Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published May 14, 2013
589 pages (Kindle e-book)
A couple weeks ago, at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé performed an epic sixteen-minute medley. If you missed it, you can watch it in its entirety here. Shortly after the ten-minute mark, words began to flash on massive screens behind her. You hear a commanding, accented voiceover: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller . . .” Bey’s silhouette dramatically appears in front of these words, and the medley morphs into Bey’s aggressive anthem “***Flawless.”
If you’re not familiar with “***Flawless,” here is the video:
At 1:25, you can hear that same commanding voice. She says:
We teach girls to shrink themselves,
to make themselves smaller.
We say to girls,
“You can have ambition . . .
but not too much.
You should aim to be successful,
but not too successful.
Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”
Because I am female,
I am expected to aspire to marriage.
I am expected to make my life choices
always keeping in mind that
marriage is the most important.
Now, marriage can be a source of
joy and love and mutual support,
but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
and we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors–
not for jobs or for accomplishments,
which I think can be a good thing,
but for the attention of men.
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
in the way that boys are.
Feminist: the person who believes in the social,
political, and economic equality of the sexes.
This is the voice of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And the words are sampled from her TEDx Euston speech “We Should All Be Feminists.” It’s a half-hour long, but, if you haven’t seen it, it is well worth your time:
Beyoncé samples some of the starker, more serious lines from Adichie’s talk, but it is also peppered with lovely gems like this one: “A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all. In fact, it had not occurred to me to be worried, because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.”
Watching her TEDx Talk, you get a good sense of who Adichie is. She is young, she is beautiful, she is poised, she is honest, she is real, she is funny, she is confident, she is successful, she is brilliant, and she is an amazingly skilled writer.
All of those qualities shine through in Adichie’s latest book, Americanah, which got huge amounts of well-deserved hype last year when it was released. The book is a serious tome (the paperback is over 600 pages) that tracks the lives of Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze, over decades, from Nigeria to America/England and back again.
Ifemelu and Obinze go to high school together in Lagos, Nigeria, where they fall in love. But this is not an immature puppy love. With Obinze, Ifemelu felt “a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.” And, after high school, they remain committed to being together. But unrest in Nigeria (including strikes at their college) forces them apart. Ifemelu is able to secure an American visa, and she leaves to study there.
The book beautifully and skillfully tracks the progression of Ifemelu’s experience in America (and Obinze’s parallel experience in England). At first, Ifemelu feels the helplessness, fear, and desperation of being poor and lonely and African in America. As a result of these feelings, she distances herself from Obinze. But, before long, she begins to acclimatize and learns how to live and survive in America. She dates men (American white, American black), she finds jobs, she gets a green card (and, eventually, becomes a citizen).
She begins to understand race and racism, concepts that did not exist for her in Nigeria (“In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race. […] The longer you are here, the more you start to get it.”). To share these observations, she creates a blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” Her posts are frank discussions about race and class, like this one entitled “Is Obama Anything But Black?”:
Race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. […]
Imagine Obama, skin the color of a toasted almond, hair kinky, saying to a census worker—I’m kind of white. Sure you are, she’ll say. Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that’s it. (So if you are that blond, blue-eyed woman who says “My grandfather was Native American and I get discrimination too” when black folk are talking about shit, please stop it already.) In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago.
Her hobby quickly morphs into a career. She is invited to speak, she becomes a fellow at Princeton. But, even after thirteen years in America, she does not feel entirely at home. So, she decides to shut down her blog, sell her condo, and return to Lagos.
When she tells people she is leaving America, she bristles at their questions about whether she will be OK returning to Nigeria (“the suggestion that she was somehow irrevocably altered by America, had grown thorns on her skin”), but, upon her return, she finds that their concerns weren’t entirely off-base. She is shocked by the humidity, the rudeness of the shopkeepers, the “patina of decay” on the buildings in Lagos, the ostentatious gaudiness of wealthy people’s houses (“she had once found houses like that beautiful. But here she was now, disliking it with the haughty confidence of a person who recognized kitsch”), she fails to notice the size of people’s generators, and she desperately misses “low-fat soy milk, NPR, and fast Internet.” Her friends call her “Americanah,” a Nigerian expression meaning that she has become too Americanized and is “looking at things with American eyes.”
