2017-07-27 / Opinions

Book Review

Americanah
By CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
Reviewed by
PEGGY BARNETT

A mericanah is a love story, a story with commentary on not only love, but also race, society, immigration, and the human experience, among many others. The two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, find each other but lose each other in a typical romance story. However, they are anything but typical.

They are bright, attractive, popular teen-agers in their city in Nigeria. His friends had decided that Obinze, a new boy, should pair up with Ginika. When he met Ifemelu, though, Obinze had a different idea. And Ifemelu told her Aunty Uju that “she had met the love of her life.”

In this fine book, the secondary characters are important, and the style is irresistible: When Ifemelu first dances with Obinze, “It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge, your limbs fail to move to music, and all effortless things suddenly become leaden.” Obinze’s mother was supportive of the couple; Ifemelu’s parents were not, but she turned for advice to sophisticated Auntie Uju. Auntie was the mistress of an important Nigerian general. She had just borne his son when he was killed in an airplane crash, and she fled to America.

America was the goal for most of these young people. It seemed that Obinze was the most likely one to make it there. Ironically, it was Ifemelu who scored so well on the SAT that she was offered a scholarship to Princeton, and Obinze who was left behind.

Adiche does not minimize the struggles that Ifemelu faces. She speaks English, but with a Nigerian accent. She works hard to sound American, but later deliberately readopts her native accent. She is able to live with Aunty Uju at first, but has many struggles with affording housing, food, and all necessities. In spite of humiliating incidents, she perseveres.

Meanwhile, Adiche tells of Obinze’s life. He goes as an illegal immigrant to England, uses someone else’s identification, and works at manual jobs, including as a toilet cleaner. He almost marries a young British woman to gain citizenship but is caught and sent back to Nigeria. There, he compromises with his principles and becomes wealthy as a housing developer.

Ifemelu has not forgotten him, but takes two other lovers during her years in the U.S. Adiche makes both of them so attractive that the reader forgets Obinze and wants Ifemelu to find happiness with them. One is white, the other a black American.

The word “Americanah” is used by the characters to refer to Africans who become falsely American. It is said with scorn. Ifemelu writes a popular blog in which she deals honestly with topics like that. Passages quoted from her blog are invariably interesting and provocative. When someone tells her that a comment is “a pretty strong opinion,” she replies, “I don’t know how to have any other kind.”

From her blog: “In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racism belongs to the past. … So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word… Maybe Racial Disorder Syndrome.”

In addition to clarifying the distinction between African-Americans and American-Africans, Americanah will entertain you and make you think. It’s available at the Mary Willis Library.

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