Friday, December 27, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Americanah

Welcome to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers. Every month, we each post a review of the best book we've read that month. For December, I'm choosing Americanah, a novel by Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I'm not the only fan ... this book has been short-listed by just about every major reviewer as one of the best books of 2013. (That's how it came to my attention.) The praise is well-deserved. This is a delicious, warm, heartfelt, fascinating novel.



It was such a relief, after plowing through a few books I did not love, to read something I could just fall into. Although I have almost nothing in common with the protagonist, Ifemelu, I felt a kinship with her anyway ... Adichie is just that good a writer. From the braiding salons of Trenton, NJ (it takes *all day* to get hair into those complicated 'dos) to the streets of Lagos, you get to know Ifemelu and the people in her life. And you get to know a lot about black hair. When Ifem decides to go "natural," it causes an uproar among her Nigerian friends and family, who consider natural hair uncivilized and unfeminine.

From her Fresh Air interview (really worth listening to, even if you don't read the novel), I know Americanah is a highly autobiographical novel: Adichie took a similar journey from Nigeria to the US, for similar reasons, and now bounces back and forth between the countries. I learned that in Nigeria, unsurprisingly, nobody thinks of themselves as "black." They think of themselves by their ethnic identities: Ifemelu (like Adichie) is Igbo. Others in Nigeria are Yoruba, or Edo, or Hausa. There are hundreds of languages spoken in Nigeria, but Nigerians grow up speaking English as well. There's a telling anecdote in the book between Ifemelu's cousin Dike (pronounced "D.K."), who is being raised in America, and her Aunty Uju, Dike's mother: Ifemelu speaks Igbo to little Dike, and Aunty Uju tells her to knock it off, because it will confuse him to hear more than one language. Ifemelu considers pointing out that in Nigeria, all children speak at least two languages and are not confused, but decides it's pointless to make this argument to her aunt. Her aunt is an American now, and Americans believe in speaking one language only.

 

In America, Ifemelu learns what "being black" means. It means one thing when you're in a hair salon run by various African ex-pats; it means another thing when you're dating the rich hot white guy. It means yet another thing when you're dating the rigidly intellectual black professor. And another thing still when you're out of work and job-hunting. The hardest bit of the book for me was getting through Ifemelu's low point, what she let herself do when she was desperate and hungry.

Eventually, Ifemelu decides to go back to Lagos, a decision that seems just to happen to her. She is impetuous and occasionally thoughtless, which gives the book some of its tension. ("What crazy thing will Ifem do next?") At this point we end up where we started: back in Nigeria with the love story between the calm, solid Obinze and the wacky, spirited Ifemelu — now much more complex, as fifteen years have come between them. The love story is only the thinnest thread holding the book together, but it functions as a loose framework on which to hang all the commentary about race and class. If the book does occasionally stutter, it's when Adichie makes that common mistake of airing her own political views through Conversations Among Intellectuals at Dinner Parties; it seems all writers of literary fiction permit themselves this indulgence from time to time. I preferred the conversations in the beauty parlor between the international group of hairdressers and their (sometimes American) clients. The occasional blog posts that pepper the book are also interesting, but get a little preachy after a while.

In that Fresh Air interview, Adichie gently pokes fun at Americans for assuming all Africans are poor villagers living on a dollar a day; children with flies on their eyes, ribs poking out, dusty-skinned, just waiting for some kindly white American to rescue them. In reality, there's a relatively strong middle class in Nigeria. Adichie herself grew up middle class, and in Nigeria, middle class means you have servants. You have a housekeeper, a driver. When Ifemelu's dad loses his job and can't pay the rent, you realize her parents are living in a modest apartment; they don't even own a home, and yet they still have a staff. "Wealthy" means you have a lot more staff, plus a huge house. Men get wealthy through corruption, even our dear Obinze, who tries not to become too crooked. Women get wealthy by marrying such men or by becoming their mistresses.

All in all, this was a book I could really lose myself in. The characters are real and warm, the social commentary is eye-opening. The plot is pretty thin but that didn't bother me. It's a book about people and place, about class and race, about what "home" means ... and I loved it.

