One of my goals this year was to read more books by women, more books by non-white authors, and more books by non-Americans (which is a funny word, and I’m not even sure is correct terminology?). The point of all this being that when we learn about the world from what we read in books, and if all those books are by people who look and live the same way, we develop a very narrow view of what the world is or could be. That’s part of the reason for the existence of the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign for children’s and young adult literature, but it’s something that adults need as well.
But that’s not the only reason why I read Americanah recently. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, shot into the public sphere with a TED talk she gave about why we should all be feminists.
In fact, she gave another TED talk about how dangerous it is to read about one aspect of a culture in literature, which totally fits into the “we need diverse books” theme of the day. The point is that this particular TED talk became a book (a short one that I’ve read and would recommend to anyone), and was even featured in the Beyoncé song “Flawless”, which was Bey’s “coming out” (as it were) as a feminist.
Basically, Adichie is going places and influencing people, and is going to be the kind of author whose books are read for years to come, with this one in particular as a portrait of life in America as an African immigrant. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s my new role model for the fact that she just had a baby, and when it came up in an interview and she was asked about it, she said, “I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood.” That is some CUTTING feminist philosophy right there.
So the book – how was it? Did it live up to the hype that is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? I would say yes, but with some caution. The book starts out, and feels very chick-lit-ish to begin. The main plot of the book is that our main character Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who has been living in the United States but is moving back to Nigeria after many years, and getting in touch with her high school boyfriend who was her one true love. None of that is spoilers, because it appears in the first few chapters. It does not help that Ife had this very new-tech era job of blogging, and seems impossibly chic and modern as she goes to have her hair braided.
But then we get the flashback portions of the story – what happened in Ife’s life before she moved to America, how that move happened, and what happened afterwards. Those chapters on her first few years as an American college student are heart-wrenching, mostly because the life of an international student at a private university is harder than one might seem. Ife has a scholarship, but it doesn’t cover everything, so the struggles she goes through to make money are crazy hard. I found stomach tying up in knots as she went through each interview attempt, and growing more and more desperate. But don’t worry – like the chick-lit novels it leaves in the dust after the first couple chapters, things get better for our heroine. Eventually.
I read this book mostly while I was on vacation, and when I told my mom what I was reading, she was very excited. She works in an agency with many women who are originally from various African countries, and she’s said many of them have recommended this book to her, because it accurately portrays their experiences. So that’s a ringing endorsement. And while I may have used the phrase “chick-lit” a couple times, this story is deeper and more complicated than that. The relationships portrayed are more real-feeling, and the book doesn’t end on a neatly tied bow. It ends in a away that is open to interpretation, but that also makes you feel like our main characters have gone through deep personal and emotional change that has affected them – which…it should, but doesn’t always feel like is the case in novels.
So – would I recommend this book? Completely yes. It’s also something I would recommend reading soon, because it’s turning into a movie in the near future, and if you’re looking to get it from the library, book-turned-movie books tend to disappear faster than others.
Details: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, first published 2013 by Knopf.