In the last two days, I have been opening the copy of Americanah that I checked out from the library, expecting there to be more for me to read, and feeling disappointed that there isn’t. Chimamanda Adichie has a gift for creating familiarity in her writing through meticulous pacing.
This book was not unlike The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (which I recently talked about here), though Adichie pursues characterization with the approach of extroverted intuition–through dialogue among groups of people, as opposed to Lahiri’s internal thought processes. The main characters in Americanah, Ifemelu and Obinze, emigrate to Western countries, and the impetus to make these transitions comes from political unrest in their country of origin, Nigeria. Both novels also portray the ways in which insecurity from political unrest affects people on an individual level–in Americanah, the way Ifemelu’s father loses his job, and how Aunty Uju has a child by The General.
Adichie differs from Lahiri because she leans more towards emoting than intellectualizing. I am fascinated with the way she narrates with an omniscience about other characters’ personalities. Here is an example:
Her skin prickled, an unease settling over her. There was something venal about his thin-lipped face; he had the air of a man to whom corruption was familiar. (Adichie, 2013 p.242)
Adichie has barely introduced the man referred to in the excerpt, but we already have an idea of the kind of person he is. One of my favorite examples of characterization is the description of the hairdresser, Aisha.
Aisha glanced at Ifemelu, nodding ever so slightly, her face blank, almost forbidding in its expressionlessness. There was something strange about her. (2013, p.22)
The way Ifemelu talks about other characters tells us a lot about her own personality. In the course of the novel, Aisha is a recurring character with whom Ifemelu becomes progressively more annoyed and, much later, more understanding. Ifemelu reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She is a confident young woman who values genuineness from other people in her life. It is not unusual for her to be the most discerning person in the theoretical room. Thus, on the rare occasion when there is more to the story than what Ifemelu perceives, as in the case of Aisha, she is forced to revise her initial impressions.
The way Adichie writes about America brought up many thoughts for me. First, she does a great job of illustrating the ways that women of color experience microaggressions in everyday life, and how it simply isn’t possible to address all of them because that would completely drain any sane human being of energy. This is an example:
“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures”…”I don’t know what it means,” Ifemelu said, and sensed rather than saw a small amusement on Ginika’s face. (2013, p. 244)
This passage amuses me. Ifemelu receives her fair share of dumb questions from white people in the course of the novel. This one is self-explanatory. I have heard from a trusted source that even white people’s names mean something, though the significance might fade after meeting 9 or 10 people with the same name in one university department or one residence hall.
This reminds me of an incident that happened to me in first grade. After I told the class that I had gone to India over the summer, my white teacher asked me, “Is India very different from the United States?” In perhaps the first recorded instance of me being sarcastic, my response was, “No.”
I was also humored by Ifemelu’s stance on American health systems.
“…And now you cheat on Curt because at some level you don’t think you deserve happiness,” [Ginika said.]
“Now you are going to suggest some pills for Self-Sabotage Disorder,” Ifemelu said. (2013, p.480)
While I think mental health is certainly something that should be talked about in communities of color, I also love the critique of Americans in this exchange. I absolutely think people in the United States are too obsessed with medicalization (literally, I see a study every day about new things that cause cancer) as well as labeling perceived illnesses. For example, a friend of mine who works as a kindergarten teacher firmly believes that half her students have ADHD, and the other half are autistic. Could it be that maybe this is just how children behave in the age of technology? Could it be that maybe my friend is just overworked and should really have an aide because one adult can’t keep up with 20 children?
Furthermore, I think Adichie makes some radical implications about relationships in this novel. During her time in America, Ifemelu has two boyfriends: Curtis, a rich white guy, and Blaine, one of those hippie Black guys who eat quinoa and care about yoga and shit. I’m sure you’ve caught on that I didn’t particularly like either of them, and if I didn’t know better, I would say Adichie meant for that to be the case.
Curtis reminded me of this asshole-white-guy I used to date named Jeremy Jay Baker (full name included here to warn goodhearted women to stay the fuck away from him). Curt is described as being “happy, handsome, [sic.] with his ability to twist life into the shapes he wanted” (2013, p.482). Curtis was the kind of person who was only ever happy when things went the way he wanted them to, which was of course, all the time. Or so he thought, until Ifemelu cheated on him, and he called her a bitch (p. 482). It actually made me really angry when he said that to her. It reminded me of my last conversation with Jeremy, where I told him it seemed hypocritical to me that any time I expressed any emotion or dissatisfaction, I was being “volatile” or “dramatic”, yet when something bad “happened” to him, I had to hold his hand and pretend his little problems mattered. He responded by saying something like, “I don’t have to take this from you.” Then he never talked to me again. Charming, that one. I should have said something disapproving sooner, if that was all it took to get rid of him.
Ifemelu, on the other hand, was distraught when Curtis left her, which he really didn’t deserve. Ifemelu belongs in the category of boss bitches who are going to Achieve with a capital A. Curtis is a boring white guy.
Blaine is not much better. From his description, he seems like one of those men who gets very hurt when you don’t take his advice to heart. He exerts his power through influence:
She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. (2013, p.521)
During the course of the relationship, Ifemelu starts to eat differently, picks up more academic jargon, and takes on a lot of Blaine’s behavior. Not all of the changes seem harmful for Ifemelu–she gains insight into race and being Black in America by conversing with Blaine’s friends. Still, it doesn’t surprise me at all when the two break up because Ifemelu would rather eat a good lunch than stand outside a building and protest with Blaine and his poisonous sister, Shan.
In comparison, Obinze, who is Ifemelu’s first and last love, seems like a mature, mellow human being. Even if Ifemelu ever cheated on him, I have a hard time imagining him calling her a bitch. Not that either of them seem inclined to cheat on each other.
The action in Americanah speeds up toward the end of the novel, when Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria and meets Obinze again. Adichie barely graces sex with a few words every time there are sex scenes, but there’s still something arousing about them. Unlike Lahiri, who leaves you with stark impressions of body parts, Adichie gives you feelings.
She propped herself up and said, “I always saw the ceiling with other men.” (2013, p,. 737)
The explanation, which is also the origin of Obinze’s nickname, simply conveys that no one else could ever compare to Obinze. I felt it was radical of Adichie to put Ifemelu and Obinze together in the end. Ifemelu, who has never really identified with Americanness, chooses her Nigerian boyfriend over the men she meets in America. America, the Great Consumer Capital of the world, where you can get anything your heart desires, is not where Ifemelu found love.
It leaves me with a foolish sliver of hope. Maybe if I go to Assam, I can also find a mature, mellow human who will not call me a bitch if I cheat on him? I suspect all the men I know will have to age considerably before they reach that level of sophistication.
Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. Thorndike Press.
The next book I plan to analyze: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour