GA Book Club #9: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Welcome back to the Girls Against Book Club and Happy Easter if you celebrate! If not I hope you’re enjoying a long weekend (if you’re in the UK). The extra time this bank holiday weekend has provided has been necessary for me in order to finish this month’s book, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Its the longest text the book club has read so far at 477 pages and I ,admittedly, finished it very last minute. It has also been one of my favourite books we’ve read so far, although I am partial to a long novel so I suppose a bit biased, and I’m excited to discuss it in this post!

Its difficult to summarise the plot of the novel as it has so much going on but I’ll give it a go for the benefit of those of you who haven’t read or finished the book yet. Americanafollows the lives of the Nigerian-born childhood lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, the former who moves to America for further study at University and the latter who moves to Britain in order to improve his life. Ifemelu is hugely successful in America, launching a popular blog about race, whereas Obinze spends his time in the U.K. in fear of being deported, which eventually happens when he is on his way to get married, which, if he was able to have gone through with, would have allowed him to legally stay in the U.K. Ifemelu and Obinze eventually reunite in their hometown of Lagos and rekindle their romance after many years apart in separate continents.

In describing the structure of this novel, I suppose it sounds like a love story, which it is. But its so much more than that. This book is an eye-opening commentary on race, immigration and black identity but moreover it provides an important insight into the experience of black women. A quote from The Guardian is printed on the front of my novel which states, ‘Some novels tell a great story and others make you change the way you look at the world. Americanah does both.’ I couldn’t agree more with this statement as the novel was not only enjoyable and engrossing for me to read but really provided me with a better education on the struggles that black people face and how each and every one of us can help to tackle them.

The novel describes the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze both separately and together but mostly focuses on Ifemelu’s teenage years and then her experiences in America. There are also excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog ,”Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”, which I thought were so great. Including these excerpts that very overtly discuss and confront many of the issues that Ifemelu and the other black characters face forces the reader to think about the political implications of the novel and ensures that it is impossible to read this text without considering its significance.

One of my favourite blog posts was ‘What Academics Mean by White Privilege, or Yes It Sucks to Be Poor and White but Try Being Poor and Non-White’. In this post, Ifemelu discusses white privilege as well as Peggy McIntosh’s ‘test’ for white privilege. This as a great example of how the novel forces the reader to consider their own political awareness.

Another blog post that I enjoyed was ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ In this blog post, Ifemelu explores how important it is for white people to listen to POC’s stories and accept what they say, rather than disputing them or comparing their experiences to their own, which, of course, are totally different. In addressing the ‘But black people are racist too’ argument, Ifemelu gives a clear-cut explanation of why this is not true, ‘racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power.’ This is such a simple but effective way of explaining the difference between racism and prejudice and I hope Adichie’s ability to explain this so coherently helps people understand this vital difference.

Americanah explores many societal issues within western society regarding both race and gender. Adichie, in this novel, is particularly interested in the perceptions of black people in America compared to Nigeria, as Ifemelu is consistently surprised at how much people’s actions are, sometimes sub-consciously, sometimes not, influenced by the fact alone that she is black. After a strange encounter in the supermarket when the cashier goes out of her way in order not to describe an employee as black, Ifemelu asks her friend, Ginika, who is also Nigerian, why she would not describe the employee by her race. In reply, Ginika states ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’ Seemingly here, Adichie is portraying that one of the real problems with race in society that there is no open discussion about it. To be ‘colour-blind’ is not productive in a society where systematic racism has been enforced until fairly recently;people’s perceptions towards Ifemelu because she is black, and particularly because she is a non-American black, prove that no one really is ‘colour-blind’ to race anyway, as Ginika states, they just pretend to be.

Ifemelu is in America during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign  and a significant portion of the novel is spent in exploring the significance of such a presidency. A really touching moment is when Ifemelu is with her boyfriend, Blaine, who is a black American, and his friends and they discover that Obama has indeed become the president of America. Adichie describes their overwhelming happiness in a touching passage that proves how important his presidency was to black people in America. While they are celebrating, Ifemelu’s younger cousin, Dike, texts her saying, ‘I can’t believe it. My president is black like me.’ I felt like this moment in the novel proved not only how significance this presidency was for progress for POC but also portrayed the importance of representation, whether that’s in arts, the media or, in this case, politics.

If you haven’t read this novel, I would 100% recommend it. The only thing I didn’t enjoy about it is that sometimes it felt like it didn’t need to be as long as it was as there was a lot of, sometimes unnecessary, detail. However this didn’t stop me from constantly picking the novel up and enjoying every bit of it. Moreover though, I would recommend it because it really does provide an education that goes further than I’m assuming most white people have on what it is to be black and I do feel that its fair to say that this novel has changed the way I think.

During the month of April the Girls Against Book Club will be reading Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. Lorde (1934-1992) was a black lesbian poet and feminist writer who grew up in Harlem. In this collection of fifteen essays and speeches, she considers issues of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia and class. I think this is going to be a really interesting and insightful read and I’d love it if you joined me in reading it.

Send us your thoughts on the text on Twitter @girlsagainst or, if your thoughts don’t quite fit into 280 characters, send us an email at girlsagainstbookclub@gmail.com. You can also join our GoodReads group to keep up to date with the book club and join in the discussion on this months text. Please send your thoughts over before Sunday 6th May which is when the next book club post will go up.

We also have a list of the books we’ll be reading up until July which you can take a look at here if you want to get ahead of the book club or spend some extra time on a particular book!

You can purchase Sister Outsider here.

Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).