Most people know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her TED talk We Should All Be Feminists, or excerpts from this talk included in Beyonce’s “Flawless”. However, she’s also a brilliant novelist, pulling from her own experiences growing up in Nigeria and attending college in the United States. Americanah expresses these experiences by following the protagonist Ifemulu as she deals with discrimination and culture shock going from Nigeria to school in the United States and back to Nigeria. The plot, however, is a love story about Ifemulu and her high school sweetheart Obinze.
Written largely in the 3rd person limited voice of Ifemulu, but with snippets of Obinze in the 3rd person, the reader gets to see how Ifemulu and Obinze are treated as Africans in both America and England respectively, so that this seems to be the point of the book rather than the love story itself. It gives a view of the struggles immigrants often have in acquiring visas, trying to extend them, being legally able to work, and actually getting a job, not to mention the discrimination often faced throughout this process. These struggles are bad enough, but then they can also lead to mental health concerns as we see in two stark examples in the novel.
Many of the chapters conclude with posts from Ifemulu’s blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” In these posts, we get a look into Ifemulu’s day-to-day observations, where she sees how American Blacks are treated differently than Non-American Blacks (either from the Caribbean or Africa). These differences mean better treatment for one group sometimes, and the other group at other times. It allows us to see more clearly that race is not the only thing that comes into play in discrimination. Being an immigrant and having an accent (even when speaking perfect English) are examples of intersectional discrimination that stand out from the novel.
Ifemulu and Obinze are at times treated horribly by those they meet in America and London. Even people who are well-meaning, including friends and significant others, end up being culturally insensitive, sometimes even tokenizing. That’s why it is good to read a book like this, so that you can see what this looks like in a realistic situation, and learn to recognize it if you make these mistakes (I certainly do sometimes). Then changes can be made so that hopefully we make those mistakes less and less often. Nobody’s perfect, but I’m hoping to work on those entirely unrealized mistakes I make.
I would highly suggest this book to everyone, not only for the value of an insight into intercultural interactions, but also because it’s an amazing, well written book. Also, there’s an upcoming film adaptation set to star Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo that will hopefully come out soon, and it’s always better to read the book before seeing the movie!
Featured Image Source: vanderfrog Flickr, CC