I’m fast becoming a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Her adult fiction is intelligent and important, and Americanah is no exception. Here she deta...moreI’m fast becoming a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Her adult fiction is intelligent and important, and Americanah is no exception. Here she details the seemingly doomed relationship between two Nigerians: Ifemelu and Obinze. Their affair begins in Africa and seems destined to fail once Ifemelu moves to America, but through a fragmented storyline that opens in the present and fills in the holes via flashbacks and shifting narrative perspective, Adiche provides a refreshing and unique point of view on how race truly is a social construct that mutates between cultures and continents.
Early on, Ifemelu quips “How easy It was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives that we have imagined” (17). Upon her move to America, she suffers that traditional immigrant experience of feeling a part of two worlds and failing to feel at home in either. However, as an African immigrant in a country where blackness defines social standing, she provides a new frame of reference. Ifemelu finds a type of fame in the United States as an anonymous blogger on race, but her authority on the matter is rather suspect according to American standards. She is hired to give speeches on race only to be told that her ideology is flawed and anonymous posters regularly start flame wars on her website. The sister of her African American activist Ivy League professor boyfriend summarizes the issue when she somewhat spitefully suggests that the reason “Ifemelu can write that blog [is] because she’s African. She’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. So she can write it and get all these accolades and get invited to give talks. If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned” (336). In reality, she has to learn the hard way that there is immense truth in what her aunt tells her upon her arrival to America: “You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed” (119). Ifemelu suffers considerably in a number of ways, and she fails to come to terms with the reality of her success until late in the novel, particularly her reliance on a white family that find her friendship an important collectible tchotchke for their mantle of liberalism.
Meanwhile, Obinze is shut out of her life after her move, and he must find his own path to success. He struggles with immigration abroad in his own way, only to find a path to economic success and a traditional family back home. The only problem is that “he was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether liked it because he was supposed to” (21). Upon Ifemelu’s return to Lagos late in the chronology of the story—a plotline that is revealed rather early in the novel however—he questions whether or not he can stay in the life he has created now that his past has returned to him. When he contemplates leaving his life behind in order to create a new future with Ifemelu, he is told by a friend “many of us didn’t marry the woman we truly loved. We married the woman that was around when we were ready to marry. So forget this thing. You can keep seeing her, but no need for this kind of white-people behavior. You can keep seeing her, but no need for this kind of white-people behavior. If your wife has a child for somebody else or if you beat her, that is a reason for divorce. But to get up and say you have no problem with your wife but you are leaving her for another woman? Haba. We don’t behave like that, please” (472).
This “white-people behavior” is the soul of the Americanah—the native Nigerian who returns after having lived abroad in a Western culture that unintentionally marginalizes traditional African life. Ifemelu joins an Americanah Club upon her return and realizes that “It’s as if we are looking at an adult Nigeria that we didn’t know about” (429); her new outlook on her homeland is mature, but the conflict of embracing Western culture and her native way of life is a difficult one to overcome. Such is the crux of this post-colonial tale: how does a country with such promise move beyond the devastating effects of colonialism without embracing the power that exists in the Western world? When Ifemelu tells her American ex-boyfriend that “race doesn’t really work here. I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black” (476), there is both truth and falsehood wrapped up in that statement. Blackness is a construct in America born of a oppressive legacy that many refuse to face, and having lived so long within that culture, how can Ifemelu possibly shed the trappings of that identity even upon her return to a country without the same social constraints? (less)
This absolutely fantastic collection of short stories demonstrates that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the sharpest talents around in contemporary...moreThis absolutely fantastic collection of short stories demonstrates that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the sharpest talents around in contemporary fiction. The stories are each distinct, some set in the United States, others set in Nigeria, but each contains an emotional transparency that holds the reader whether Adichie spins the tale of a well-off medical student holed up with a peasant during a rebel incursion or zooming in on the life of a Nigerian immigrant forced to take a nannying job with an affluent family in the suburbs. I've read Adichie has been referred to do as the "literary daughter" of Chinua Achebe, and the final story in this collection proves the link is more than conjecture. In "The Headstrong Historian," Adichie imagines the a final chapter for Achebe's Things Fall Apart, providing a female protagonist who is a direct descendent of one of the characters in that novel exploring her family and cultural heritage.
I've also seen Adichie referred to as one of the greatest writers to come out of Africa in recent memory, and I argue that she is clearly one of the greatest writers to enter the literary scene regardless of her continent of origin. She's a fabulous African writer, she's a fabulous female writer, and she's simply a fabulous writer!(less)
I was introduced to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during a workshop a few months ago where we watched her TED speech, "The Danger of a Single Story." The t...moreI was introduced to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during a workshop a few months ago where we watched her TED speech, "The Danger of a Single Story." The talk brilliantly highlights the need to read outside one's reality in order to rid ourselves of stereotypes and myths, as well as the false belief that we understand an entire people based on a single story. I knew that the moment my reading shelf had an opening, I'd choose one of her novels.
I really wanted to love this novel, and I did. Centered on the 1960s secession of Biafra from Nigeria and the ensuing war that joined the country back together, Adichie creates a moving story of a handful of characters whose lives are drastically altered by the war. Her characters are intricately drawn and vividly realized, and her fragmented story construction and shifting points of view create a swift read. (I did not give it five stars, however, because I did feel it was a tad bit long.)