Edition note: The audiobook narration by Adjoa Andoh was both good and terrible. Andoh is a Brit of Ghanian descent, and her standard English is lovely and BBC inflected. The Nigerian English sounds accurate to me, but what do I know. But Andoh's American English is really awful. Every American sounds like Fran Drescher, and there are odd pronunciations, like "Merry-land" for "Maryland," which made me cringe. I was glad to have a paper copy to turn to during long talky passages.

Be sure to check out these other Coffeehouse reviews:

1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
3.Huntress4.mainewords
5.Wishbone Soup Cures Everything6.What's Up, MOCK?!
7.The Writing Sisterhood8.A Creative Exercise
9.Katie O'Sullivan ~ Read, Write, Repeat10.The Hobbit: A Review (Part 1)
11.Denise Covey12.Trisha @ WORD STUFF
13.The Hobbit: A Review (Part 2) 

17 comments:

  1. I always like reading books that expose me to cultures that I don;t know much about. This sounds like a good candidate. Thanks for posting this.

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    1. Sure! I feel the same way. It's like a very cheap way of traveling the world. :) I hope you try it/like it.

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  2. I think this sounds very interesting. I think my main problem would be the names. Ones that I'm not used to just glossing over tend to stop me every time I read them. I think that just might be me, though. In grad school I read a lot of north African literature and I agree with your (or should I say Adichie's) assessment on how Americans view anyone from Africa. Africa is not just one giant country and I think as Americans we need to have a better understanding of that. Thanks for sharing this one!

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    1. I can see the name thing being an issue at first, but you get used to it. Listening to the audiobook really helped that way, because you hear the name pronounced over and over, which helps your brain stop fretting over HOW to pronounce it (which, I suspect, is the problem). You are too right about Americans viewing Africa as one monolithic place.

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  3. My knowledge of West Africa is so severely limited. This book sounds like it provides an insightful perspective.

    I like your intellectuals at the dinner table complaint. Books and movies do that all the time, don't they? It never occurred to me that they're just a convenient device for the author but of course they are.

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    1. The dinner-table polemic ... yeah, I've really been noticing it. I just finished "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner (also a Best of 2013 on most such lists) and she does the exact same thing. Now that I recognize it, it makes me laugh a little bit. It's like in Downton Abbey, how every scene involves people either a) eating and talking or b) walking and talking.

      Regarding Africa: my knowledge of the entire continent is so limited I wouldn't have even known Nigeria WAS West Africa. I had to look it up. I know the north bits, South Africa, and Egypt & neighbors, and that's about it. I would not win any Geography Bees. :/

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    2. Long before I was a sports or numbers geek, I was a map geek. So, I've long known where Nigeria is, but that's about all.

      The number of languages in Africa is amazing, far more than the map lets on. Europeans gave little thought to such matters when they drew the borders.

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  4. What an excellent review, seriously!

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  5. Great review! It's great that you were able to learn about another culture while you were reading.

    Slightly on/off topic, I once met a young Filipina woman who had never even made her own bed, cooked her own meals or done her own laundry before moving to the US because she grew up with a maid in the Philippines. She was by no means rich, but she told me that anyone even moderately middle class had some sort of help. I suppose the concept is much more common outside the US, and the west in general.

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    1. Yes, I was just having a really relevant discussion with my friend Lorena, who may be popping by. She was saying something similar about her native country of Ecuador. It's interesting to look at countries that have retained that servant class and countries that have not. We more or less lost it around the turn of the (20th) century. Downton Abbey is really about the very end of that era for WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries.

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  6. Awww, Merryland. :) Admittedly most people in Australia probably don't know it's pronounced "marilind" or whatever :P

    This sounds like a fabulous read - thanks for the review. I'm adding it to my list.

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    1. My step-mother-in-law is from Australia and I know down there they get similarly itchy when people say "Bris-BANE" instead of "Bris-B'n." You just want your narrators to get it right, you know? It's like seeing a misspelling: it's a bit jarring.

      Hope you try it + like it! :)

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  7. Wow. Your excellent, detailed review blew me away. sounds like something I could lose myself into as well.
    Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
    Facebook Wilder Mage

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  8. Culturally interesting and I like the erratic main character. Making a mental note to be careful writing dinner party scenes!

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    1. Ha! I am quite sure I have done the same thing. It's not necessarily a bad thing; I see why people do it. But some writers (especially those who want to download a lot of personal philosophy) get a little too attached to this storytelling trick.

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