Literature is at its best when it moves you. A good novel will elicit an emotional response of some kind. A great novel reaches out and slaps you in the face. It might be depictions of harsh reality, or emotionally charged character behavior. But it nevertheless needs to not only reach you, but also affect you.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie possessed this quality in droves.
The story centers on the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze after they met one another. They fell in love in their teens, but each went abroad to escape the politically fraught Nigerian government. Ifemelu arrives in America to attend college. Obinze had dreamed of living in America, had idealized it, coveting American culture as the societal peak. He had hoped to meet Ifemelu there, but was unable to in the wake of 9/11. Instead, he goes to England where he struggles with his lack of citizenship and has little overall success.
The majority of the novel, however, follows Ifemelu in America who, for the first time, has to deal with significant racial discrimination, biases, and micro-aggressions. These are new experiences for her as a Nigerian. American people of color are indoctrinated into this from birth. They live their entire lives affected by racism and, more often than not, it’s internalized. Ifemelu, upon arriving in America, is thrust into it suddenly. Her perspective is therefore a little different. She is an outsider, but to bigots she’s just another black woman. So she starts a blog about her experiences with race as a non-America black woman.
This is what impacted me the most. Issues of race and diversity aren’t talked about as much as they should be. The rise of violence targeting racial minorities—particularly black men and women—in America in the past few years has contributed to a rise in people discussing race. It’s a tense and disappointingly divisive topic in America. But it is crucial that it be addressed if we want things to improve. Through Ifemelu, Adichie addresses it in a way that I hadn’t witnessed before. It takes the perspective of someone who is completely new to America to see just how much discrimination people of color experience here. Ifemelu has not internalized it the way Americans have, even the most well meaning. Her narrative brought a lot of issues to light that I hadn’t even considered, particularly in terms of micro-aggressions. I strive to be as inclusive and intersectional as possible, but it’s easy to forget just how much needs to be unlearned. For me, it’s not so much biases that I hold, but more to do with societal things with racial factors I hadn’t even considered before because they were so commonplace to me.
Americanah reaffirmed, for me, the importance of listening, especially when it comes to the unique experiences of other women. It did more, of course. The emotional journey of Ifemelu and the hardships faced by Obinze are fully realized and were charged with powerful emotions. It’s difficult to cover a novel that’s so rich in detail and scope in a short post, and it’s hard to wrap my mind around all of it in a way that would make a cohesive whole. It’s a complex novel and a powerful read and one that will open its readers’ eyes.