Sunday, November 20, 2016

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

This is Book #2 after White Teeth on my reading list to counteract the overwhelming base of white male authors that comprise the Flying Houses review archive.  Actually, if you look back at the past 3 years, it's not so bad, but no further excuses.  A lot of people consider me "well-read," but I think that term is misleading.  I've read a fair number of books, but really not that many (I'm sure many critics that review books as their job have tackled 5-6 times my number), and really not that many from different cultural backgrounds.  Americanah was time well spent.

Have I read anything close to Americanah?  A long time ago, before I started Flying Houses, I picked up What is the What by Dave Eggers and got maybe halfway through it before finding it too tedious and painful.  It's a bit of a different book, because it's specifically about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, his struggles in Africa, and his struggles as an immigrant in the U.S.  Eggers interviewed him extensively and transmuted the experience into literature.  Still technically a white male author though!

Americanah is quite different, and does not concern itself as greatly with human rights atrocities.  Rather, this is a book about being an African in America, and then being an American in Africa.  There are so many people that would be able to identify with this book, it's not even funny.  Because Adichie does not restrict herself to the female perspective.  True, it is a female perspective in America (and only a male perspective in England), but the alternating "Parts" are both a strength and a weakness of the novel.  Let me be clear: I am trying to be more picky about what I call the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses, and many times, I felt this belonged there.  Maybe after I finish this review, I'll put it there.  But on my "scale," I would say it's better than White Teeth, definitely, and on par with The Goldfinch (which did not quite make the list).

The plot concerns Ifemulu.  Every single time I read her name, I wondered if the voice in my head was mispronouncing it.  Here is the way I heard it in my head: Eef-ay-moo-loo.  Ifemulu is a young girl growing up in Nigeria, who meets a young man, Obinze, at school, high school I guess.  They go to college together for a while, but then separate, as she decides to move to the U.S., as her aunt has done to become a doctor.  Ifemulu and Obinze are definitely an "item," and all of their friends pretty much presume that they will get married and be together forever, but this emigration effectively destroys their romance.

Though it is certainly about a different era, this book does have more than its share of similarities to Brooklyn.  I just realized that now.  I prefer Americanah because it's about our present age.  Actually, on the morning of the election last week, I was reading the section about the 2008 Presidential Election, and how Ifemulu liked Hillary Clinton a lot, but just had to support Obama.  Obama is a major figure in this book.  This book contains a recommendation for Dreams from my Father, which I'm sorry to say I haven't read.  Let me briefly give a shout-out to President Obama as one of the finest we have had.  My only complaint is the Affordable Care Act.  His heart was definitely in the right place with it, but these 2017 premiums off the Exchange are off-the-charts high.  Also the interest rates on my student loans are way too high.  Back to the book...

After Ifemulu arrives in America and enrolls at a college in Philadelphia, she has serious struggles with money.  She finds her footing after being hired as a nanny to an affluent family.  Through them she meets Curt, a cousin of the family, who falls in love with her and asks her to move to Baltimore with him, where he pulls some strings and helps her get a job in public relations.  Then one night she randomly hooks up with another dude in their apartment building, and Curt dumps her.  Shortly after this, she starts her own blog, Raceteenth or Curious Observations by a Non-American Black on the Subject of Blackness in America.

I think it is fair to say that we are in the midst of a civil rights renaissance, an acknowledgement that a guarantee of equal rights (i.e. equal treatment and equal opportunity) is little more than a rhetorical facade.  And so Americanah is a book that came at the perfect time.  Many of the chapters in this book end with a post from the blog.  (I am also having a sort of wonderful feeling of irony by reviewing a book about a blogger.) Almost all of the posts are highly-quotable, and written in a very different tone from that of the novel.  The most epic one is not at the end of a chapter, but read aloud by a friend at a dinner party, over pages 403 to 406.  I'll excerpt the end of it:

"Finally, don't put on a Let's Be Fair tone and say 'But black people are racist too.' Because of course we're all prejudiced (I can't even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it's white folks who have that power.  How?  Well, white folks don't get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don't get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don't give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don't stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don't choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don't tell white kids they're not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don't try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don't say they can't use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered 'aspirational' by the 'mainstream.'
So after this listing of don'ts, what's the do?  I'm not sure.  Try listening, maybe.  Hear what is being said.  And remember that it's not about you.  American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame.  They are just telling you what is.  If you don't understand, ask questions.  If you're uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway.  It's easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place.  Then listen some more.  Sometimes people just want to feel heard.  Here's to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding." (405-406)

While this is definitely Ifemulu's book, Obinze is the other main character.  I would say 66% of this is Ifemulu and 33% is Obinze.  At first I thought the alternating book-by-book perspective was a weakness, but I grew to appreciate Adichie's ability to develop a male counterpart.  His experience in London, detailed in Part 3 of the novel, is one of its highlights.

