CNA is one of the authors I was most eager to discover this year. She is a prominent figure of today’s Nigeria vibrant literary scene, praised as one of the most talented of her generation. When I had to chose which of her works to read first, the themes of love and belonging explored by Americanah decided me to start by this novel.
So here is the blurb, my review follows.
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
Adichie’s writing is definitely on point in this ambitious novel that spans over more than a decade and takes place over three continents. I loved the touches of humour, the humble erudition of it. I also admired how she masters her complex timeline, traveling back and forth in time, but never going awry. She writes in a fluid and clear manner, with pinches of beautiful metaphors, and builds characters that are highly relatable.
“And she had the sudden sensation of fogginess, of a milky web through which she tried to claw. Her autumn of half blindness had begun, the autumn of puzzlements, of experiences she had knowing there were slippery layers of meaning that eluded her.”
Yes I was happy to find characters whose experience seemed familiar to me. Not that I had exactly the same, but the universe they are evolving in is not alien to me.
But it’s not completely mine either. I am usually the kind of (black) person who never complains about racism, who considers that if people are prejudiced toward you because of the colour of the skin, then the only thing you can do is to prove them wrong: be quiet when they expect you to be a loud troublemaker, work your ass off when they imagine you lazy (I am not very good at that one tbh),etc. Americanah helped me broaden my perspective. Yes doing your best is all good, but what if you are not even given the opportunity? Adichie’s reflexion on the race issue in America (through the eyes and pen of Ifemelu) is definitely thought provoking, and I can say I am now less adverse to the concept of “privilege”. (The Afrofeminist sphere is still not my comfort zone, mind you).
“Stop saying I’m Jamaican or Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of former Negroes.”
There were also edifying moments in Obinze’s experience as an undocumented immigrant. At one point, he reflects on how the reasons for which he left his country are incomprehensible for his occidental liberal friends. And this really gave me food for thought.
“All understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else and eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.“
I was really interested in following Ifemelu’s journey in America, and, to a lesser extent, Obinze’s trajectory. How they went abroad to accomplish themselves, only to find themselves back home a few years later; either by choice or under duress. Ifemelu’s story in particular tells the difficulty to fit in, to find one’s place in a foreign universe. The urge to wipe off all traces of foreignness, balanced by the fear of losing one’s identity, and the constant longing for a hypothetical “home”.
“Ifemelu decided to stop faking an American accent on a sunlit day in July.”
Their love story is also a central plot line, and although I enjoyed reading about the blossoming of their love and their individual journeys, I was not really interested in their (embarrassed and tense) reunion in Nigeria. A classic case of “the-journey-is-more-important-than-the-destination” I guess.
Overall an expertly written novel, hilarious at some times, wise at others, always ringing true; and that I enjoyed reading a lot. Very much character driven, and the portrayal of each of them is absolutely perfect. Ifemelu’s wittiness made me love her so much! Not necessarily a life changer, but definitely a shrewd, thought provoking story.
Rating: Read it! To broaden your perspective, laugh, learn, and question yourself.