A Book Review
Written by Elise Baum
I was first introduced to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, like a lot of people, through Beyonce’s song Flawless. Beyonce inserted a clip from her TEDtalk entitled “We Should all be Feminists,” which is also now published in written form. If you haven’t watched or read this work you need to do so right now. But that’s beside the point: because of this introduction I picked up Adichie’s book “Americanah.” It is exquisite. At the heart of the novel is a complex and beautiful love story, but it’s also smart and intriguing and eye opening and real and brilliantly written.
The novel begins with Ifemelu, on her way to get her hair done. The book then jumps through different time periods and different character point of views to tell the story of these two lost lovers; Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu was born and raised in Nigeria and then came to the United States for college. She stayed to work before deciding to go back home to Nigeria. The first scene is her getting her hair done in preparation for her trip back home. This first scene was enough to grab my attention because she immediately introduced me to a part of life I am not familiar with, African women getting their hair done. I, embarrassingly, had never considered this essential and simple part of the life, and how it differs for these women. It is just not represented in mainstream media as much as it should be. (See: Alex Churchwell’s witty piece, “Black Hair is Good Hair.”) It was unusual to be introduced to this woman, a main character, doing a very familiar task.
Following this introduction we see her go back and grow up in Nigeria and fall in love and then leave. We also meet the other half of the book, Obinze. The book flips back and forth between their stories and points of view and you learn to love each of them individually as well as together. You feel their connection even though in most of the book they are in different countries. This kicks us off into their separate journeys, and we see them grapple with many issues; with humanity, race, home, and gender, and how all of these things intersect for these two very different people.
The most magical aspect of this novel is that it tackles these issues of race and gender and identity through a poignant fictional narrative with specific and real characters. Adichie is able to talk about these issues and show you first hand how they effect the day to day life of Ifemelu and how she has to work through these things. Through Ifemelu, Adichie teaches us about the differentiation between Africans and African Americans in the United States and how these two groups interact. We learn about not only the hours she spends getting her hair done but the struggle between natural, braided, or weaved hair and the discomfort that comes with each choice. She reminds us that these simple issues are never discussed in mainstream media because somehow our society has decided the “average” person is a white person. We learn about the struggle of visas and the struggle to simply be free to work and live where we desire. Because these things are not talked about in a general or a broad manner, through the lens of a specific character it reaches us in a way it may not otherwise.
This book reminded me that we cannot look at these big issues of race and gender and life in the United States in broad or generic terms, because these issues or not generic. They affect real people every day and every person has their own specific journey with these issues in their everyday life. In order to fully understand the impact of these things we must first remember they are incredibly personal and real and are not a talking point, but real life for countless people. Adichie was able to remind me of this through a novel of fictional characters and fictional events, because these events are not as fictional as many people think.