Ifemelu, the main character in Americanah, perhaps would not refer to herself as a warrior woman or a rebel female. However, her resolve to make something of her life outside of Nigeria, her bold decision to go back to her home in Lagos after making a successful life for herself in America, and her attentiveness to the people and the world around her make Ifemelu the perfect fit for resounding female voices and social justice in literature: a portrait of a warrior woman, if ever there was one.
Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Fourth Estate (2014)
ISBN: 000735634X (ISBN13:9780007356348). Literary Awards: Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2013), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2014), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (Shortlist) (2014), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee for Shortlist (2015), Go On Girl! Book Club Award for Author of the Year (2016). Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
The first Adichie novel I read was Half Of A Yellow Sun (which I reviewed here last year). Americanah does not have the epic sweep that Half of a Yellow Sun has with all its historical resonances, but this one affected me more deeply, awakening and prodding aspects of my being that have been buried in disregard, neglected and forgotten – yet articulated here with such burning bright clarity.
Maybe it is because Ifemelu, the main character in the story, is finding herself at a crossroads – but reading the quote above made me think of a shared consciousness, my recent waking moments painted with such startling accuracy.
This is a book that made me lose my breath and bearings. I had to pause after each chapter to write down my thoughts, argue with myself, berate a particular character in the story. I also found myself jotting my own observations about race, poverty, inequality, and the well-meaning magnanimity of White beneficence.
There were also certain passages such as the one above that made me do a primal cheer inwardly. Ifemelu was fearlessly blunt in her observations, even at the risk of her sounding uninformed, high-handed or self-righteous. It was her ability to stab at the essence of so many things that White people take for granted that made me rejoice and made me felt seen, heard, felt.
This notion of charity and poverty earned a long discussion between myself and my husband one morning, as I shared with him Ifemelu’s guarded responses, as if she was twice removed from a conversation that involved White people telling her about all the charities that they are supporting in Africa, after learning that she was from Lagos. On the one hand, it is heartening albeit borderline amusing; but on the other hand, I also imagined introducing myself to a group of White people and being told how they give money to charities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Manila, or Vietnam. Will that make me feel reduced to the poverty represented by the third-world country and continent where I came from? Should I appear grateful in behalf of all the poor people in all these countries? Or should I merely take it at face value and nod approvingly? I don’t know if there is any one right way of responding to this showering of benevolence.
Naturally, this outpouring of generosity comes with certain strings and boundaries – as can be seen in the image above. To say that I empathize deeply would be an understatement.
Admittedly, there were aspects of Ifemelu that I did not like: she appeared too easily offended, she seemed judgmental, convinced of her own superior (or perhaps evolved is a word she would have chosen?) way of perceiving society which also seemed heavy-handed. I am wary of too much certitude that borders on the patronizing, regardless of how well-meaning. Inasmuch as she recoils at the idea of African Americans being lumped mindlessly alongside the non-American Black; she only made cursory efforts to understand how brown people and Asians are distinct from each other, although there were half-hearted attempts to make sense of this. She also did not appear particularly interested in making friends with people from outside White or Black people (American born or not).
There was also a self-absorption that seemed somewhat dismissive, trivializing that which is not from within her own frame of experience that is naturally more heavy-going than anyone else’s – notwithstanding Ifemelu’s blogpost about the nonexistence of the United League of the Oppressed. What Ifemelu may not realize and seemed to have taken for granted is that she was only speaking from a specific type of experience and necessarily subsuming everything non-White under it. I find that there is not enough fascination with the realities of other people-of-colour such as herself, and too much time dissecting, analyzing, and parsing the White Consciousness, and distinguishing the non-American Black experience from it.
More than anything, it was this characterization of Ifemelu’s country of birth, the idea of home, that burned me most of all. This sense of affinity mixed with nostalgia and otherness is one that I share with her, and which I am sure would resonate with so many people who live and have made a life of themselves outside of their own countries. And there is this:
I read this section a few days after we have just arrived from Manila to spend the December holidays with family from the US. It made me want to write my own nuance, my own texture of thought that was not adequately captured yet hit such a raw nerve within me. Yes. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes me want to be a writer.
Then there is the love story angle.
Spoiler alert: for those who have not read the book yet, may be best to skip this part of my review.
While I was somewhat rooting for Obinze and Ifemelu to get back together (I preferred the American professor boyfriend), and admittedly I felt relieved about the ending, I still felt that it was highly unlikely that someone as upstanding, morally upright, and conscience-driven as Obinze would leave his daughter and wife – even for someone as real and grounded and no-nonsense as Ifemelu who makes his skin come alive. It just didn’t ring true, although it did feel gratifying.
This book left me breathless on certain occasions, left me gasping for air, marveling at certain connections while making me wonder and write about those which are divergent from Ifemelu’s observations and realities. If anything, it made me want to push this book into the hands of many friends. I shall be thinking and talking about this book for a long time to come.
#WomenReadWomen2019: 14 of 25 (Nigeria)
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