Last year as I was writing the latest blog, (yes, I know it has been a while) I was ultimately excited for a new year and for a new year of reading. So like so many others I combed through all the “tops” lists for the best books of 2015 starting with the New York Times, all the way down to Twitter suggestions (@luster_luster). Nothing really seemed out of place; especially considering my Librarian sense were all a tuned to weed out the touristy fly-by works and drill down to the nerdy good stuff. Ironically, the book I’m talking about today was on many best/top lists but that not why I chose it. I’ll come back to this in a later post. It just happened to be on them.
The book I want to talk about is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For your at-home Wikipedia basics:
The book was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. It won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Fiction), and was shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction of the United Kingdom.
And I can absolutely agree with these accolades as this might be one of my favorite books all year.
Adichie, herself, is a Nigerian intellectual rock star and knock-out beauty whose genius is also responsible for Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2007). Adichie was born and raised Igbo (love) and began studying medicine at the University of Nigeria. Life took a left turn bringing her to the United States to study communications instead at Drexel. Halfway through she transferred to Eastern Connecticut to be closer to her sister who was a doctor. Moving from here to complete graduate work at both Johns Hopkins and Yale (count ‘em! 2 graduate degrees) while also completing a Princeton Fellowship…and a Harvard Fellowship….and a MacArthur. I’ve got no words for this level of #BlackGirlMagic. Just sheer adoration and appreciation.
But why is this background important? Adichie pulled a great deal of material for Americanah from personal experience. The protagonist, Ifemelu, follows a similar life trajectory. Born and raised in Nigeria; travels to the States for school; maintained a close, loving relationship with an aunt who was in the medical profession; completed an array of prestigious programs at a host of prestigious universities.
However, in my humble opinion, all of these things are not the point of this story; they are merely the vehicle Adichie is using to drive us, the reader, to a new insight on race and culture. Adichie share briefly with us Ifemelu’s upbringing in Nigeria so that we can understand both the violent assimilation immigrants are faced with when moving to this country as well as to highlight for American readers the strikingly different connotation race takes in the United States. To both points, Ifemelu’s world in Lagos is given to us through the eyes of a child who thinks they are more grown than they really are; but one who is observant and conscious. A young girl, with an aggressively devout Christian mother (sometimes) and a too-proud-to beg conservative father, paired with the high school prince charming boasting his own dreams of the great “America,” who comes to challenge and be challenged by everything she ever understood about identity. Here in lies why I love this book so much. It forces the reader to challenge or be challenged by everything they think about identity.
A particular identity conflict she explores: Hair
We are black women. Black women have kinky coily hair. You will deal with it.
Ifemelu grew up in a culture when no one really questioned this much. However, here in the United States we have equated beauty with whiteness and therefore long straight hair. But as I stated, we are black women. We have kinky, coily hair. But what do you do when the society around you only perceived your natural hair as unkempt? You either braid it or you chemically straighten it. The story opens with Ifemelu in an African hair salon to get her hair braided in preparation for a trip back to Nigeria. Just the quick few pages about her having to travel by train to even get to a braiding salon is significant to us readers in the North who have all had the exact same experience searching far and wide in the desperate hope of finding a hair salon that won’t butcher your precious tresses.
My apologies, this post is unfinished since May 2016, but I knew I couldn't hold on to this any longer. More another time!