Living Neither Here Nor There

AmericanahSnotty Literati has considered reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for at least two years. We aren’t sure what the hesitation was… other than that there are just so many damn books to read and so little time. So was it worth the wait? Read on and find out.

Jennifer: Is it wrong to say this novel is a tour de force, an epic of grand scale in terms of covering the human landscape, the territory of personal identity?

Lara: And race. Don’t forget there’s a lot about race. And class. And privilege. But let’s back up a little bit and just give an initial synopsis to ground our readers. Ifemelu and Obinze are Nigerian, young, and in love, when shady political oppression forces them to separate in America and London, respectively.

Life as a Non-American Black in America is hard for Ifemelu. She struggles with getting her footing, finding a career, and having relationships (which are bound to happen with the distance between her and Obinze). Obinze also faces challenges as an undocumented immigrant in London, unable to reunite with his love, due to the challenges of obtaining a visa.

Despite this doom-and-gloom, desperate premise, there is humor, snark, and great social commentary.

Jennifer: Very early on in our “history” (Lara’s and mine), Lara asked me—I guess, kindly—to not say things like, Don’t hate me, but . . . But I’m going to say it here. Don’t hate me, but I think this book is less romance, more political/sociological/psychological/spiritual/etc. Ifemelu and Obinze each seek expatriation for complicated reasons. Nigeria is messed up, no doubt. But we’re not talking North Korea or Syria. We’re talking messed up, underdevelopment, the “usual” political/military corruption.

This long-term romance which is important in the novel was the least interesting part to me. Should we give away the end? It’s an older new book.

Lara: I just hate it when you disclaim your statements. Just own them. Say them. No disclaimers. And you may be surprised to know that I agree with you on this. If I could say anything about what this book is about, it’s about identity. The identity of a “Non-American Black” in America, and her home country. It’s about the identities of the white Americans she comes in contact with while in America, and the issues of race and class that seem to be inherently American.

For example, while working as a nanny for a white family, she answers the door to a carpet cleaner who is unsure if she is the home owner or the help. His demeanor relaxes when he realizes Ifemelu is the help. She later reflects on the interaction and even writes about it for her blog:

“She would never forget him, bits of dried skin stuck to his chapped, peeling lips, and she would begin the blog post ‘Sometimes in America, Race Is Class’ with the story of his dramatic change, and end with: It didn’t matter to him how much money I had. As far as he was concerned I did not fit as the owner of that stately house because of the way I looked. In America’s public discourse, ‘Blacks’ as a whole are often lumped with ‘Poor Whites.’ Not Poor Blacks and Poor Whites. But Blacks and Poor Whites. A curious thing indeed.’”

Jennifer: Okay, thanks for that segue. Let me see if I can add some more need-to-know info here. First, the book mostly follows Ifemelu from Nigeria to the United States (the NE United States). She comes from a poor, but urban family. She is, though, I’d say, still counted among the elite—in that she’s college-bound, destined to be among the educated. She moves to the U.S., and we follow her from education to early career. She launches a successful blog on race and identity (initially called Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America). She has several romances, including one with this very successful white guy (Curt) and another with an Ivy League black academic guy (Blaine). All of this happens in pre- and post-Obama America, maybe over fifteen years (this is not totally clear in the book). In the meantime, Obinze has his own journey to London. He’s from money in Nigeria, and he too will be among the educated, though England is unfairly humbling to him as he’s illegally in the country and desirous of a visa.

I think a potential reader might consider the following things:

  • What this book says about identity.
  • Ifemelu’s blog, which is regularly excerpted.
  • Whether or not jumping between two characters’ stories works here.
  • What about the time-span? Is it clear?
  • The writing quality of this book.

Lara: Can I say that I liked Curt, the wealthy, WASPY, white guy without a care in the world? Who just believed that things would be good because they always had been good? His mother left a lot to be desired, but I loved how Ngozi wrote about her:

“Curt’s mother had a bloodless elegance, her hair shiny, her complexion well-preserved, her tasteful and expensive clothes made to look tasteful, and expensive; she seemed like the kind of wealthy person who did not tip well.”

