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Americanah
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2014 Book Discussions > Americanah - Part II (August 2014)

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message 1: by Terry (last edited Aug 06, 2014 07:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Terry Pearce This is for discussion of the book up to the end of Part II (Chapters 3 - 22). Please don't post spoilers beyond this point.

We see a lot of the world through the eyes of Nigerian and African diaspora in this section. America seems to wear some people down, as it does Uju. We also see a lot about what Nigerians and other Africans have to do (changing their hair, their accents) to fit in. How did this make you feel about the US and the West?

Ifemelu breaks things off with Obinze because she feels too guilty to talk to him after what she does with the tennis coach? How did you feel about this?

Ifemelu often ponders about the differences between the men in her life. Do you feel she judges them correctly? How do you feel about her relationships and how she navigates them?


message 2: by Matthew (last edited Aug 04, 2014 10:25AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matthew | 154 comments Coming in to the home stretch on Part II, but far enough along to say: "What the heck with the Part breaks?" Part I only gets us about halfway through a hair braid, while Part II goes from the after-dinner part of the hair braiding to childhood in Nigeria through schooling in Africa to New York to Philadelphia, at least.

Ifemelu is getting more judgmental as we go, or I'm just noticing it more.

"Jackie said you're from Africa?" a boy in a baseball cap ask her. "Yes." "That's really cool!" he said, and Ifemelu imagined telling Obinze about this the way she would mimic the boy. (p. 158)

Come on, Ifemelu! A guy makes an innocuous -- if somewhat vapid -- comment at a frat party and we're already planning to how we're going to mock him?

So far, the character that holds the most interest to me in Aunt Uju. She's the only one who Ifemelu seems to like, even though she keeps making bad decisions, first with the General, and now, it looks like, with the Massachussets Accountant. I feel like her character could go a bunch of different ways, from redemptive to disasterous, and I feel some real suspense about which way it will go.

Ifemelu does say that America "wore down" Uju, but judging by her total failure in Nigeria, career-wise and romance-wise -- chased from her home without any notice -- that hardly seemed like fair judgment to me when I read it. Aunt Uju, I think, came to America pre-worn.


Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments Matthew wrote: "Ifemelu does say that America "wore down" Uju, but judging by her total failure in Nigeria, career-wise and romance-wise -- chased from her home without any notice -- that hardly seemed like fair judgment to me when I read it. Aunt Uju, I think, came to America pre-worn. ..."

Good point. More likely it was her loss of comfy lifestyle that wore her down, not the location of her new struggles itself.


Sandra | 114 comments I'm feeling conflicted and confused about this book. It's kind of pissing me off. A lot of the choices these characters make are choices they THINK they must make to fit in. Like straightening their hair or forcing an American accent. But do Americans really expect this or even care? Give us some credit to accept you as you are. I think most will.

Yes, I imagine it is very difficult to start a life in a different country. But what wears people down is just life. It happens everywhere to everyone. It's not always easy. We capitulate to have a job. Our lovers aren't perfect people. Sometimes strangers are jerks to you for no reason regardless of how decent you try to treat others. I think Ifemelu treats others unfairly. She treats herself unfairly as well. It's not always about being a foreigner. She seems unhappy in herself.


Evelina | AvalinahsBooks (avalinahsbooks) | 116 comments Don't get me started on the straightening your hair part. I have curly hair myself, alright - no afro, but curly enough to have similar problems in my region (at least when I was younger). I was so mad at Ifemelu for doing that to her hair! :(

I think Adichie shows very nicely through this hair part how much it means to a woman to try to accept herself, also her ethnicity along with it (don't tell me, I know this sentence looks like a monkey wrote it, but I can't be bothered, you get the point.). Anyway, this part was one I could really resonate with.

To me, on the contrary, Ifemelu doesn't seem like an unhappy person. What she does though is hiding from herself what she really wants. But that's because she's running from what she did, from what happened. A lot of us do that. I think that's really lifelike in the story.


Terry Pearce Sandra, I think you are absolutely right that Ifemelu is unhappy in herself, and much of what she does stems from this.

On the other hand, I'd like to gently challenge your 'most'. In any case, I think it's undeniable that *some* will expect this, at least on an unconscious level, or at least discriminate if they don't get it. The question then becomes 'how many?'. What proportion will discriminate. That can certainly be debated, but unless it's a vanishing amount, would you agree it is a factor? And one that might weigh particularly heavy in a situation like Ifemelu's where feeling welcome, and finding a job and other such things, are tough?

