book review: chimamanda ngozi adichie's americanah
it's about race -- about difference. it's about examining, dissecting, and ultimately overcoming inter-personal distance -- that difference of being another race, another class, another gender, of being from another country, another tribe, another ivy league university-- that difference of being an other. ultimately, love is the only way to illuminate and celebrate that difference which exists among us all and that may otherwise lead to misunderstanding, mistrust, and often hatred.
in addition to revealing the restorative power of love, americanah emphasizes the importance of changing place as means of developing a deeper understanding of differences in perception and socialization on a more global level.
americanah follows the spirited and curious experience of ifemelu, born and raised lagos at the turn of the twentieth century. ifemelu's imaginative childhood --- filled with questions of power differentials, status signifiers, and gendered limitations of roles and duties, and charged by her reluctance to accept the norm in her politically and sexually corrupt environment-- is resplendent with unapologetic dissent. her sharp and ever-crtitical tongue, albeit also incredulously socially aware and accurate leads ifemelu to refuse participation in church activities because she thinks the priest is a "thief" that has built the church with "dirty money," resulting in her dismissal from church and in extreme humiliation for her mother. at one point ifemelu's refusal to "keep her mouth shut" provokes a slap to the face from her dear aunty uju for suggesting that aunty uju should perhaps take her anger out on her lover, The General -- a married and hugely corrupt government official who is later assassinated-- rather than on her house help when The General cancels plans with her.
her perpetually and uncompromisingly questioning frame of mind positions ifemelu to excel in the academic environment which she does with ease until political and financial unrest in nsukka yields an exhausting series of strikes at her university. as the strikes reach an unbearable frequency, ifemelu, like many of her classmates, begin seeking means of refuge, which in many cases means finding a way to america.
"the day i moved to america was the day i became black."
ifemelu immediately registers that race is something that she is going to have to learn and understand upon entering the united states. in the process of discovering what it means "to be black in america," ifemelu decides to recount her daily revelations in a lifestyle blog centered around race: Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-Amerian Black. in her blog, ifemelu articulates minor and major epiphanies about race in america such as "Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Do WASPs Aspire To?," "To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You are Black, Baby," and "Open Thread: For All The Zipped-Up Negroes." she also begins to disclose personal, intimate, and intellectual details of her various relationships with american men, often referring to her lovers using anonymous monikers such as "The Hot White Ex" and "Professor Hunk."
as ifemelu navigates her american romances, she discovers the innumerable complexities of social, political, cultural, and economic difference, that literally color, or even threaten to take over her romantic relationships. upon returning to nigeria, ifemelu reminisces on her american relationships, realizing that a majority of their substance was in explaining differences rather than simply experiencing each other from an origin of mutual understanding. in one particular blog post, ifemelu concludes that only romantic love can shed light on these differences in a productive and loving way and is the only solution to overcoming them:
The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.
americanah also follows the experience of obinze, the major love in ifemelu's life, who also seeks refuge from nsukka at the height of the university strikes. obinze instead moves to london where, instead of encountering love, acceptance, and opportunity, he is met with paranoia about his illegal status following the expiration of his visa, a rising national current of anti-immigration fervor, and extreme loneliness. in the midst of a complicated and supremely expensive arranged wedding, arranged to provide obinze with UN citizenship, obinze is caught by immigration officers and violently deported back to nigeria.
eventually obinze and ifemelu are reunited, the reunion itself a pivotal moment in the novel revealing a shared lifetime of regret and desire. together again in nigeria, amidst emotionally charged moments of passionate memory, undivided recognition of each others' pure character, and an immediately rekindled mutual fondness, the two face the violent social reality of an extra-marital affair in the face of the many and complex conservatisms in their "new" environment. the two realize they must decide between living the truth of love, passion, challenging the status quo, and demanding the most from the world and the lie of living a life content with appropriateness and perceived responsibility while denying true love, life, and happiness.