There is absolutely a lot to consider with this book—which makes it all the more interesting to me. This is a book that has to be read and discussed, so it’s good we are doing it. I think one of the most interesting things about the story is that Ifemelu comes to America, struggles as a Nigerian, a Non-American Black immigrant, and yet she adapts to the culture. So much so that when she returns to Lagos, she’s almost an immigrant in her home country. She has become a “serious Americanah” as her childhood friends predicted.

Jennifer: Oh, I found a passage that illustrates the Americanah issue and gives us an idea of how much time passes in Ifemelu’s life. Right before returning to Nigeria from New Jersey (she eventually dumps her current boyfriend to return permanently to Nigeria), she goes to get her hair braided at a shop run by Africans. The woman doing Ifemelu’s hair notices what Ifemelu is eating:

Ifemelu showed her the bar, organic, one hundred percent whole grain with real fruit.

“That’s not food!” Halima scoffed, looking away from the television.

“She here fifteen years, Halima,” Aisha said, as if the length of years in America explained Ifemelu’s eating of the granola bar.

Ha! But there’s an important point here: Ifemelu is a granola-bar eater. She is more Americanized than she even knows. For me, the interesting question was whether she could successfully assimilate back to her native country. Could she return to Nigeria? Would she ultimately long for America, having become too much of an Americanah? I expected the author to tackle this more. I thought Ifemelu would struggle more with her loss of Nigerian identity. I thought, in truth, this book would be more about that status of being an Americanah, neither fully American nor fully Nigerian. The book ultimately doesn’t comment on this.

That said, this is one of my favorite reads this year. I just expected something else.

Lara: I don’t know that I had any expectations other than it being a good book that I needed to read. I agree that there was some missed opportunity in delving a little deeper into Ifemelu’s now multi-cultural identity—is that what it even is?

And, despite an ending that wrapped up a little too cleanly for my taste, Ngozi has written a very good, thought-provoking book.

Jennifer: Well, I just loved this book, gobbled it up. I love lines like this one:

“Depression was what happened to Americans, with their self-absolving need to turn everything into an illness.”

This is a book about America! Curt, the happy-go-lucky white boy, is an American. Blaine, the black intellectual at Yale, is an American. Her blog is about the American experience. Here’s another great bit, in which Obinze reads contemporary American fiction in search of America:

“He wanted to know about day-to-day life in America, what people ate and what consumed them, what shames them and what attracted them, but he read novel after novel and was disappointed: nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.”

Wow! That’s quite the critique of American literature! This whole novel is a critique on America. Her blog is not about her shared experience with other people of color across the world; rather, she posits another kind of question: “How many other people had become black in America?” America tells her she’s a black woman!

At any rate, that’s my big point: this book is about America, from a unique perspective. It’s a great book, because Ifemelu is a complex character—as are the others.

Some criticism: Though I liked the blogs, I felt they were a bit didactic, a little preachy. They worked, though. It didn’t bother me too much.

The big romance felt terribly secondary. It got in the way, and ultimately diluted the major themes.

I thought the jumping-between-characters (across oceans!) really worked, Lara. She’s such a great writer that I got immediately interested in the story of both Ifemelu in the United States and Obinze in Nigeria (he returns home considerably earlier than she does). The back-and-forth, multi-perspective narrative could be disastrous, but it worked here! The writing is perpetually interesting.

Lara: She is a great writer, and Ifemelu is an interesting character to explore these ideas. My only complaint about her is that she seemed to need to have, or at least she always did have, a man in her life. That seemed pretty central for her. I wanted her to have more moments of independence. But, perhaps, the continual coupling and happy ending are more of the “American” experience, or at least, of the expectation in American literature?

Jennifer: Not sure. But I think this novel continually provokes thoughtful discussion with robust, lovely prose.

Next Up!

We are going old school, banned book-style with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Until then, happy reading!


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  1. Patricia @ Grab a Plate October 26, 2015 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Sounds like something I’d enjoy – I love getting the perspective of America from an “outsider.” Adding it to my list.Thanks!

    • Lara October 29, 2015 at 9:21 am - Reply

      Glad to hear Patricia! You will have to come back and share your thoughts. Happy reading!

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