This book is precisely why I love fiction; it educates through an empathy that only a deep fictional narration can achieve, a penetration of multiple characters' psychologies combined with carefully structured plot devices--something that nonfiction, even memoirs, just can't match. Having read this so closely after the similarly Nigerian-themed novel Little Bee I am reminded of the importance of reading authentic voices who can write with authority. Whereas Little Bee is written by a white British male journalist, Half of a Yellow Sun is written by native Nigerian and trained fiction writer Adichie. Where Little Bee felt like the story construction and character development were second to the author's political message, Half of a Yellow Sun is precisely the opposite, a book in which the craft of storytelling quietly leads you down a path to political and moral understanding almost by surprise.(less)
Based on my experiences reading student essays and just listening to the general literary grapevine, I was already pretty familiar with the plot of Th...moreBased on my experiences reading student essays and just listening to the general literary grapevine, I was already pretty familiar with the plot of Things Fall Apart before I started reading the actual text. I knew the narrative to be a compelling representation of the collision between British colonialism and Nigerian nativism. Upon engaging with the text however, I was struck by the level at which Achebe succeeds in allowing both the civility and the barbarism to coexist within both societies so eloquently. Okonkwo's characterization and arc are difficult portrayals of the effects of Western greed disguised in salvation coupled with the harsh realities of a shifting native culture that cannot catch up with its destructive deliverance from primitivism. This is a book I'd like to read again in the future, especially if given the opportunity to teach it. My four-star rating is due primarily to the disconnected style in which Achebe relates the story; perhaps this is culturally stylistic or even representative of an allegorical technique, but I found it difficult to truly connect with Okonkwo in the way I expect to when reading fiction. In hindsight though, this might be due to his character's truly difficult position of being a father caught in changing times within his chosen homeland. Some of the difficult actions he takes(view spoiler)[--beating his wives, murdering his adopted child, disowning his son-- (hide spoiler)]which might be unpalatable if the reader feels too close to him.(less)
I am such a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I really wanted to love this book. I was introduced to Adichie in a multicultural literature cla...moreI am such a huge fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I really wanted to love this book. I was introduced to Adichie in a multicultural literature class when we watched her TED Talk entitled "The Danger of a Single Story." Her eloquent speech is required viewing now in my classes, and I eagerly sought out her writing. I first read her other novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and several of her short stories that were published in The New Yorker. I found them mostly brilliant, yet they differ from Purple Hibiscus in that they are much more adult themed than this novel. Perhaps that is what this piece lacks. What I've found in Adichie's other works is a mature and subtle understanding of the layered lives we live, and she writes about them from an Nigerian perspective that provides truth to the universality of our daily struggles worldwide. Since Purple Hibiscus centers on a fifteen-year-old protagonist and her devoutly religious and abusive father, I found the story all too boring. The storyline and structure were tired and contrived in much the way an actual fifteen-year-old girl would write--maybe that was her intent? I had to force myself to finish this book, and I was immensely sad at feeling that way. I am still in love with Adichie though, and I look forward to her future work!(less)
**spoiler alert** The hype surrounding this book--both from friends who have read it and the major press blitz of the past few months--seriously heigh...more**spoiler alert** The hype surrounding this book--both from friends who have read it and the major press blitz of the past few months--seriously heightened my expectations. With every chapter though, I kept wondering, "Is it going to get better?" Sadly, it never did.
Cleave's novel focuses on the title character's escape from Nigeria to the United Kingdom, where she tracks down the white couple who saved her life while they were on holiday and attempts to gain refugee status. The early chapters constantly reference "the event" of that day on the beach when the British couple Sarah and Andrew suffered unimaginable horrors and found their lives intertwined with Little Bee's. This "event" is so built up by Sarah (who alternately narrates the novel along with Little Bee) and is supposedly the catalyst for Andrew's suicide early in the novel, that the final revelation is almost laughable, particularly since she hardly endures the worst of the abuse that takes place and isn't even present for its aftermath.
As a reader, I am totally sympathetic to Cleave's purpose and cause, yet in writing a novel about the atrocities of the world and the deplorable status of refugees, Cleave uses entirely too heavy a hand, one that constantly made me roll my eyes. Little Bee, for example, periodically relates tales of her village prior to oil-hungry rebels destroying her way of life, and at one point she tells how in her "village [the:] only Bible had all of its pages missing after the forty-sixth verse of the twenty-seventh chapter of Matthew, so that the end of [their:] religion, as far as any of [them:] knew, was My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?" Seriously? Later, the African characters' names through are similarly contrived (her sister's name becomes "Kindness" at one point) and in the final pages Cleave hits his reader square over the head when Little Bee tells Sarah's son what her original African name is: Peace.
Cleave's narrative is also full of uneven characterizations. Little Bee spends two years in an immigrant detention facility where she learns to speak the "Queen's English" perfectly by reading magazines and newspapers. In fact, she even learns the nuances of political satire, claiming that she learned "it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats." She then inconceivably comes out of the two years of self-education without knowing that there is any other film in existence other than Top Gun, which she saw in her village as a young girl. These inconsistencies are then matched with unbelievable plot points, like Little Bee's admission of being at the scene of a crime, a scene at which she took no pains to cover her actions and yet no authorities found evidence of her presence.
Amidst all the trash though, there are certain truisms. The loss of Sarah's husband after two years of his depression prompts her to note that "there was no quick grief for Andrew because he had been so slowly lost. First from my heart, then from my mind, and only finally from my life." A colleague at one point tells Sarah, "What happened to watning, Sarah, was getting a few of the things we wanted." Then at one point Little Bee tells a white man, "In your mind you still don't think I really exist. It does not occur to you that I can be clever, like a white person. That I can be selfish, like a white person." Small phrases like this peppered throughout the guffaw-inspiring narration of the rest of the book did bump this review past the two-star mark for me, and at times the book's worst lines were even enjoyable because they made me laugh out loud. My favorite is when Sarah looks around her house, feeling her life is spinning out of control and thinks, "Sofa from Habitat. Memories from hell." In the end, this novel feels precisely like that sofa from Habitat: a pseudo-chic and stylized text with mass-market appeal.(less)