The WAVE office is in a constant flux of ideas and opinions, with new members, mainly interns, coming and going. In the following blog article, 3 WAVE office members will review and analyze the book Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. With each differing perspective, a new facet of the book is illuminated. We hope you enjoy the various opinions and analyses while also feeling inspired to read the book!
Andrada Filip, WAVE Data Manager & Analyst
The book Americanah written by the feminist Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes you look at the concepts of race and racism in America from an introspective, critical perspective. At the outset, the plot takes you through an intricate journey, alternating between the US and Nigeria, this way getting to know the stark contrast that exists between the two societies. Even though a love story lies at the core of this refreshing novel, the sheer voracity of the main character, Ifemelu, in disentangling almost every aspect of American society, and often comparing these to Nigerian or other Black African customs or mindsets, gives a deeper, more critical meaning to the story.
Adichie, through Ifemelu’s inner voice, manages to analyse in minute detail how the concept of race shapes people’s identities, be they White Americans, Black African Americans, or Non-American Blacks, i.e. Black immigrants from a variety of developing countries: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
The storyline takes the reader through various stages of Ifemelu’s life, often alternating between her adulthood, childhood and teenage years, introducing a mere handful of other characters: Ifemelu’s teen sweetheart, Obinze, her mother and father, her classmates, and aunt and nephew. Each of these characters, to a smaller and lesser degree, get to shape Ifemelu’s character and sense of identity, yet her coming to America turns her whole universe upside down, also giving her an opportunity to invent a newer version of her old self: “How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.”
Thorough the experiences and thoughts expressed by its main character, the book shows great empathy with the struggles faced by millions of Americans today, including young people who have chosen to go there to study or work in search of a better life, yet once there they all stumble across the glass ceiling represented by race:
“But race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair.”
Adichie also makes a clear connection between how race manifests itself in American society and its implications in influencing White, Black or Latino persons’ access to resources, status, career prospects and educational achievements:
“There is a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what’s in the middle depends on time and place.”
All in all, Adichie brings a refreshing perspective when analysing phenomena that continue to define our world and its politics: that of race and migration. How good it feels to listen to the voice of a female Nigerian writer, one which speaks so eloquently, even critically, and at times with a big dose of humour, about the big issues that influence our lives, identities and societies.
Elena Floriani, WAVE Intern
“You looked like the kind of person who will do something because you want to, and not because everyone else is doing it.”
Ifemelu is not politically correct. She doesn´t care about others´ opinion, she always says what she thinks, she undertakes a process of self-discovery to understand who she is and what she wants. She is emancipated, independent, self-confident. She is a wonderful feminist.
Jumping through the book´s flashbacks, the reader enters the story, the characters’ minds, and after a couple of pages already feels to know them – as good friends, with whose experiences and thoughts you can easily identify and empathize.
Firstly, the main issue of the book: race. It is striking how the perception of race completely changes from one country to the other. Ifemelu never thought about race before leaving Nigeria. She became black only when she arrived in the US. And even there, it makes a substantial difference if you are an African American or an American African. The life of an immigrant is not easy: you often try to rethink and reinvent yourself to fit into the new environment. Still, if you are black in a mostly white country, there are obviously some insurmountable obstacles, and discrimination occurs on multiple layers.
But this book is not only about race. There is a deep and troubled love story running from the first till the last page. Ifemelu and Obinze love each other and respect each other. They both seek a better life abroad, in the “Western world” they are so influenced by. Eventually, this need separates them for many years. Different aspects of a relationship are frankly faced in this book: long-distance stories, sex, dedication, infidelity. The protagonist is learning through her errors and experiences what she likes, what she needs, what she wants.
Americanah is an engaging book, dense with opinions, descriptions, characters and points of view. It expands geographically, timely, emotionally, always giving much importance to the words used. Even though the end comes suddenly yet also predictably, this book has the quality to enrich the reader.
Teresa Iglesias Lopez, WAVE Intern
Young and in love, Obinze and Ifemelu go through their teenage and early adulthood years happily and in relative tranquillity in Nigeria. Yet, the repeated strikes at university push Ifemelu to move to the United States to pursue her degree and seek better opportunities for her future. They decide that she will go first and Obinze will join her as soon as he can. Things happen differently than expected and Obinze ends up going to the UK in search of a better life for himself. After reading a few pages, you soon find yourself immersed into the story and the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze. Through their thoughts, writings and dialogues you start identifying with them and share their doubts, fears, joys and hopes.
With subtlety, humour and frankness, through Ifemelu and the many different persons she comes across in her life, and through detailed accounts of even what could at first appear as the most insignificant events, Adichie manages to give the lector a sense of the issue of race and racism in the USA. She uses the theme of hair, especially black women´s hair, to bring another dimension and a deeper understanding of what someone might have to go through in order to “fit” into a new society. With such a simple human feature, hair, Adichie manages to convey messages about identity, loss and struggles of race.
The book however also brings closer the issue of (il)legal immigration, especially through Obinze’s character and the people he meets along the way. It gives immigration to “richer” countries a human face by telling the stories behind it.
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… 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.
Finally, the book also deals with the concept of identity, sense of belonging, and what it is to feel truly “at home”. Even when everything seems to be going well and Ifemelu could be described as someone successful, who “made it” in the US, she still does not feel quite satisfied with her life, as if something was achingly missing.
[…] yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.
Americanah does not only tell a great story, it also makes you see things differently and challenge your assumptions. It will grip you completely and you won´t be able to put the book down until you reach the very end.