In her latest novel Americanah, one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters says that “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” The character, Shan, goes on to say later in the novel that, “…if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.” For this reason, I almost decided not to write a review of the novel. Because, I mean, clearly the book is about what it means to be black in America. And no one wants to hear about what it means to be black in America because racism is no longer an issue in America. And why are black people always trying to make everything about race? And a bunch of other empty expressions that try to deny the existence of a system that oppresses a group of people in this country simply because of their skin color. (Hopefully, I don’t have to point out that the preceding statements are satirical.)
So, why am I writing this review? Because I realized, in reading this book, how shallow my own stories are. Without trying to, I’ve written stories about black people who are only black because I insert a description of their cinnamon skin or chocolate or caramel skin. And I don’t want to write any more “precious” stories. I want to write relevant stories that depict what life is really like for my characters. I want to dig deeper. I want to write stories that matter. I want to, as Edwidge Danticat says in her book Creating Dangerously, “create as a revolt against the silence.” In this same book, she quotes Albert Camus, who writes: “Art cannot be a monologue. We are on the high seas. The artist, like everyone else, must bend his oar, without dying if possible.”
Reading the book Americanah was such a transformative experience for me, that, in the end, I realized I cannot hide my feelings about the book. Reading it, I felt like I was within yet without this story as it was unfolding. As Ifemelu, the female protagonist in the book, made revelations about her skin color as she tried to achieve the American dream, I was transfixed. There were many times throughout the book when I said, “Yes!” or “She gets it!” or “Right on!” because she was giving voice to feelings and observations I, myself, have had. After struggling to find employment and not understanding why it was so difficult, Ifemelu at one point thinks, “…because she was at war with the world, and woke up each day feeling bruised, imagining a horde of faceless people who were all against her.” And I knew that feeling. Of course, this is a feeling that anyone, of any race can experience, and that’s the beauty of this novel. It “gives a sense of how actual life is lived” without being a sermon to the masses. The messages are subtle, but they are there. One New York Times article says of the novel: “Adichie, born in Nigeria but now living in both her homeland and in the United States, is an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer, possessing the ability to lambaste society without sneering or patronizing or polemicizing. For her, it seems no great feat to balance high-literary intentions with broad social critique.”
But Americanah also is a love story. Before Ifemelu left Nigeria to come to America, she and her boyfriend, who she is very much in love with and he is very much in love with her, planned to reunite in America. Her boyfriend Obinze is unable to get a visa and crushing underneath the weight of trying to make it in America, Ifemelu is forced to do something outside her character in order to survive. The thing she does sends her reeling into a state of depression. She retreats into herself and away from Obinze. As happens with life, the two lovers move on with life, each doing what is necessary in order to survive. The lovers are later reunited and though both have changed, their love has not. I won’t say what happened; you’ll have to read it for yourself. And believe me, it’s worth it. (This one didn’t make me toss it across the room when I read the ending.)
This book is as much about the resiliency of spirit, love, the choice of trying to achieve the American Dream vs. being truly happy, and what NPR called “the shifting meanings of skin color.” This book was a game changer for me. The language is both lyrical and subtle as well as thought-provoking. She’s an excellent storyteller, one I would love to be able to emulate.
So, I’m off to get some writing done. Practice, practice, practice. No matter what it is you want to do, you only get better by practicing.
Peace & Love,