Book review: Americanah

The best way for me to summarize “Americanah” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is to describe the wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling after completing the book. Even though it was a work of fiction, the experiences described felt raw, personal and compelling in a way that could only come from someone who had been through all of them.

Americanah is the story of young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze who first met in high school in Nigeria which was then under military rule, a period dominated by upheavals and uncertainties that drove the poor as well as the well-educated locals to look elsewhere for greener pastures. Such circumstances inevitably forced them to search for better lives, Ifemelu to the U.S. and Obinze to England, and separated their fates.

While in foreign lands, their identities instantly transformed as they became African migrants confronted with new sets of problems they had never imagined. At the top of the list would be to secure the right to reside in their host countries, be it legally or illegally, and this book was upfront about the migrants’ insecurities and hardships, which were driven by a myriad of reasons.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look somewhere else, 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.”

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another problem for these newly minted migrants was racial discrimination, particularly so for the book’s female protagonist Ifemelu. Despite sharing the same dark skin and Afro hair as her American counterparts, she remained an outsider to concepts about race and how to react to unfair racial treatments. America though was quick to teach her all about it, and she found herself falling under the category of a non-American black, an African in America rather than an African-American. [This Reddit thread further drills across the difference. Warning: Vulgarities ensue]

“So lots of folk – mostly non-black – say Obama’s not black, he’s biracial, multiracial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white. 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.”

The author’s sense of self-referential existence in a world divided along skin color and class mixed with a tinge of loneliness is what makes Americanah a touching and heartfelt sociological/anthropological read. This book goes down my list of Best Reads of 2014.

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