The book gives more examples as it progresses. It's a facet of privilege that we don't notice we have it, which is something else it goes on to discuss. Do stick with it; I'd be interested in what you think once you've seen more.


message 7: by Terry (last edited Aug 05, 2014 04:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Terry Pearce Very germane article around attitudes to natural hair today:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisf...


Sandra | 114 comments weird. I never knew the hair issue was such a controversial topic... to the point that petitions were signed? I mean yeah, perhaps Beyoncé could have made her daughter's hair look cuter but why should we care???

For the record I think natural hair looks much nicer than processed hair. That goes for anybody anywhere.


Julie (readerjules) | 196 comments Sandra wrote: "weird. I never knew the hair issue was such a controversial topic... to the point that petitions were signed? I mean yeah, perhaps Beyoncé could have made her daughter's hair look cuter but why should we care..."

I know. It often amazes me how much people want to tell other people what to do when it shouldn't matter to them at all.


message 10: by Aitziber (last edited Aug 05, 2014 09:42AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Aitziber | 22 comments I think that's one of the reasons Americanah is such an amazing book. The natural vs straightened hair issue has been raging for a few years, if not decades, now. But it seems that a lot of people aren't aware of this controversy. Perhaps because it doesn't directly affect them? Since Adichie has such a far-reaching voice, in writing Americanah she gets to make people aware of issues happening in communities within their own country -- America, in this case. :)

To be blunt, I've been hearing about the hair issue for a few years now. I was really excited that Adichie not only addressed it, but was straight-forward about it. I hope the book opens people's eyes not only to this issue, but many other race issues they may not have been aware are taking place right now. There's a lot to learn if one doesn't take a defensive stance, of "well! I wouldn't make an issue of it, so she should give me/us some credit!" Why think that a person who's lived in a country for so long is trying to bullshit you?


Terry Pearce "Willingness to learn from each moment—as opposed to defending ourselves by stonewalling, explaining, justifying, withdrawing, blaming—is much more important than IQ, family background or education. The great advantage of openness-to-learning is that you're in charge of it at all times. You can choose to shift out of defensiveness into genuine curiosity at any moment."

– Gay & Katie Hendricks


Terry Pearce That said, I think that defensiveness and non-awareness of the issue is a very natural reaction.

Aitziber, do you think there's a place for being sympathetic to that reaction whilst challenging it?


Ellie (elliearcher) | 146 comments Sandra wrote: "I'm feeling conflicted and confused about this book. It's kind of pissing me off. A lot of the choices these characters make are choices they THINK they must make to fit in. Like straightening thei..."

I think the accent is an important issue. Americans judge people even by their regional accent; accents from outside the U.S., unless their British and possibly French, are looked down upon. Couple this with racism and it's a formidable obstacle to job, educational, or personal success.


Aitziber | 22 comments Terry, first off, I want to say you're a great moderator. This is the first book I discuss with this group, and you're causing a great impression on me throughout the threads. :D I will certainly do my best to read books with the group whenever I can in the future.

Wrt your question. Hmmm . . . I will admit that I have traveled a lot and so have already dealt with my own defensiveness and willfull patriotism, for the most part. As a teenager, I did my sophomore year in an American HS, and of course keep in touch with family and friends. I have found that you learn a lot more from letting go of your preconceptions, even preconceptions about your own country, and just listening to what people have to say about themselves.

There's a place for being sympathetic to that reaction, yes, but I also feel that -- we need to really consider who we are ourselves, and what we're reacting against. Some of us, because of our race/gender/sexuality/abled bodies/etc, never become aware of issues that other people, because of their race/gender/sexuality/disabled bodies/etc, deal with day in and day out. And we need to allow for the possibility that they might be telling the truth even if we have never experienced it ourselves.

That said, while preaching to the choir is extremely satisfying in that everyone already has the knowledge necessary and there's no effort expended in exposing others to said knowledge . . . It also contributes to the atmosphere in which people outside your congregation aren't aware that issues do exist.

So many metaphors! :p


Deborah | 983 comments We keep coming back to the idea of judgment and criticism.

I don't know if I was correct when I said that she judges herself, but the narration really inferred that to me. I'm finishing up part two (Unless I made it to three without noticing. I'm doing audio so that I can listen while walking which frees up more time.) Maybe by the end my perceptions on this will change.

