One of the best books I’ve read in 2013. “Americanah” is a book of great impact and importance. This is the one book by an African writer that has spoken to me more than any other.
This is a book about Africa and the African diasporic experience in the USA and England, a backdrop for the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, teenagers attending a Nigerian university who have to leave the country because of the university strikes in Nigeria. Ifemelu moves to the States, where she attends an American university and starts a blog dealing with race issues in America, while Obinze moves to England and ends up becoming an illegal immigrant.
The book examines the intricacies of race, especially in the USA, as well as the issue of immigration. It talks about the difference between being black in Africa and being black in the States. Adichie is seamless as she goes from country to country, from American to Nigerian, to Francophone African and English. She is a brilliant writer who gifts us with an entertaining story and introduces us to very real characters.
I found some of the themes discussed in this book similar to those discussed in NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names.” This book helps show that immigrants have it tough; psychological changes, changes to identity, the need to reinvent themselves so that they can “fit in” and be accepted, and so on. Their issues often go unspoken.
Adichie is very aware at the subtleties between cultures and she highlights them well. There were some things that she touched on that I’d thought about but never really put in words. For example, people’s pity when they realize you’re African, and their need to talk about their charitable donations to the continent:
“Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.”
Adichie isn’t shy about bringing up controversial issues, those that others keep silent about. For example, she explores the politics of natural hair among kinky hair:
“I have natural kinky hair. Worn in cornrows, Afros, braids. No, it’s not political. No, I am not an artist or poet or singer. Not an earth mother either. I just don’t want relaxers in my hair…By the way, can we ban Afro wigs at Halloween? Afro is not costume, for God’s sake.”
One thing I also loved was the fact that Adichie talked about Africans deciding to return to Africa after having lived abroad. She has Ifemelu saying, “And yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness, a borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she had lived.”
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, not all Africans in the diaspora are fleeing from Africa; many have questioned what they are doing abroad in the first place and want to move back home. A lot of people do not realize that Africa is growing and developing and that people might actually be happy to live there. Seeing the online communication links between younger people from different African countries makes me feel hopeful that my generation will do great things in the continent.
I love fiction in general but fiction with a message is even more appealing to me. This is a story with such important social commentary. All through the book I had moments in which I said “It’s about time someone addressed that!”
- The reason I felt so much when reading this book was I know countless of immigrants who have had to go through so much just to immigrate to the west. So many have been made to feel small and insignificant at visa offices when they apply for their visas, maybe even countless times. All they want is a better life for them and for their children. Is that too much to ask?
- “You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are.”- This quote from Americanah nearly broke my heart.
- I have always hated the term “illegal immigrants.” It’s just as silly as the term “banned person” that was used during Apartheid to describe black folk who were considered a threat (read: who challenged a racist policy and campaigned for equal rights). I personally think that illegal immigrants are painted as criminals when they are simply hard-working individuals who haven’t had so many opportunities handed to them in life.
- It’s a fact that Africans find it harder to get visas to visit North America and Europe. Just a case in point, my friend’s mother was twice denied a Canadian visa to visit her dying father and to attend her mother’s funeral. Her mother is buried in Vancouver but my friend’s mother will likely not ever be able to visit her graveside. The fact that my friend’s mother had to travel to another country to get a visa and just have it denied because the embassy was scared that she wouldn’t return to Malawi is such a tragedy.