Monday, June 11, 2018

Americanah

Book: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Edition: Softcover First Anchor Books 

Americanah is a novel full of universal truths— the highs and lows and challenges and joys people everywhere face in relationships, especially in romantic relationships, simultaneously intertwined with the specific truths of individuals in a time, in a place, in a body. 

I listened to the audio version, which I preferred over the printed version, as the reader creates seemingly over a 100 different character voices that are incredibly engaging. As an American who hasn’t traveled to Nigeria, I doubt I would have come close to correctly pronouncing recurring Nigerian phrases.  Even the blogging voice changes from a fairly flat American voice in the American blog to a localized, nuanced voice in the Nigerian blog. 

Much of the book is dialogue so really hearing the characters’ voices brings them all to life. And as someone who typically enjoys more action than dialogue, I doubt the printed text would have held me chapter upon chapter. 

On top of that there is a lot of humor woven in that had me laughing out loud. I may not have felt the humor so deeply had I read the print, as vocal tone and delivery of humor have a much greater impact on me than a humorous comment in print. 

While the content at times is written like a lecture on a particular facet of bias or stigma, hearing the voices is what took me out of the lecture hall and into the living room or salon or bedroom or workplace of the characters. I enjoyed the novel as a novel and I appreciated hearing the vignettes to open my eyes and reinforce to me the biases as they are experienced by individuals everyday both in the United States and in Nigeria (and a very small glimpse into the United Kingdom). 

This would be a great book for a group ready for a long read, especially a group of individuals of different races, to provide structure for a discussion on race and racism today. There is much to use as a discussion starter on the role of individuals in erasing or compounding biases, and the benefits and detriments of hanging out primarily with people that share your background. 


Internet Resources 

Online resources abound as references both for a discussion on racism and a discussion on differing perspectives. Here are just a few to get you started. 

One Bay Area educator set up a blog with a whole host of online resources about diversity, equity and inclusion that goes far beyond race and includes ableism, gender, LGBTQ, and on and on. 

In 1987, Dr. Peggy McIntosh (whom Ifemelu refers to in the novel) founded the National SEED Project, “a peer-led professional development project that creates conversational communities to drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity.” She also wrote “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

There are a number of online resources that delve specifically into the topic of the differing perspectives of black Americans and Africans. Aisha Harris offers a blog in Slate on the distinction between black American and African American
“For the Kenyans I interacted with, having black skin also means being African. For me, being black means, well, being black.”  
The relationship between Africans and African Americans and the movie Black Panther is discussed by the Washington Post’s Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah and Kenyan journalist and broadcaster Larry Madowo.
“It was very indicative of the current relationship between Africans and African Americans. There’s so much animus or competition that I have never quite understood. Both groups use derogatory names to refer to each other. In Africa, African American culture is very big and influential in terms of how people speak and dress. But in creating “Black Panther,” Africans and African Americans came together to create art that black people around the world are proud of. But in everyday life, there is no such unity. I think it’s a vision for what can be possible when the two groups work together.” 
And if you really want to dive deep into this topic there is a Coursera course, Americans Through Foreign Eyes, with a module on America Through African Eyes. One chapter uses this author’s fiction as a means to discuss Africans and race in America.  


Major Characters 

Ifemelu: protagonist, Nigerian blogger on race in America 
Obinze: Ifemelu’s long-time Nigerian love interest who heads to London 
Kosi: Obinze’s wife 
Aunty Uju: Ifemelu’s father’s much younger cousin. Ifemelu grows up as an younger sister to Aunty Uju 
Dike (pronounced DEE-Kay): Aunty Uju’s and The General’s son; calls Ifemelu Coz 
The General: Aunty Uju’s rich and married lover 
Ginika: Nigerian childhood friend of Ifemelu’s who is now studying law in the U.S. 
Kimberly: white American whose children Ifemelu babysits 
Taylor and Morgan: Kimberly’s children 
Curt: Kimberly’s white cousin whom Ifemelu dates for awhile in the states 
Blaine: Black American academic and Ifemelu’s partner after breaking up with Blaine 
Shan: Blaine’s sister 
Kayode: Nigerian childhood friend of Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s who moves to Baltimore 
Cleotilde: European Union (Portuguese) woman Obinze is set up to marry to get his EU citizenship 
Nicholas: Obinze’s cousin who is now living legally in London 
Ojiugo: Nicholas’ Nigerian wife who got British papers as a graduate student 


Discussion Topics 

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Americanah that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to where your book group is in discussing racism, diversity, equity and inclusion, secrets, romantic relationships or other topics that rose to the forefront as you read. 


Racism 

With ample opportunity in this novel to launch into a discussion about racism, find a starting point that works for your group. Perhaps you can chose one of Ifemelu’s blogs and ask for reactions, or, after breaking up with Curt, Ifemelu’s reflection on how she and Curt talked about race (page 360), or the reaction to Ifemelu’s first diversity talk, which is to an all-white audience (page 377) or Peggy McIntosh’s test for White Privilege, which Ifemelus includes in a blog (page 430). 

