelu but the reader almost forgets the social commentary in the falling action.
“Americanah” depicts a contradictory homesickness in the immigrant. Ifemelu’s life in America reminds her of the imperfections of Nigeria, yet her scrutiny of America also makes Nigeria seem less flawed. Maybe she’s setting too high expectations for America. Or maybe it’s America that’s too reluctant to set the bar higher for itself.