"What is it with you Americans and race?" my friend Fatima asked me one day over lunch. We were in her country, France, both students at a university tucked in the shadow of an Alpine peak. "Everyone always wanted to know where I was from. I'd tell them France and they'd say, no, where are you from? It made no sense. I was born in France. I'm French." Fatima, with her brown sugar skin and currant-black eyes, then turned to her boyfriend Karim, and Arabic poured from her in a river of throaty consonants and chewy vowels.
A few years later, at graduate school in the Midwest, my friend James--a PhD student from Uganda--told me he didn't realize he was black until he came to the United States. We were talking about the curious strain in his African Studies graduate program between the African students and the Black American students. The term "African-American" baffled him. He got it, he understood its history, but it still made little sense to him. They were Americans-- not Black Americans, not African-Americans, but Americans, full-stop.
Race in America is an uncomfortable subject, mostly for white Americans. We still don't know where to look or what to do with our hands. We fidget and prevaricate, we, like blond-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy, liberal Kimberley in Americanah, use euphemisms like "beautiful" when we refer to Black women so that everyone will know that not only are we not racist, but we think Blacks are particularly worthy of our praise. Chimamanda Adichie reflects our beliefs and behaviors back on us, illuminating our silliness and our masquerades, our ignorance and our misguided, but earnest, attempts to understand the impossible: what it's like to be be something other than white in this very-race conscious society.
The thing about Adichie's novel is that it's written from a rarified world perspective. There is something very bourgeois about ruminating on race and class from ivory towers, as most of Americanah's characters do. Ifemelu's early years in the United States, when she lives a hand-to-mouth existence as a college student, and her Nigerian boyfriend Obinze's harrowing months in the United Kingdom, from which he is deported as an illegal, give glimpses of how the immigrant experience unfolds in the shadow of racial discrimination. But mostly, this novel is a glossy-magazine conversation between the author and her readers about the experiences of an upper-middle class African woman in America. And I loved it. I loved her voice, her warm and personal style, the way she straddles feminism and social awareness with navel-gazing vanity. I'm not sure if I'm talking about the character Ifemelu or the author Chimamanda Adichie, but the end result is the same. This novel charms at least as much as it educates.
A Washington Post reviewer referred to Americanah as social satire. Satire? Really? I didn't get that. I got a very lucid, grounded, contemporary look at race, class, and the immigrant experience in three nations--Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom--built loosely around a love story. Adichie dances a very skilled and entrancing pas de deux between classic storytelling and social edification.
Satire does foam up in the metafiction blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” written by the protagonist, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. as a college student. Ifemelu, whose looks and experiences are based on the author's, fills her anonymous blog with stories about the American race and class dilemmas she observes as an outsider. The blog eventually wins her a fellowship at Princeton and her immigrant experience veers into another social track entirely: the liberal elite. Because of her skin color, Ifemelu is pegged as Black and it's assumed she will somehow understand the "Black" experience in America. But Ifemelu, like my Ugandan friend James, didn't know from racial distinction until she came to the United States. She guards her Nigerian accent and does not straighten her hair to make it clear that she is neither Black nor American. She is Nigerian.
After fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu makes the decision to return to Nigeria, opening herself up to an experience unlike any she'd anticipated: the challenge of rebuilding her identity in a country that has moved on without her. It was a gift for this reader to have an insider's perspective on such a vast, complicated, and fast-changing nation, both before and after Ifemelu and Obinze's separate leave-takings and returns. Adichie takes the narrative many steps beyond most immigrant stories: what happens when you return home, to stay.
I had thought to withhold a star for some of the too-pat romantic relationships Ifemelu wends through and Adichie's sprawling, sometimes self-indulgent style, but I can't. I thought about this book when it wasn't in my hands, I couldn't wait to get back to it, and now, days after completing it, I'm eager to seek out more of Adichie- her writing, her speeches, her essays. I have so much to learn.