Mandatory Reading for All American Citizens: Review of Americanah

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations lately, namely the conversations Americans are willing to have and not willing to have with their fellow citizens or residents. Conversations about politics and Confederate statues and race relations and a million other crucial topics. Sure, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are alight with these discussions, with various pundits or concerned citizens adding their voices to the backlit void. But what happens when we turn off our phones and return to our off-screen lives, to our jobs and our bills and our personal struggles?

Maybe this is a rhetorical question. But I know that I wrestle with verbal incoherence every day, especially in regards to these kinds of charged exchanges. I believe deeply in the necessity of speaking about our experiences and perspectives, and listening to others’ narratives. Only through these dialogues can we overcome the illusion of our differences and begin to understand each other’s struggles. Despite this fervent belief, I still find myself without words these days, and I turn to books to help me find them. And if I could create a syllabus with the intent of spurring American citizens, including myself, to finally engage with each other and talk about everything that we need to be talking about right now, Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie would be at the top of the list.

There are some books that are simply unclassifiable, because they do so much that shouldn’t be possible within the covers of any one novel. Americanah is one of these books. Ostensibly a love story between Nigerian-born Ifemelu and Obinze, both of whom find themselves on different immigrant journeys to America and the UK, Americanah takes readers on a deeply moving journey between continents and the barriers that we construct to protect ourselves and our hearts.

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A Living Stream of Consciousness

Adichie’s writing is absolutely transportive. She creates a narrative rooted in memory and conversations, and weaves seamlessly between past and present so well that you feel that your mind is Ifemelu’s or Obinze’s. Adichie centers the reader firmly in the sensory and mental experiences of her protagonists, and manages to pull you into their consciousness, without pause or apology. She pulls off the feat that every writer is trying to accomplish – she makes you walk around in her character’s skin, and feel what they’re feeling. And the wonderful thing about this? You forget that you didn’t grow up in Lagos, Nigeria, and you forget that you’re not the immigrant struggling with the acquisition of blackness in the United States. This forgetting is not insignificant or commonplace – you are truly able to relate to Ifemelu and Obinze through the incredibly nuanced and detailed world that Adichie builds. She invites you to join in the ultimate human act – empathy.

Not Just Any Love Story

It would be easy to reduce this book to the romance between Ifemelu and Obinze, because their relationship is beautiful. Their immediate, soulful connection begins when they’re both in secondary school, and they have a deep appreciation of the other from very early on. When political upheaval in Nigeria prevents them from getting the education they need (due to a series of strikes at their university), Ifemelu and Obinze are forced to part ways – Ifemelu immigrates to the U.S., and Obinze finds himself in London.

 As a proud connoisseur and avid lover of love stories, I find myself always waiting for the two romantic leads to find their way back to each other and resume the magic of their love affair. The remarkable thing about this particular story, however, is that Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s journeys back into each other’s lives are vastly better and more interesting than their actual romance. Reading about Ifemelu navigating America’s complicated avoidance of race, watching Obinze get caught up in the complicated wealth structure in Lagos, experiencing them both traverse romantic and familial relationships – that’s where this novel shines. So yes, hooray for love and pining and the one that got away, but I’ll take Adichie’s searing insights into race, personal identity, and assimilation over romance every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Intersectionality At Its Finest

Great storytelling is good storytelling on drugs, because it takes an already good story and textures it with layers and layers of the most inexplicable yet essential facets of human life on this earth. Americanah is great storytelling. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie is at her best in this novel when she’s leading you through Ifemelu’s life. Simply put, she is a Nigerian immigrant woman trying to sustain a life and get an education in the United States. Adichie never tries to extricate Ifemelu from these different “labels” or “identities,” because she understands that to be human, you must be a deeply complicated combination of layers, each of which is more convoluted and treacherous than the last.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary added the word “intersectionality” to its pages this past April, and defines it as “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect.” The dictionary goes out of its way to iterate that this term especially relates to “the experiences of marginalized people or groups,” – and this distinction makes this idea especially relevant for Americanah and the conversations I wish we would have more often in America.

Adichie’s story is both intersectional and provocative, because it’s not just about the female experience (with all of its glories and woes), or about the experience of being/becoming black in America, or about the immigrant experience. Americanah is about all of these elements working together to both impede and nourish people of color. Adichie makes it clear that no one narrative is correct or complete on its own, and we should use this novel as a tool to navigate our own dialogues in this country.

My Verdict

Americanah is a transformative, life-changing novel. It transports you into the very bodies that inhabit its pages and compels you to breathe with and live inside of Obinze and Ifemelu. It reminds you that love is good, but learning how to live and learn as an individual self is necessary too. And finally, Americanah lays the groundwork for understanding the diverse world that we live in, and helps us accept the sometimes ludicrous notion that the only way to understand others is to listen to others, without superimposing personal belief or judgment.

Cover photo by Dc Lovensky on Unsplash

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