She talks, when talking about the blog, about her readers who seem erudite enough to leave her a little daunted. And she writes this blog.

How is the blog different than Uju's accountant boyfriend's posts online? Or the ASA members conversations mentioned briefly?

As for the hairdresser, I recently found a hairdresser who barely speaks English. I only spend about a half hour in the chair, and it's still a great relief not to have to make small talk. Of course, I am almost painfully introverted and an American North Easterner, so my mileage may vary from the norm. (Because text is hard, I am going to point out that I am gently teasing, not mocking.)


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments A few things popped into my head as I read through the comments.

First is an experience I had about 30 years ago. One of my co-workers with whom I became good friends was an African-American (I am Caucasan). We often attended parties and events where she was the only African-American. She invited me to a shower for her brother's wife-to-be. I was the only Caucasian at the event. And I felt that I was different than everyone else there. Now, by the end of the evening, that feeling had dissipated, but it was a small example of what it feels like to stand out as obviously different than all those who surround you.

Second is the reaction that the election and presidency of Barrack Obama elicited, not only in the US but in the world.

Third, I live in an urban oasis surrounded by poverty. While my oasis is predominantly Caucasian, it is surrounded by a majority-minority population, some of whom are recent immigrants. My husband taught in the high school attended by a similar population. The groups of minorities segregated themselves and had little nice to say about each other, especially the African-Americans about the other minorities and the Caucasians.

Fourth, I have traveled a lot internationally. Although my African experience is limited (Tunisia), I have found that my travels have given me a much better understanding of the world outside the US, including a realization that we Americans are a bit self-centered and close-minded.

I am very impressed with Adiche and how she is showing not only the differences our Nigerian friend found in America but also the similarities of people and their reactions.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Julie wrote: "More likely it was her loss of comfy lifestyle that wore her down, not the location of her new struggles itself."

I can't agree with this. Uju's may have had a luxurious house in Nigeria, but I don't think I would call her lifestyle "comfy." And, she's working her butt off in the US. Just look at what she had to do in order to be recognized as a doctor in the US. Not that it is a bad thing to have the requirements, but it is not easy to meet them. Uju is a single mom working three jobs while she tries to get recognized as a physician. She has earned the right to feel worn down and perhaps a bit desperate.


Terry Pearce Some great comments, people [Aww, thank you, Aitziber]. Don't forget to comment in the later threads as appropriate when you get there -- as well as helping with spoilers, it will help to break up what might otherwise become an unwieldy thread.

Linda and Aitziber, you both mention how travel has helped to break down your preconceptions. We encounter Ifemelu at the start of her journey in Part II, when she has not had this opportunity (or is only starting to have it). I'd be interested in how you think she is changed by the end.

Deborah, interesting point about the others in the story who judge online. I do find myself that people are more outspoken and judgmental online in general.

Aitziber, I think you're really talking about privilege, and I think it can be a hard concept to get across to people precisely because it's all about what you take for granted. I had difficulty with it myself. Later chapters have more to say about privilege specifically -- again, interested to see how people feel about those comments in the book.


Aitziber | 22 comments Terry, I was in fact talking about privilege. :) I tried to put it into words that someone who's never encountered the concept before would understand.

As for Ifemelu, I personally adore her! I didn't mean to imply I don't care for her when I said in Part I that she could be an ass or judgmental. I think she can be those things, but also insightful and able to put into words what some people may not notice. She does perhaps have one or a couple chips on her shoulder, so to speak -- but I don't blame her for that. It can be a challenge to live abroad, whether by choice or out of necessity. Some people take really well to the role of foreigner (I would shamelessly characterize myself as this kind of person, heh), but I believe for most it's an alienating experience. Especially if you do it as an adult.

I did already read Americanah a few months back, and am just following the threads in sequence to jog up my memory, so I will share my final thoughts on her arc when we get to it. But suffice to say, Adichie proved to me you can still do original stuff with words in 2014. :D


Terry Pearce I think you put great words to it, Aitziber.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Ellie wrote: "I think the accent is an important issue. Americans judge people even by their regional accent; accents from outside the U.S., unless their British and possibly French, are looked down upon. Couple this with racism and it's a formidable obstacle to job, educational, or personal success."

I agree that accents can be an issue. I find some accents annoying and others engaging. For example, I do like a British or Aussie accent but do not like the nasal tone of the Dakotas/Minnesota region (which is similar to that of many young folks who end their sentences with question mark).


