Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book had been sitting on the shelf for months. It was one of those books I felt I should read, rather than really wanting to. But it turned out to be one of the most gripping reads of the last year for me. Whatever its faults, Americanah is utterly readable.
Chimamanda Adichie, the writer, is the woman who wrote the essay and gave her TED talk on why ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. And although Americanah is dominated by race, there are clear feminist themes at play here too.
It’s refreshing to find a novel with such a real, complex female protagonist. Ifemelu is not perfect; she’s not a strong heroine like Katniss Everdeen, an intelligent and quick-witted Austen woman, or a plucky Lyra from His Dark Materials. At times she is unsympathetic. She lies, she cheats, she sleeps with a man she knows is married with a child. But her flaws make her a great character and much more real than the perfect heroines you find in other novels with a female protagonist (of which there are few). It is also refreshing to get to know such a three dimensional character. We learn that Ifemelu is sensual and loves sex, she is also educated and intelligent, devoted to finding the best haircare regime and also suffers from depression. How often does a woman in a novel get to do and be all of these things, as opposed to just ‘shopaholic’ or ‘rebel’ or ‘bitch’?
There are some inconsistencies to Ifemelu, and to the novel itself, which irritated me. Ifemelu is open in her hostility towards women who find a rich man to rely on. Yet she does this herself. Twice. Although the book centres primarily on race and immigration, the way Ifemelu gets her U.S. residency permit is swiftly glossed over. In fact, her rich boyfriend smoothes her path into a well-paid job, where her employer sponsors her Green Card. When she is poor in America she falls into a dark depression, but the happy-ever-after finale to the novel sees her ending up with one of the richest men in Nigeria. How convenient.
As a discussion of race, I learned a lot in this novel. It challenged my own perceptions, including my ‘white privilege’. As a feminist novel, though, I’m not so sure. Ifemelu floats through life, with parents, friends and teachers who have high aspirations for her, who never mention her sex as a barrier to her success. We see her teenage boyfriend’s mother, an educated woman and a university lecturer in Nigeria, and the spirited bunch of women intellectuals she socialises with in America. The novel is set in the recent past and yet not once do we hear of any difficulties for girls to access education or prejudices they face. Yet remember the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign of 2014? Or the massacre of 2,000 people in Nigeria by Boko Haram (literally ‘western education is forbidden’) just a few weeks ago? I would have liked this issue to have at least been given a mention. Perhaps a topic for another novel, though.