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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The Most Unhelpful Book Review You’ll Ever Read: A Review of What Lies Between Us

Have you ever read a book that you knew would completely fuck you up? Like, you’ve gone in knowing that the journey through the pages would be worth it, but your soul might not make it through to the final destination? Friends, I’ve read two of those books in recent times. One was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it on my honeymoon, and let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on marital bliss like a dystopian horror story that strips women down to their biological functions and wipes away their humanity. Probably not the best idea of mine, in hindsight, considering the very real implications of a Gilead-like future for the U.S., but oh well. A girl’s gotta read.

And the other book that destroyed me for a good few days? What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer who also wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I inhaled this gloriously horrific and anxiety-inducing novel in all of three hours, and then spent the next few hours being considerably stressed out. Tainted visions of my future children and my relationship with my husband all swirled around me in a storm of blue, as I lay in bed, petrified, at 2 a.m. Again, another poor life choice that I will hopefully not be repeating any time soon.

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Let me tell you what this extraordinary novel is about before I turn you off of reading in general. Munaweera’s tale is a tragedy that begins in her protagonist’s white prison cell. The woman tells us that she’s been imprisoned for committing the most monstrous of crimes, and that this story is her attempt to reveal why she did what she did. Instead of outlining a confession, the unnamed protagonist unravels her life’s story in a series of memories and images, beginning as a young girl in Sri Lanka to an immigrant’s journey in America. Love, loss, and grief ensue in the pages that follow.

If that summary was too vague, I’m sorry, but as a reader who believes deeply in the experience of reading and unspooling the nuances of a story for herself, that’s literally the best, un-spoilerly paragraph about this novel that I can give you. But, what I can attempt to do is tell you why this novel had such a huge impact on me, and why I’m still feeling that impact a week later.

Munaweera unwraps the experience of being a young, non-white immigrant in this country with exquisite precision. Upon entering the hallowed hallways of school in the 1980’s, our nameless protagonist lives on the outskirts of American life, and feels more like an exotic animal at the zoo that no boy wants to date. When she grows into adulthood, and happens upon a great guy who happens to be white, she confesses to feeling a little bit lucky just to be “chosen by one of them.”

As someone who can relate deeply to both of those experiences, I can tell you that for many non-white immigrants or children of immigrants, the fact that you’re non-white and therefore other is an insistent part of your life, even if you’re not fully aware of it. Munaweera captures that slight feeling of ostracism so well, and What Lies Between Us managed to remind me about a lot of the racial and ethnic anxieties I endured and still endure to this day.

Another incredible thing about this novel is that even if you’re not an immigrant or a child of one, you’re still able to fully empathize with Munaweera’s protagonist because of how she tells the story. Munaweera breaks the story into vivid and palpable images of life, which teem with lust on one page and fear on the next. She roots her story in the experience of being human, and through this, What Lies Between Us becomes the best type of evidence against the wall-loving, divisive voices in our country right now. It reminds us that people are people, no matter where they’re from or how they’ve grown up. All people share the same fears and anxieties, and all people just want to love and be loved in return.

But the most incisive and, for me, gut-wrenching highlight of this book is its discussion of motherhood. What Lies Between Us is, at its core, a story about motherhood, and how being a mother changes and defines a woman’s life. In the first few pages of the novel, when the protagonist begins to tell her story in her cell, Munaweera unleashes an absolutely lethal description of being a mother in the United States. She writes that there is absolutely no way to be a good mother in this country, because to be a good mother, you have to be perfect. For the protagonist, even the smallest of failures or mistakes as a mother will indict you. She continues by reminding the reader that being a mother is essentially giving yourself entirely in the pursuit of a higher, more important end goal. And she lands the final punch by telling you that she is essentially in prison because she refused to do just that.

Like, damn girl, get out of my head! Somehow, Munaweera reached her hand right into my body and pulled out exactly what I fear about motherhood. And the fact that she is able to do that is incredible. The power of this novel is that it reveals the anxieties and implications of motherhood in such a real way. From beginning to end, Munaweera details everything that is glorious AND terrifying about being a mother. And for someone who is a bit tired of hearing that I’ll figure it out and that I don’t need to worry so much, I am so grateful to see my anxieties in print. Munaweera’s words remind me that my feelings, true or not, are valid and acceptable, and that is the hallmark of a really important book.

My verdict:

I have told you very little about what happens plot-wise in this book, but I am telling you that What Lies Between Us is SO worth the read on so many levels. One, you get to glimpse what it means to be a young immigrant in this country. Two, Munaweera immerses you in gorgeous images that burst with humanity. And three, if you have concerns about what it means to be a parent, then What Lies Between Us will assuage your fears by giving them an important voice.

Go read this book, because my review does not do it justice.

 

 

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash