Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Americanah | Review

I'll start by saying that until page, oh, 400 (out of 477), this review was going to be overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to appreciate in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah, particularly for someone like me who has shuffled between the US and the not-US my whole life. Questions of race, racial identity and cultural identity resonated with me quite strongly (racial aspects perhaps less so, but the concept of "race issues" not existing outside the US, or not existing the way many within the US assume it to exist is one I've discussed at length in recent years), as did the entire discussion of how to return to a home that is no longer a home.

I won't get into details as to what happened after page 400. It's not exactly a spoiler - the book leads very heavily towards this - but I really don't want to discuss it regardless. What I'll say is that Americanah careened into one of my all-time literary pet peeves, without critiquing it as it should have. And suddenly I was able to recognize that this issue had actually come up several times throughout the book. This made my appreciation of the end... not amazing. I was disappointed, I finished the book with a whimper and not a bang, and found myself wishing, desperately, that Adichie could have been as brave with this issue as she was with others.

But let's get back to what this review was supposed to be: a discussion of why Americanah is a brilliant book for foreigners and expats and others.

Most reviews I've read have discussed where Americanah is brave in its presentation of race. And I'll say... yes. It's a pretty audacious book, when you think about it. Adichie is a non-American-black (NAB, as she calls it) writing about Ifemelu, a NAB, who writes about what it's like to be black in a society that has a heck of a lot more racial issues than it's capable of recognizing. There are multiple levels of meta in Americanah, not least within the blog posts integrated throughout Ifemelu's narrative sections. Ifemelu's blogs deal largely with race and racial disparities between African American and, shall we say, American Africans, as well as general racial observations.

Ifemelu's writing will be fairly familiar to anyone who reads feminist blogs, or black-feminist blogs, or even just blogs about racial issues (though the feminist side comes through fairly strongly, which I obviously was thrilled about). Writing like this, by itself, in a clearly elevated status without further discussion, would have frustrated me, but Adichie is more intelligent than that: though Ifemelu is clearly our protagonist and our enlightened outside observer (the one constantly critiquing narrow-minded aspects of Anglo-American racial perspectives), there is enough of an understanding that Ifemelu too has her biases and observations. Ifemelu's blog posts aren't entirely good criticism, and they're not necessarily 100% right (her own ideas evolve enough throughout the book to make that abundantly clear), but they're the closest thing we get. In that sense, Americanah forces the reader (whoever it may be - white, black, Anglo, foreigner, other) to reach their own conclusions and read more deeply. It's a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking book.

But to be honest, I'd rather spend a few more moments talking about the "outsider effect", and why having a book written by a non-American written for an audience that is simultaneously American and non-American is so very important. As you'll all know by now, I'm a very big fan of the international approach to literature (duh). I don't believe that "literature in translation" guarantees true diversity, and I don't believe that one can truly read diversely within one language alone (whatever that language may be). When readers and reviewers and writers come at stories from the perspective that Anglo-American is the norm, the default, the everything... I get angry. Apparently Adichie agrees with me

I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that American/British English is the default (in the discussion of accents). I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that Western melting-pot perceptions of race are the most progressive (in the discussion of the non-American black and that brilliant quote about not thinking about your race and racial identity until moving to the US). I loved that Americanah discussed the internal American discussion of African Americans and new African immigrants, and where the two groups are not entirely meshed. I loved that Americanah looked at the new immigrant experience from a place of warmth and acceptance, and didn't reject offhand the idea that someone might someday want to return, that the concept of home might trump.

I loved a lot of things in Americanah - the shift from casual blog-style writing to the larger discussion, the flow, the depth with which Adichie builds her side characters, the warmth with which Adichie delves into different sorts of love. But it's not a perfect book, and it was so close to being so much better that the disappointment stings so much more.

Before page 400, my biggest complaint would have been about the shift in tone between Ifemelu and Obinze. The book semi switches off between the two, but it's entirely unfair to present it as a balanced story - we spend significantly more time with Ifemelu than Obinze, and the story is built in such a way that I found it much easier to relate to Ifemelu than Obinze. Obinze's parts felt slower to me, and also less focused. While this is obviously a reflection of his character arc, it still managed to frustrate me as a reader. I'd have preferred for a more cohesive story told entirely from Ifemelu's perspective, but I suspect this is more about personal preference.

After page 400 (and to be clear, page 400 is an arbitrary approximation meant to symbolize my frustration with the general final arc), I found myself thinking over previous parts of the book and realizing that as talented as Adichie is (and goodness, she's talented - I'm without a doubt going back to read the rest of her books), she relied heavily on a number of tropes I absolutely hate. These tropes undermine so much of the strength of character that Adichie has built previously, and feels like sloppy storytelling to cover up the more intellectual aspects of the novel. It made me... angry. And it's something that unfortunately ruins too many good books.

Americanah wasn't ruined. It's not a bad book by any measure, and the fact that it personally fell into one of my personally most-hated traps does not for a moment mean that it's a worthless novel. Readers should absolutely read Americanah for its outsider perspective, for its blunt discussions of race and privilege and belonging and identity. Readers should absolutely read this book deeply, and wholly - it's a book to learn from, to a large degree. And in parts, it's also a wonderful feminist text (in other parts, I again note, I wanted to smash it against a wall). On the whole, it's an intelligent, thought-inducing, challenging (in that it challenges the reader to reassess much of their previous biases), engaging and readable book. You should read it.



...but I do so wish that it hadn't included that one thing.

3 comments:

  1. What a well written review! I agree with you. There is so much to love about this book, but it isn't perfect. I found the discussions of race very interesting and I admired the way she explained many of the difficulties faced by outsiders. But I found this book lacked any emotional power - I felt like an outsider, never bonding with the characters. Perhaps I felt disappointed because the characters in her other books (especially Purple Hibiscus) were so much more vibrant. I agree it is one of those books people should read, despite the flaws.

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  2. Excellent and thoughtful review. I too loved most of Americanah, but felt the ending was rushed and let the rest of the book down. It was by no means flawless, and I found the blog entries sometimes too didactic and intrusive, but it got me thinking and debating. Perhaps because of my own experiences as an immigrant (albeit a white one) to the UK, I found Obinze's story equally powerful, if somewhat more at arm's length. But I am very glad to have read it and will certainly seek out more by this author.
    If you have time and the wish to do so, here's my review:
    https://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/the-immigrant-experience-adichies-americanah/

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  3. What I enjoyed most about the blog posts in the books is how she thinks and writes as a different person depending on the surrounding culture. I also liked the subplot involving the Aunty Uju and her adjustments to American life. I learned a lot from this book, though I share some of the frustrations you're hinting at about the ending.

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