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

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message 1: by Terry (last edited Aug 06, 2014 07:31AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Terry Pearce Please don't post spoilers here for sections after Part III (Chapters 23 - 30).

Here we see a 'hidden London' of unlicensed workers and people whose papers are not in order. How did it make you feel about immigration and the law? Did it make you reconsider any of your ideas?

The dinner party conversation highlights a variety of views on both the UK and the US. Did you identify with any in particular? How did you feel about Obinze's self-admission that he is not fleeing violence or war, but 'choicelessness'?


Ellie (elliearcher) | 156 comments I wished he didn't have to be ashamed to want more choices; that the world was a more open place.


message 3: by Aitziber (last edited Aug 07, 2014 07:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Aitziber | 22 comments The dinner party was one of my favorite scenes overall, because it cast a light on that male character (whose name doesn't come to mind right now, sorry) that is seen as a bit of a dunce back in Nigeria, and yet has changed himself chameleon-like, married an older British woman and become the most British of the Brits. I found him fascinating. What do you make of him, Terry?

Edit: I mean Emenike, for clarity's sake.


message 4: by Terry (last edited Aug 07, 2014 07:22AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Terry Pearce Emenike?

I think he is interesting, in a sad kind of way. I've spent a little time in Southern and Eastern Africa, my Dad much more, and a tiny bit of time in a few other countries, and one of the saddest things I can think of is where somebody jettisons their own culture and latches onto a Western one that seems glamorous and alluring, following it because of what it represents rather than any actual identification with it.

Eminike is a prime example of what I mean here. He seems to English culture (and the rest of Britain doesn't have much to do with it in this case) what a moth is to a flame. He hasn't considered why it might be better, or weighed up which elements of it suit him and which elements of his own culture are in fact better, or at least less forced and false. He seems to have put it on like a set of clothes rather than integrated with it as a person, and he seems to have done so without ever stopping to think about why, and whether it's a good idea.

I've seen this a lot, not just with Africa and Africans but with basically every country that isn't Western. I can understand how it can happen, but it saddens me. I wonder who Eminike really is, and I wonder what the world would be like if everyone not from the UK or US followed his path.


Aitziber | 22 comments Yes, Emenike!

I'm not sure that Emenike thinks English culture is more glamorous or alluring than his own, or that he has decided to dress in those clothes (nice metaphor), damn the implications or consequences. In fact, Emenike is kind of an enigma because he adopts those mores to such fullness that it's difficult to figure out what he's thinking.

I think it is safe to say that he feels superior to Obinze. The fact that he doesn't attempt to help much proves that to me, anyway. He has made it, played the game and won it, so to speak, apparently without help, and Obinze hasn't.

Another thing about Emenike is that he was probably always this ready to become someone else for the sake of social climbing. So what did he really think of his uni friends when they were all in school? Did he secretly feel superior or contemptuous of them?

Which brings me to his current friends. Does he feel clever for having them so completely? Or does he feel that his mask can't slip lest they cast him aside? It's interesting that they don't seem to question that this Nigerian can embody Englishness so completely. If I recall correctly, Emenike's wife actually does seem to subtly call him on it, or remind him of it with the taxi episode. Are his friends too polite to call him on it (a stereotypical British--or is it English in this case too?--trait!), or do they just not care/wonder about it?


Deborah | 983 comments But, for all he plays the chameleon, and as much as what he does for Obinze is fueled by ego, there is true generosity.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2387 comments Deborah wrote: "But, for all he plays the chameleon, and as much as what he does for Obinze is fueled by ego, there is true generosity."

I agree Deborah. Emenike did show true generosity. I don't think of Emenike as having given up his Nigerian clothes for a set of British clothes. I think he was ashamed of his background when he was in Nigeria - a poor "farmer" - as he probably still is. I did not get the impression that he was a dunce. Rather, I thought he was one of the smart kids who lied about his home and family because he was ashamed. The other kids knew the truth. Emenike hated his life as a child, dreamed of "hitting it big," and was able to attain his dream - out of poverty. He then chooses to immerse himself in his new environment. He acheived what no one thought he was capable of doing. But, he doesn't forget Obinze. Perhaps initially he is wary of getting involved with him but he comes through with the money and doesn't forget Obinze when he is arrested.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2387 comments Terry wrote: "Please don't post spoilers here for sections after Part III (Chapters 23 - 30).

Here we see a 'hidden London' of unlicensed workers and people whose papers are not in order. How did it make you fe..."


Terry, these are good, but difficult, questions. I suspect the "hidden London" is replicated in many places in the U.S. I think the illegal immigrant issue is extraordinarily complex. The U.S. is a country that has, often relunctantly, absorbed wave after wave of immigrants. Is the U.S. restricting legal immigration to a degree that was not done a hundred years ago? When I travel in Europe, I am often surprised by the animosity towards immigrants (e.g., against the Chinese in Venice and the Roma everywhere). I find myself becoming more and more conflicted as I grow older.


Matthew | 154 comments I think you are being too hard on both Eminike and Obinze. Eminike idolizes British culture just the same way that Obinze glorified America. If the situations were reversed and Obinze got to go to America and see Huck Finn's Mississippi River and Martin Luther King's Lincoln Memorial, would we criticize him for thinking of it as "our History." America glorifies the ideal of the foreigner coming from abroad and joining the Melting Pot. I am 100% confident that I had no relatives in the United States before 1920, and yet I have no hesitation in saying "We won the Revolutionary War" where "we" includes absolutely no one who is a blood relation of mine. Why is a Mexican who moves to America, learns English, and starts a business the emblem of the American Dream, while Emenike is somehow criticized for abandoning his culture -- he is "lost" or just a "social climber." I agree that Obinze seems to see him that way, but I don't see why we can't just take him at his word that he feels truly British with the zeal that any religious convert might.

As for Obinze's thought that he was in Britain due to "choicelessness," I don't see that as a "self-admission" with its implications that it was a lesser reason. To the contrary, I was immediately struck by the comparison the "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere that were inspired by well-educated citizens who graduated from college and found that they were just as "choiceless" as Obinze was. Revolution is not provided as an option -- they stick at the dinner party to the dichotomy of emigration or forced retention. I was struck by Alexa's "liberal" charity to keep African doctors from going abroad to work where they want. But I didn't see choicelessness as a "lesser" reason for emigration -- just one that doesn't get the headlines.


message 10: by Terry (last edited Aug 10, 2014 12:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Terry Pearce I certainly don't intend to be hard on Obinze myself. In terms of my question, Obinze more or less frames it that way himself, at the end of chapter 29.

I kind of think, by definition, that fleeing choicelessness is lesser than fleeing death and destruction [although if you don't I'm interested to hear why]. The question I was more aiming at is whether that's an issue or not, whether it's still a good reason, one you can sympathise with.

On that score, I agree with you more or less, Matthew. I think as a reason it could easily be underrated, and shouldn't be dismissed.

On Eminike, for me, the melting post implies a joining of cultures. Yes, that others joining this culture absorb some of it, but not blindly, not at the cost of losing their own. Your Mexican example would need more details to show where he fits, for me. Does he pretend to be American and shed his ways completely, without examination, or does he keep some of the things that make him him? Obinze is a great example of somebody who does this well. I think Ifemelu also does at times, although she is caught up in trying to fit in much of the time.

Note that I think this is a separate question to whether somebody feels 'British' or adopts the nationality of their new country. I think there's a big difference between identifying as British, and adopting a template of 'Britishness'. The same would go for the USA.

I should point out that I don't really judge Emineke for this; I think it's to some extent understandable given the pressures and the way that Western culture is packaged. I more lament the system that gives rise to one culture taking precedence and 'eating up' others, the way that Western culture often seems to when it meets non-Western. I think, if the aim of culture were to spread yours as far as possible [and I wish it were never this personally], we certainly get the 'best' from the melting-pot.


Matthew | 154 comments I should point out that I don't really judge Emineke for this; I think it's to some extent understandable given the pressures and the way that Western culture is packaged. I more lament the system that gives rise to one culture taking precedence and 'eating up' others, the way that Western culture often seems to when it meets non-Western.

But I see this not as a comment on Western culture, but on Eminike's personality. Even when Eminike mocks his wife, "it was a mockery colored by respect, mockery of what he believed, despite himself, to be inherently superior. Meanwhile, in school in Nigeria, Eminike "can read all the books he wants but the bush is still in his blood." (p. 326)

I see the two culture-clashes as directly parallel. He pushes aside his "bush culture" to fit in with his urban "school culture" and he pushes aside his "Nigerian culture" to fit in with her Western "British culture." This does not strike me as a narrative of Western cultural domination, but rather a voluntary subsuming of himself.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2387 comments Matthew wrote: "I see the two culture-clashes as directly parallel. He pushes aside his "bush culture" to fit in with his urban "school culture" and he pushes aside his "Nigerian culture" to fit in with her Western "British culture." This does not strike me as a narrative of Western cultural domination, but rather a voluntary subsuming of himself. "

I agree with Matthew with respect to Eminike. He was not happy in the bush and always dreamed of being something he considered better. He achieved his dream and appears to be happy as a clam to have done so." But, I also believe there is some truth to Terry's observation of Western culter "eating up" others. There are MacDonald's and Starbucks around the world, but I cannot think of any similar foreign chain that is appearing in every city across America. However, on a more individual level, I do think that many cultures persist in the U.S., even in the face of pressing Americanism.


message 13: by Lily (last edited Aug 11, 2014 03:43PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Linda wrote: "There are MacDonald's and Starbucks around the world, but I cannot think of any similar foreign chain that is appearing in every city across America. ..."

Some interesting charts here on world-wide brand names. U.S. certainly has cornered the fast food names. Luxury brands is a slightly different story. All probably reflect that U.S. is a very dominant market. (See chart on nation positions as importers, too.)

http://www.statista.com/statistics/27...


Matthew | 154 comments All I know is that the top selling condiment in the US is salsa, and the top selling item in my local "British food" restaurant (in New Jersey) is the curry chicken, which is delicious. Also, there may be 2000 McDonalds in China, but I bet there are more white Chinese takeout boxes used in America each day than burgers consumed in China.

I think one of the strengths of America is that its "culture" is flexible enough to absorb whatever we like, and leave "cultural purity" to the right wing reactionaries. Meanwhile the French of all political persuasions, for example, freak out any time an Americanism threatens to infiltrate their language.

Cultures change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. As long as it's not being forced on anyone, why not?


Sandra | 114 comments Food for thought, ahem.


Terry Pearce From my point of view, that's just it... American and Western culture tends to absorb artifacts from other cultures, but it's often barely altered by them. Often they're either sanitised and co-opted, or seen as an exotic something outside the actual culture.

Whereas when US/UK culture is exported, it tends much more to alter the character of the people and countries it invades. We have the advertising; we got there first. It's a massive generalisation, but to some extent, much of the rest of the world wants to live like us, or more like us. But I think we all lose something when that happens.

I'm sure similar things happen elsewhere... I suspect Russian and Chinese culture probably tends to overtake some of the culture in nearby/influenced countries. But our cultural takeover is more global than anyone else's and more pervasive. And actually what they're often getting isn't even really 'culture', it's consumerism, it's what the people who make the money want American/Western culture to be.

I'm all for meshing of cultures, but that's not always what I see happening. I see ours snowballing, not through its own merits, but just because it's the biggest show in town.

We're getting some way from the book now, but I always thought that this book would prompt these kinds of discussion, and I think that's a great thing.


Matthew | 154 comments Terry -- then returning to the book, would you support the "liberal charity" discussed in this section that works to prohibit third world doctors from practicing in America? On the one hand, it surely harms people like Aunt Uju and the book's "argument" seems to be against it. On the other hand, a significant part of Western imperialism is the "brain drain" it imposes when Aunt Uju is multiplied tens of thousands of times.


Matthew | 154 comments Terry -- then returning to the book, would you support the "liberal charity" discussed in this section that works to prohibit third world doctors from practicing in America? On the one hand, it surely harms people like Aunt Uju and the book's "argument" seems to be against it. On the other hand, a significant part of Western imperialism is the "brain drain" it imposes when Aunt Uju is multiplied tens of thousands of times.


Matthew | 154 comments Or to put it more simply: if we assume that people all over the world as basically the same, then it shouldn't be surprising that if you give them all the same options, then their "cultures" (which are really just the sum of millions of individual decisions) will converge. Giving the "choice" of McDonalds will inevitably lead some people to pick it and put a local food vendor with more diversity and higher costs and more authenticity and maybe more nutrition out of business. Do you ban McDonalds to protect culture or permit it to expand choice?


message 20: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Matthew wrote: "...Do you ban McDonalds to protect culture or permit it to expand choice? ..."

How do we measure whether Walmart (or McDonalds or....) expands choice or reduces choice?


Matthew | 154 comments Yes. Every decision limits choices, so before you can decide, you have to have an understanding of which choices are more important. The left wing argument against Walmart (it will push down wages and costs, driving out the small mid priced stores and leave anyone who doesn't want to shop at Walmart paying more or forced to Walmart anyway) is structurally identical to the right wing argument against Obamacare (it will push down costs and drive mid priced insurance plans out of business, leaving people who don't want the socialized plan paying more or forced to use it anyway). And yet neither wing is on the same side of both arguments.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2387 comments Returning to the book -- In considering this discussion, remember towards the end of the book when Imefelu and Obinze are singing to a song written and sung by a local group in the native language and one of them comments on how now that Nigeria has a middle class, it is starting to have and play its own music, rather than listening to American and British musicians and songs? This suggest to me a maturing culture gains an appreciation of itself rather than hungering for the culture of other countries. I think cultures are constantly maturing - even Western ones -- including segments within cultures. When I was a kid, we were so excited when we first got to have "store bought" bread. (But, I assure you, the lure of Wonder Bread faded quickly!) Perhaps when a nation gains a middle class, it gains enough people who are not just struggling to survive to those willing to spend money on non-essentials, like native art and music, allowing that part of culture to emerge and grow?


Matthew | 154 comments And (to make my post relevant) I think Ifemelu would agree with me!


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 397 comments Matthew wrote: "The left wing argument against Walmart (it will push down wages and costs, driving out the small mid priced stores and leave anyone who doesn't want to shop at Walmart paying more or forced to Walmart anyway) is structurally identical to the right wing argument against Obamacare (it will push down costs and drive mid priced insurance plans out of business, leaving people who don't want the socialized plan paying more or forced to use it anyway). And yet neither wing is on the same side of both arguments. "


It is not as simple as it might be about Walmart and Obamacare. Arkansas is showing the most significant progress with ACA because the local parliament passed the law expanding Medicare and Medicaid (although the caveat is the word ACA should never be mentioned in the same context:-))because Walmart was the lobby behind this decision. Walmart's home office is in Rogers, AR and it is the biggest employer with thousands of its employees eligible for benefits under this act. Without its lobby, ACA would have failed in AR. Just an example that shows that life is stranger than fiction where the clashing iconic notions co-operate.

Now back to the reading business.

I think gender is definitely a leading factor in my evaluation of part III: as a female reader, I most definitely find Obinze more likable than Ifemelu. Maybe, the explanation is simple - he likes reading literary books, and even when he was being prepared to be deported, he still asked for a book to read. It seems like his background shapes him more unilaterally as his mother was the only and most important figure in his life prior to Ifemelu and even after her.

Ifemelu, on the other hand, was shaped by opposing forces of her melancholic, reflexive agnostic father and evangelical, very religions, even mystical mother. Maybe that is why she is so conflicted about her personality because the ebbs and tides of her family still determine her life.
Obinze, conversely, is a unified personality, and mostly goes with the flow of life; he is ambitious, but his dreams about America and Western World are idealistic. In that case, the episode with human feces is quite exemplary. I have a nagging suspicion that Ifemelu would have reacted differently. Obinze prefers to quit the job because it goes against his human decency. I do not imply that Ifemelu would have cleaned the mess obediently, but the Ifemelu of the next part would have acted differently.

Blogging is definitely a liberating activity for Ifemelu, and Obinze is deprived of this possibility. He is not only displaced in the UK, but he seems to be permanently lost and exists in total fog without any bearings.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2387 comments Zulfiya, your observations about how Obinze and Ifemelu may have been shaped by their parents are somthing I had not considered but ones that ring true.


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 397 comments Thank you, Linda. It is one of those random thoughts I have when I drive a car. This one happened when I was driving to do my usual weekly grocery shopping. Buying good for our physical shells could be very stimulating:-)


message 27: by Lily (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Zulfiya wrote: "In that case, the episode with human feces is quite exemplary. I have a nagging suspicion that Ifemelu would have reacted differently. Obinze prefers to quit the job because it goes against his human decency. ..."

Its been awhile since I read this and I haven't been able to re-read as much as I like. I tried searching to find the episode to which you refer and did not succeed. Can you give another search parameter or help to find it so I can review to what you refer, Zulfiya? (Incidentally, I would have considered Obinze a conflicted, rather than a unified, personality, so am intrigued by the difference in our categorizations. But then, maybe I am stereotyping who The Chief is.)


Zulfiya (ztrotter) | 397 comments It is in part III when he was working in London as a custodian. This episode follows the episodes where he was introduced to his potential British wife, if I remember correctly.

Obinze was also musing how restrooms were different in Nigeria and in England and that it was not too dehumanizing to clean restrooms in the UK, and then someone deliberately left 'a present of human feces on the lead'. He believed that it was a challenge.

As for the characterization of both Obinze and Ifemelu , now I am not so sure about any of them. I am nearly finished with the book, and these characters act 'out of character' .... But I still see him having more integrity than Ifemelu. Maybe this is only a bias, but I find him more sympathetic.


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

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Zulfiya wrote: "But I still see him having more integrity than Ifemelu...."

They do certainly both raise challenging questions as to what is integrity and how important is it, when and where -- or at least the book does, as/when it focuses its spotlights on the U.S., U.K., Nigeria.

Thanks for the lead. I do remember something about cleaning restrooms. Will go find the section!


Terry Pearce Matthew, some good questions, but let me be clear -- I'm not saying we should ban Wal-Mart. Disapproving of something and legislating against it are two different things. In fact, I would prefer to see a system that did not produce the results we have, but legislating from within the system is not going to achieve that, and at the moment we are not about to make wholesale changes to the system. I'm sad that this happens, that we've constructed a society where it happens; let's leave it at that.

I have some thoughts on some of the other comments on this thread and I will be back; life has been intervening a lot recently...


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