Share your reactions to what you’ve read, or racist scenes you’ve witnessed, or your own struggles with experiencing or discussing racism. If this is an especially difficult topic for your group, you may want to offer a few reminders at the start, to listen openly for instance, remind everyone to hear one-another’s point of view even if there is disagreement. 


Black Americans and American Africans 

Adichie also highlights the experience of black Americans and black individuals who have recently immigrated to the United States from African countries. Ifemelu has a blog on non-American blacks being black in America, page 273. 

She raises this distinction in multiple conversations throughout the novel such as 
“'Maybe when the African American’s father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan’s father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford,' Ifemelu said." page 207 
Or 
“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.” page 359 
Later, Blaine’s sister Shan says of Ifemelu: 
“'You know why Ifemelu can write that blog, by the way… 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.'” page 418 
Do you have the perspective from one of these viewpoints? Do you know people who do? How do you interact with one group differently than the other? How can we move towards greater inclusion? 


Secrets and Lies 

Multiple layers of secrets are kept between characters, the one that looms largest in Ifemelu’s life is her sexual encounter with a tennis coach to pay the rent. Not only does Ifemelu keep her secret from Obinze, severing their relationship for decades, she sinks into a deep depression. When Ifemelu finally tells Obinze after she returns to Nigeria she says, 
“‘It’s so strange now to actually talk about it. It seems a stupid reason to throw away what we had, but that’s why, and as more time passed, I just didn’t know how to go about fixing it.’” page 543
Ifemelu’s lies become entangled with her secret. She lies when she returns to Nigeria, saying that Blaine will be joining her soon. 
 “Sometimes she believed her own lies. She could see it now, she and Blaine wearing white on a beach in the Caribbean,” page 493 
Many characters carry secrets, sometimes thinking they are protecting someone such as Aunty Uju not telling tell Dike about his father. When Dike visits Ifemelu in Nigeria, he says, 
“‘I can’t believe Mom hid from me for so long that she was his mistress.’” page 523 
Have you kept a secret and thrown away something good by keeping it? When has a secret gotten harder to reveal as time passed? How have you felt holding a secret? Revealing one? How have lies and secrets intertwined in your life? What strategies have helped you or others you know disentangle them and get out from under the burden of a secret? 


Romantic Relationships 

Ifemelu and Obinze have a very deep, loving relationship. Yet miles and secrets apart, Ifemelu forms romance relationships with other men including Curt. 
“it was also true that she had longed, with Curt, to hold emotions in her hand that she never could.” page 355 
When she and Curt break up, Ifemelu muses, 
“It puzzled her, the ability of romantic love to mutate, how quickly a loved one could become a stranger. Where did the love go? Perhaps real love was familial, somehow linked to blood, since love for children didn’t die as romantic love did” page 357 
How do you see romantic love ebbing and growing? How have you nurtured romantic love in your life? 
“What I really had in mind was Aunty Uju and The General. That relationship destroyed her. She became a different person because of the General and she couldn’t do anything for herself, and when he died, she lost herself.” page 521 
Do you think Aunty Uju’s relationship with The General destroyed her? Did she grow from that relationship or as Ifemelu comments, “when he died, she lost herself.”? 

As Obinze opines over marrying Kosi even while he was still in love with Ifemelu, Obinze’s friend says, 
“‘many of us didn’t marry the woman we truly loved. We married the woman that was around when we were ready to marry.’” page 582 
Do you agree? Is it possible to counsel others away from a marriage lacking in love? 


Home-going 

When Ifemelu returns to Lagos, she is greeted with ‘Welcome back, aunty,’ to which Ifemelu thinks, 
“He had not merely said ‘welcome’ but ‘welcome back,’ as though he somehow knew that she was truly back.” 
and

“she ached with an almost unbearable emotion that she could not name. It was nostalgic and melancholy, a beautiful sadness for the things she had missed and the things she would never know.” page 478 
Later she reflects, 
“She spent weekends with her parents, in the old flat, happy simply to sit and look at the walls that had witnessed her childhood” page 489 
Have you ever returned to a place you considered yourself from, whether a room, a home, a region, a country? How did it feel to return? Do the feelings of nostalgia and melancholy resonate with you? 


Quotes 

Two of quotes that stuck with me: 
"Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it" Chapter 33
which reminded me of my very young daughter realizing that she was expected to be good and didn't get ‘bonus points’ for being good. 
Some people are "content rather than curious about the world." Chapter 54 
I really like this juxtaposition. Both can be a wonderful way of being. I often think that partnerships where the ambitions of the two individuals are balanced are most likely to be successful, which in some ways mirrors the comparison of content and curious. What quotes resonated with you?

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