Thursday, June 05, 2014


We read Americanah for book club - I thought we were going to have this amazing conversation about this book because it's brilliant and wonderful, but I accidentally got everyone really drunk on cocktails the minute they walked in the door and we barely talked about the book at all.  That was sad.  But also really fun.

Anywho, it was a great book and would lead to a fantastic discussion, I think.  It's written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who is my new hero.  If you haven't heard of her, check out this great Ted Talk she did a few years ago called We Should All Be Feminists (hell yeah we should!) and definitely watch this interview of Adichie by Zadie Smith, but maybe after you read the book because there are a few spoilers. I think it's great that she was interviewed by Smith because I think their work has a lot of similarities - both approach the issue of people of color in predominately white areas similarly - with humor, honesty and insight.

Much of Americanah is told from the perspective of Ifemelu (pronounced ee-FEM-elu), who's going through the laborious process of having her hair braided in a salon in New England.  Adichie got a bit of shit for saying, I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair." I guess because hair is considered a feminine topic and therefore not serious - but, let's face it, hair is a pretty important topic and it has huge implications for the black women in the story - how they style their hair impacts what types of jobs they might get.  It's also a huge financial investment and a time investment - I mean, Ifemelu's sitting in that salon all day having her hair braided.  Hair is not insignificant in Smith's work either - in White Teeth the main characters gives herself chemical burns trying to smooth her hair.

Ifemelu, like Adichie, is from Nigeria, and goes to school in America, at Princeton.  She writes a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by an Non-American Black.  Differences between herself - a non-American Black - and African Americans, who she calls American Blacks are glacial.  Having grown up in Nigeria, race was not a part of her life or identity as she discovers it is for many African Americans.  What Adichie's careful, specific language choice does is point out how loaded even our "PC" language is in America - what it's generally getting around to is what color people's skin is.

Ifemelu's childhood boyfriend is Obinze, who doesn't have anything near her success in terms of education.  He moves to London and works terrible jobs illegally and has a hell of  a time getting by until he goes back to Nigeria and finds himself working for an unscrupulous person.  It was hard for me to connect with Obinze because he makes some weird choices and doesn't seem nearly good enough for Ifemelu.

During the course of the book, Obama is elected president and Ifemelu and her friends are thrilled and excited.  It was interesting to read that, 7 years after the election, because, as excited as I was back then myself, I read it quite cynically.  But I do think she really captured how truly exciting and promising it felt to have elected our first black president.

Americanah is one of the best books I've read this year - it won the National Book Critic's Award in 2013 and it was short listed for the Women's Fiction Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) in 2014.  I thought it was funny, insightful and eye-opening.  This year with all that terrible stuff happening in Nigeria -those girls getting kidnapped and Boko Haram - I felt an immediacy and a connection for that country that I've never felt before simply because I read this wonderful book.

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