Wednesday, August 13, 2014
What I'm Reading: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
But then people kept writing about Americanah. Lots of people. People whose opinions I knew I could trust. And they liked it. And then, completely unrelated to this, JV found one of Adichie's TED talks—about the danger of a single narrative—and when I connected the name and the woman giving the talk to the book everyone had been talking about, and when I saw a single copy in the extremely schizophrenic English section of "my" bookstore (you all know what I mean by "my" bookstore), I figured that was a sign enough I should get it. So I did.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Odinze, and their youth in Nigeria and their adult lives in the United States and England, respectively. The story arc the book seems to be tracing is an ambitious one. One review I read said it was perhaps too ambitious; while I'm going to reserve judgment until I finish it, right now I find myself agreeing, kind of. There isn't so much going on that the book is impossible to follow or anything like that, but there are storylines where I want to know more, like Aunty Uju and The General.
The writing is eminently readable and I find myself plowing through the book at a pretty snappy pace. Do I think it will become a timeless classic? Perhaps. I am reminded a lot of Zadie Smith's White Teeth—it could almost be called an American* White Teeth—in that it's a story that concerns multiple people and families across a timespan of years, nearly all of them trying to come to terms with themselves and their identities (race, ethnicity....the whole shebang). White Teeth felt a bit tighter and a bit more focused. Americanah also stays quite serious, most of the time. Not that seriousness is to the story's detriment; as Ifemelu writes in one of her blog posts, it is apparently more palatable to white people for Blacks to mention racism in jest, as a funny story, and to not come across as at all bitter or angry about it (in a world where Ifemelu's decision to simply stop using relaxer on her hair and let it grow out naturally is seen in her workplace as a threatening move and potential political or racial "statement"), and I want it to be okay for stories about race and identity to be serious, too. Not just the classics (Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God) but also the stories we read today. In the books that we read not because we have to, but because we want to be entertained, or moved, or engaged with the world.
I don't know if the book will break my heart yet (in a sad ending kind of way not in a wasted potential of a book way). It seems like it might. We'll have to wait and see.
*Adichie is Nigerian while Smith is British, but since much of the book is set in America and is about being Nigerian in America (as opposed to being Jamaican or Bengali in England), I think it's fair to call it "an American White Teeth," as opposed to something like "a Nigerian White Teeth."