01 June 2014
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Several months ago I was browsing at a local independent bookstore with Frances (Nonsuch Book) when I decided I needed to inject my reading with some new, recentish, books. So I went a little crazy. I think I bought about five new hardcovers and about as many paperbacks, knowing almost nothing about any of them save what was written on their covers. My success with the books I bought that day has been less than stellar. Beautiful Ruins: Did Not Finish. Dissident Gardens: DNF. At The Bottom of Everything: Really Disliked. And there might be one or two others that faced similar fates.
And then I picked up Americanah. What a fantastic book. The main character's voice and Adichie's easy, smart prose drew me in from the get go. When I was in the middle of enjoying this novel I saw someone Tweet about how she was struggling with getting into the book. It was one of those moments when you think that a person must be crazy. I suppose I could give that Tweeter a pass if there were things about the book that weren't her cup of tea, but to struggle with it? Some people.
Although it is both a relationship book and a coming of age story, Americanah is so much more. As Ifemelu navigates through her school days, her relationships, and becoming an independent person, she does it all while transitioning from the life she has known in Nigeria to a new and very different life in America. And Adichie does it so well. There is lots of humor, there is much that one can identify with on a personal level, there are observations about US and UK culture that I found highly insightful, and there is a fascinating look at life in Nigeria.
It is too easy to reduce Africa to that single word 'Africa' and call it a day. As with many things that I am not actively studying, I have had a murky understanding of most aspects of life on that enormous continent. I have a good friend from college days whose family emigrated to America from the west African country of Liberia, I spent a week on safari in Kenya, and I have another good friend who is a white South African, but all of my other notions about Africa were highly jumbled and taken from little bits and pieces of history and news headlines. My recent time-killing exercise of learning how to name all 196 countries in the world in less than 12 minutes actually turned out to be quite a good thing. Being able to place the countries in Africa on a map has been immensely helpful in understanding the continent and how the different countries that make up that jigsaw puzzle relate to each other. Reading Americanah was a wonderful way to help fill in one of the many gaps in my database.
But as the title suggests, Americanah is also a book about America. I was astonished how frequently I found myself chuckling and agreeing with Adichie's insight into American culture. And not just in an "oh, look at how different things are between Nigeria and America" kind of way. Adichie certainly offers that kind of commentary, but just as often it takes America on its own terms.
Easily one of my favorite books for the year.