One of my traditions when travelling is to buy a book in every new destination. So it is with enthusiasm that during my last trip to Paris I ran to the first bookstore I saw. My attention was caught by a title: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The author’s name did not ring a bell, the cover was simple, nothing fancy nor extremely eye-catching about it, yet the little voice in my head told me to read the back cover and buy it instantly.
Here is the synopsis:
“As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?”
After many hours reading it, in Paris, Amsterdam, Lancaster, and now Milan, amazed by Chimamanda’s writing, I realised how important and meaningful Ifemelu’s story was. The book shows the young woman’s adventure moving from Nigeria to the United States after getting a university scholarship. Whilst in America, Ifemelu learned what it means to be black in the Western World: she experiences fetishism from white men, an initial disconnection with African Americans and even Barack Obama’s election. Thanks to her blog, she analyses what it is like to live as a non-American Black woman in the United States. Little by little she adapts and integrates to the American lifestyle and loses a part of her Nigerian gaze, which appears in her posts. Chimamanda beautifully expresses her personal life story through the character and manages to keep the reader caught on Obinze and Ifemelu’s passion whilst tackling the racial issue in three different continents.
However, what personally made me fall in love with this book was not the romance, nor Ifemelu’s controversial and well-written articles. What I loved the most about the novel was its ability to talk about race through a different eye. It looks at how it is more of a Western issue than anything else. Ifemelu and her aunt who also lives in the U.S. claim to have never “felt black” before stepping on the American territory. Race – as a social construct – is not an evident issue in Nigeria since black people out-weight any one else in numbers. That is not to say racism does not exist there, simply that it is more subtle. Before living abroad, Ifemelu is surrounded by people, including Obinze, adoring the Western world. Leaving to America or the U.K. – and therefore the West, where whites are the majority – is portrayed as success; no one comes back the same, they are admired by everyone, can easily find a job, are seen as hard workers and are respected. Ifemelu does not feel black when she comes back to Nigeria but she is adored for having lived in a white Western country. She is not frown upon for her race anymore but she feels a disconnection with her people for not eating quinoa and drinking plant-based milk that she learned to appreciate whilst in the U.S.
Chimamanda shows a side of racism that, as a white person living in Europe, I had never even considered. I truly enjoyed reading this book and I am thrilled to learn that more of the author’s pieces are available in my university library which I will devour as soon as I go back.