|The Written Chakra: Book Review|
What’s an Americanah? In Nigerian parlance, it’s a person who’s returned from America, someone who’s taken on American mannerisms, has an American accent, and is somehow held in high esteem as well as being an object of derision, a misfit back in their own country.
This sounds familiar to many of us from “Third World” countries. I’m using quotes for “Third World” because the term itself is not only a bit insulting (imo) but also smacks of an earlier world order, coined during the “Cold War.” So, perhaps I should just say former colonies. If you are of a certain vintage, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that anything “phoren” was considered superior, and our own poor countries lagged far behind in all aspects- social, educational, cultural, political.
The story, set during Nigeria’s military dictatorship, and then post 9/11, is simple enough. It’s the story of two sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, from middle-class backgrounds, who dream of leaving for America, the land where only the sky’s the limit for your ambitions. Ifemelu leaves, and confronts hard facts about race, culture and identity in the land of her dreams. Obinze is not so lucky. He is denied a visa, goes to the UK, confronts the ugliest forms of racism, and then returns to Nigeria where he makes his fortune in real estate. Circumstances force them to drift apart and not even communicate by email with each other. They meet fifteen years later, when Ifemelu returns to the land of her birth. Obinze is married with a child. Their feelings for each other are just as strong. Will they leave everything, go against the norms of society, and get back together? I don’t want to spoil the ending for you; read the book and find out for yourselves.
Now, this sounds like a typical wishy-washy kind of story, but no- it’s much much more. It was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which may just put off male readers. But it’s so much deeper than mere chick-lit in its bold and honest examination of race and identity. Here’s one of her observations, taken from the first chapter:
During her first year in America when she took the New Jersey Transit to Penn Station and then the subway….., she was struck by how mostly slim white people got off at the stops in Manhattan and as the train went further into Brooklyn the people left were mostly black and fat.
Ifemelu learns what it is like to be black in America. She becomes famous for writing an anonymous blog about racism, especially for the non-American black. (Title of one of her blog-posts: To my fellow non-American Blacks: In America You Are Black, Baby) And when she goes to an African saloon to get her hair braided, the owner says that their air conditioner had broken down yesterday. Ifemelu knew the air conditioner hadn’t broken yesterday; it had been broken for much longer…
Obinze, while living in the UK as an illegal immigrant, is invited to a party by Eminike, a Nigerian friend who had married a white woman and where they were the only two blacks. He’s struck by how Eminike had changed to pretend to be white. ”He had taken on a careful and calibrated charm. He said “Oh dear” often. When Phillip complained about the French couple building a house next to his in Cornwall, Eminike asked, “Are they between you and the sunset?”
Are they between you and the sunset? It would never occur to Obinze, or to anyone he had grown up with, to ask a question like that.
What really held me was how many of her views and experiences are so typical of people from any developing country, not just Nigeria. The author describes how Ifemelu tries to conform (by changing the style of her hair, the kind of food she eats, the way she speaks, and so on) just to “fit in.” She confronts so many people who have a stereotypical image of “black people”, but perhaps her biggest enemies are her own people. Ifemelu finally decides to be herself, with her Afros and her accent, and although she acquires the prized American passport, decides to return to her own country.
The questions this novel asks about race and identity are bold and honest, and are worked seamlessly into the love story. I would unhesitatingly give this novel 5 stars.