Fiction – audiobook. Read by Adjoa Andoh. Recorded Books, 2014. Originally published 2013. 17 hours, 29 minutes. Purchased.
Fifteen years after leaving Nigeria to study in America, Ifemelu has decided to return home to Lagos. Everyone – her parents, her friends, even her hair braider in Trenton, New Jersey – think she is crazy to return after securing the necessary immigration papers to live in the United States indefinitely.
Yet, Ifemelu has grown tired of navigating the fault lines within American society, closing down her humorous yet poignant blog examining the treatment of American blacks from the viewpoint of a non-American black. She’s also ended her relationship with her American boyfriend, Blaine, shifting her focus to the memories of her relationship with her high school sweetheart, Obinze.
According to GoodReads, I’ve tried reading this book three times – in April 2015, January 2016, and finally in July 2019 – but my own recollections insist more attempts had to have been made. I can recall hauling the heavy hardback (it’s nearly 600 pages long) home from the library at least three times before I decided to purchase the book on Kindle on January 26, 2016. And I must have attempted to read the Kindle edition more than once for me to finally decide to purchase the audiobook from Audible on July 25, 2018.
I’m not sure why this attempt at reading Adichie’s novel was so successful. In the past, I always stalled out early into the novel as Ifemelu laments how she must travel from the Ivy League college town of Princeton, New Jersey to Trenton in order to find a salon capable of styling the hair of black women. This time, something clicked; this short section had unexpectedly become a strong hook to pull me into the story.
From this point, the novel jumps back and forth between space and time with readers introduced to Ifemelu’s childhood in Nigeria, her relationship with Obinze, his desire to live in America, and how the two of them ended up separated by geography. Obinze also becomes a more central, fleshed out character as Adichie devotes whole sections of this seven-part novel to examining his life and how hope and promise were wrung out of him by corrupt bureaucracies and enforced borders.
Obinze loved America from a young age, but his application to study and/or immigrate to the country was rejected after 9/11. Desperate for the opportunity to advance his education and live under an uncorrupt economic system, Obinze moves to the United Kingdom, overstays his visa, and tries to survive on the margins of society. After he is deported, he has to reconcile his hopes, dreams, and morals in Nigeria with the reality that he will likely never be able to leave and live in the United States.
In contrast, Ifemelu was never as passionate about the “American Dream” the way Obinze was. She went because America promised her an education and because she thought she’d be able to sponsor Obinze, following through on the plans they had made for their lives together.
But Ifemelu arrives and quickly learns that the streets in America are not paved with gold, so to say. Her economic outlook is pitiful because, as a student, she is not allowed to work, forcing her to assume someone else’s identity and consider sex work to close the gaps.
Ifemelu channels most of her frustrations with America into pithy and witty blog posts examining racism in the country from an outsider’s perspective. Each of the Ifemelu chapters ends with a sample of her writing, and Adichie’s observations as channeled through Ifemelu are insightful, interesting, and unflinching in their examination of how race still touches everything in America.
There is a lot of pontificating in this novel – and some on GoodReads have strong reactions to her observations – but I appreciated that Adichie tried to bring humor into these passages. Some of Ifemelu’s experiences are ridiculous, and Adichie’s writing makes it clear that (white) readers can laugh whilst still checking their behavior.
But the novel isn’t entirely about race. It also provides damning commentary on the lack of economic and social opportunities afforded to people based on the geography of their birth, their tribal/national identity, their political allegiance, etc. And it also tries to answer the question of whether or not you can go home again.
Clearly, there is a lot going on in this novel. Tighter editing may have helped clarify and solidify its message as well as given it a sharper hook at the beginning. But I’m glad I pushed forward with a third – or ninth? – attempt at reading it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on my Top Ten list for the year.
This is my twelfth book for #20BooksofSummer. When I made my list for the challenge, I didn’t anticipate how much traveling I’d be doing between June and September and didn’t include a single title off my Kindle, which is my go-to while traveling. Thankfully, Cathy is flexible with her “rules” for this challenge, allowing participants to swap in other books and count them towards their challenge total. I purchased the Kindle version of ‘Americanah’ in January 2016 and the audiobook edition in July 2018.