Yassss, Americanah!

Sometimes you read a book that just gets you. It eloquently articulates a slew of thoughts that had been rummaging around in your mind – accounting hours of thought over weeks, months and sometimes even years – and sums those thoughts neatly into a 587-page book. Sometimes these thoughts are expressed as overt social commentary and critiques, and other times they are crafted seamlessly into a fictional, sometimes even allegorical, tale. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the latter for me. It addressed many observations I had as a student living in the United States and the various idiosyncrasies I noticed among the culture.  And although Americanah was not my coming-to-America experience, it carried many parallels and offered even many more observations I hadn’t previously noticed or considered.

The book is a love story that weaves together issues of race, identity, immigration and self-determination/discovery through the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian who emigrates to the U.S. to study after intermittent tertiary education in her home country – intermittent due to the military-political climate.  The story opens with Ifemelu recently deciding to move back home after having spent 15 years in the U.S. It chronicles her adolescence in Nigeria, including her high school love interest Obinze, and how her experiences brought her to her present day decision. Upon making it to America, she struggles to find comfort in her new environment while navigating the unfamiliar nuances of American culture, labour, and relationships. There are interludes injected throughout the novel detailing Obinze’s story as he travels to England and his deportation thereafter. The whole novel is rich with details of American and British culture from an outside perspective, touching on various aspects including funny laugh-out-loud descriptions of accents, social commentary on race relations and unnerving thoughts on immigration. In the end, the story finds Ifemelu back in Nigeria, having come not quite full circle, but having grown exponentially through her experiences, creating a more self-aware version of her newly-dubbed “Americanah” self.

As an Amazon reviewer noted, the names can be a bit hard to pronounce or read. This can be a particular hurdle if you are like me and are not Nigerian or African or familiar with names or languages of that region. However, as the reviewer also noted, this only adds to the authenticity and credulity of the text, and of course, I wouldn’t expect something as such to be edited for a Western audience. But this minute detail shouldn’t deter one from this thoroughly enjoyable read, and it definitely doesn’t impede its efficacy in presenting aspects of race and immigration in a refreshing manner. Hence, this telling narrative has become a favorite amongst the others on my shelf, and I’m happy to learn that it was chosen by voters as the inaugural read for the One Book, One New York program this March.

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