My sister Christina and I both read Americanah at the same time. Since I never got around to writing a full review of it, I asked Christina to share her thoughts. Since she lived in Benin, a country neighboring Nigeria, I feel she has a more interesting perspective on this title. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and “Americanah” did make my list of “11 Books That Will Kickstart Your Wanderlust.” Here are Christina’s thoughts:
This was the first book I had read of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s, though I knew of her as a strong female Nigerian author. I was quite impressed and my “want to read” list on Goodreads now contains all of her books.
Adichie does a remarkable job of weaving together many different experiences of identity, coming of age, race, love, and the idea of “home” in this compelling novel.
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My favorite thing about this work is how she masterfully knits beautiful details into the story – exactly the right amount to make me lose myself in the book. Though the story takes the reader through three different continents and also goes back and forth in time, I didn’t feel disoriented. When I finished the last page, closed the book and looked around, I was surprised to find myself in suburban Colorado and not in Nigeria.
Because of my Peace Corps experience in Benin, which neighbors Nigeria to the west, a lot of the details in the book felt familiar to me, from the little street vendors and bread for sale that is carried on the heads of women to the Nigerian films that the characters watch (we watched these same films in Benin as Nigeria produces a huge portion of the media that is consumed in the area) to larger cultural threads.
Most of the Nigerian portion of the novel is set in big cities, whereas my experience in Benin was mostly in rural areas, so it was interesting to get another perspective on rural-urban dynamics. For example, one of the characters in the novel does well in business and then pays his success forward by covering the school fees for a bunch of kids from his home village. In the community where I served in Benin, I saw businessmen like this character come back to the village occasionally. It was a big deal when they did; they often drove cars, which were almost nonexistent where I was posted (many people owned beat-up motorcycles and many had no transportation device of their own), and there was always chatter in the community about what each man was doing to help the village. One had funded the construction of the health center; another paid the school fees for several of my neighbors’ children; and all were culturally expected to give money or gifts to their friends and relatives who were still struggling to make ends meet as farmers.
Americanah’s protagonist, Ifemelu, is exactly the kind of strong woman that I would have loved to meet and spend time with during my time in Benin. She is smart, driven, and does not minimize herself or her ambition to make the men in her life feel more comfortable.
Because of my placement in rural community in Benin, nearly all the women that I encountered were illiterate and spoke little French, which made substantive communication difficult, even though I tried hard to learn as much as I could of Fon, the local language. Educated, powerful women like Ifemelu were found in the cities, but most of my friends in my village were men, due to easier communication and also their relative abundance of free time compared to the women, who were responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, child care, and often also some income-generating activities in addition to helping the men with the farming.
Against this backdrop of my experience with gender roles in Africa, the framing of Americanah was refreshing – though there is a wide case of male characters, they are all in supporting roles to Ifemelu as she works her way through the world.
However, at its core, this is not a book about Nigeria or Africa. A lot of the story actually takes place in the United States and United Kingdom and sheds light on the experience of immigrants in both countries, as well as highlighting issues of race as central to the characters’ experiences in the US and the UK.
At a time when there is so much global discussion about immigration and refugees, and when race is still such a massive issue in the US, I found it a timely book to read and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in any of these issues.
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