And generally, the romance between Ifemulu and Obinze is the true highlight.  It exemplifies the cliche phrase "achingly beautiful."  There have been few other novels where I have rooted more for its characters to end up together.

I don't mean to get all gushy here, but I hope you've experienced the phenomenon of reading a book that seems eerily connected to your present situation, which then provides an extra layer of appreciation and meaning.  It happened for me with Americanah, dealing with a frayed, broken and resuscitated relationship, and an election that inspired more dialogue (or monologues) on racism than any other I've seen in my lifetime.

Did this book change the way I thought?  Not really.  Did it open up my mind to the experiences of others in a different position than me?  Sure.  Most importantly, was it entertaining?  Yes.

And that is why I think it is better than White Teeth.  White Teeth almost seemed to be going out of its way to be clever or comic in sometimes absurd situations.  Americanah simply rolls through a story with incredibly well-developed characters whose adventures are amusing, more often than not.  Of course when the "adventures" are more like "travails," the book remains gripping.

I feel like this is a hard book to know where to start and stop to avoid spoilers.  I will note that its structure is quite unique, and vaguely similar to what I did in my third book in that it uses a hair cut (really a hair-braiding) as a framing mechanism.  Ifemulu is getting her hair braided in New Jersey, having recently decided to quit blogging, to leave Princeton and to return to Lagos in Nigeria.  I don't really remember why she does this, but I guess underneath it all, she still subconsciously wants to be with Obinze.  In any case, the novel primarily occurs in a series of flashbacks and returns to the present in the hair salon, before a traumatic event involving Ifemulu's younger cousin, Dike, temporarily disrupts her plans (the NY Times review remarks that, "Early on, a horrific event leaves Ifemulu reeling, and years later, when she returns to Nigeria, she's still haunted by it."  I don't think this is the same traumatic event and I can only assume this is a reference to the soccer coach episode, but maybe my memory is hazy.  Was it something else?  Is that really as horrific as what happens with Dike?).

That is something I will not spoil, but I would like to say it was validating to find that Dike is an actual name, when I was given much grief over using "Dike96" as a screen-name for AOL back in 1996, probably because my youngest sister called me something like that as a baby (before she could pronounce my first name).  Moving on...

I wish Flying Houses were as popular as Raceteenth.  I find the notion that Ifemulu would become quasi-rich-and-famous from a vociferous blog on race a bit far-fetched, but then again the blog is portrayed as a "safe space" where millions of disenfranchised people of color come to share their grievances and make one another stronger.  As a white male who is responsible for his own lack of opportunities in life, I can't really fathom "starting a blog" about anything except books, and the entertainment industry in general, and I've written before about how unpopular Flying Houses is and I don't have any illusions that one day people are going to wake up and realize that it carries some of the best reviews on the internet.  Absolutely not; this is not the New York Times and I am the only editor.  I'm still only at $33 earned after 8.5 years of this, payment threshold at $100.  Hopefully one day somebody will give me a MacArthur Genius Grant because they feel bad for me and realize that I've made a valuable contribution to the field of literary criticism.  More likely is that I will just die and be forgotten and my legacy will be a bunch of crappy status postings on Facebook that people will only notice for a few days or weeks after my death.  It's depressing as hell but I guess that is why I am starting to believe in reincarnation, as the only "fair" result of existence.

Wow that paragraph went dark places!  But the blog is an important element of this book because it speaks to the issue of "how to make a living." Ifemulu is invited to give "diversity talks" after her blog gains traction; she doesn't make all of her money off AdSense.  She also receives large donations from an anonymous supporter, so maybe I should set up some kind of funding portal...

It's quite difficult for me to think of anything else to say about Americanah.  It's pretty much everything you could ask for in a novel, but it's quite sad to read about the 2008 election:

"On television, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their two young daughters were walking onto a stage.  They were carried by the wind, bathed in incandescent light, victorious an smiling.
'Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled, Americans have sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states and blue states.  We have been and always will be the United States of America.'
Barack Obama's voice rose and fell, his face solemn, and around him the large and resplendent crowd of the hopeful.  Ifemulu watched, mesmerized.  And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America," (447-448)

Contrast that with the way many of us have felt over the past 12 days.  I suppose the lesson that we should keep in mind is that, though it feels like we have taken a step backwards, we haven't undone all of the progress we've made. Books like Americanah should remind us that our country, and the literature we produce, is enriched by an inclusive ideology.  They can teach us how to be better to one another, and to open up our minds beyond ourselves.

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