Pick of the Week: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah 2This is a brilliant book, one that unflinchingly tackles the race question in America. Given all that’s happened in our country recently with regard to race, it’s a really topical read right now. What I especially liked about this book is that Adichie skewers everyone equally: much as she criticizes those who are racist, she also chides those on the other end of the spectrum who go out of their way to be sensitive, and in the process, end up being just as insensitive.

Adichie’s directness is expressed through the main character, Ifemelu, who tells more than half the story. A middle-class Nigerian from the port city of Lagos, Ifemelu comes to Philadelphia to go to university and ends up staying in the US for 15 years. She does not know what it means to be “black” until she comes here and has to quickly adjust to the fact that she will always be treated differently because of her skin color. Desperate for work and unable to pay her rent, she falls into a deep depression and cuts off communication with her beloved, Obinze, whom she has left behind in Nigeria. Although she gets back on her feet, Ifemelu never quite feels at home in America and finally finds her way back to Nigeria and to Obinze … but it may be too late.

Ifemelu writes a blog about race in America that, like her character, is smart, sharp-tongued, and witty. She is appealing, realistic, and fully-formed, sharing her flaws and insecurities yet always keeping her sense of dignity. Her character is flawed but admirable, heartbreaking in her honesty. Obinze, her boyfriend, also tells his side of the story, and in his unassuming, thoughtful way, he is the perfect foil for Ifemelu.

This book is an epic tale of two journeys from Africa, and also a commentary on Nigeria itself. I learned so much in reading it, but was also tremendously moved by the characters and their stories.  With lush, rich language, it looks into corners of our culture that we might not want to expose.

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