Friday, May 6, 2016

Fiction | Love & Race in a Modern World

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah has been on my reading queue since all its buzz during the early days of its release in 2013. Recently, though, while relaxing on the beach for Spring Break, was the perfect time to settle in with it for the "book by an author from Africa" category for the Read Harder Challenge.

Americanah tells the story of two ambitious young people, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their adolescent lives together in Lagos to their independent journeys as adults across oceans and away from their home and their shared lives.

Ifemelu is a headstrong, independent young woman. She's beautiful, yes, but she's full of ambition and has a thoughtful way of looking at the world and how it works. She has strong opinions and a stoic, sometimes judgmental, way of coping and conversing. Her way of thinking provides the meat of this story and the experiences, but she's certainly not someone you'll feel warm and fuzzy about. (To be honest, I feel like she might be a person who, in real life, would come off as a bit standoffish.)

"They looked at the world with an impractical, luminous earnestness that moved her, but never convinced her."

Obinze is a bit more quiet, though a bit more gregarious than Ifemelu—and no less ambitious. From an early age, he's been fascinated with the United States—the books, the movies, the music—and always planned to move there. Together as teenagers and young adults, Obinze and Ifemelu discover a relationship that challenges each to be informed and outspoken, passionate and determined. When Ifemelu takes an opportunity to study and New York, she and Obinze make plans for their future together with him joining her in America. However, the insecurity of the post-9/11 world disrupts their plans, and Obinze is sent back across the Atlantic. Ifemelu builds a life in New York that becomes plagued with insecurities and uncertainties; Obinze settles for a time as an undocumented immigrant in London before being shipped back again to Nigeria. Years later, after years of silence and unanswered questions, Ifemelu and Obinze have both returned to their homeland where their lives have the potential to collide once again.

The most talked-about aspect of this book has consistently been its observations on race in America. Ifemelu is a character with an observant perspective, as an African coming to America where her identity is suddenly more defined by the color of her skin. She's learning how being black in America, specifically, seems to have its own identity—its own set of rules, stereotypes, and expectations. Coupled with this, Ifemelu and Obinze are both faced with new challenges as immigrants in a modern world.

Ifemelu finds reprieve from her personal struggles in a digital forum, authoring a blog called "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) By A Non-American Black." It is through these blog posts that the reader is best able to experience American society through Ifemelu's foreign eyes. She is observant on the intricacies of race, noting societal norms that are often unwritten or unspoken.

"At least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become."

Despite all of this, and despite the notoriety the book has received for these themes, I actually found the overall story to be much more deeply rooted in the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. It is one that is deeply affected by larger society, yes, but one that I think serves as the foundation to the story itself. In this regard, I read Americanah as a very contemporary, universal story of a modern romance. It is increasingly rare that a relationship will exist and evolve in isolation. Jobs change; people migrate; distances are shrinking as the world gets smaller and more connected. Americanah reflects those relationship challenges inherent in modernity.

This is the first work I've read by Adichie, and I found her to have an amazingly adept way with words when describing those intricate workings of the world.

"...the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service."

I think this must have been a daunting book to write, because it's obvious the author has much to say—but how to say those things without devolving into strictly a discourse? She deftly injects commentary into strong characters, arousing passion in the reader for both the person and the message. This is a book that will inspire thoughtful reflection and consideration—a powerful voice for our modern world.

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