By Angelina Cvetkovska
“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
This long winter break I finally read a book which I wouldn’t hesitate to call a favorite. A book to turn back to, read and re-read in order to soak in the richness of its contents. “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a book about life and society in all their complexity. Set in Nigeria, the US and UK, the book observes these societies through the non-judgmental eye of the narrator and the opinionated experiences of lovable, but flawed characters. The author, a Nigerian novelist and public speaker, hints at her own judgements throughout the novel, but ultimately leaves us to decide what we think.
This book mainly challenges generalized perceptions of the Nigerian and American societies. It shows how different people experience the same society in different ways, some shielded by privilege and some not. This book is accessible, but not simplistic. It is a deeply complex representation of society, class, race, and gender, on how our complex identities shape our life experiences. Its autobiographic elements make it feel personal and real as if you are getting to know a friend. Exactly this makes you engage empathically with the characters of Ifemelu and Obinze. Jumping back and forth through their lives (this timeline of events is surprisingly not confusing to the story, but in fact, fills it with suspense), the book explores many topics; poverty, corruption, race, mental health, stigma. A highlight of Ifemelu’s character is her blog posts on racism in the US as a “non-American black”. The language in these blog posts is clear and unapologetic, a powerful combination with the calmer, more descriptive voice of the narrator.
“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise, you get no sympathy.”
“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it”
The female characters in the book are strong, but also vulnerable. Like all people, they are susceptible to negative emotions, mental illnesses, and bad decisions. This imperfection makes them feel human and relatable. Their personal lives and emotions mix up with the political changes in their society. Part of the book is dedicated to Obama’s election in 2008 through the lens of black Americans and their personal identities. It resonated with me, this understanding that politics is about ordinary people and emotions as much as it is about elites and power.
On the topic of corruption, Obinze’s character shows how dishonesty is sometimes not a choice, but a means of survival in societies captured by it. He obtains a visa for the UK in a legally ambiguous way with the unexpected support of his mother:
“She was a woman who kept to herself and asked no favors, who would not accept even a Christmas card form her students because it might compromise her, and here she was, behaving as through truth telling had become a luxury they could no longer afford.”
As someone brought up in Macedonia, the Balkans, a place where race is not a topic of conversation, my understanding of racial issues came later, once I started studying abroad. For me, this was one of those books that change the reader by the end of it. And this is not necessarily because it deals with topics we don’t usually hear about, but because of the way it makes the experiences of the characters feel intimate and personal to the reader. I hardly put it down, at times relating to the characters and at times feeling distant from their experiences. It is a book of empathy and common humanity but also a social commentary and critique.
It is common to criticize passive by-standers of social injustice, but it is rare to read a critical perspective on people who understand discrimination and act against it. This book addresses the responsibility over the consequences of our good intentions. It discusses how doing charity itself is not enough or how understanding racism and supporting your black friends (as a white person) can also mean inhibiting their platforms to speak. Surely, in society there is a bigger picture, a wrong and right side of history (being racist and not being racist), but the details and specificities of injustice sometimes also have blurred lines, something this book very clearly addresses.
I read this as a white person from a developing country, understanding corruption or the need to migrate for a better life, but stripped of experiences of racism. There is a dose of innocence of never having experienced racism in my review of this book, but I recommend it wholeheartedly precisely because it threw me into feelings of guilt at certain points and feelings of empowerment at others. I will end with this excerpt from the novel, which applies when discussing any societal issues we have the privilege not to experience in life:
“If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
Where to find the book?
Bibliotheek Den Haag (in English)
The American Book Center Den Haag
Amazon (for ebook or audio version): https://www.amazon.com/Americanah-Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie/dp/0307455920
Famous TedTalks given by the author
“The danger of a single story” https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en
“We should all be feminists”
Edited by Amelie de Paepe