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Terry wrote: "We also see a lot about what Nigerians and other Africans have to do (changing their hair, their accents) to fit in. How did this make you feel about the US and the West?"

I do not think this is unique to the US or to the West. I think people everywhere are uncomfortable (not sure that's the right word) when encountering people different from themselves and people they have preconceived notions about. A young friend spent her junior year in high school (8-10 years ago) in Taiwan. She found it hard to "fit in" and encountered many misconceptions about Americans (no one could believe she did not know how to shoot a gun and that no one in her family owned a gun).

As a child, I remember other kids using the term "farmer" to describe someone they thought was dumb or dressed funny. Since I was a farm girl, that made me ask my mother to let me buy my clothes at a store rather than her making them so I'd look like the other kids.

One thing I like about this book is learning about the preconceptions that Nigerians have about the U.S. I'm not surprised by the misconceptions we in the U.S. have, given that most of the news we hear about Nigeria and Nigerians is negative.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Terry wrote: "Ifemelu breaks things off with Obinze because she feels too guilty to talk to him after what she does with the tennis coach? How did you feel about this?"

Given her state of mind at the time, I do not find the guilt surprising or her decision to ignore his messages. In her mind, she was no longer worthy of his love. But, when she regains her balance and is reminded of him, she realizes she was wrong. But, by then, he is not in a good place. I am anxious about what is to come (I am assuming they will meet soon).


Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments Linda, I very much agree with your comments. I found myself able to identify with Ife(my nickname for her) as the book progresses. Adichie was able to get to the raw emotions that people feel, regardless of race,sex,culture etc.


Matthew | 154 comments Quick thoughts on Part 2, now that I am done:

1. As a Penn grad I am offended that when she is at Princeton it is "Princeton." but when she goes to Penn it is the fictional "Wellston."

2. I know think of the hair salon as some sort of "race limbo", or maybe the set up to some sort of racist joke. Will there be an Asian customer, a Native American and a bald guy by the end?

3. How much is Ifemelu the mouthpiece for the author? I usually try to avoid that assumption, but with the judgments that turn out to be spot on, the authorial blog posts, and then the fake name "Ngozi" that she tries to use to work (which is the author's middle name), is making me blur author and narrator.

4. The big point we are wondering about when we begin is why she broke up with Obinze. We get the answer, and the incident with the tennis trainer followed by the deep depression is convincing. But then she gets the job with Kimberly and within a few pages she is "cured" and we don't hear about the depression again and she doesn't act depressed again, but still does not try to contact Obinze until years later in Baltimore. So I bought why she cut off contact, but not why she still won't talk to him even when she's happily dating Kurt or lightheartedly flirting with Blaine on the train.

5. Will there be more Don and Kimberly? There was a lot of emotional build up, but now we're out of Philadelphia, so will there be payoff?


Terry Pearce I think the third question is the most interesting there, and I am undecided as to the exact extent of Adichie's dovetailing with Ifemelu myself. I believe that Adichie probably does believe a lot of the things, and has experienced a lot of the things, that we see from Ifemelu. But I also think she has created a character who is not Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and is true to the character when she writes. A lot of authors work this way, I think. I wonder what others think?

I don't really see the salon that way, myself. I think that in many ways, deliberately trying to overcompensate for stereotypes almost as bad as lazily using them in story terms. Nobody is just a stereotype. But many people on first glance [and some on deeper examination] appear to fit a stereotype. Streotypes come about for a reason. I meet 'seeming' stereotypes every day, racial and otherwise. We are guilty of discrimination if we assume that everyone from x group will fit the x group stereotype, but we are guilty of blindness if we think that none of x group conform to it at all.

I found the entire response to the tennis incident very believable. I didn't ever see her as cured. Traumatic incidents can depress, and we see this. One coping strategy is to cut off that incident and never think of it again, pretend to all intents and purposes that it never happened. As I see it, Ifemelu can do that with Curt or whoever because they were not part of her life then. But she cannot have Obinze as part of her life without facing the tennis coach incident, and that she will not do.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Matthew wrote: "Quick thoughts on Part 2, now that I am done:

1. As a Penn grad I am offended that when she is at Princeton it is "Princeton." but when she goes to Penn it is the fictional "Wellston."


I am listening to the book and heard "Wellston" as Wilson, which is a college just outside of Philly, and I assumed that was the college she was attending.


