Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What I'm Reading: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

One of the best things about the ArmchairBEA I participated in was finding a whole bunch of bookish bloggers writing reviews on new/recent books. Much of my reading time these days is focused on Swedish language acquisition, and then chipping away at my Classics Club/TIME Top 100 list, so any books NOT related to those goals get pushed to the side.

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."


  1. Did you finish Americanah, and what did you think? I loved Adichie's writing . . . but I have been hearing from a lot of readers that maybe this wasn't her best novel. I wanted less social commentary and more of Ifemelu & Obinze's relationship. I certainly thought Adichie had a lot of interesting things to say, but as a work of FICTION it was frustrating at times.

    1. I did finish it! Overall, I really liked it and gave it a 4 star on Goodreads.

      I had no issue with the social commentary because I think that is way more interesting than romance, actually. I do agree that it was a LOT to pack in one book, though, and I think it could have benefited either from Adiche either being a lot more ambitious or a lot less. What I mean by "a lot less ambitious" is fairly clear; by "a lot more ambitious," I mean fleshing it out into a whole series. But apparently no ~literary fiction~ author writes series anymore, which is a shame, because the story of Americanah is fruitful enough for loads of novels. I think a good split would be:

      *Ifemelu and Obinze's growing up in Nigeria
      *Ifemelu in the US
      *Obinze in the UK
      *Dike in the US
      *Ifemelu and Obinze back in Nigeria
      *Aunty Uju's story: her relationship with The General and her move to the US

      I did have to roll my eyes a little bit at Ifemelu getting all of this recognition and money for blogging about race, like enough to live on and to even hire extra help. It's a bit unrealistic---how many blogs lead to that kind of prestige?---but that's an easy enough thing for me, as a reader, to gloss over.

      I also wish there were a better way for Ifemelu (maybe Adiche speaking through Ifemelu?) to comment on race in the US than random, sporadic blog posts. I think that's something that could have been helped by slicing the story into a series of novels. With all of the other stories going on in Americanah, there was very little room for internal monologue and self-reflection. But when you extract each story, you have more room to get inside character's heads in more indirect/thorough ways than just quoting their (imaginary?) blogs.