Thursday, April 24, 2014

On AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you were to ask the question “what is Americanah about?” you’d get a list of broad ideas – Americanah is a book about race, about love, about the immigrant experience. And you should read Americanah for the characters' take on those subjects. The novel's protagonists, Obinze and Ifemelu, are sharply observant, turning everyday occurrences - conversation at dinner, two neighbors sitting on a porch, a couple of flipping through fashion magazines, and even a woman going to the salon - into fascinating scenes. Every day, on the train, browsing at a bookstore, you are among people who you know almost nothing about, who have had vastly different experiences than you and who are carrying the weight of their day, of their emotions. Interacting with strangers is always a practice in empathy. And after reading Americanah I was reminded how when you lack certain tools, like a common language, talking to the person behind you in line at the grocery store can be a very tense moment, full of misunderstanding.


I was talking to an old friend the other day. We were close friends through our teenage years, our college years, and we had recently drifted apart. During our conversation she jokingly referred to her friend’s house as a place she liked to think of as her “country home.” That phrase struck me, the term “country home” one I once knew but no longer heard regularly. Her use of that phrase was evidence of how differently we now perceived the world, how we no longer really shared a common language.

I told that story to my friend Liz and she said it reminded her of this scene in Americanah. Obinze, new to England and uncertain of his future there, visits a friend, Emenike, who he had grown up with in Nigeria. Obinze is at Emenike's house attending one of his fancy dinner parties and is uncomfortable by his friend's showy wealth. He makes this observation:

"...When Phillip complained about the French couple building a house next to his in Cornwall, Emenike asked, "Are they between you and the sunset?"
            Are they between you and the sunset? It would never occur to Obinze, or to anybody he had grown up with, to ask a question like that."

This dinner exchange gets at what I think Americanah is really about, which is something broad yet universal: the longing for connection. Obinze and Emenike grew up in the same city and went to the same school. They shared references, a place, and a language, and for Emenike, his language was what he consciously changed about himself when he moved to the UK.  It was how he decided to separate himself from what he was and take him closer to who he wanted to be. Obinze and the novel's other main character, Ifemelu, are childhood sweethearts and after they part, they suffer various disconnects with the new people they meet. But most painful are the times when they are with someone from home, someone who they feel will finally understand them, only to realize that growing up and moving away has changed them.

At the start of the novel Ifemelu, who has been living in the US for a number of years, decides to return home to Nigeria, where Obinze now lives. But it isn't until much later in the novel that Ifemelu deals with getting on that plane home. The middle of the book takes you back in time, and you get to know and love Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple and then as individuals. As they navigate adulthood in new countries, their sharp observations about daily life keep each page interesting, but it is the promise of their reunion, their longing for the one person they truly connect with, that keeps you reading through to the end.

I finished Americanah last week, stretching the last seventy-five pages in a way I've not stretched the last seventy-five pages of a novel before. I did not want it to end. Americanah is one of those rare books that is smart and topical and also a love story. And it's one of those rare books that becomes its own point of reference, that deepens the way you look at strangers and friends.

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