I often like what I read. I’m a lady of discerning taste, and I tend to gravitate toward what I know I’ll like.
I rarely fall in love with what I read. My love is reserved only for the words that move me most, the stories that wrap themselves around my heart. But I think it might only be just once so far that I can say a book changed me.
Americanah is that book. I read it and it was like I’d been shaken awake. It didn’t just change my perceptions, it changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.
The 2013 novel follows the relationship between two Nigerian teens, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they graduate secondary school, go on to college, and finally, look to leave Nigeria for better prospects. When Ifemelu gets a chance to move to America, Obinze encourages her to go, promising to follow soon after. However, as the weeks turn to months, Ifemelu drifts farther and farther away from Obinze, enveloped in America’s strangeness, promises, and failures until it seems she can never be who she once was.
When the book opens, Ifemelu is no longer a girl, but a grown woman that’s been living in America for 13 years. Most of the novel is framed as her reflections of growing up, punctuated intermittently by the present day as well as Obinze’s own recollections. I liked this structure and the way it alternately reminded me both of how far Ifemelu had yet to go and how far she’d come.
And as much as the book purports to be about both Ifemelu and Obinze, it’s truly Ifemelu’s story. Her chapters far outnumber Obinze’s, and I love it for this, too. It reminded me of how disappointed I was that Revolutionary Road didn’t have more chapters from April’s point of view.
Even more importantly, as much as any brief synopsis might make you think this is a love story, trust me when I say it is not. It’s an immigrant story and an African story and an American story. It’s about race, class, and culture and the way all those things collide in the stew of this country. It’s the deepest exploration of the American dream as a beautiful, tempting lie.
Adichie’s writing was constantly making me re-evaluate my ideas about this country and what it means to be black in it.
In one of Ifemelu’s blogs entries she writes:
“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”
In another section she discusses the hierarchy of color (not race), bluntly stating that in America, dark is bad, light is good, and that’s it. Through Ifemelu’s observations, Adichie pulls no punches:
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
These were the moments that rocked me. I already agreed with these ideas, but it was almost as if I never really understood them—not completely—until Adichie laid them out. Even an idea as simple as the immigrant coming to America for opportunity. In our collective consciousness, the immigrant is always fleeing from a nightmare, desperate for a better life, on the verge of dying unless they run.
We never hear the stories we do in Americanah where people like Obinze and Ifemelu are simply middle-class kids looking for options:
“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. 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 for choice and certainty.”
It’s such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to never consider it. It’s so easy to ignore the reality of the immigrant story when we can lazily fall back on whatever we think we know, not having lived it ourselves.
Americanah told me the story I needed to hear instead of what I expected to hear. I will be forever grateful to it. Who knows how often I’ll find a book that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve become a slightly better, more aware person.
This one is required reading, you guys.
This one is for the canon.