#AW80Books: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I know I’m late to the party but I’ve finally read a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Taking Americanah with me to Lanzarote, I was able to luxuriate in extended reading sessions without interruption. As I was away on holiday, I had to wait until I got home to get my atlas out and let my fingers and eyes pootle round Nigeria and the States on the map, connecting with where in the world I was travelling to by book. I loved the descriptions of Nigeria, and I’m pretty sure it set the scene, reading it somewhere hot and bright with sunlight.

Americanah was a fantastic if not an entirely comfortable read. The story follows the lives of two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from Lagos. Ifemelu leaves to study in the States while Obinze’s plans to follow suit are thwarted, leading to him struggling to scrape together a living illegally in Britain, before being deported. Years later when they meet again back in a changed Nigeria, their experiences have also altered them, although some things remain the same.

Reading Ifemelu’s experience of otherness in America was a real eye-opener. On arriving in the USA, Ifemelu is made aware for the first time not only of the ‘difference’ of her skin colour and race, but of a hierarchy of privilege and power based on how white or not you happen to be. She encounters racism in both overt and subtle forms and is infuriated that women of colour are barely represented in the media. As a way of trying to locate her identity in this state of things, she starts writing a blog called ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a N0n-American Black’.

The blog works as a powerful device in the novel to emphasize the issues that arise in Ifemelu’s life and relationships. Reading passages in which Ifemelu experiences prejudiced assumptions about her from both ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Americans allowed me to observe the situations and behaviour of the characters, but then the blog posts discussed the issues raised with razor-sharp clarity, providing a point of important reflection. I squirmed when I read some of the self-conscious blundering of some of the characters trying at all costs to avoid appearing offensive, and recognised rather too well the ‘colour-blindness’ of Curt, totally unaware of the gulf between his unquestioning privileged entitlement and Ifemelu’s more limited access to power.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a novel that has more thoroughly and engagingly explored identity. It’s made me acutely aware of my own privilege, and the lazy way such privilege can be taken for granted. Personally, reading Americanah  has made me realise that it is not enough to say ‘I’m not a racist’ if I’m then not vigilant with my thoughts, words and actions.  Adichie’s prose is vivid and dynamic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrancy and the political fire of the novel. It feels good to have been shaken out of my complacency, and it’s confirmed my intention to seek out more diverse voices in my reading matter in the future.

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