Three months ago, I started a job as a writer. And then, I stopped writing — for fun, that is. In fact, I doubt I’d even be writing this were it not for my long commute. Each day, I’m on the train for about two hours. That means I read voraciously, averaging about a book and a half a week. About 20 books’ worth of ideas have been rattling around in my brain for the past few months. And while I write about the Kardashians and the Best Movies To Watch With Your Boo (for example), I think about my friends between the pages.
So, why did Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bring me back? Is it because Adichie’s sprawling book was the first to bring me out of myself in a while, to make me feel empathy and guilt and awe? Or could it simpler: That the protagonist, Ifemelu, makes her living as a blogger, and I was jealous? I used to do that too, I thought, and I should do it again.
So, here’s me, talking about Americanah, easing myself back into books.
Here’s the gist. Obinze and Ifemelu fall in love as teenagers in Lagos. But since the course of true love never runs smooth, their paths disperse in far-flung, foreign places. The city count in Americanah adds up: Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, London, Nsukka.
Geography alters Obinze and Ifemelu. By the time they meet again in their 30s, they have to talk through the years— chisel away the calcified history — until they’re strangers no longer. Something I especially admire about Adichie’s characterization is the notion that still, after all these years, Ifemelu and Obinze are fundamentally the same. Yes, they are enlightened and jaded and burdened by experience. But their chemistry persists because their core essence, the personality traits that cling stubbornly throughout their lives, still remains.
Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is a very good love story. It’s good in that it’s true: I believe they have what we all yearn for in a genuine way; they’re a good model for love. But that’s not why I’ll remember Americanah — after all, I’ve read other good love stories. It’s their time apart that was more eye-opening than their time together.
Both characters have terribly alienating experiences as immigrants in America and Britain. Ifemelu discovers race, as she says, when she’s first perceived as Black as a college student in Philadelphia (Adichie has said the same thing of her time in America). From her vantage point as an outsider, she’s able to observe race. To process her thoughts, Ifemelu converts her wry observations into blog form and begins a highly successful blog on race in America. Obinze, on the other hand, cleaning toilets in London, doesn’t have time for a blog. His time as an illegal immigrant in London is b l e a k, full of paranoia and green card weddings.
For me, so much of the immigrant’s motivation to move was succinctly explained when Obinze is at a dinner party with well-meaning but completely out-of-touch posh Londoners. Obinze, the son of a professor, had grown up comfortably in Nigeria. There was no pressing need for him to migrate, no blazing gunshots, no famine. And yet: He wanted to go elsewhere, desperately. This passage was the clincher.
“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Adichie’s book dealt with two MASSIVE topics, race in America and the influx of migrants in Europe, with such truth. At no point in the book can you read the words and decide to ignore some bits because they’re unpleasant. She makes you face the truth of the book on each page.
Seriously: No one could read this book and think anything but, “Wow. We should take care of immigrants.” No one could read this book and react with anything but tremendous empathy. On so many levels, the book was a major wake up call. I recommend people of all races and backgrounds to read it, absorb it, and let it make you as uncomfortable as possible.
Americanah does what fiction SHOULD do, especially in divisive times like these: It reaches out and says, come, let me teach you what you might not have already known.