Chimamanda has become quite the literary darling especially with the co-sign and feature on Beyoncé’s most recent album. Post my tweet chat and video on the relationships between African and African Americans, quite a few folks recommended that I read her latest novel, Americanah. I picked Americanah up along with Half of a Yellow Sun, a book I had heard rave reviews about long before the Flawless feature. Most of the people who suggested Americanah were African immigrants to the US or children of African immigrants, and felt that the book would give me a better understanding of the immigrant experience in America. So my interest were peaked considering the 30+ comments per day my video was still getting largely from Africans who feel the passionate need to excise themselves from African Americans.
Oh where to begin. First, I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a great writer and Americanah is definitely worth reading, but overall I’m not entirely a fan of the book. It wasn’t good or bad but it definitely left me empty and not in a cathartic manner where I’ve run through the gamut of emotions and I’m relieved off all feelings. But empty cause it was just like….really? Like, scrunch your eyebrow up and cock your head slightly to the side ‘really?’ I’m most bothered that I walked away feeling like maybe I’m too American to get it, but I know that I’m not. I wanted to have empathy for the main character Ifemelu, and largely she was just someone who I would have little interest in dealing with. Her blog posts bothered me the most and her dealings in America, to me, where rather womptastic and pretentious. It wasn’t until she went back to Nigeria after spending 15 years in America that her humility began to show. Back to these blog posts…and the overall theme in the book of American’s and more so African (Black) American’s obsession with race. I find that observation and the fascination that Ifemelu carried as though Africans don’t see race is so peculiar to me. Especially considering when Obinze hires his former labor co-worker from England to give his business the facade of authority even though he’s entirely unqualified for the role, it’s simply his being White and British that gives him and therefore Obinze’s business credibility. Oh the wretched of the earth, colonialism did a good one on us. I understand not having to deal with race so poignantly when you live in a country where the majority are indigenous people, race still exists but it’s much more hushed and brushed over then when you step into America (or Brazil or Italy, etc., I promise we aren’t the only ones) and it suddenly is the first thing people address you with. When your blackness suddenly moves to the top of the list above your class, education, ethnicity or family name. And this was the experience I was expecting to have more empathy for. But at the point where I feel that finally came across, so much of the book had been spent on listless details. There were so many character details and scene set ups that made little sense to me in the grand storyline of the book. So while it’s easy for someone who has had a similar experience to Ifemelu to immediately connect with the book, the foreign reader like myself gets lost in storylines that go no where and it’s blurries the experience. Let’s track some of the character relationships that made no sense:
- the White family Ifemelu babysat for. I get that her relationship with Carl comes out of that & the mother’s White guilt is a nice undercurrent to the storyline, but the angsty daughter, for why? I’m still trying to figure out what was her point cause a good bit of time was spent explaining her and I just didn’t get it.
- Blaine’s ex-girlfriend turned lesbian and about 80% of his friends. I almost want to say Shan cause she was just ugh, ugh and ugh, but I guess there was some point to her. Everyone else was just there for Ifemelu to judge and then blog about. Kind of off track that little line about not liking soul food got me to thinking about what is soul food? Cause I hear folks say that often but it’s so subjective considering I often avoid “soul food” restaurants cause sugar in everything overcooked does not make a good meal. Back to the review tho…
- Characters that were described in scene sets up, like when Obinze went to the party with his wife and daughter, a lot of detail about characters so much so that I thought something was going to happen with them and then nothing. Same with Ifemelu in the braiding shop and just about every other scene – the point of the kind of bitchy co-worker at the magazine? Can someone explain please?
It was just a long read that could have effectively been much shorter and I feel like I would have connected with the book more. While Ifemelu and others bemoan the American obsession with race it’s very clear that there’s a class issue at play with the Nigerian characters, which to mean is much more bothersome then dealing with a race issue and really it’s intertwined with race. When Ifemelu lands in Philadelphia to attend college, she moves in with some wack ass White girls who were rather bitchy and completely inconsiderate to Ifemelu. But while she puts up with their BS and totally does some wild demeaning (to herself) ish to pay the rent, she completely dismisses and leaves no room for understanding or getting to know a Black girl in her class when the girl comments that Africans have some guilt in the slave trade of African Americans. And I’ve seen this play out in real life, where African Americans are entirely dismissed by their African counterparts but will turn around and pander to White folk who still ain’t shit. When Ifemelu was struggling to find work, I kept thinking she’s not getting that waitressing gig cause she’s Black and only if she had an upwardly mobile African American friend to guide her through the nuances of working in the service industry in blue collar Philly she might have had a bit of an easier time making it through. But Ifemelu never gave it a chance and welp. Just about all the other African American characters in the book were two dimensionally wacktastic. Blaine was just bourgie and boring, his sister was insufferable and yet that was the one African American woman that Ifemelu sought acceptance from — class, girl. It’s all too pretentious for my taste.
To the storylines that I did enjoy, Aunty Uju and her son, everything about Obinze, I definitely wanted to hear more. I didn’t like Ifemelu until she made it back to Nigeria and realized who she really was. So I wanted more of her with Obinze and the book just fell flat with the ending of the kind of crassness she exhibited in reconnecting with him. Overall that’s what leaves me giving the book the ehhh response.
I have watched Chimamanda’s TEDTalk on the dangers of the single story and if anything that buoys my opinion of the book especially when it comes to the development or lack there of of the African American characters. I didn’t need to sympathize with the character as I can acknowledge my foreign preview but I also didn’t empathize with any of the characters outside of Obinze. If some of the fluff was removed I might have had a better time connecting with the story and understanding how different our experiences are and what the struggles meant. But I was largely left thinking if she wasn’t so pretentious things might have been different. I just don’t get these values that were assumed to be American or the way to make it in America came from. For me writing is just about connecting with the person who exactly relates to your story. It’s about connecting with a larger audience and helping them to understand your story. I did not get that with Americanah. For a parallel, my favorite book is What is the What, about a Sudanese lost boy; all the African Americans in that book are pretty awful people but I got and had empathy for the characters story. You can check my video review where I chat a bit more about the Nigerian stereotypes that are in the book, cause girl…I don’t know how I was or am suppose to feel about that.