What a luxurious pleasure to read a proper love story, unabashedly romantic from start to finish, amidst the sea of cynicism that seems to be a canonical requirement in modern litfic.
This is what Americanah primarily is – a love story. It’s just expanded to make room for sprawling, insightful, incisive commentary on race, colonialism and identity. And, on top of that, the book is a heartfelt account of what it’s like to be an immigrant. I’m certain that there is not a person who has had to leave their homeland for whatever reason and live in a more developed country who will not be able to relate to almost every word in it. I have only had to spend a few months at a time abroad and I felt the emotions the two main characters experience intensely, like they were speaking my own experience and my own grief.
Ifemelu and Obinze are meant for each other from the start in secondary school. As he says, it was love at first sight for both of them and he’s not too shy or too insecure to say it out loud, to declare it and give their story a clear shape from the get go. That’s the character of Obinze throughout – open, genuine, unafraid to own his feelings, even when he doesn’t know whether they’re reciprocated. He doesn’t play games or wear costumes. He becomes the face of the mounting sense of homesickness that permeates Ifemelu’s observations about life in America. This homesickness is the longing for something genuine, something you know intuitively and share this intuitive knowledge with the people around you. Ifemelu vocalises this when she says the trouble with her crosscultural relationships had been the amount of explaining both sides need to do. Obinze, even though he spent most of his time in Nigeria, has this hunger as well, as she tells Ifemelu in one of his emails – she’s the only person who’d have completely understood him at every major event in his life. And so love emerges as a metaphor for belonging – for sharing a common history and thus an ineffaceable connection.
The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rare between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.
You learn the ropes of a new culture, you learn to wear it until it fits snugly and you wear it well, you learn your lines and your cues and you participate. But you don’t belong. So you long for that place where you know your stuff intuitively, where it’s authentic – be it home or the person you’ve loved at first sight. This is why Obinze’s manner is so irresistible, that’s what Curt and Blaine, the two American boyfriends representing the two sides of racially divided America (the race-sensitive and race-isolated part), lack – they’re constantly in costume to Ifemelu and she can’t reach them, the same way she can never really become Americanah to the full – she nows this early on so she consciously keeps her accent.
The observations about race in the US are as astute as every review says. They reminded me of the best parts of my informal education on the subject in forums and social media groups, and are as enlightening as they are sophisticated. The race-related scenes in the UK were even more fascinating (and revealing) to me personally because I haven’t spent as much time reading about the specific issues there as I have with regard to the USA.
One day, months into his job, after they delivered a new fridge to an address in Kensignton, Nigel said, about the elderly man who has come into the kitchen, „He’s a real gent, he is.“ Nigel’s tone was admiring, slightly cowed. The man had looked dishevelled and hung-over, his hair tousled, his robe open at the chest, and he had said archly, „You do know how to put it all together,“ as though he did not think they did. It amazed Obinze that, because Nigel though the man was „a real gent“, he did not complain about the dirty kitchen, as he ordinarily would have done. And if the man had spoken with a different accent, Nigel would have called him miserly for not giving them a tip.
A particularly insightful observation about the relativity of social stratification systems and how they crumble to the ground outside their cultural context:
„He is the kind of man I would never even look at in Nigeria, not to talk of going out with. The problem is that water never finds its different levels here in London.“ „London is a leveller. We are now all in London and we are now all the same, what nonsense,“ Bose said.
Some have said the essayistic parts dilute the plot. I disagree; I think they’re an organic part of Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s development into the adults they become and play a major part into the kids of decisions they make for their lives. Ifemelu starts her blog because of the new (to her) experience of being black in a white-dominated culture, to record and process all the subtleties and „tribalisms“ of this new, racially divided culture; and her blog allows her the freedom of mind and independence of income to show her what was really lacking in her life. I suspect a lot of the discomfort they cause is due to preexisting discomfort with the topic of race, which is also addressed in the book as one of the peculiar elements that make up the fabric of American social consciousness.
The point of diversity workshops, or multicultural talks, was not to inspire any real change but to leave people feeling good about themselves. They did not want the content of her ideas, they merely wanted the gesture of her presence. […] During her talks, she said: „America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.“ In her blog she wrote Racism should never have happened so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.
America put on a stage and scrutinised by an outsider; that in itself is such a rare thing to find in books (or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books, or too many USA-dominated online spaces) that it was a delight to read, to have your frustrations with some American specificities validated and not feel defensive about them – a refreshing experience. And reading about Obinze’s experience in the UK, I realised I’d been starving for scenes of wealthy white people’s ideas and concerns being ridiculed instead of minutely investigated as the philosophical centre of the world. It’s so refreshing it makes me want to only ever read books with a non-white perspective. Everyone should read way more of those.
He was left-leaning and well-meaning, crippled by his acknowledgement of his own many privileges. He never allowed himself to have an opinion.
The books is peppered with episodic characters, most only appearing in one scene throughout the 400+ pages of the book, and yet they’re as convincingly alive as though they’ve been pulled from real life. Adichie has a remarkable ability to flesh out a character in a few descriptors and a couple of lines. Another asset in terms of character-building is the consistent appearance of old friends and their development off page, marked through Ifemelu’s or Obinze’s impressions of old friends and comparisons to old times and potential precursors of the adults they grew up to be. All of this is done with a generous dose of compassion and understanding, even for the unsympathetic ones.
I deeply appreciate the balanced judgements in this book. And by balanced I don’t mean tempered with polite acknowledgement of White People Have Feelings Too but with penetrating understanding of the complexity of humans and their cultures, and specifically of the fact that there are other concepts of race and prejudice apart from the American ones. A very mature book. A very humane book, too.
The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. Yet he understood. It had to be comforting, this denial of history.
A curious thing I kept noticing throughout the novel was how similar certain Nigerian attitudes and beliefs were to ours in Bulgaria, especially in their contrast to American and British customs – ideas about raising children (to be polite and show deference to adults instead of talking back „in the name of self-expression“), what’s considered good taste and what’s seen as kitsch depending on the observer’s class and education, the embarrassing worship of Western cultures while simultaneously misunderstanding them, the nouveau riche aesthetics of a newly formed middle class, etc.
Those plates, with their amateur finishing, the slight lumpiness of the edges, would never be shown in the presence of guests in Nigeria. He still was not sure whether Emenike had become a person who believed that something was beautiful because it was handmade by poor people in a foreign country, or whether he had simply learned to pretend so.
„He can’t believe you’re actually asking for real potatoes, “ Obinze said drily. „Real potatoes are backward for him. Remember this is the newly-middle class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder.“
One of the things I’ve learned is that everybody in this country has the mentality of scarcity. We imagine that even the things that are not scarce are scarce. And it breeds a kind of desperation in everybody. Even the wealthy.
There is basically nothing in common between Bulgaria and Nigeria, in terms of history or anything shared, but we seem to have this counter-Americanness in common – this little-country-in-the-face-of-globalisation state. Or maybe it’s because we’re both Third World, for all intents and purposes, and our juxtaposition to the First World defines us.
Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the 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.