Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a great writer! I loved her previous novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. Half of a Yellow Sun in particular felt like it resulted from an urge to share the story of a very important and recent chapter of Igbo history. As a friend said, Adichie obviously took in stories while sitting at the knee of her older relatives.
Americanah feels different. It feels like Adichie is sharing stories of her own generation. Tales of boredom and dissatisfaction with life in Nigeria, tales of struggling to gain visas to enter and stay in USA and UK and suffering to stay afloat and thrive.
Adichie makes many interesting observations about diaspora. About the isolation and dislocation of leaving home and going somewhere very different. About being foreign and feeling that you don’t fit in. About feeling a bit of superiority and perhaps even scorn towards the people of your new country and knowing that your own people do some things so much better. About slowly adopting the ways of your new country and becoming an outsider back home and in your new country too. About seeing the world through a different paradigm. About being changed by your experiences. I can relate to all of those things now that I’m an expat living in Norway.
Ifemelu, a female protagonist, read Enid Blyton books as a child in Nigeria, had Anglophile teachers and her father worshipped the BBC World Service. She didn’t dream of going to the USA but regular strikes by her university professors in Nigeria meant that her studies were seriously disrupted. When an opportunity to study in the USA presented itself she took it. After many initial difficulties she flourished in the USA.
Obinze is a male protagonist who always dreamed of going to the USA. His repeated visa applications were always blocked. Instead he finally was able to go to the UK. After over-staying his visa he worked hard to stay but was eventually deported. While in detention awaiting deportation he reflects on the other detainees:
Obinze envied them for what they were, men who casually changed names and passports, who could plan and come back and do it over again because they had nothing to lose. He didn’t have their savoir faire; he was soft, a boy who had grown up eating corn flakes and reading books, raised by a mother during a time when truth telling was not yet a luxury… In detention, he felt raw, skinned, the outer layers of himself stripped off.
Adichie challenges the paradigms and prejudices of her readers. I like that a lot! Thank you Chimamanda for shining a light on some of my unintentional racism and unfounded assumptions. I will be more careful in future to challenge my prejudices and seek information to question my assumptions.
I did agree with many of her observations about race and that it is still an issue. We notice that here in Norway and we noticed it in Australia. Surely it must be an issue in USA. However, I found that she laboured the race issue too much and I began to skim read the ‘blog posts’ on race. I also thought that the novel Americanah was not carefully enough edited. Some sections should have been cut or rewritten.
I did wonder how realistic it is that the two blogs started by Ifemelu would be so extremely popular. I’m unsure of the mechanism that the blogs even became known, especially the new blog in Lagos. It seemed a little far-fetched to me, especially because, as pointed out by Blaine the blog posts lacked substance or evidence and were monotonous. But then, Mills and Boone books seem to sell well, so I guess that there’s a market for everything. Adichie also does not explain how someone working in isolation in her apartment can come up with enough material to post daily.
By coincidence I listened to this podcast on BBC World Service about the risk of extinction of the Igbo language, just before reading Americanah. Unesco has warned that Igbo faces extinction in the next 50 years. Adichie also touches on that issue in the novel.
After writing my own reflections and feeling that I’d missed something I read the review in The Guardian (best book reviews available!). I forgot to mention the dinner scene. I won’t do a better job than the Guardian so I’m taking a direct quote
Emenike, who has married a wealthy lawyer and subsequently “cast home as the jungle and himself as interpreter of the jungle”, invites him to a dinner party in Islington, at which Obinze is struck by the unmatched artisan plates that would never be used for guests in Nigeria. More unbridgeable, though, is his fellow guests’ inability to understand he is not a refugee: “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 and eternally convinced that real lives happened in that 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.”