Hah! I finished this book exactly one year after the publication date. It feels like much longer though, as its arrival coincided with my arrival to twitter and the blogosphere where, in my filter-bubble at least, Adichie and her new book were the talk of the town.
Oh how rightly is Adichie the talk of the town! I loved her Ted talks, her presence, and her beauty too. I remember I once said, watching newsnight review ‘I love Bonnie Greer… and she’s so beautiful!’ and the male friend I was with said ‘goodbye feminism!’ and I stopped allowing myself to consider women beautiful… but I allow myself again, only trying to reimagine beauty decolonised, liberated from its construction in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. In Americanah, Ifemelu looks at USians and considers them to have ‘abandoned the courtesy’ of self-presentation. I confess it is long since I framed looking my best as a courtesy to others, since I’ve been more worried about pandering to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But if I dress in sackcloth and ashes (against my inclination) that is no liberation! And it is mere old-fashioned sexism to demand that women become, as white (definitely only white) men have the luxury to be, heedless of their appearance if they want to be taken seriously. But this discussion and this work is far from over…
Americanah is a romance. In retrospect I think of Their Eyes Were Watching God because this too is the tale of its protagonist’s romantic adventures. And is also about race in the USA. And is also written from the point of view of a black woman who grew up without the daily violence of racism, Janie because she is from an incorporated town, and Ifemelu because she is from Nigeria. ‘I wasn’t black until I came to America’ she says. She at once recognises the prevailing anti-blackness though: she is severe, in her wonderful blog, on those non-American black people who say ‘I’m not black, I’m Trinidadian’ or suchlike. Race is defined by racists. I suppose that Ifemelu’s perspective is partly shaped by not having to do so much work of freeing herself from internalised anti-blackness. She recognises the privileges of being a non-American black (NAB) person, and Adichie skillfully draws the historical and contemporary sticking points that shape the dynamic between African Americans (AAs) and NABs.
If I feel I’ve read Ifemelu’s blog posts already, it’s because I have; I read wonderful blogs that say these things every day, but they sure as heck bear repetition, and she distills them to a potency that makes me laugh out loud or leap from my tube-train chair. She even writes about white friends who get race, and the things they can helpfully say. The thing about getting race for me is that I have to keep on getting it by being told. Power structures like whiteness tend to bounce back into shape once the pressure is removed from them. Countless times reading this I thought ‘oh no, I do that, I have done that’ when someone, usually white, does some ignorant or race-blind or sanctimonious thing.
Adichie also cautions her readers against thinking that the anti-racist (but still regularly racist) bubble around Ifemelu’s blog represents prevailing attitudes: after her first ‘diversity talk’ she is told ‘you are a racist, you should be grateful we let you into this country’. Next time she says ‘we should be grateful for all the progress we’ve made’ while in her blog she can say ‘racism should never have happened, so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it’. The struggle to embody liberation is navigated in a way that is gentle to everyone in that struggle. Ifemelu relaxes her hair on advice, to get a job in the US, but when it starts to fall out, a Kenyan friend cuts it for her, and when she freaks out over this loss, introduces her to a natural hair forum, which gradually helps her to embrace the way her hair grows and to care for it accordingly. Back in Lagos, social pressure has to be renegotiated as her afro is considered ‘untidy’.
Ifemelu’s experience as an immigrant in the US, even with family support, is full of pain. Obinze, Ifemelu’s high school boyfriend, also struggles in the UK. In this part of his story, Adichie deals with the indignity and precariousness of his situation, and the loss of status he experiences having come from a middle class background with education privilege and a close, supportive (gorgeously written) relationship with his single mother, a college professor.
Ifemelu lives in the oppressive isolation of a flat shared with unsympathetic USian girls, sinking into poverty, and after she is sexually assaulted, into depression. Obinze also has mental health problems. Adichie writes that Nigerian culture lacks recognition for these illnesses. I am extremely grateful (and it’s personal) for the way she writes about the assault, because she could have left it to the reader to notice that ‘the balance of power was in his favour’, but she doesn’t, she underlines that fact, for those people who have not had the help of feminism, have not read essays like this
Adichie crafts senses of place wonderfully, particularly in Nigeria, but always very much through the sensations and thoughts of her characters, not making herself present, (yet knowing her voice I hear her) letting relationships push the story forward. This is what I enjoyed most: the tenderness of the loves, the honesty of the romance, the interplay of kindnesses and favours: what they cost, what enables or restricts them, within the complicated spaces of relationships. I adored Ifemelu, wanted to be her friend, but feared her judgement. I adored Obinze, wanted to be his friend, but felt unworthy. Usually books invite complicity; they tell me, only you and I understand. Americanah creates a space of understanding, but I don’t find myself effortlessly entering that space. Life is not so simple.