But soon Ifemelu begins to readjust to life in Lagos. She starts a new blog: The Small Redemptions of Lagos (which Adichie has now turned into a “real” blog). She begins to understand and appreciate why she returned: for her love of Obinze (although he is married and has a daughter by now) and her love of Lagos. She liked America, but Nigeria is home.
As her TEDx Talk illustrates, Adichie is adept at talking about things many people are uncomfortable talking about, but she does so honestly and blamelessly. Her voice is refreshingly real.
About this book Adichie has explained, “I like to say that this is a novel about love, about race, and about hair.” All of this is true. The book is about Ifemelu’s many loves, but mainly for Obinze and Nigeria. It is very frankly about race and how it shapes attitudes and beliefs and behaviors in America. And, yes, it is about hair (the book starts with Ifemelu having to take the train from Princeton to Trenton to get her hair braided–you can read an excerpt here). Ifemelu’s natural, kinky, black hair is symbolic of her identity—her race, her strength, and her refusal to conform to either Nigerian or American notions of beauty and professionalism.
Adichie is clearly an observer, and her writing shines in her observational descriptions. They are unabashed, sometimes verging on uncomfortable, and cover everything from people (Aisha, “the smallest of the braiders, who had a skin condition, pinkish-cream whorls of discoloration on her arms and neck that looked worryingly infectious”) to relationships to race.
Having lived in the States for many years, she has a deep understanding of America and American culture, but she maintains the tone of an outsider looking in. This allows her to speak more openly about topics (especially racism in America) that Americans often find too sensitive to discuss realistically.
Americanah is long and sometimes meandering. Is it too long? Yes, a little. I could have done without a good chunk of Obinze’s story about his experience in England, and Ifemelu’s return to Lagos drags a bit. But the book is so frankly and beautifully written that this gripe is a minor one. This is a book that is well worth reading.
The hype: Surely you’ve heard the hype (there’s so much of it, after all). A smattering:
- Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
- One of The New York Times’s Ten Best Books of the Year
- Winner of the The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction
- An NPR “Great Reads” Book
- A Washington Post Notable Book
- A Goodreads Best of the Year pick
Who should read it: So many people, but especially Toya (i.e., brilliant women who proudly sport beautiful, natural hair); Danielle (i.e., people who have felt the culture shock and reverse culture shock of living in Africa after living in America–and vice versa).
A little more evidence that Adichie is brilliant and fabulous (because I can’t resist):
- Her other TEDx Talk: “The Danger of a Single Story” is also worth watching. How does one create a single story? “Show a people as one thing—as only one thing—over and over again, and that is what they become.” The danger of doing this? It strips people of their dignity.
- And, as a lover of fashion, I also think this essay of hers that appeared in Elle magazine is delightful. She describes her fear of being marginalized when she was first published (“Young and female seemed to me a bad combination for being taken seriously.”) and how that fear colored her clothing and shoe choices (flats, not heels; dowdy, masculine, colorless, professional outfits). She also tracks her subsequent growth—in confidence and self-acceptance: “I am now 36 years old. During my most recent book tour, I wore, for the first time, clothes that made me happy. My favorite outfit was a pair of ankara-print shorts, a damask top, and yellow high-heel shoes. Perhaps it is the confidence that comes with being older. Perhaps it is the good fortune of being published and read seriously, but I no longer pretend not to care about clothes. Because I do care.”
GIVEAWAY ANNOUNCEMENT! Congratulations to Shana (“Hookehande”), the lucky winner of a copy of The Moment of Everything by Shelly King. Thank you to all who entered! And thank you again to Grand Central Publishing for generously providing a copy of the book for the giveaway.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: