Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is one of those rare books that not only rocked my literary world, but also my personal world. I really believe every single person I know should read this, regardless of reading tastes or preferences.
Perhaps I should begin with my relationship as an Adichie fan. I first heard of her from a fellow teacher at a summer NEH program taught at Central Michigan University by Dr. Maureen Eke. We were discussing companion texts to Things Fall Apart, and someone recommended Purple Hibiscus, a novel by a young Nigerian woman that had similar themes. I promptly read it and then procured 10 copies to offer to my advanced students as an optional choice in my African literature unit. Many students wrote about Kambili’s struggle in their final synthesis essay for that assignment. Half a Yellow Sun also became popular among some students.
Then, in 2009, Adichie gave a TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which absolutely revolutionized the way I teach about racism and literature. Our tenth grade world literature course really became a focused discussion of the single story around the world. Students were able to speak about situations when they were the victims of a single story and when they perpetuated a single story. I’m lucky enough to be presenting about transforming my teaching with her TED talk at this year’s NCTE conference in Washington, DC in November.
So then, Americanah came out, and since I tend not to buy hardcovers, I waited for it to come out in paperback…and then I waited until I knew I would have a few uninterrupted hours to read (a 4 hour plane trip) and just devoured it. Describing it, though, seems like it would be reductive. How can I possibly convey the experience of reading this book? At one point in the book, Ifemelu says to herself: “Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing,” and I think this novel is one that explores many things and many feelings and many ideas.
As an opinionated woman who generally speaks her mind, I identified with Ifemelu. But as a middle class white American, I was grateful for the window into issues of race. There were long passages about race, but I was actually really drawn in to the ones about hair–why and how to relax, straighten, braid–I devoured those. I always want to ask friends and students about details of black, kinky hair, but sometimes worry how those questions would be received. But, as she says in the novel “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
The narrative structure of the novel alternates from Ifemelu to Obinze (her high school sweetheart) and sometimes includes some of Ifemelu’s blog posts (I really wanted more of those). To explain the plot without being reductive is a challenge, but let me just say it encompasses the discovery of self, the discovery of self in society (multiple societies, really) and it is also a novel about relationships–with family, with friends, with lovers.
There are so many great passages from this book, but perhaps one of my favorites occurs when Ifemelu is at a dinner party and shares exactly how she feels about racism: “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”
Of course, there were so many elements of the book beyond just delving into racism and what it means to be black in America. She references Light in August as well as Things Fall Apart, so my book nerd self was just thrilled. The protagonist also experiences depression at various times in the book, and this was particularly powerful for me to read as well.
Please go out and read this book and talk about this book. Conversations need to be had, and I am so pleased Adichie has given us yet another text to explore and to discuss so we can come to a better understanding of each other. I know Penn State has chosen this as the common text for all incoming freshman, and I think other universities have done so as well. I’m thrilled that my students attending PSU will at least have a background knowledge of Adiche and I hope they enjoy the book as much as I did.
The thing about Adichie is that she’s the voice of a generation. One of her TED talks is remixed into Beyonce’s “Flawless.” When one of my students showed me the video and said, hey, that’s the woman whose TED talk we watched, I just about melted. At the end of the year, I asked my English 10 sophomores to write about the one thing they will remember from the class all year. And about a third of them (many boys) said the idea of the Danger of a Single Story will stick with them for a long time and will make them view the world differently.
Posted by Kate, VP Secondary Schools.