Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

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Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) reading Americanah on OITNB

 

Americanah. A book so good it was featured on Orange is the New Black. Also, a book so good my sister has taken it on holiday with her, so as I’m writing this I’ve had to repeatedly message her while she sunbathes to check whether I remembered everything right.

This book was the first in the long stream of women-centric books I devoured like they were going out of fashion. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this isn’t the case because let’s face it, they literally only just came into fashion.

This book was powerful. It raised so many issues I like to think I’m already aware of and in addition,  as a white liberal, it made me take a long hard look at myself. It highlighted how the things we do to show the world ‘I’m not racist’ are just as much a part of the culture of racism as the acts of hatred we condemn. Often the scenes in this book, a book predominantly about race, that are the most uncomfortable are the words coming from the mouths of so called white liberals. Apparently well-intended, but so far from it it’s astounding. We all know about the racism we see on the news. The raw, open, aggressive racism. But the small acts of racism that perpetuate that kind of thinking are so much easier to miss. Condensed so tightly in this novel however,  and they stand out like a sore thumb. The woman Ifemelu babysits, for example, refers to every single black woman as ‘beautiful’ until Ifemelu calls her out on it. And pretty much every single white person Ifemelu meets just has to tell her about the one time they, or some distant relative, went to ‘Africa’, or a specific country in Africa about as far from Ifemelu’s Nigeria as Turkey is from Sweden.

Adichie raises so many issues in her novel. From what it’s like to be an outsider in a new country, struggling to manage not only your finances, immigrant status and longing for the place you’ve left behind but also the obstacles of a new cultural topography. She tells us that not all black women are ‘strong’ or ‘sassy’ and when they are, they are so many other things besides. She highlights just how important a position natural hair has in the race debate, this issue was recently raised in real life when Michelle Obama was photographed wearing her hair natural for the first time, only after her husband was no longer President.

Adichie cleverly uses Ifemelu’s blog to incorporate racial politics deftly into the realms of fiction and uses Ifemelu as the blog’s author to remind us that writing alone isn’t enough: ‘it’s not just about writing a blog, you have to live like you believe it.’ A lesson we could all do with revising; in this day and age it isn’t enough to just say I want equality, you have to actively go out there and make it happen. Deeds not words as Pankhurst would have said.

This book spans three continents, tells the story of two lives that feel as real to me as the people I see everyday. Adichie doesn’t write characters she writes people. Sometimes Ifemelu isn’t perfect, sometimes she makes the wrong choices, but this is what makes her human. This is what makes her perfect.

 

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