Deborah | 983 comments What she says in the blog sounds true to me.


message 29: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments I'm sort of perusing the book again (as my eyes allow) and what I noticed today (and had forgotten) was Adichie treats the subject of fundamentalist Christianity through Ifemelu's Nigerian mother rather than through an American character. On original reading, and again now, I find that a rather fascinating choice. Not sure I could really fit it into the overall story line -- neither on original read nor again now, except perhaps how to get a viewpoint to a particular readership, even though Adichie says she doesn't write for such.


Terry Pearce Lily, do you think it could have been less of a calculated choice than you imply? Perhaps she knows somebody like that who inspired the character, for instance?


message 31: by Lily (last edited Aug 13, 2014 01:47PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Terry wrote: "Lily, do you think it could have been less of a calculated choice than you imply? Perhaps she knows somebody like that who inspired the character, for instance?"

Sure. I have no concrete evidence. But somehow with Adichie's sensitivity to social issues....and her carefully honed critiques of America...well...

One place where she reminds me of Dickens and his ability to caricature human foibles and proclivities.


Terry Pearce You may well be right. I have no specific reason to think the other way either. I was just interested to examine it.

Interesting comparison with Dickens. I hadn't thought of it but I see where you're going with it.


message 33: by Lily (last edited Aug 14, 2014 11:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Terry wrote: "Interesting comparison with Dickens. I hadn't thought of it but I see where you're going with it...."

[g} What comes of concurrently following the reading of Bleak House with another board and of encountering some commentary comparing Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Dickens in preparation for an upcoming f2f book discussion! I enjoy the treatments of characters by these two modern writers (Adichie and Tartt); I often have difficulties with reading Dickens.

Ref: [book:The Goldfinch: A Guide for Book Clubs|20815369]

The Goldfinch


message 34: by Zulfiya (last edited Aug 16, 2014 01:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 397 comments I am slightly befuddled how 'nonliterary literary' this book is, and it is a personal perception. On the one hand, I mostly relate to the book on the personal level, without analyzing its characters, plot, narrative structure, or narrative voice.
On the other hand, some parts of the novel are extremely literary with numerous books mentioned and discussed, but nothing worth mentioning in the literary sense, with the only exception of Graham Greene and James Baldwin.

As far I understand, most of the readers here are Caucasians, and I am too, but I am an immigrant from Russia who came to the USA five years ago, and I do relate to many, many issues in this novel.Obviously, it has nothing to do with the race, but with the cultural shock in general. I happen to reside currently in Arkansas, a beautiful place and a birthplace of Bill Clinton, and these are possibly the only nice things one can say about Arkansas where the issue of race is still an issue, poverty is rampant, religion is loudly evangelical, and English language acquisition seems to be a huge problem.

As you see, even in this statement, I was judgmental. The fact is no one can factually debunk the previous points, but aliens are not expected to judge America.

I am telling this because I do have a bifocal approach. I am gradually blending in (not in the meaning of acquiring the Southern twang with its ain'ts, seen for the past form, and double negatives), but I still do remember the clash of cultural worlds inside me.

I am listening to the audio book, and the narrator is doing a wonderful job showing all the accents and also using standard American and British pronunciation where needed, but it was exceptionally hard to get into the book because of the authentic African accents - Nigerian is only one of them. It was hard to follow, but I can easily assume for Southerners it was hard to follow me with my eclectic mixture of British and Russian inflections.

I am not trying to defend Ifemelu(and I occasionally find her extremely annoying for her unwillingness to accept what she is and her ability to judge), but I also understand how displaced and alienated she felt. In addition, from my immigrant perspective she is often right in her conclusions, but I also see how it is painful for decent, fundamentally good people to accept this truth about the discrepancy between reality and dream in America. It is easy to criticize oneself, but it is hard to accept the same criticism from another person with a different cultural perspective.

Ifemelu is believable, but sometimes very unlikable.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2313 comments Thanks for the thoughtful commentary Zulfiya. Can't say I've been to Arkansas but imagine it is not too different from Mississippi, which I have visited.


Terry Pearce Zulfiya,

Some great insight there into your experience and how it relates to the book.

For myself, I found that thinking about her with understanding, bearing in mind what she was going through, made her a very sympathetic character. I can accept all kinds of behaviours in people [in books and in real life] if I can see where they come from, how their experience led them to that.

I found the fact of her believability, or understandability (may be making up words here) -- along with her wit and her basic decency -- made her likable, to me.


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